Word Of Mouth Emanuel Rosen, the new dean of marketing, can tell you how to spread the gospel about you and your product. On the cheap, that is.
By Lori Ioannou

(FORTUNE Small Business) – When you first look at Emanuel Rosen, he seems like an ordinary Silicon Valley marketing geek: a man totally consumed by his pet passion, collecting reams of data on word-of-mouth advertising. You would never know by looking at this unassuming, suming 48-year-old Israeli consultant that he has become America's new marketing dean and most sought-after promotional speaker. Of late he has taken the podium at such highbrow venues as Claremont (Calif.) College's Peter Drucker School of Management. What has catapulted him to fame is his new landmark book, which has already made the Wall Street Journal's list of best-selling business books, The Anatomy of Buzz (Doubleday, $24.95). It is a manifesto on how companies of all sizes can create and sustain effective word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. What makes this tome special is the fact that it's the first scientific approach to this amorphous subject. As a result, "it gives insight into the black art of buzz," explains Steve Jurvetson, managing director of the venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Over the past three years, Rosen has traveled across the U.S. interviewing more than 160 entrepreneurs, marketing executives, and retailers--including the founders of Hotmail and the inventors of the PowerBar--to document how they systematically generated buzz for their new products. His findings reveal the truth about how to stimulate conversation about a new brand and then ignite customer-to-customer selling.

I first met Rosen one morning at his favorite pit stop: Buck's, the famous breakfast hangout for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs near Palo Alto. It was the obvious choice for our rendezvous, not just because it's the epicenter of buzz in the Valley but also because Rosen uses it like a front porch to conduct most of his interviews. As I'd expected, the place was humming when we got there. Over coffee the marketing guru and I discussed how small business owners can use buzz to build their brands both on the Internet and offline. "The human voice is the greatest marketing tool of all," says Rosen. "Yet it's often an overlooked method of selling." Here's his advice on how to harness the power of buzz.

So tell me, how did you get interested in buzz, and why did you decide to write a book about it?

I started out as a copywriter in Israel writing ads for consumer products. Then I came to the U.S. in the '80s to get my MBA from the University of San Francisco. During my last semester I hooked up with Rich Niles, who was launching a company to make bibliographic software called Endnote. I joined his company, Niles Software, as the vice president of marketing.

One day, about five months before we released the software, we got an order in the mail from across the states in Princeton, N.J. Not only did the customer know about the product, but he also knew the price we were going to charge. We couldn't figure out how he heard about Endnote, since we hadn't done any promotion up until that point. So we called him. He told us he saw something about it on an Internet bulletin board from the University of California at Berkeley. That was back in 1988 before the Web went mainstream. Then it dawned on us that we had done a sneak preview of the product with a focus group there. This virtual word-of-mouth message had triggered the purchase.

Over the next 10 years we sold more than 200,000 copies of Endnote. All our buyer surveys showed that 60% of our customers heard about it from friends and colleagues. By 1998 I became so intrigued with the phenomenon of buzz that I began to research it. There weren't many books on the subject, so I decided to write one.

Why do you think this form of contagious marketing is more important that ever before?

It's more important for three reasons. First, potential customers are more skeptical than ever before about ad messages coming from companies. Research from the public relations firm Porter Novelli shows that only 37% of the public thinks promotional information from a software or computer company is believable, and that sinks to 18% for car companies. At the same time, most consumers are overloaded by the avalanche of commercial messages. To protect themselves, they filter out most ads. They do, however, listen to their friends. And thanks to the Internet they are more connected with each other. It's easier for them to share information and ask for advice about products. The explosion of wireless communications devices will increase connectivity even further.

What kinds of products and services benefit the most from word-of-mouth marketing?

Products that somehow grab attention because they are exciting or innovative. People talk about such products because they may provide new benefits. The early Web browsers--Mosaic and later Netscape--generated incredible buzz because people saw the usefulness of these tools and admired the creativity of the inventors. When a personal experience is needed to assess a product or service, buzz can also be expected. Books, CDs, handheld digital organizers, movies, hotels, and cars all fall into that category. They usually generate a lot of conversation.

How can a small company on a tight budget create buzz?

Entrepreneurs should start by getting out there and talking with people. Every industry has conferences and speaking opportunities. Their goal should be planting the news about their new product and/or service with people who are "opinion leaders." These are individuals that serve as sources of information for others in a certain product category.

