Friday, 23 October 2009

Undercover Marketing

Undercover marketing, a relatively new promotional method in which companies use paid employees to engage strangers in conversation about a product without disclosing their affiliation with the company, is growing in popularity. Undercover marketing (also known as buzz marketing, stealth marketing, or by its detractors roach baiting) is a subset of guerrilla marketing where consumers do not realize they are being marketed to.

Consider the following scenario: a cute young couple approaches a stranger, asking the individual to take their picture. The individual obliges, and after the photo is taken, the two engage the stranger in conversation about the camera’s quality and features. The conversation may prove informational and enjoyable, and it may also turn out to be fake, the young couple employed by the company that sells the camera, and the encounter an orchestrated attempt to manufacture buzz about the product. In short, it may be undercover marketing.

In a way, undercover marketing is the extension of technique called “product placement” used in movies (e.g. James Bond driving the newest BMW). However, while “product placement” puts products in the movies, the “undercover marketing” places them in real life situations – in malls, at conferences, at parties, etc.

An undercover campaign which aims to generate buzz, is economical, and once sufficient buzz has been generated, is almost free, as consumers "market" the product to others, through a network of referrals which grows and grows.

When targeting consumers known to be consistent Internet users, undercover marketers have taken a significant interest in leveraging Internet chat rooms and forums. In these settings, people tend to perceive everyone as peers, the semi-anonymity reduces the risk of being found out, and one marketer can personally influence a large number of people. During the dot com boom at the turn of the century, stock promoters frequently used chat rooms to create a buzz and drive up the price of a stock.

Risk: If marketers fail to hide the campaign, they run considerable risk of backlash. In cases where consumers discover they have been manipulated into liking the product, they generally become angry at the marketer (and by association that product) over being misled.

Whatever the risks, undercover marketing only requires a small investment for a large potential pay off. It remains a cheap and effective way of generating buzz, especially in markets such as Tobacco and alcohol where media-savvy target consumers have become increasingly resistant or inaccessible to other forms of advertising.

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