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Get People to Talk About Your Stuff

By Mark Hughes
Portfolio, $23.95

This Buzzmarketing is a breezy book that should produce a strong sense of unease in anyone who has anything to do with the business of journalism.

ItsauthorMark Hughes, the author of Buzzmarketing, is a veteran US marketer with one claim to fame, at least from the standpoint of so-called “buzz generation”. In 1999, as an executive of a new internet retailer called Half.com, he engineered one of history’s greatest publicity stunts.

To put his company’s name on the map – literally – Hughes persuaded Halfway, Oregon, a town of 350 people, to change its name to Half.com.

The US media found the story irresistible and the tidal wave of resulting publicity helped Half.com sell itself only six months later to another online retailer, eBay, for $300m (£168m).

Mr Hughes, who now runs his own consulting firm in Philadelphia, argues that other marketers should emulate Half.com by devising strategies that are aimed at getting people to talk about brands, generating “buzz” or what he calls – in one of his many more effusive moments – “buzzzzzzz”.

There is no denying either the logic or the economics of his argument. Without spending “a dime” on advertising, he says, Half.com “captured the attention of the media” and used that resource to make real money before the internet bubble burst.

But Hughes’ book raises serious questions about the practice of journalism and the strategies of media owners.

Essentially, he understands that talk is cheap and that advertising is expensive. His goal is to use the media to spread the word about brands – without paying for the advertising that supports news gathering.

The bedrock of his theory is the idea that the press can be easily manipulated.

The son of a newspaper editor, Hughes presents himself as an expert in creating “ready-made” stories that are guaranteed to “capture” the attention of the media.

“The media, my friend, is the most predictable industry in America,” he writes. “From a marketer’s perspective, knowing what gets press is the key to success. It’s pretty simple.”

To marketers such as Hughes, even the media’s more altruistic instincts can be used by corporate clients. In fact, for those who wonder why so many people cast themselves as victims these days, he gives a reason: it is good marketing strategy.

Hughes says that companies should seek opportunities to play the little guy in a “David-and-Goliath story” staged for reporters.

As an example, he points to Ben & Jerry’s, the US ice-cream maker, which publicly complained during the 1980s that Pillsbury was preventing it from distributing its product.

“The American media loves to write about the underdog. It does so time and time again,” he says. “Creating a David-and-Goliath story is a guaranteed winner.”

Hughes may not be wrong. In fact, as a reporter myself, I suspect he is right about many things. I just wonder But his work raises the question of whether wepeople in the media are selling themselves too cheaply, particularly when it comes to ready-made stories offered to them by corporate interests.

The time may have come for journalists to learn to say “no” to easy stories – if only to protect their livelihoods. It could be that the flak person on the phone with a self-serving “study” or a concocted “scoop” should be directed to the advertising department.

In a curious way, Hughes’ book is a reminder that journalists have a ­valuable franchise to protect, if not leverage.

Just as Marx sung sang the praises of the bourgeoisie, Hughes appreciates the worth of the media.

“What’s the most beautiful thing about the news media? It already has consumer attention,” he says. “Because it has the people’s attention and is credible – the media acts as an amplifier for your product.”

Hughes still sees a role for advertising, but even in this regard he is fascinated by the potential of alternative “clutter-free media – meaning media that doesn’t compete with any other advertising.

For example, he used urinal mats to deliver the message: “Don’t piss away half your money, head to Half.com.”

He says that traditional advertising often makes him “wince” because it wastes money. Even Procter & Gamble, one of the most skilled advertisers, he says, “hasn’t created buzz in a long while. They have been more focused on refining than reinventing.”

The author is also one of many in the marketing services industry who believe that the real reason so much money is spent on traditional advertising is that corporate bureaucrats are so risk-averse. Implicit in their argument is that if more advertisers had guts, they would stop advertising so heavily.

“In general, the reason why advertisers still gravitate to traditional media ­formats is because they’re familiar, routine and easy,” he writes.

“Recognising that advertisers continue to pay more and more for ads while Americans are paying less and less attention to ­advertising leads me to say, ‘Wake up and smell the ­marketing.’”

People who run media companies would be well advised to take a whiff of the stuff Hughes is serving to his clients. I doubt they will find the aroma appetising.

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