Advocates of buzz marketing argue that marketers face a choice between throwing more money at increasingly impotent advertising or letting their customers do the work for them.
A cluttered environment, the proliferation of media channels through digital technology that has led to fragmentation of audiences, and competing forms of entertainment have all made it increasingly hard for brands to reach their targets.
Buzz marketing, which relies on brands' targets to pass on the marketing message either by physically forwarding emails or by word of mouth, provides one credible answer to the dilemma of ads' reduced impact, says Justin Kirby, Digital Media Communications (DMC) MD and spokesperson for the newly formed Viral & Buzz Marketing Association.
'Get others to do the work for you'
Viral marketing, which traditionally involves consumers emailing on pieces of creative, can avoid the cynicism the public has for companies forcing their products on us. 'Not every product is an iPod, so instead of customers talking about the product, you make the communication what they talk about,' Kirby says.
'The technology is self-selecting - it automatically finds its way to the relevant target group,' he points out, because if a message is not relevant, it is not passed on. 'Wastage is only an issue if you pay for the media.'
The danger with word-of-mouth marketing, however, is marketers are not in control of the point of communication, and it becomes difficult to judge the environment and way in which the message will be received.
Kirby insists a campaign should have a clear understanding of its marketing objectives, and should be handled by PR or advertising agencies rather than technology companies. 'There's a difference between something travelling virally and viral marketing,' he says.
Kirby points to an ad Ford distanced itself from that found its way on to the internet and successfully reinvigorated a ten-year-old car that 'is not outstanding in its class'. The ad - that showed a cat being decapitated by the Sportka's sunroof - was a radical departure from the brand's personality, underlining the fact that campaigns should be subject to the same scrutiny as other marketing disciplines.
Kirby adds that 'ultimately, it's about generating an idea and PR agencies can do that - the medium is just another channel. A viral is not some isolated activity'.
'Our viral campaigns come under a brand marketing remit,' says James Kydd, brand director at DMC client Virgin Mobile. 'This is because it is best used as an integrated strategic part of the overall marketing mix - a means to an end that generates buzz, but also provides ongoing, tangible benefits.'
However, Jez Jowett, board director at Cake, which has a dedicated viral marketing team and is a member of the VBMA, believes agencies also need specialist knowledge of online communities and 'opinion formers' with whom they seed viral content.
'It is a specialty, and you have to understand the audience,' says Jowett. 'The bottom line is that complete understanding of the environment its going to be received in can only come from immersing oneself in these communities, and not many agencies dig that deep.' He says practitioners need to understand how 'viral-seeding' sites such as Eatmail.tv operate and how people respond to content.
'Ad agencies tend to be concerned with how great things look, but we only have one simple rule: "would you pass it on?",' says Jowett, who stresses the audience can be very particular about what it will endorse.
'If it's too branded, there's nothing for me to add.'
Tracking email pass-on offers some accountability and the introduction of viral marketing through mobile phones offers a new opportunity for the discipline to prove itself, says Jowett.
But measuring 'buzz', and whether it is having positive or negative impact on a brand, remains tricky, according to Dan Pinch, account manager at Weber Shandwick's youth division Slam.
'As a PR agency, our traditional clients are used to measuring us on the press coverage generated, but it's quite hard to measure buzz. I don't think anybody has a good methodology.'
But Pinch adds that buzz marketing should be used as part of an overall marketing strategy and can in part be measured by traditional methods: 'We do buzz marketing, but it is usually designed to get press coverage.'
Incorporating media relations is also a key part of Frank PR chairman Graham Goodkind's approach, and he argues that definitions place inappropriate restrictions on how a campaign is shaped. 'The things that work online are just good ideas, which can come from any discipline,' he says. 'PR agencies can create these.'
'I think one of the great PR campaigns was actually an ad campaign - (as a concept) FCUK was a bloody good PR idea that created word of mouth and transformed the business.'
In any event, buzz marketing in various guises is here to stay and indications are that its use is becoming more strategic than tactical, with major brands lining up to join in. If PR agencies want to play a role as brand custodians, they need to start coming up with buzz-inspiring ideas.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF BUZZ MARKETING
Buzz The umbrella term for marketing that uses consumers to spread the sender's message. Usually describes word-of-mouth endorsement of a brand.
Viral Communications designed to be physically passed on. Usually online, it tends to take humorous form but can include special offers and competitions.
Guerrilla Creative activities like stunts that attract attention or highjack events, to place the brand in public view.
Trendsetter Involves providing key individuals in social or professional circles access to a brand's products or services with the hope they'll recommend them either actively or by example.
Stealth Undercover tactics, such as actors using products in public places. Directly targets consumers and does not openly appear as a marketing drive.