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 — to gain an edge

The WOMMA conference is green with guru envy.
A guy in a white lab coat stands up. “[Unintelligible name], Brand Autopsy,” he says into the microphone. I can’t hear his question, but it doesn’t matter, because the room is already — duh — abuzz.

(Later I would find out that Brand Autopsy’s name is John Moore, and that a violent stutter — along with marketing lingo like “evangelist” — was what rendered him unintelligible. But Brand Autopsy is one of the hottest marketing blogs on the Internet, and Moore and his partner Paul Williams, who met working at Starbucks, have wooed a bevy of clients with their weird outfits and cool website.)

Hughes spots David Balter, founder and CEO of BzzAgent, a competitor. Balter’s personal buzz rating has surged since the New York Times Magazine ran a 7,000-word story on his company’s technique of recruiting, supplying and training volunteer “BzzAgents” to manually generate buzz, using company-supplied “talking points,” for products from chicken sausage to — you guessed it — buzz marketing books (Seth Godin’s Purple Cow). Now Balter is writing a book. Buzz on Balter is enviable but controversial. (Is it ethical, getting people to bzz products to their friends without their friends knowing? Or is it just this minute’s sign of the apocalypse?)

Hughes and Balter are friendly, but privately Hughes finds Balter’s buzz techniques a little creepy; the Times Magazine story described the odd fulfillment certain BzzAgents got from surreptitiously bzz-ing their friends to buy products. On the flip side, most in Balter’s camp think what Hughes does is schlocky and unscientific. But barring the technicalities, at this moment they seem to be essentially the same guy. Both are here to buzz their books and personal brands; both are reaching for that next level of success, for their personal tipping points. Both are trying to make it to Buzz Everest. …

But there’s a weird thing about savvy consumers, the marketers will tell you: They gravitate toward that which feels “authentic”; the personal brand getting most of the buzz at the conference is that of Nicco Mele, the unequivocally nerdy, fedora’ed webmaster of the abortive Howard Dean campaign, which you may recall was hailed for its visionary use of the Internet to link volunteers and contributors. But Mele had other secrets of spreading the word online: He communicated constantly with blogs, collected the most successful zip codes for Dean’s direct-mail campaign, and placed AOL ads in those zip codes. “I made so much money on those AOL ads, it’s obscene,” Mele recalls. He himself made $400 a week for his webmaster duties.

Someone raises his hand to ask the inevitable. “In the Dean campaign, so many things worked so well … is any of it replicable?”

Mele’s co-panelist, Peter Waldheim (of Joe-mentum Lieberman’s unbuzzworthy effort), pipes in: “It might work with McCain.”