BzzAgent Cultivates Brand Influencers

Dave Balter knows a thing or two about brand advocacy, and his experience may turn some of your assumptions about brand relationships on their head.

Balter is the founder of BzzAgent, a Boston-based agency that specializes in generating word-of-mouth awareness for products and brands. Over the past eight years, the company has recruited more than half a million brand ambassadors it calls “agents” and applied them to campaigns for more than 500 clients.

BzzAgent’s success challenges two items of conventional wisdom about marketing:

  • People don’t want to have relationships with brands; and 
  • You have to pay them to spread your message. 

BzzAgent doesn’t pay any of its brand agents. “As soon as you put cash in somebody’s hands, it changes their opinion,” Balter says. “What we say instead is that we’ll let you try products and what you say about them is up to you.” Just being involved in the campaign is a motivator. “BzzAgent is a natural magnet for people who like to influence.”

Earnest Advocates

BzzAgent recruits people from all walks of life with the simple promise of a special relationship with the brands they endorse. No one is coerced or enticed into becoming an agent or working on a campaign; if they don’t want to be involved, they shouldn’t participate.

“We tell people that we see them as a thought leader for a product. We send them the product, send a BzzGuide [brochure]  to help them feel special and then they talk to other people as they want. We don’t tell them to what to say,” Balter says.

With no more compensation than that, some of BzzAgent’s most actuve participants devote 20 hours per week to evangelizing products. They’re asked to log on to a secure website periodically to tell about their activities. The comments – both pro and con – are acknowledged by a personal thank-you from a BzzAgent employee and transmitted to the client.

Both of these factors are powerful motivators for the core of agents, Balter says. “The idea that you’re so important that the brand is going to actually listen to you means your opinion matters,” he says. The personal acknowledgment shows that there’s a human being taking an interest in what the agent has to say.

Such influence enhances a person’s self-esteeem. Brand advocates also gain status from knowing that they matter and sharing that with their friends.

Balter believes that people do identify with brands and that identification is a badge of honor. “I think people want to ‘friend’ brands more than many of us can imagine,” he says. Being a vocal fan is a badge of honor. “It gains acknowledgement from their peers,” he says.

BzzAgent’s new BzzScapes site would tend to validate that opinion. Launched in late May, BzzScapes offers people the chance to build an online shrine to brands they support. Each BzzScape links back to an individual user’s profile, giving that person the distinction of being the first to express brand affinity.

In a little more than week, nearly 2,800 BzzScapes have been created for organizations ranging from soccer teams to soda pop. Contributors receive no reward other than the recognition that they were the first to establish an outpost. Some unlikely brands have generated impressive activity. The BzzScape for personal-care company Burt’s Bees has logged more than 22,000 contributions from nearly 750 users. The reasons aren’t clear. It seems that some brands just inspire that kind of passion from customers.

Click here for an audio interview with Dave Balter conducted on May 28, 2009. (40:00)

[audio:http://gillin.com/Podcasts/Balter.mp3]

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