The Anatomy of Buzz
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first witnessed how buzz travels years ago. In 1988 I was working at a typical start-up software company in California: five people, four Macs, one PC, and a lot of hope. We had a single product, EndNote, a reference tool for researchers, and it was still a few months away from release. We hadn't advertised it. In fact, only a handful of people in California knew it existed. Yet we had just received our first order in the mail--and that order came from Princeton, New Jersey. All five of us stood around that purchase order, staring at it and trying to figure out how someone a continent away had learned of us.
Several months earlier I had joined the company's founder, Rich Niles, to help him market the software. EndNote is designed to help researchers keep track of their references and compile bibliographies at the end of their research papers. Not a very sexy product, I admit, but a very useful tool when you need to organize your research and follow the nitty-gritty requirements of different journals. Rich came up with the idea after he saw how much time his wife, who's a scientist, was spending compiling bibliographies. Every academic journal has its own protocol for the way they want bibliographic information organized. One journal would want a reference to look like this:
Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of Innovations. 4th ed. New York: Free Press, 1995.
While another journal would want it to look this way:
Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Even with a word processor, you can imagine how tedious this task is when you have to go through and make these changes hundreds of times every year.EndNote stores references in a database format and can display them in any bibliographic style. When the purchase order we got from New Jersey came in, we called the customer who had placed the order. How had he heard of EndNote? Apparently one of the few people who'd attended a sneak preview of our product in Berkeley, California, several days earlier had been so excited about EndNote that he posted an enthusiastic message on an electronic bulletin board used by academics. One of those academics had just become our first customer. Before I joined that start-up, I was a copywriter in an advertising agency, and in my mind marketing worked like this: Companies advertise, customers see the clever advertisements that copywriters like me worked to create, and then--and only then--customers buy the products. But this obviously was not what was happening with that EndNote purchase order, and in the following nine years I was reminded thousands of times that in the real world things operate very differently. Since that first order more than two hundred thousand copies of EndNote have been sold, and most customers have told us that they heard about the product not from advertising, not from dealers, not from magazines--but rather from friends and colleagues.
That's how I became interested in buzz. After this experience I started to pay more attention to word of mouth. But I was still not sure how important it was in other markets. Maybe, I thought, word of mouth played a significant role only in the academic market or only for software? Once I started researching the topic, however, it became clear that this is not the case. Buzz plays a major role in the purchasing process of many products:
Sixty-five percent of customers who bought a Palm organizer told the makers of this device that they had heard about it from another person. Forty-seven per cent of the readers of Surfing magazine say that the biggest influences on their decisions about where to surf and what to purchase come from a friend.
Friends and relatives are the number-one source for information about places to visit or about flights, hotels or rental cars, according to the Travel Industry Association. Of people they surveyed, forty-three per cent cited friends and family as a source for information.
Fifty-seven percent of customers of one car dealership in California learned about the dealership by word of mouth. "This is not unusual," says Jim Callahan of the Dohring Company, which conducts surveys for about five hundred car dealerships around the country every year.
Every year we hear about movies such as The Blair Witch Project or There's Something About Mary that are driven by word of mouth. Fifty-three percent of moviegoers rely to some extent on a recommendation from someone they know, according to a study by Maritz Marketing Research. No matter how much money Hollywood pours into advertising, people frequently consult with each other about what movie to see.
Seventy per cent of Americans rely on the advice of others when selecting a new doctor, according to the same study. Sixty-three percent of women surveyed for Self magazine cited "friend, family or co-worker referral" as one of the factors influencing over-the-counter drug purchases.
And yet most of today's marketing still focuses on how to use advertising and other tools to influence each customer individually, ignoring the fact that purchasing many types of products is part of a social process. It involves not only a one-to-one interaction between the company and the customer but also many exchanges of information and influence among the people who surround that customer. Len Short, executive vice president of advertising and brand management at Charles Schwab, summed it up this way: "The idea that a critical part of marketing is word of mouth and validation from important personal relationships is absolutely key, and most marketers ignore it.
"What Exactly Is Buzz?
A kid stands outside a school leaning against the fence. He's about thirteen, wearing jeans and a baseball cap, and playing with a yo-yo. He's good. A younger kid walks by, carrying a backpack that may weigh as much as he does. He stops. His eyes follow the yo-yo that now spins in the air in ways that would make Newton go back and check his gravity theories. "Where'd ya get it?" the young kid asks softly. The older kid keeps working.
"What kind is it?" the younger kid asks a little louder this time.
"Yomega," says the older boy. "The Brain."
"They call it 'The Brain.' It knows when to come back to your hand. It's cool."
