Play to passions of adults, use events, experts urge

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As cookware marketer Calphalon prepared to introduce an entry-level line, its marketing minions were split on how to reach "the next generation of home chefs." They'd read about the difficulty of reaching time-starved professional women via traditional media and hoped to generate positive buzz.

At the same time, Calphalon worried about the effectiveness of buzz marketing techniques among audiences other than IM-crazed teenagers. Agency Northlich responded by allying with retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Williams-Sonoma to host cookin'-n-gabbin' events for a handful of 30-ish women customers. Attendees mixed with members of the Cooking Club, a clique of six New York media types who have released several cookbooks.

"'Pots and pans sold by word-of-mouth'-not the sexiest headline," says John Bloomstrom, exec VP-director of influencer marketing at Cincinnati-based Northlich. "But it worked. The women walked out really jazzed about cookware."

Marketers often shy away from using buzz to enlist adult fans. "When some people think about buzz marketing, they think of the Nokia person at the bar or the guy in Times Square with a bullhorn," says Lisa Weltz, marketing director of Dream Catcher Retreats, a destination club offering luxury vacation homes for affluent adults. Adds Dan Buczaczer, VP-director of Reverb, Starcom MediaVest Group's buzz-marketing arm based in Chicago: "Where does it say word-of-mouth has to be loud and edgy? With some of these campaigns, you can do a lot more harm than good."

Older consumers want to feel as if they're a part of an informative two-way conversation, rather than just being given a freebie of a new product and expected to sing its praises to their friends. "You create a listening post. You keep the door open for them to take a more active role," says Jon Berry, senior VP-editorial director of GfK NOP's Marketing Opportunities Center of Excellence.

Equally challenging is locating the right adults to serve as conveyors of buzz. To find willing participants for youth-focused campaigns, marketers need only poke around social networking site MySpace.com. Adults, given the constraints of raising said teens and full-time jobs and such, aren't quite as easy to come by.

"You're asking for the attention and commitment of people who don't have time to spare on spreading the word about a new coffee," says Mr. Berry, who in 2003 co-authored "The Influentials," a book about consumers as transmitters of buzz.

Tapping into adults' passions becomes the only surefire way for marketers to rally them to a cause. Procter & Gamble Co.'s Tremor division recently expanded into adult-targeted buzz campaigns, and Tremor CEO Steve Knox notes that mothers are eager to discuss "things that impact the family positively, whether it's health, education or travel."

Like the Calphalon campaign, the most effective adult-aimed word-of-mouth efforts blend buzz techniques with PR and special events. As part of an event limited to a handful of upper-crust adults, Dream Catcher built a small model of its Cabo San Lucas house. "We had the palm trees and the tiki bar and everything," Ms. Weltz says, adding she's trying to chemically replicate the scents of suntan lotion and coconuts for future events. "You laugh, but that kind of thing makes somebody say, 'Man, I want to do this.' "

Radica Games teamed with Bzz-Agent, Boston, to launch 20Q, an electronic version of "20 Questions." Lacking a big budget, the company employed around 3,000 agents (one-third in the 30-plus age range) to generate attention for the game.

"I was surprised [the buzz effort] worked," admits Patti Saitow, Radica VP-global marketing services. "The campaign felt very genuine to us, and I guess consumers picked up on that."

Marketers expect adult-oriented word-of-mouth efforts to multiply. With many major portals offering easy-to-use blogging software, older audiences will eventually warm to that buzz-friendly medium. "Your mother will blog," predicts Mr. Buczaczer, who believes that Web logs will become a key source for pre-purchase research.

"Consumers increasingly turn to forums, blogs, fan and hate sites as they research a purchase," he says. "The ability to energize advocates and reach out to detractors will make a bigger difference than ever. Companies can pay attention or ignore this discussion at their peril."

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