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February 18, 2009
5 questions with Emanuel Rosen
Emanuel Rosen is the dean of buzz. His ground-breaking book, “The Anatomy of Buzz," defined how buzz spreads from person to person, network to network.
This month, an updated version of that book, "The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited" comes out with oodles of updates. We asked Emanuel five questions about how buzz looks today vs. 2000, when his book was first published.
1. Do you define a difference between word of mouth and buzz?
I use the word “buzz” as an umbrella term to describe all the person-to-person communication about something. I like the definition you gave in your first book: “Buzz = Word of Mouth + Word of Mouse” but I would add to this formula any other type of communication (for example: learning through observation). By the way, the first person to suggest the word buzz to me was Everett Rogers, the late diffusion scholar. I told him that I didn’t like this term, but over the years I grew to like it a lot.
I read your latest blog entry on word of mouth vs. buzz and, although we use different terms, I agree with the spirit of the things. The foundation of buzz is a great customer experience. No doubt about this. But even customers who love you sometimes forget and run out of opportunities to talk. My whole focus has been on ways to trigger and stimulate additional conversations, and there’s more than one way of doing this.
2. Network-theory scientist Duncan Watts disputes a lot of what’s in Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” specifically that if marketers just reach a few influential tastemakers then word of mouth should flourish. Where do you stand on Watts’s research?
My approach is practical: there are people who talk more than others. Whenever you can, cost effectively, identify these folks and work with them — go for it. Watts’s work is an important reminder that not all buzz is created by hubs or influentials, but it does not prove that connecting with these people doesn’t work. In the new edition of my book I dedicate five pages to this debate but the above is my view in a nutshell.
3. What’s your assessment of how social media affects word of mouth today?
Social media let text-based buzz explode, but perhaps more important is the effect it has on visual buzz. Buzz is not only about telling, but more and more about showing. My friend doesn’t have to tell me that he likes Lego Mindstorms. He just posts a video of the latest robot he built using these Lego bricks. My cousin doesn’t have to tell me that she supports a certain organization. I see on Facebook that she’s now a fan of that cause. A lot of the value of social media comes from this type of implicit recommendation.
4. How prevalent is fake buzz, whether its agencies creating astroturfing campaigns for clients or companies comment-stuffing review sites like Yelp?
I didn’t investigate how prevalent it is but I’m sure that undercover marketing is out there and that’s such a shame. Anyone who cares about word of mouth should fight this type of manipulation. I like the approach of Zagat and Angie’s List, that see it as part of their job to ensure the integrity of their sites. On a related issue, I think we should encourage everyone to generate more experience-based buzz (“I read this book and I liked it because…) as opposed to secondhand buzz (“my friend says that his cousin read this book and it’s cool.”) With too much secondhand buzz, we'll end up with what can be best described as a buzz bubble as illustrated by a review posted on Amazon: "I haven't read this book, but judging from the online reviews below, I don't think it's a very good book."
5. In the big picture, what do you think is more helpful in understanding buzz and word of mouth: marketing or psychology?
Psychology. I think that the first step is always to understand what motivates people to do certain things. Marketing techniques come and go, but if you understand why people talk about products, you can find new ways to motivate them to talk about your brand.
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Emanuel Rosen's first book was a huge inspiration to me. It's my word-of-mouth bible. Emanuel also was my influence on thinking in practical terms about who was talking. Thanks for the interview Ben.