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The Secret to Viral Marketing: Make People Interesting (Interview with Mark Hughes)

viral marketingDo you want to get people talking about your brand?

Want word of mouth? Referrals? Viral marketing?

Well, there’s a simple secret to making it happen, and it’s not what you think.

It isn’t about being controversial or weird, and it isn’t about wacky videos. Those are just the symptoms.

So what’s the cause? It’s making people interesting.

If you give people a story that they can become interesting by telling, they’ll tell the story.

This isn’t my idea, of course – I got it from Mark Hughes, the author of Buzzmarketing, and resident marketing genius at Half.com until it was acquired by eBay.

Over the course of 25 minutes, he shared his insights into their success. Enjoy!

Interview with Mark Hughes, author of Buzzmarketing (25 minutes)

Here are the highlights of the interview (and a transcript):

Questions Asked…

  • Q: Who are you and why are you awesome? [00:50]
  • Q: What are the Six Buttons of Buzz? [07:50]
  • Q: So, it isn’t about managing the conversation, so much as being the catalyst for it? [8:50]
  • Q: So, it’s a matter of being memorable and remarkable enough for people to talk about on their own? [14:00]
  • Q: If our listeners cleared three hours this afternoon to apply some of what you’ve said, what should they do with the time? [16:35]
  • Q: What have you been up to since the book came out? Where can our listeners find out more about you? [20:25]

Topics and Resources Mentioned…

Distilled Wisdom from Mark Hughes…

  • It’s not enough to be product, service or even brand-centric – you have to tell stories interwoven with your brand.
  • People are interested in stories. Your job as a marketer is to give people stories interwoven with your brand.
  • Every touch point you have with a customer is an opportunity to give them something memorable or remarkable to talk about.
  • Sometimes your customers have what will seem like insignificant reasons that they use you – find out what those reasons are and make the most of them.
  • Force yourself to think differently about your business by imagining: What if I absolutely had to quadruple my business in one year? You’ll be amazed at what you can come up with.

Interview Transcript:

Danny: Hi everyone, I’m Danny from Mirasee, and I’m very excited to have Mark Hughes on the line with us today. Mark is the author of Buzzmarketing which is one of the best books you find about the topic, it’s interesting, it’s valuable, is insightful, it’s applicable, and it is also fun to read which is kind of rare, ironically, it books about writing and books about marketing, rather, which is surprising thing is marketing is all about taking ideas and making them accessible to people, but Buzzmarketing is really an exceptional book in its space. It’s one that I highly recommend, and I’m very excited to have you on the line thank you for taking the time.

Mark: You got it.

Danny: So, Mark, I’m quite familiar with your work, but for the benefit of the audience, the people who are listening to this, maybe you could get the 2-3 minute intro who you are and why you’re awesome.

Mark: Well, I don’t know that I’m awesome, but I can tell you who I am. So, I actually began my career in the large world of brands. I started working for Pepsi Co. and ran marketing, advertising for PepBoys Automotive. So I had, you know, multi-million dollar budgets at my disposal, and then I made a dramatic shift, I jumped over to the world of internet marketing in late 1999 with a company called Half.com, h-a-l-f, and it was very different because in the large world of corporate marketing, you always had a budget next year, but, and my assumption is, you know, for your readers and your followers, Danny, you know, it, it was pretty much, like we were at Half.com back in 1999 and the year 2000 where, you have some money, and you need to put it to work and if it doesn’t work, there may not be a  budget next year, if you blow it all there might not be a company next year. So it forces you to really think very, very differently about how to get the most out of every single marketing and advertising dollar because, you know, that may be your last one. So, that’s when and where I kind of joined up, you know kind of literally put our brand, Half.com, on the map was, was in fact…

Danny: No pun intended right?

