By Tom Ryan
While traditional advertising has focused on reaching individual
consumers, a new study examining what creates "buzz" underscores
the effectiveness of getting consumers to spread the message themselves.
for The Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer, the author of the
We Decide, said the study from Northwestern University analyzed a survey
of more than 180,000 people who were interviewed about 338 movies between March
1999 and August 2001.
Brian Uzzi, a sociologist who spearheaded the study,
particularly focused on "pre-release
buzz" — when people speculate
on a movie’s promise based on factors such as a brief trailer or the presence
of lead actor.
The study found at least for Hollywood movies, a tipping point
occurs when 21 percent of Americans are buzzing about the film. Once that level
is reached, pre-release buzz directly predicts box-office performance in the
opening weekend and afterward.
"Because this buzz isn’t based on actual experience, it takes a lot of
it to influence our behavior," Mr. Uzzi said. "It only works when
the buzz is everywhere."
But Mr. Lehrer believes the more interesting
finding was that pre-release buzz had nothing to do with the ad budget of the
movie or the presence of movie stars, no matter how high the budget or big
"The data suggest that pre-release buzz is mostly unpredictable, driven
by intangible factors like the originality of the premise, the title of the
film, or even a throwaway line in the trailer," wrote Mr. Lehrer.
poster child example was "The Sixth Sense," a sleeper hit in
1999 on a minimal ad campaign early on. Mr. Uzzi said the trailer featuring
a boy uttering the line, "I see dead people," captivated teenagers
and led to dizzying word-of-mouth prior to the launch.
"Thanks to social-networking sites, kids today are more connected than
Mr. Uzzi. "They’re also much better at ignoring conventional ads, which
means that the only way to reach them is with buzz."
While "the science
is short on practical recommendations" for step-by-step
buzz drivers, Mr. Uzzi does point to Apple’s ability to continually build buzz
through innovative product and clever marketing.
"They really know how to get people talking," he said. "In
part, it’s the secrecy and showmanship. But Apple also benefits from the fact
that a lot of people liked their previous products."
Mr. Lehrer concludes, "For
too long, we’ve tried to understand ourselves in isolation, as we test people
one at a time in the psychology lab or rely on their past preferences to predict
behavior. But these conditions and algorithms are artificial. In the real world,
we are deeply intertwined with each other, dependent on our social networks
for all sorts of advice. If it weren’t for the buzz of strangers, we wouldn’t
even know what movie to pick at the multiplex."
Discussion Questions: How good a job do brand marketers and retailers do
in building buzz around new product launches? What could they be doing
(or stop doing) to improve in this area?