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    Buzz MarketingMarketing Week ran a front page item a couple of week’s back which focused on buzz marketing – the question they asked was whether the new EU Law is likely to spell “The end for Buzz Marketing?” So what is it all about and are these bleak prophecies really warranted?

    According to Marketing Week, Buzz Marketing is “the practice of creating a buzz around a brand” with the focus generally being on newer online channels such as blogs, social networking sites to create Word of Mouth marketing etc. As it happens, the Law in question (The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations) doesn’t simply target the fake blogs which is where much of the article’s focus is placed, but rather any activity, online or offline which sets out to deceive or coerce consumers.

    Essentially, the Law is there to protect you and me from people making claims which are untrue or representing themselves falsely – an online example might be leaving testimonials on your own site under a false name or submitting a positive review of your company’s service or product without revealing your identity or without making your connection to the company clear.

    In the same way, flogs or fake blogs such as the “Walmarting across America” fiasco and the “All I want for Xmas is a PSP” which was more painful than deceitful, will now be illegal rather than simply downright stupid. As it happens, in these cases, the blogosphere did an excellent job of policing itself and the companies in question quickly admitted responsibility and withdrew the blogs.

    So is this the end of the world in terms of online Buzz Marketing, now that we are no longer able to lie to and deceive our customers without falling foul of the long arm of the law? I think not and indeed my own opinion is very much in line with Simon Quanse’s comments quoted in the article when he states that

    “the new regulations will only have the potential to affect those using “underhand” buzz marketing techniques”.

    Spot on.

    There are many innovative ways to communicate with, interest and interact with customers without deceiving them. Although not online in this instance, you only have to look at the recent Honda campaign and the “live ad” with the skydivers to recognise that these are great cases of buzz marketing and just because a fake blog or similar is the easy route, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the best, even if you can get away with it.

    So be creative and open and above all respect your customers – with those three things in mind, you’ll be in a position to create successful campaigns and keep your customers’ respect … as well as their ongoing business, I suggest.

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    EU Directive hits floggersLast year, there was lots of talk about fake blogs (aka flogs) and one or two notables (Walmarting across America and All I want for Xmas is a PSP particularly come to mind) which rose up above the flog mediocrity to be truly awful. There were also some high profile companies amongst them and both they and the marketing companies which initiated them on their behalf were roundly berated by the blogosphere as a whole, and the blogs (or should I say flogs) quickly closed down and withdrawn.

    Generally this is the way that the blogosphere has policed its own. However, in Europe, as from the start of next year, the courts are lending a hand as a new EU directive comes into play which would make this type of activity punishable by law as reported in The Times early this year and The Register more recently.

    In fact, the Directive is not specifically designed for blogs, fake or otherwise. It casts its net much wider than this and is concerned generally with media where someone falsely represents themselves as a consumer. In the online world, these could be testimonials on websites, book reviews on Amazon, reviews on hotel or holiday sites or presumably any online media including forums, blogs etc. where organisations leave favourable comments under a false name to try to influence other consumers.

    So, while its encouraging to see the European Union leading the way in anything to do with “online”, a couple of things come to mind.

    Firstly, is this something that is really necessary either in its proposed form or indeed at all? Is it not possible to maintain a type of self regulation which the blogosphere has shown itself to be particularly adept at when it feels that companies have overstepped the mark.

    Secondly, I also worry that the whole thing is quite “un-policeable” with the huge number of online areas where this type of thing could be going on … and of course if cases are not followed up then why attempt external policing in the first place?

    However, what is clear is that this is a very open confirmation of the importance and influence of Word of Mouth and, by implication, of “Word of Blog” as one of its principal online incarnations. So make sure that you don’t overstep the boundaries and fall foul of the law, but at the same time do make sure that you are using your blog to support and develop your online Word of Mouth and marketing activities as a whole.

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    There was a TV program called Faking It which ran for 5 series on Channel 4 here in the UK.

    A person from one walk of life is given the challenge of becoming expert in a totally different field with the help of an expert who trains them. At the end of a month, the volunteer takes part in a contest against experienced participants in the new field. A panel of expert judges then give their verdict on which participant is the “faker”.

    I sometimes get the feeling that some PR agencies watch too much TV. It also seems that there are companies still willing to face a similar type of Faking It challenge and risk damaging their brand by creating fake blogs and trying to pass them off as real marketing.

    Following the episode with Edelman and WalMart, I personally thought that that would probably be the end of fake blogs or flogs as they were coined. But lo and behold, up steps Sony and their agency Zipatoni to fill the gap with their excruciatingly bad AllIWantforXmasisaPsp.com.

    The really bad elements (and there were some REALLY bad elements) were taken down and replaced with a short acknowledgement from Sony, rather in the air of a naughty schoolboy which has been caught cheating. That too now seems to have disappeared along with the site. However, if you want some detail of what was previously there then you will find some views on it at ZDNet and PC Doctor.

    I’d like to re-iterate a couple of points that were made after the WalMart flog, but which still seem to be ignored by some:

    1. trying to fake a blog is likely to end in disaster, whether you have expert help or not. It is quite simply not a good idea there are too many “expert judges” able to spot exactly whats going on;

    2. if you are going to use blogging in a marketing or PR perspective, then it’s always good to get the right specialists in who are going to be able to help you;

    3. blogs need to be authentic – authenticity and genuine interest (as Ryan Anderson points out here) is best left to those who aren’t faking it.

    So please let’s leave Faking It to Reality TV and the television companies.

    And to any businesses looking to engage in blogging as part of their marketing activities great decision! There are so many excellent ways in which you can use online marketing in general and blogs in particular to get your message across and create a buzz around a product … however, creating fake blogs is not one of them.

    To summarise:

    1. If you are even vaguely considering perhaps at some point in the future potentially using a fake blog, then don’t;

    2. See point 1.

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