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On Spreading the Word

3 minute read

Manufacturers, advertisers and marketers have long debated the best way to sell products. Should they simply bombard consumers with images of their wares on billboards? Gently coax them with clever slogans? Or resort to subliminal messages? Actually, argues Emanuel Rosen, author of The Anatomy of Buzz: Creating Word-of-Mouth Marketing (HarperCollinsBusiness; 303 pages), companies could do a lot worse than stimulate a tried-and-true marketing method that is guaranteed to have people buzzing and products moving: word-of-mouth.

Buzz, as Rosen defines it, is all the talk swirling around a brand, and generating it may move merchandise as no direct marketing or 60-second commercial ever could. The notion of buzz is not new, but Rosen warns its importance is overlooked in many marketing plans. Indeed, as consumers find themselves subjected to endless advertising through media ranging from traditional newspapers to the Internet, they will likely turn to one another for anecdotes and advice. The trick for companies, argues Rosen, is to tap into the web of networks social or otherwise that connect consumers. The Anatomy of Buzz suggests a number of strategies for doing so advertising in a way that stimulates word-of-mouth, “tell a friend” promotions, or identifying the central person in a certain network and drawing that person’s attention to the product.

If Rosen is a true believer in buzz, it’s because he has felt its benefit firsthand. In the 1990s, when he was a marketing executive at the California technology firm Niles Software, he oversaw the marketing of the company’s flagship product. Customers, he writes, “told us that they heard about the product not from advertising, not from dealers, not from magazines but rather from friends and colleagues.” The book is full of other examples and case studies of successful campaigns with a high buzz quotient how Nintendo stoked demand for its Super Mario Brothers video game by stimulating buzz among children, and how adults became interested in a different kind of fantastic toy when BMW used a James Bond film to promote its Z3 roadster.

For all his enthusiasm, though, Rosen is the first to admit that buzz can have a downside. He is not a fan of the “any publicity is good publicity” school of thinking. Indeed, he notes that negative buzz can sink a product as efficiently as positive buzz can boost it. And he never loses sight of the merchandise’s role: “Nothing in this book will help,” he states bluntly, “if your product doesn’t deliver … “

What might prove really difficult to master, however, are the intangibles of the buzz equation: What makes a product hit the right nerve of the right consumer at just the right time? Without that element of timing, even those marketers who follow Rosen’s advice to the letter in their attempts to stimulate buzz may just be creating so much white noise.

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