Contrived word-of-mouth praise moves books

I finally got around to reading Rob Walker’s viral marketing piece, about the wildly successful word-of-mouth campaigns corporations now launch to promote their products:

The first full-fledged Bzz campaign was for a book called “The Frog King.” It lasted one month and focused on New York City. Balter persuaded Penguin Publishing to let him do it by charging the publisher nothing.

“The Frog King” was a quirky, comic first novel by a young writer named Adam Davies. Davies had some connections in New York publishing (including Liz Smith, the gossip columnist), but he wasn’t exactly going to get a giant publicity blitz. “We didn’t expect much” from the buzz campaign, recalled Rick Pascocello, a Penguin vice president.

The guide for the agents, a no-frills seven-page document in those early days, welcomed them as members of “an elite group” of word-of-mouth spreaders and listed the contact information for “your BzzLeader,” BzzAgent JonO. (That was Jon O’Toole, Balter’s right-hand man.) It summarized some of the novel’s highlights, noting a few passages in particular that might be useful “conversation points,” and suggested tactics like reading the book on mass transit with the cover clearly visible, posting a review on and calling up bookstores and chatting with the clerk about this great new book about New York publishing with lots of sex and drinking whose title you can’t quite recall. JonO signed the cover letter assuring agents that the folks back at the hive found the book laugh-out-loud funny.

Local events for “The Frog King” drew larger-than-expected crowds of 100 or 150 people, according to Pascocello, who said that thanks to the word-of-mouth campaign, the book sold in three months what he had hoped it would sell in a year. There are now more than 50,000 copies of “The Frog King” in print, and it’s still selling. BzzAgent has had a steady flow of paying clients ever since (including Penguin, which has used BzzAgent to promote other books, like the novel “The Quality of Life Report”). The fee it charges varies according to the size and nature of the campaign, but Balter said a 12-week campaign involving 1,000 agents would now cost $95,000.

According to Walker, at least some of the buzz-spreaders work voluntarily, motivated by “the idea that they have been granted status as ‘agents’ in an ‘elite group’ that most of the world doesn’t even know about, and have received a free sample of a brand-new product from a source that they trust, and they are almost certain to expend some kind of effort, unless the product is truly awful.”


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