This type of exchange is the basic building block of buzz. I call it a "comment." When you add up all the comments made at a certain point in time about this yo-yo, you get the buzz about Yomega. In the end, buzz is the sum of all comments about a certain product that are exchanged among people at any given time.
Now, my definition of buzz is broader than others. Newsweek, for example, defined buzz in a 1998 article as "infectious chatter; genuine, street-level excitement about a hot new person, place or thing." This is a journalist's definition of the new: what's hot, what's attracting people's attention not just today but this very hour. Marketers and entrepreneurs, however, have a lot to gain from exploring what customers are saying about their products, not only when they are ultra new but also when these products are established. For this reason I've chosen to discuss buzz in a more general sense. Buzz is all the word of mouth about a brand. It's the aggregate of all person-to-person communication about a particular product, service, or company at any point in time. People all around the world constantly exchange comments about everything, from golf to the meaning of life. Comments use many vehicles, but whether they move over phone lines, in e-mail messages, on paper, or over the dinner table, comments always start in one brain and end up in another. "Tootsie is my favorite movie of all time." This "comment" came from my brain and has just landed in yours. Billions of comments move between people in this way every day. Comments about relationships, movies, food, money. Comments in Japanese, English, Swedish. Comments that convey excitement, puzzlement, indifference, surprise. In this book I focus on those comments that are exchanged about products and services.
How Does Buzz Travel?
Buzz travels in invisible networks. To better understand what a network is, it's useful to think of a rough parallel: the airline system. Imagine that you're sitting in a control room where you can see all the flight routes in the world. On the large screen in front of you, all the airports are represented by dots (these are called "nodes"), and all the routes among them are represented by lines (these are called "links"). The first thing you'll probably notice are hub airports, which are the transfer points for numerous flights. You'll also notice some clusters in certain areas. All the airports in France are somehow connected to each other, and the airports in Japan are closely connected among themselves in a similar way. Of course, Tokyo and Paris are also connected to each other, so ultimately every airport in Japan can be said to connect with every airport in France.
Now imagine that you're in a different control room, but from this control room you see not the connections between airports but those made between people. All 6 billion people on our planet. On a huge screen (say, the size of a screen at an Imax theater) there are 6 billion little blue dots, connected by thin glowing lines. The huge diagram represents an information network that consists of established connections between people. These are the invisible networks. Here, too, there are hubs, people who are especially well positioned to transmit information. Here, too, there are clusters, areas where people are more densely connected to each other. And here, too, these clusters are connected among themselves, so ultimately everyone is somehow linked to everyone else. As you look at this huge screen, you notice a constant flow of green sparks between certain nodes. These are comments. This is buzz. When the boy who talked about Yomega said, "It's cool," a green spark went from the node that represents him to the node that represents the little boy. Sometimes there is an exchange of sparks back and forth between two or more nodes, representing a conversation. Sometimes sparks move from one node to thousands or millions of other nodes, such as when Oprah recommends a book to viewers of her show or Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal writes about the latest thing in the computer industry.
This image is the foundation of this book: 6 billion glowing blue dots--the people on this planet--some of whom are linked by established connections. Green sparks--comments--constantly travel over these established connections. As new friendships are formed, new blue lines or connections appear. Some connections gradually disappear as people lose touch. If you could put a filter in front of this huge picture that would weed out all the comments relating to other subjects, you'd be able to see the buzz about your company or product. The people at Yomega would perhaps see only those green sparks going on about their yo-yos. A maker of a medical device would see all the comments being made among physicians about a new product. A book publisher would see how many comments are transmitted about a new title, where in the networks there's more buzz and where there's less, where the buzz starts, where it is blocked, and so on . . .
To illustrate this concept I decided to take a snapshot of the buzz surrounding the movie Shakespeare in Love among some students at a West Coast university shortly after its release. My assistant, Haim Zaltzman, asked students to name individuals with whom they had discussed the movie. We weren't conducting a scientific study--it was just a way to translate to a real-life example the image of how networks work. Based on our results we were able to draw the following illustration, depicting just a minuscule fraction of the buzz about the movie. Each figure represents a student. The gray lines represent social ties. On top of some of these gray lines, the thin black lines indicate the path of comments exchanged about the movie between two students.
This again is merely an encapsulation of the buzz at a given point in time among these eight students. A month later the pattern of buzz may have been totally different. It also reflects only the buzz about that particular product--just one movie. Although it's not very likely that you'll ever sit in front of such a screen and be able to watch how the buzz about your product spreads in the invisible networks, there is value in visualizing it. In this first part of The Anatomy of Buzz I'll begin to explore the workings of the invisible networks and the buzz that spreads through them. In the second part I'll identify success factors associated with good buzz. Finally, in the third part I will look at specific techniques that stimulate the flow of these comments in the invisible networks.
© 2001 Emanuel Rosen
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