Transparency is essential as word of mouth gains steam

W hen I was in my 20s, I rented an upstairs apartment from a middle-aged couple. Not long after I moved in, they invited me down for a beer.

W hen I was in my 20s, I rented an upstairs apartment from a middle-aged couple. Not long after I moved in, they invited me down for a beer.

After a brief chat, they launched into a pitch to a) sell me home products; b) make me a salesman of the same products; and c) become a wholesaler myself.

It was creepy. So were they. I moved out quickly.

What bothered me, apart from the somewhat unsavory industry they represented, was their initial deception. They weren't trying to be my friends. They were trying to sell me stuff.

This came back to mind as I read a recent story in BusinessWeek. It told of the campaign by Procter & Gamble, one of the world's great consumer-goods companies, to recruit "buzz moms" as word-of-mouth marketers to their friends and acquaintances by engaging them in supposedly personal conversations. Why? Because surveys are clear that people trust personal recommendations more than advertising.

It was more evidence of a shift that is gaining velocity. Those who sell goods, services, ideas, and candidates must recognize that the world of TiVo, pop-up blockers, and increasing skepticism about traditional selling techniques requires a different way of seeing the marketplace. Which means, ultimately, that PR is the new advertising because conversation is the new PR.

But there is an honest way to have a conversation. As the magazine story noted, P&G didn't insist that the moms disclose that they're being rewarded for their efforts. In fact, the company said that it was somehow more in keeping with today's style to let the moms make up their own minds about whether to disclose.

Reading this story made me less likely to buy P&G's products, hard as they are to avoid. I don't trust companies that try to fool people.

Buzz is great. Genuine buzz comes from those who truly care about something, not from corner offices.

I have news for the buzz moms and those who choose to be the corporate or political foot soldiers: If you are being compensated for this activity, tell me. A supposed friend who tries to sell me without such disclosure won't remain a friend if I discover the deception.

Transparency is vital, not optional, in this new marketing relationship - and this is not simply about what's ethical. Transparency is also smarter. You may never get caught pulling a fast one, but if you do, you will be punished.

I'm not saying advertising is dead, by the way. There will remain plenty of opportunities to sell things in the traditional ways for some time to come. Some buyers actually prefer to be passive consumers as opposed to active ones. And in highly targeted niche media, the ads can be as interesting as the journalism.

Meanwhile, the conversational aspect of marketing and image-making will continue to grow. PR folks will be helping their clients' various constituencies in this way, and we'll be relating somewhat differently to each other as time proceeds. It's a messy process, true, yet also a valuable one.

It won't work in the end, though, if the conversations aren't open and honorable.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His blog is at He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (

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