Buzz: Would You Change Your Name for This Man?

Swarthmore’s Mark Hughes is a buzz marketer, advertising’s new breed that will do practically anything—such as talking Halfway, Oregon, into renaming itself Half.com — to gain an edge

Attending a conference on Word-of-Mouth Marketing with a word-of-mouth marketer who is hoping to “buzz” his new book is one of those things that’s a little too meta to grasp at 6:10 in the morning when no one’s yet had coffee. But then Word-of-Mouth Marketing expert Mark Hughes arrives, and it all seems
very natural.

“I thought I cut it close!” I say as Hughes, a boyish 40-year-old with floppy gray hair, becomes the last guy on the plane heading to Chicago. The introduction segues into mutual testimonials to the online check-in feature at Southwest.com that enables travelers to print out boarding passes at home. So we never arrive more than 30 minutes before takeoff anymore, and Mark, living as he does in Swarthmore, managed to sleep till the nearly civilized hour of five. We have something else in common: Both of us bid 60 bucks for our hotel bookings on Priceline — he got a HoJo, I a no-name — so I share with Mark my favorite Priceline story, that of the $60 bid that landed me at the Park Hyatt San Francisco. We both love the service and the corporate culture, almost as much as we hate the coffee, on Southwest. “If you can wait,” he tells me, “there’s a Starbucks on the road right down the way from Midway Airport.”

We compare BlackBerry plans, athletic shoe brands, Southwest and JetBlue, P.C. and Mac — all the stuff of everyday life and human connectedness in Blue America in 2005. I tell him a perhaps somewhat embellished story of the injustices I faced under the Cingular one-year plan before I switched to T-Mobile; he tells me about a client who’s leasing the requisite airwaves to start a nationwide deep-discount, prepaid cell phone service. It’s the subject matter of any getting-to-know-the-passenger-next-to-you-for-an-hour-long-flight conversation, except that I am acutely aware we are headed to a conference of marketers whose precise intention is to spark and then to manage this sort of small talk, to imbue these kinds of conversations with their own brand messages — to generate buzz. Mark Hughes, owner of the firm Buzzmarketing Inc. and writer of the new book Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuff, is one of those marketers. In 1999, he convinced a town to change its name to that of the company he worked for, Half.com, inciting a small media maelstrom and a slew of attempted copycat crimes of gimmickry (Got Milk?, California).

In preparation for the show and the book, Hughes recently traveled to a quarry near Reading and purchased 40 100-pound boulders, on which he plans to paint the message

Talk
Rocks
.com

in the turquoise, lime green and yellow colors of his book jacket, pointing observers to a website for his book. He plans to disperse the rocks, with the help of a trailer he recently bought for $2,500 on eBay, on the sidewalks of a major city. This sort of stunt is often referred to as “guerrilla marketing,” a term that emerged in the mid-’80s to describe the tactics of little-guy companies that were forced, Hezbollah-like, to use untraditional strategies to divert public attention from the multibillion-dollar efforts of corporate giants. If Hughes gets slapped with heavy fines and goes to court and the newspapers write a story about it and readers e-mail the story to their friends at work, that’s “viral” marketing, a term that came into vogue when people began receiving computer viruses via e-mail in the ’90s. Then after all that, if people buy the book and start talking about it to one another, it will be “word-of-mouth” marketing, which the marketers like to say is “as old as Adam and Eve,” but is so hot in 2005 that the first annual conference of it, the WOMMA summit to which we are headed, had to change venues to accommodate the hundreds of marketers willing to pony up nearly $1,000 for two days of panels on the subject.

Hughes considers himself a master of all these very popular forms of marketing, and commanding $10,000 a day for his services certainly makes him a highly remunerated master. What Hughes is not, at least not yet, is a Guru. He is, among his peers, the guy who named a town Half.com, a quick-and-dirty stunt marketer; a shameless panderer to the ADD generation. Unlike bona fide gurus Malcolm Gladwell or Anatomy of Buzz author Emmanuel Rosen, he doesn’t cloak his ideas in science or theory.

Hughes also lacks the physical gravitas of the guru; his hair — in contrast to Purple Cow author Seth Godin’s pristinely bald pate and Gladwell’s arresting Afro — is full of cowlicks. His jacket is too big; the immediate effect is of a prematurely gray boarding-school boy in the midst of a growth spurt. He sounds less wise than wiseass. When he writes, he uses exclamation points. A lot. He doesn’t believe in marketing to special people — “influentials” or “connectors,” “mavens” or “sneezers” — because it just takes too much time. (“Find me some influentials,” he says, rolling his eyes.) Hughes likes to think of himself more as Joe Sixpack’s marketing guy, and on the demo for his new call-in radio show The Buzz Factor, he even advises a man named Jay, a lube shop owner facing the near fatal misfortune of a Jiffy Lube opening across the street. “I’ve got an $8-a-day marketing plan,” Hughes booms. “Make the biggest, loudest, most offensive signs you can possibly make, and write FREE STARBUCKS!”

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