Thursday, December 29, 2005

Buzz Catalyst: Doubt

(I'm taking this slow holiday week to bring some things from my NoteBlog to the real blog. I've got comments turned on and am happy to hear thoughts. This is the second part of a six-part post on the catalysts of word-of-mouth)

I'm reading Kerimcan Ozcan's paper titled "Word-of-Mouth as a Dialogic Discourse"(pdf download). I'm not through the whole thing yet, but one idea quickly emerged--on that I've heard also from the research of Walter Carl: that WOM sessions are generally prompted or precipitated by other events.

In Ozcan's paper, though, there's a particular interesting observation: that WOM exchanges relieve some amount of tension on the part of the provider of information. You can most easily see this when the information being passed is bad or the initiator of the exchange feels particularly wronged (see Jarvis v. Dell).

I think we can find an expansion of this idea, if we look back to Pragmatism, an American school of thought and philosophy from the late 1800s, concerned (primarily) with understanding the dynamics by which an idea becomes true. In "How to Make our Ideas Clear", one of the key essays describing Pragmatism, Charles Pierce writes:

"...the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained; so that the production of belief is the sole function of thought."

It is in this concept--the irritation of doubt--where you can begin to understand WOM exchanges are so powerful and the messages passed so resonant: Regular advertising is simply a message dropped in from nowhere, prompted by little if anything. Standard ads, even if they are markedly clever, does not induce or add to the "production of belief".

When a consumer hears, though, a message about a brand that they had not previously considered, that irritation occurs. There's a good chance that a consumer already has an idea about Dell--perhaps its that skater kid in the commercials, or the story of Michael Dell starting the company in his dorm room. When the overwhelming force of the Jarvis incident comes into view, though, that concept is shifted, changed and added to. If you had a positive image of Dell, that irritation may be more extreme.
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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Catalysts of Buzz: Ideas vs. Execution

(I'm taking advantage of the slow holiday week to migrate a few things from the noteblog to the real blog.)

It is nearly impossible to predict whether or not a particular message will spread via word-of-mouth. Some great notions and campaigns fall absolutely flat, while simple little concepts seem to capture the planet's attention in a flash. But word-of-mouth and buzz is fast becoming a core part of many company's marketing strategies, and--as such--it requires a level of rigor.

To reach this level of rigor, we have to first separate idea from execution. The idea is the core concept that the creator is seeking to place inside of a person's mind and awareness. The execution is the actual carrier of that idea. Traditionally, the idea-carrier has been an ad of some kind, but the marketing department is beginning to get over that fixation. Today, there is a real focus on the product itself, and often its design and delivery, as the idea-carrier. For example, the idea of the iPod is "music, elegantly delivered". The idea-carrier is the device itself and its interface.

For the next several blog posts, I want to explore the idea part of the equation. While the execution may have more to do with whether or not an idea buzzes, it is the idea that is the critical element. Much discussion and writing about buzz and word-of-mouth has focused on the execution--partly because it is more fun to discuss and look at. But that ultimately doesn't give you a lot of guidance, other than to copy an execution: anathema to a creative soul.

So instead, I will outline what catalyzes a buzz-able idea. There are four categories of these Buzz Catalysts: Simpatico, Surprise, Doubt and Obscurity. Ideas that spread virally and generate buzz have at least one of these qualities.
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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Google & AOL: Defending the Brand

The Google brand is extremely valuable (duh). I wrote recently about it being The Guide, a prized position in the world of Internet brands. That is, Google is seen by many to be the one entity to which they can always turn in the often confusing world of being online. It bears repeating: using the Web (and using search) brings many people closer to the world of computers and technology than they have ever been and may be comfortable going.

Google made a strategic business decision to buy up a piece of AOL. There's no real synergy between these companies, their culture, or their technology. Google has had a tendency to buy companies that it perceived as being interesting (Blogger), or offering technology that it felt it could use (Applied Symantics). AOL offers a very interesting and compelling service, but Google forged an alliance to protect its position. It couldn't lose the traffic AOL brings, and it really couldn't see that traffic go to its competitors.


Google made a corporate decision here. This was not a move fueled by a technology vision, but out of corporate necessity. They may very well do something cool with AOL, but I'm not so sure. Consider the communications that Google has engaged in concerning the move, particularly Marissa Mayer's blog post. Her bullet-pointed list conveys an arms-distance relationship with AOL.

The biggest threat Google faces is figuring out how to maintain its credibility as it grows. Currently, the company has an amazing feeling around it: it seems like a group of people focused on pushing technology for our benefit. We worry, however, when they appear to make a move for their benefit. But this is something they need to do, if they are going to remain the strong company they are.
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