Marathon runner Brian Maxwell did just that when he introduced the PowerBar. He went around giving free samples of his product to other runners he knew. After trying the snack, they told other runners about it. Then he went to high schools and told swimming coaches about it. They in turn told other educators. To crack other segments of the market, like tennis, he recruited a second-tier tennis pro. She spread the word among those in her sport. They in turn told others. Eventually word spread amongst various groups, and sales took off.

What if you can't afford to hire a celebrity to help?

You really don't need a celebrity to do this. Opinion leaders can be just about anyone--an investor, a member of the press, an industry analyst, or the director of your local chamber of commerce or trade association.

In your book you note the six rules people must follow to get buzz to spread. What are they?

First, the message you are preaching must be simple in order for people to pass it on. Second, the message must be relevant and have some news value. Next, don't make claims you can't support, otherwise customers will get furious and spread negative news about you and your company. Another rule is to ask customers to articulate what's special about your product or service. Then start measuring buzz by conducting customer-satisfaction surveys. Finally, listen and monitor what people say about your product so you can design better promotional campaigns.

Once you've gotten the word out to individuals who are evangelists, what's next?

The trick is to keep stimulating discussion about your new product or service. That takes creativity. Start by putting the product in their hands. In some cases, sneak previews work magic. Linda Pezzano, the former public relations manager for the game Trivial Pursuit, came up with an original way to do this. Before introducing the product at the New York Toy Fair in 1983, she sent each toy buyer who was registered for the event an envelope containing one Trivial Pursuit card. No one knew what it was; they were puzzled. That curiosity triggered buzz. When the company's booth opened at the fair, it was swamped with potential customers.

What else can small business owners do to get people talking?

Another effective way to spread the word about your product is to bring customers and potential customers together at a meaningful event. It's almost a guaranteed way to jump-start customer-to-customer selling. Chrysler's Jeep Jamboree--the weekend road trip organized exclusively for Jeep owners every year--is a perfect example. For two days participants eat, drink, sleep, and think Jeep. When they get back to their offices on Monday, Jeep is pretty much all they talk about.

How can the Internet be used to propagate buzz?

Having your own Website is a great way to post information about your product and your company. But more important than that, you must find ways to use the Net to spread the word. Keep your approach simple. On my site (www.emanuel-rosen.com), I have a Tell a Friend button that allows users to forward a message about the site and about my book.

Another thing you can do is viral marketing [marketing activities on the Web that accelerate the contagion process]. That's what Hotmail, a free e-mail service purchased by Microsoft, used. To generate word-of-mouth ads when it launched in 1996, it added a line at the bottom of each e-mail message sent by a subscriber: "Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.com." As people found out about it they would tell their friends.

How much faster can news spread about a product on the Internet?

It's difficult to measure it exactly. But look at Hotmail. It went from zero to 12 million subscribers in 18 months. That shows just how fast buzz can spread across countries and continents.

In the end, how can business owners keep buzz alive?

On the Internet, message boards and chat rooms strengthen ties among cybersurfers and get them talking. Women.com, the online community for women that was recently acquired by iVillage.com, uses this approach. Offline you have to keep customers involved with the product so they keep talking about it. Yomega, a yo-yo manufacturer, does this by supporting yo-yo clubs and contests. It has also turned its yo-yo into a collectible item to maintain buzz. Another thing you can do is use some old-fashioned advertising.

So Madison Avenue is not dead. It's alive and kicking, right?

Absolutely. A lot of companies still need to advertise. People shouldn't lie to themselves and hope that everything will work on word of mouth alone. The best compliment is using what's called testimonial advertisements. If you create an ad that is authentic and shows a customer who is truly happy with your product, you can bypass the skepticism that most consumers feel toward advertising. But it's hard. A lot of these ads don't ring true. For them to work they can't be staged. Humorous ads also work well. As we all know, nothing spreads faster than a really good joke. That's why Budweiser's "Whassup!" commercial has been so successful.

How can small companies design better advertising?

By monitoring the conversations of users. Through focus groups or customer surveys they can ask such questions as: What product attributes do you like best and talk about most? How many people have you discussed the product with? This will help companies improve their promotions. Yet few companies pretest advertising for its word-of-mouth impact.

So what's next for you?

I'm definitely going to write another book because I had so much fun working on The Anatomy of Buzz. It was the best experience of my life. I just love meeting people and hearing all that they have to say.