Sunday, December 17, 2006

On Viral Marketing, the PSP, and the FTC

There's been some interesting buzz lately about viral marketing, due in no small part to the efforts of a marketing company linked to Sony's PSP handheld. The basic recap is this: a website goes up that claims to be a blog started by an 11 year old who wants a PSP for Christmas (or maybe his friend wants one - it really doesn't matter.) The kids post in "kiddiehip" AOL-style speak, and they've made some kind of rap video that went up on YouTube (but has since been removed.)

A little Internet Detective work by fellow goons on Something Awful uncovers something rotten: the domain is registered to a marketing company called Zipatoni - not exactly the 11-year-old that the site claims to be owned by. This starts to get pickup on video game blogs, and it's pretty clear to everyone that the site is a fake. Oddly enough, the name "Zipatoni" is banned from the site's comments as a "curse word."

Well, Sony eventually owns up to their shenanigans - two days after the news about the site being a fake hits. In online marketing time, that's an eternity. When the fellows are Penny Arcade are using terms like "do irreparable damage to their brand", you know you've got a problem.

The problem, of course, is transparency. In a coincidence worthy of of Charles Dickens, the FTC ruled on the same day that the blog started getting notice that "WOMM" (Word of Mouth Marketing) needs to clearly state its source. For example, you can't make pseudo-kiddie blogs without stating clearly that you're a marketing firm representing Sony.

The accounts on which I work at my firm are very strict about transparency in word of mouth marketing; it's been a policy for as long as I've been there. At WizKids, although it was never a written policy, it was one I adhered to (hell, one I developed) for one simple reason: if you want someone to trust what you have to say about a product, then you better not give them any reason not to trust you.

The shift to online and WOM marketing means that the days of claiming something to be true and it isn't are over. Between Internet Detectives and the kinds of news cycles online communities generate, you simply cannot afford to be deceptive in your marketing practices. Studies are starting to show a shift in how customers make buying decisions about products: rather than advertising, traditional news stories, or even product reviews in magazines, they are turning to online communities to gauge reactions of trusted influencers to a product in which they are interested. In nonmarketingspeak, people are going online and reading - if not outright asking and talking about - the opinions of others online that they trust. If a company wants a chance in hell of being part of that influence, they need to be able to demonstrate that they aren't jerking customers around, which is what transparency accomplishes. There are also legal boundaries, of course, but beyond those reasons for transparency, trust in a customer base strikes me as a far better reason for a company to maintain transparency in its online communications.

I'm working on two separate accounts now where transparency is a daily need (incidentally, I'm not working on the Xbox account or any other product that could potentially compete with the PSP at all at the moment - just to maintain the spirit of disclosure.) If you're reading this as a new marketer, don't just pay lip service to transparency or make it a policy because it's legal. Make it a policy because you need to in order to establish trust with online influencers.

Also, this would be an excellent opportunity to give a nod to Managing the Grey, a new marking podcast that Seth introduced me to. If you're interested in new marketing, you need to subscribe to that podcast.

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