Gallien is not schizophrenic; she's just doing her job. At L.A-based Word of Net, Gallien, a 40-year-old with a Ph.D. in anatomy and a penchant for computers, spends the day undercover in Internet chatrooms, newsgroups and bulletin boards, spreading buzz about her clients' products. One day Gallien is a 21-year-old male college grad chatting up Careerpath.com, a job-hunting service. The next, she's a 50-year-old female movie buff reviewing the new Gramercy film Being John Malkovich. Sometimes Gallien assumes two or three personalities at once, posting messages as one and responding as another. She often makes purposeful grammatical errors or misspellings to make her posts look genuine.
Word of Net is just one of several marketing shops selling online buzz a la Blair Witch. The practice has become a marketing power tool ever since chatroom chatter contributed mightily to that movie's success. For approximately $5,000 to $10,000 per month, Word of Net's five employees spend hours voyeuristically 'lurking' online in search of potential consumer hangouts for their clients, which include NYTimes.com, Variety.com and Sony Pictures. Then, dressed as e-wolves in sheep's clothing, they infiltrate the online exchanges, posting (or 'seeding') carefully crafted commercial messages. "We never just randomly post," says Gallien, insisting that before cyber-peddling she conducts serious research about client services, thereby helping consumers locate useful and appropriate products.
Marketers love the idea, says Eric Sanders, CEO of Word of Net, because it offers what no other medium can: a candid conversation with potential consumers. And by sending the messages via "virtual domains," Website addresses that are similar to but slightly different from a client's official address, Word of Net tracks the traffic. Sanders believes that approximately 50 cents per head is a small price to pay to lure qualified potential buyers.
But just because it works doesn't make this sneaky PR scheme a smart marketing tool, says Jim Sterne, author of What Makes People Click: Advertising on the Internet. "You can steal old ladies' purses all day long and get away with it," he says. "It works. But it's unethical. They are pretending to be somebody else. That's lying."
Sanders, of course, defends his service as perfectly justified: "We only relate absolutely accurate information about our client." Gallien, for her part, says that disguising her identity is necessary. "People don't trust marketers. They want to feel that they are among their peers," she says.
But for some buzz-pros, faking it is unnecessary. Dave Neupert, president of M80 Interactive Marketing, Los Angeles, recruits proactive fans, ages 16 to 21, who are already buzzing on the net about M80 clients, which include over 75 musical artists like Marilyn Manson (Interscope) and Pearl Jam (Epic). In a recent three-month campaign for Latin-pop singer Enrique Iglesias (Interscope), M80 sent more than 50 Enrique fans into Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, and N'Sync chatrooms to talk up the up-and-comer. As payment, the teenagers receive promotional merchandise, or "swag" -- free CDs, concert tickets, T-shirts, and signed posters. It's more than worth the expense, Neupert finds; buzz is the stuff sales are made of. "The intention of our campaign is to create awareness and visibility for the artist, which hopefully will translate into sales down the road," he says.
The teens do often disclose their hired-hand status, but according to Neupert, it makes little difference. "They are fans first. If you can get these