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The Art of Creating Buzz

Few people would argue with the notion that the most effective kind of marketing is word-of-mouth. Most of us would love to have all the world talking about our products or services, but how many of us know how to create that kind of buzz?

Until recently, I thought that achieving the desirable but elusive tipping point of viral world-of-mouth was more luck, mystery and magic than anything else.

Then I met Jonathan Kay, the ambassador of buzz at Grasshopper, an award-winning virtual phone system for small businesses. Grasshopper bills itself as “The entrepreneur’s phone system.”

Three years ago, Kay created a buzz department. During those three years, he generated more than 500 mentions of Grasshopper in premier media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, TechCrunch, Mashable, Forbes, Inc. magazine and Fast Company. More than a third of Grasshopper signups come from word-of-mouth referrals.

Grasshopper’s buzz department was so successful that Kay now helps others by teaching his methods in a short e-course called Learn2Buzz.. I recently spoke with him and asked him a few questions about the art of creating buzz.

Q: What exactly is a buzz department?

A: A buzz department is a crazy mashup of guerrilla marketing, PR, business development, community management and word-of-mouth marketing. It’s unconventional marketing. It’s the department that has mastered scalable intimacy. A buzz department builds and cultivates valuable relationships through high-level engagement and simple things, like listening and actually caring.

Q: How does a buzz department differ from good old public relations and marketing?

A: Old school PR and marketing wisdom dictates that you make an impression on the many—through press releases, banner ads, trade shows, flyers—in order to reach the few. A buzz department, and this entire “buzz” approach to marketing, dictates that you make an impression on the important few, in hopes of reaching many. It’s all about creating an army of brand loyalists. Not just happy customers, but people who can’t help but yell from the rooftops about you and your brand—zealots for your business.

Q: What are the most important things to keep in mind when trying to create a buzz department?

A: Using tools like social media is an easily learned skill. It’s not difficult to teach someone to blog, tweet or share, or even to understand your product and industry. However, you can’t teach someone to care about people.

Hiring the person who heads your buzz department is important. The hire should be a personality hire. You want someone who will stop at nothing to succeed, who truly cares about people and has a real passion for helping. It’s also important to make sure you buy into the value that comes from investing in your brand. A buzz department doesn’t garner immediate results, but over time, the relationships you build will add value in ways you never imagined.

Q: Say more about what exactly one should look for in a “buzz person,” and how I might find him or her?

A: You need to find someone who values relationships very highly in both their personal and business lives. It’s important to hire someone who enjoys problem-solving, and will do anything to achieve their end goal. It’s also important that the person you hire fits your company’s core values. If your company is not big enough to have core values, then it’s important that this person shares the same beliefs and values of the founders. Your buzz person will often be the face of the company, and if they’re really doing their job right, they may even be mistaken as one of the company founders!

Q: You’re a proponent of old-school methods like getting on the phone…why?

A: I’m always trying to create memorable relationships. I want people to think of me months down the road if there is a logical overlap or project we might work on together. Having said that, I believe strongly that an interaction is really only as meaningful (valuable) as the time you put into it. For instance, if it takes you 23 seconds to send a tweet, that tweet is probably only memorable for about that long. However, if you connect offline with someone, get on the phone, you really have an opportunity to make an impact.

For example, entrepreneurs tend to have very crazy stories. Their journey or adventure is a really important part of who they are. So when you get on the phone with them, and most importantly listen to them, and listen to their story, it’s really powerful. There are few better ways to make a true connection with someone than to simply listen to them. Listening is one of the most sincere compliments you can give someone.

Q: Seems like a lot of work. Why not just leverage the heck out of tools like Google AdSense and the various social media networking sites?

A: Really good things take a lot of work! Google AdSense and Facebook and Twitter are great tools, but they only take you so far. If you want to put a face behind your brand, if you want people to feel comfortable with your brand, and if you want your community to tell their friends, family and colleagues about your brand, they just aren’t the right tools. They’re designed to create a low level of engagement with a lot of people. Low-level engagement doesn’t necessarily translate into new customers, customers that will praise you to others.

Here’s something to think about: Word-of-mouth has a conversion rate of 20 percent and tends to have a 75 percent lower cost per acquisition than other channels. Investing time and effort into this will absolutely pay dividends. It’s also important to note that you won’t get signups from just one channel and just one touch point. In my experience, the most effective way to get a new customer is to reach out to them twice—once in the traditional way, once non-traditional. For instance, they read about you on Forbes.com, but you also grab coffee with them at a conference.

Q: What’s the best measure of, er, ROB (return on buzz)?

A: First off, ROB…that is brilliant! I love it. There are a handful of ways to measure it. I would say the top three are press mentions, number of signups through word of mouth and the effect on traditional marketing costs like search engine optimization and pay-per-click.

In my experience at Grasshopper, our buzz department was able to have a very noticeable impact on our paid search costs. As a result of all our efforts we were able to drive many more brand-related, versus product-related, searches, and hence saved tens of thousands of dollars a year.

The last thing I would say is simply that this department is not designed to be strictly measured and have a ton of metrics. Your ambassador of buzz will succeed by being genuine, approachable and human. The minute you create tons of rules, scripts and metrics for them to meet, it will lose a bit of that emotional feel. If you hire the right person, this shouldn’t even be an issue, as they will thrive on success and simply always do what is in the best interest of the company.

Q: Let’s say I want to get going tomorrow…aside from taking your course, what’s the one thing I need to do?

A: Write a handwritten note to someone. Take the time to connect offline with someone you might have ordinarily just tweeted or e-mailed. Make a connection or introduction for someone that adds no immediate value to yourself or your business.

This whole approach to marketing, my passion, is all about investing your time and not your money. Take a minute and invest your time in helping someone. My bet is that it comes back around tenfold.