Not enough honey in the hive to make this
BzzAgent lie about cool (or crappy) products.
NPR's The Connection aired a discussion with the author of the NY Times article and Dave Balter, founder of BzzAgent.com. Audio is archived and free.
The current debate over Word-of-Mouth (WoM) advertising seems to keep coming down to the assumption that campaign participants are paid to lie, manufacture positive spin on bad products, or somehow otherwise asked to be insincere.
It's simply not true.
The primary example being given is of Sony/Ericsson's efforts to hawk their camera phone through a bit of theatrically scripted 'dramatic marketing' (DRAMArketing?) . The practices of companies like BzzAgent are diametrically opposed to those employed by Sony.
A BzzAgent's opinions are are real, unscripted, peer-to-peer interactions. I can't speak to what other WoM organizations may practice, but as a BzzAgent myself I'm happy to report that I was never asked to do anything remotely devious or underhanded.
Word-of-Mouth marketing is
"Open Source" marketing.
Companies can generate loads of buzz (good or bad) by simply getting their products in the hands of real-users and allowing the natural progression of information-sharing to spread from peer-to-peer. One need only witness the Firefox browser's seemingly overnight popularity and current cult-like following. Only Mac users seem to be this passionate about an object of their desire.
Mozilla freely allowed the public to download the Forefox browser and word spread from peer-to-peer, like... er... like "fire."
What I see BzzAgent attempting to do is track and measure the way this message spreads from a campaign they organize and monitor. A limited quantity of free product is distributed to their list of pre-qualified BzzAgents, (they can selected by region, age group, sex, etc.) and those agents are asked sample the product for themselves, and (if the agent feels it's worth talking about) to file reports of any activity in which they tell someone about the product -- positive OR negative!
As far as being "paid to promote" -- BzzAgents are awarded a small amount of points for each report they file. There are no deposits to Swiss bank accounts or offshore holding companies.
The points are not withheld and awarded only for positive reports. As one who wasn't too fond of a recent book (I didn't like the paper it was printed on, nor the quality of printing, and I thought there were better resources already available). These points are awarded equally despite the buzz generated being positive or negative.
Once enough points are collected, they can be exchanged for other items (primarily books) which also seem to be items that might generate additional WoM.
I think BzzAgent is smart enough to realize you can't control buzz, nor have they tried to -- at least not in any campaign in which I've participated. In my opinion (and since I AM a BzzAgent, and seem to be the only one reporting on it that has actually experienced a Bzz campaign, received their marketing materials, read their specific campaign instructions, filed a report, etc.) what they are attempting to do is QUANTIFY it.
BzzAgent evaluates their agent's efforts and produce reports on the spread of the WoM they generate. This has value to their clients and they charge accordingly for their efforts.
For me, BzzAgent is a means of getting first-access to the 'cool new stuff' that I like to talk about with my firends and write about in my blog. If I wasn't a BzzAgent, I'd still be getting the next Seth Godin book and telling my friends about it -- as a BzzAgent, I get it a couple weeks earlier and I get my copy for free.
As for being rewarded with BzzPoints, I usually end up redeeming them for additional copies of the book I buzzed, and giving the copies away to friends I know will enjoy it as well.
If a Bzz Campaign has a GREAT product, I'm happy to tell others about it -- if they have a CRAPPY product, I'm gonna tell people it's crappy. There's no lying or deceit, only the opportunity to tell my friends about cool (or not) stuff.
If BzzAgent ever DID try to control the message I shared, or even penalized me for spreading a negative message, I'd buy into the "paid to promote" theory -- but until then (at least in my opinion) Word-of-Marketing is simply "open source" marketing.
Editors note: To help stop the perception that BzzAgents must keep their identities hidden, I've added the BzzAgent logo to my blog.
To those that think I have some ulterior motive to the items I review and recommend, I actually have more of a vested interest in you buying a book from one of my Amazon links than any BzzAgent campaign in which I've participated. I would no more give a positive book review in the hopes that you'd buy it from my Amazon link than I would give positive buzz to a product which did not deserve it.