An article in Sunday's New York Times magazine reports on "a growing number of marketers organizing veritable armies of hired 'trendsetters' or 'influencers' or 'street teams' to execute 'seeding programs,' 'viral marketing,' 'guerrilla marketing.'"
Novelist William Gibson predicted just such a trend in Pattern Recognition.
Given that we are a nation of busy, overworked people who in poll after poll claim to be sick of advertisers jumping out at us from all directions, the number of people willing to help market products they had previously never heard of, for no money at all, is puzzling to say the least. BzzAgent, which has a particularly intense relationship with its fast-growing legions of volunteers, offers a rare and revealing case study of what happens when word-of-mouth theory meets consumer psychology in the real world. In finding thousands of takers, perfectly willing to use their own creativity and contacts to spread the good news about, for instance, Al Fresco sausage, it has turned commercial influence into an open-source project. It could be thought of as not just a marketing experiment but also a social experiment. The existence of tens of thousands of volunteer marketing ''agents'' raises a surprising possibility -- that we have already met the new hidden persuaders, and they are us.
Leveraging viral markekting isn't a simple random approach. Instead it relies on social network theories that some people are more connected than others.
The endless chatter of American consumer life that BzzAgent has infiltrated is not simply a formless cacophony; it has its structures and hierarchies, which have been studied exhaustively for decades. Tremor, the Procter & Gamble word-of-mouth unit, which also does work for a variety of non-P.&G. clients, was founded four years ago with those structures in mind. A key Tremor premise is that the most effective way for a message to travel is through networks of real people communicating directly with one another. ''We set out to see if we could do that in some systematic way,'' Steve Knox, Tremor's C.E.O., said recently. He added a second, closely related premise: ''There is a group of people who are responsible for all word of mouth in the marketplace.'' In other words, some friends are more influential than others, and those are the ones who are chosen to join Tremor.
Gibson objects to being called paranoid in the article. Of course, this just goes to show you that being paranoid doesn't mean you are wrong. He writes in his blog:
Let me get this straight: Because I imagined, without knowing that BzzAgent existed, that this sort of thing not only could but would be done, the fact that BzzAgent exists makes me "paranoid"? Or is it merely the imagining that makes me "paranoid"?
Pattern Recognition isn't "about a future", of course, and the present reality, judging by this piece, is one in which corporations have become so powerful that they can *recruit unpaid volunteers* to infiltrate your life and talk up products -- a twist I evidently wasn't quite paranoid enough to imagine.