The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited

Back in 2000, wedged somewhere between the dotcom bubbleburst that crashed the stock market and the Bush-Gore election chaos, a book hit the shelves that had the marketing world aflutter. It purported to uncover new insights into the way people thought about products and how they made decisions. And marketers were excited about it because, well, marketers are always excited when they think they have found some new path to the waterfall. It was required reading at many agencies (I was handed copies by two different members of my agency’s senior management) and it went on to sell millions of copies, make its author a household name, and invariably earned him a tidy sum as well.

The Anatomy of Buzz by Emmanuel Rosen was not that book.

That book was The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, which we reviewed here. But the problem we had with The Tipping Point when it came out – as we explain in the review – was that while it certainly made interesting and compelling observations about how people spread the word about what was important to them, it was seriously lacking in the kind of “do this, then this” insights that simple marketers needed to, you know, actually accomplish any of those things. It was as if Galdwell said “The earth revolves around the sun!” and when people said, “terrific! How?” he sort of said “Also, the moon revolves around the earth!”. Um, great – but, again, how?

When we explained our frustration to our friend Janet Chambers (now General Manager at Freak Flag Organics but at the time an account person on the Bacardi business), she handed us the original version of this book, which was also published in 2000, but which received somewhat less fanfare than Mr. Gladwell’s work. The fact that roughly a decade later Mr. Rosen was able to issue a heavily revised and expanded version of that original work is an indication that while he may not have achieved the stratospheric success of his Canadian competitor, he didn’t do too badly either.

In this substantial reworking of that original book, 12 of the book’s 24 chapters are completely new and of the remaining 12, only two were completely untouched during this edition. Mr. Rosen explains why this way: “While I was desperately searching for case studies in writing the first edition, I had the opposite problem in this one – too much to choose from.” In other words, what he and Gladwell were talking about back in 2000 caught on.

Those revisions serve to augment how Mr. Rosen’s intention is a different Mr. Gladwell’s, aiming to give us, as Ms. Chambers suggested it would, valuable how-to information for generating buzz. Or, failing actual instructions, at least more actionable direction. For example,

“Another explanation is that word of mouth is about solutions. Jon Berry, the coauthor of The Influentials, says that when asked for advice, people want to help by making a recommendation. Yes, they may also mention what to avoid, but ultimately, the person seeking the advice wants to know what to do. Again, this increases the volume of positive comments.”

A valuable thing to keep in mind when crafting messaging – if people seek action, craft your message in such a way that facilitates it for both the person offering the advice and the one seeking it.

That insight leads to another, more important one, also actionable but in a broader sense for marketers:

“Talking is not an incidental activity we engage in when we don’t have anything better to do. It is rooted in the basic needs we share with other living creatures. We need to talk, and we don’t need much encouragement to do it.”

And yet, with the rise of social media, we do have encouragement to do it, don’t we? For while it was barely around when Rosen wrote the original version of the book, (Facebook, debuted in 2004 and twitter in 2005. Indeed, the only social media around back then was something called – which we’d never heard of), its explosion since means buzz is even MORE important. As Rosen writes:

“On the most superficial level, technology has affected the visibility of buzz. Even though online word of mouth represents only a small segment of all buzz, it has made buzz visible to marketers. In the past, even marketers who recognized the importance of word of mouth could easily ignore it. Today, buzz is much more in your face. It’s hard for a brand manager to disregard a negative blog post that appears at the top of Google’s search results. It’s hard for a hotel owner to dismiss a negative review on TripAdvisor. It’s hard not to pay attention to a movie about your product posted on YouTube. Word of mouth can no longer be ignored.”

However, it is when you put these different observations together you begin to realize something more important still. That “buzz” isn’t really the byproduct of advertising – it’s actually the goal. And what’s more, it always has been. What has always lifted great ads above their competition was, really, the fact that people talked about them. “Did you see that Apple ad during the Super Bowl last night?” “Didn’t you love it when Mean Joe Greene threw his jersey to that kid?” “I can’t believe Jordan and Bird made those incredible shots just for a Big Mac!“ Isn’t Mikey cute in that cereal commercial?”, “I want to be like Mike” “I want to be a Marlboro man” “I deserve a break today”.

These ads started conversations, conversations that, sure, extended their reach beyond the initial media spend, but more importantly carried with them the endorsement of their friends, endorsements which legitimized them in ways other ads didn’t. Making them more successful. Because that’s what buzz does.

When marketers understand that, that buzz is the goal because buzz has always been the goal, then perhaps a real tipping point will have finally been reached.

The Anatomy of Buzz, Revisited by Emmanuel Rosen was published by Doubleday on 02/24/2009 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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You May Also Want to Read:

The Tipping Point
by Malcolm Gladwell
Made to Stick
by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Crossing the Chasm
by Geoffrey A. Moore