WOMMA's Sernovitz Still Parroting That I'm Spreading Myths

Andy Sernovitz wrote a response to my iMedia piece from a couple weeks ago, obviously miffed that it didn’t exactly cast Word of Mouth Marketing in a positive light. Like he tends to whenever I write something critical of Word of Mouth Marketing, he claims I don’t understand what Word of Mouth Marketing is. I’m growing tired of the semantic game and the parroting of the incorrect notion that I somehow don’t know what Word of Mouth is.

The main point of my piece was to drive a wedge between what I call Conversational Marketing and what some of WOMMA’s member companies call Conversational Marketing. There are two schools of thought laying claim to the same terminology, and my article was my way of saying, in part, “This one is ours. Lay off.”

Why did I think it necessary to try to drive that wedge? Word of Mouth marketers have laid claim to a number of different terms to describe the wide variety of techniques they employ. There’s “Word of Mouth Marketing” itself, there’s “Buzz Marketing,” “Stealth Marketing,” "Pass-along Marketing" and probably at least another dozen variants. I’m saying that “Conversational Marketing” shouldn’t be part of that lexicon, given that it was used to describe not a Word of Mouth technique, but a communications philosophy. That philosophy was grounded in the cluetrain manifesto and various bottom-up approaches to changing how marketing works today.

Andy said in his response to my piece:

People often think that word of mouth is all about street teams or what Hespos calls "using compensated agents." It's just not what we do.

See what’s happening here? When it’s convenient for Andy, he plays the semantic game and barfs up a strawman. I never said anything equating all word of mouth to street teams and using compensated agents. I was talking about Conversational Marketing specifically and why using compensated agents is incompatible with it.

It’s Andy’s argument that because I think all Word of Mouth Marketing consists of street teams and compensated agents, my points must be invalid. Except that’s not what I said. I accused a few “word of mouth marketers” (not all of them, and not WOMMA specifically, mind you) of corrupting the term “Conversational Marketing” and trying to turn it into something else.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, try visiting the website of MarketingWorks, Inc., a WOMMA member company. From their website:

MWKS is a leader in conversational marketing (CM) techniques. We are experts in creating genuine consumer enthusiasm, amplifying it, and sharing it. This includes direct-engagement with millions of people, through industry-leading online "buzz" methodologies.These powerful CM methods - including respectfully entering chatrooms, message-boards, blogs, social networks and other targeted online communities - are always opt-in. Once admitted into a recognized community, MWKS’ “Brand Ambassadors” provide clear exchanges with devotees, influencers and interested populations.

Do you see the difference? We think CM is bottom-up. These guys are talking about entering forums on behalf of marketers, which is a top-down approach.

Now, back to Andy’s statement for a second, because I want to make it clear that there’s a semantic game being played here and I don’t want to have to keep repeating myself.

Regarding the notion of using compensated agents, Andy says “It’s just not what we do.”


Visit BzzAgent’s website, specifically this page:

The Central Hive reads and responds to your BzzReports and awards you BzzPoints you can redeem for BzzRewards.

There are two things I want to highlight about this.

  1. BzzAgent is a WOMMA member company. In fact, it’s one of their governing members and it’s one of the best-known of WOMMA’s member companies.
  2. In black and white on its website, BzzAgent says it rewards its agents with BzzPoints, which can be redeemed for prizes. This is compensation. A transaction doesn’t have to be conducted in U.S. dollars for it to be considered compensation. Just ask any of the elected officials who took fancy vacations on Jack Abramoff’s dime.

BzzAgent is not the only WOMMA member company that utilizes paid agents in some form. There’s the example I quoted several paragraphs back, where MarketingWorks offers to use "Brand Ambassadors" in online forums on behalf of clients. In doing so, they (and/or their Brand Ambassadors) become a compensated agent.

Heck, let’s use the example of WOMMA’s most famed member company of all (or is it infamous?). Edelman got busted for failing to disclose they were behind a couple of pro-Wal-Mart blogs. That makes them a compensated agent. While I do give WOMMA some credit for calling Edelman on the carpet, the changes Edelman has made to the Wal-Mart blogs in response to their membership review are inadequate. Many bloggers have made note of the fact that Edelman still fails to adequately disclose that it is the one writing the blogs on Wal-Mart’s behalf.

While the jury’s still out on what WOMMA will or won't do to Edelman in response to their transgressions, I want to point out two things.

  1. Edelman is (or possibly was) another governing member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association
  2. They helped write the frickin’ ethical guidelines

I’ve just showed you how three WOMMA member companies, including two governing member companies who helped give rise to the organization, are using compensated agents and are not operating as transparently as they should be. There are probably more. This begs a question, and I’ll pose it to Andy:

Andy, what percentage of the apple needs to be rotten before one makes the decision to toss it away?

Pretend you’re me for a second. You want to help give rise to a new bottom-up marketing approach you’re calling Conversational Marketing. You’re talking to Fortune 500 marketers about it and trying to get them to fund programs that are philosophically aligned with the ideas of transparency and bottom-up marketing. You want to make the whole thing white hat, but there are a few black hat companies polluting the idea stream and making it more difficult for you to speak about a credible concept.

On top of that, you try to distance yourself these companies, but when you try to do that publicly, the CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association shows up to try to erase the distinctions you’re making. Wouldn’t you be a little miffed?

It’s not that I think every company on the WOMMA membership roster is bad news. There are a lot of companies on the roster that I like and respect, and even work with in some cases. Heck, we pitch business with two of the companies on the roster, and we've worked with some of the other companies in other capacities. It’s not that I’m painting Word of Mouth Marketing with a broad brush. I just believe that WOMMA itself, by nature of its association with a few of its member companies, has too much baggage for me to want to see it associate itself with Conversational Marketing.

There’s more baggage than I’ve described above, too. While WOMMA has made admirable strides toward providing member companies with ethics guidelines, it lacks the wherewithal to ensure member companies adhere to them. How many member companies have signed the ethics pledge, Andy? Can I still count them on one hand? Or have you made progress there? Last I checked, member companies were reluctant to sign of on it. My guess is they don't want to restrict their activities until they get a clear picture of what services marketers want to pay for.

We’ve seen how WOMMA’s hands are tied with respect to ethics in the Edelman case. WOMMA has put Edelman on probation, but it remains to be seen how WOMMA will ultimately deal with Edelman and its behavior. If you ask me, a 90-day probationary period was the wrong approach. Edelman helped write ethical guidelines for the association and its member companies, flagrantly violated them, and openly admitted to its transgressions only when called out on them by bloggers. To me, if an organization wants to be effective at promoting ethical business practices, it should immediately throw out any members who violate the rules so flagrantly, out of respect for the greater whole and its credibility in general. Andy, why didn’t this happen?

From WOMMA's launch release:

A core goal of WOMMA is to help grow the acceptance and legitimacy of word-of-mouth as part of the broader marketing mix.

IMO, if one wants to grow acceptance and legitimacy, you distance yourself from the people and companies that are doing wrong. You don't let everybody else take the hit for the flagrant transgressions of one. You cut them out like a cancer and you move on.

That's exactly what I'm trying to do here. We want Conversational Marketing to have a shot with marketers. If we want that, then we have to distance ourselves from the companies that aren't doing it correctly. Unfortunately, that includes quite a few WOMMA member companies. It's nothing personal. It's business.