Mark: Yeah, and I was charged with, at a time when there was a tremendous amount of advertising clutter, I was the sole person charged with making a brand and a company break through all that clutter. Amidst other competing advertisers like Proctor and Gamble and General Motors and things like that so, we had to do something very, very different and our brand was Half.com, and I kind of came up with the idea out of, really necessity, to try and find some town with a name “half” in it, and we found Halfway, Oregon. It was the smallest town we could find; population 350, and so out I went to meet the Mayor, 6’5″, you know, Ivan Crow who could squash me in an instant, to try and convince him and his and his town selectmen if you will, to change their name of their town from Halfway, Oregon to Half.com, Oregon, so it was a long kind of a journey. I spent anywhere from three to six weeks on and off in that town trying to get them to do something to that effect, and we succeeded and got them to change the name of the town to Half.com for a year, and we gave them 26 computers for the elementary school, we gave them 100,000 bucks in cash, for anyone, you know, at this time it was 1999, 2000 anyone who wanted a website, we would make that website for them. And we got press everywhere, and you know, that’s when, by hook or by crook we came to know that, you know, the value of marketing is not necessarily in paid marketing it’s more so in earned marketing. Meaning, if you can get reporters, if you can get media, if you can get bloggers, if you can get your neighbors, people at water coolers, you know, talking about you and writing about you, that’s really the ultimate thing. And we kind of knew that there are things that people talk about and things that people write about, and there are things that they don’t. So the things that they do write about are fundamentally stories. And you know if, whether you’re a business owner or whether you’re the marketer for Morgan Stanley, you obviously want people talking about your brand, but you know, at the water cooler people don’t come up to you and say: “hey did you hear about that new mutual fund from Morgan Stanley that just launched?” That’s not a conversation that happens. People talk about the things that people talk about. They talk about, you know, things that are surprising and that make them gasp and make them laugh, things that are outrageous… when companies audaciously try to rename, a town to its brand name. So, fundamentally, people talk about stories, and if you can weave in the brand, your brand, into that story, that’s really the best you’re going to do, because no one’s going to talk about the Morgan Stanley, you know, mutual fund that just launched. They don’t talk about products, they talk about stories, if you can get them to weave your brand into the stories, part of the story, part of that conversation; that’s really the key. And, you know, I think some of it is luck and a lot of it is hard work and a lot of it is kind of insight as to what people do. There is a lot of hard work involved, it’s not easy, if you tell your business partner, your boss or whoever it may be, that: “hey, I’m going to shlep out to a town in Eastern Oregon, and I may be gone for three weeks or so” – you could get fired. But, you know, the world of start-ups is really a game of risks and rewards, if you want to do things that aren’t novel then, you know what to do. But those aren’t necessarily going to get the rewards that start-ups and small business are looking for, and not all businesses and not all start-ups are looking for that, but I think they all want varying degrees of that.

Danny: For sure, and you can’t stand out from the clutter with what everyone else is doing and you certainly can’t get better results than everyone else by doing what everyone else is doing.  So, the question is… and you know, I mean our listeners are in a good place where they’re in charge of their own business, they are doing their own marketing and they don’t have to risk getting fired, but they do have to kind of, talk down that inner critic that’s saying: “oh it’s a long shot it, it’s probably not going to work” they have to, yes, think through a strategy and it’s got to be a good one, but then they’ve got to have the strategy to execute it. But, let’s go to that part about thinking through a strategy that makes sense that really going to work, you started touching on how, you know, what do people talk about; stuff that surprises and stuff that makes them laugh and that kind of leads into your concept of buzzmarketing and the Six Buttons of Buzz, could you explain to the people who are listening to this what buzzmarketing is and what those six buttons are?

Mark: Sure, buzzmarketing is, you know, how I define in the book, is getting people to talk about, getting people talk about your brand or getting the news media to write or you kind of create content about your brand and it’s not necessarily about the old marketing, kind of, process of spend money and send messages out to people. The, whole crux of buzzmarketing is to spend a little bit of money, to send messages out to people and whatever you’re doing, you want those people to tell their friends, and those people to sell to friends and so on and so on and so on.

Danny: So the purpose of marketing isn’t to, to manage the conversation so much as it is to, kind of, catalyse the conversation.

Mark: That’s exactly right and, fundamentally, marketers, I think have it backwards. I think marketers want people talking about them, and that’s just not going to happen. It’s a total mind shift in that what you want to do as a marketer, if you want word of mouth, truly, what you really need to do is understand that people talk about things, just in general, and journalists write about things, in general. Not necessarily to do with anything else but to make themselves interesting. To make themselves newsworthy. To make themselves, you know, buzz-worthy. So it’s really not necessarily being kind of company-centric and brand-centric, it’s more so being consumer-centric in that you really want your potential consumers, and those consumers are not necessarily the people who may buy your product or buy your service, because if they are, kind of, spreaders of your message, spreaders of your story, that story will travel far and wide and, and it will hit your consumers, but it doesn’t necessarily have to, be a consumer that it hits, because that consumer is a catalyst, and they want to be perceived as interesting, they want to be perceived as newsworthy. You know when someone goes out to a restaurant you know, whether it’s Thursday night or Friday night or whatever it is, and the very next night they’re at a party and they’re talking about that restaurant, what happens is, you know, people lean in and they say: “You know, hey Bob” or “Hey Sue, what’s the name of that restaurant again?” And what’s going on is the person talking about that restaurant and now who becomes the center of interest, they become interesting, they become newsworthy, they become fascinating and they are the purveyors of something interesting. And that’s really what you want to do as a marketer, you want to give people the kernels and the elements, basically spoon-fed, so that they will become interesting amongst their friends, they will become newsworthy amongst their colleagues and peers. And that is a very, very different mindset of traditional marketing, because traditional marketing, you’re in a boardroom or you’re looking at your P&L, you’re talking to your accountant and you’re saying: “how to you get more business, how do you get more people to by” how do you increase market share?” you know, stuff like that.

Danny: Wow, things are pretty bad if you’re asking your accountant that!

Mark: Well yeah, you’re probably right! But it’s more so how do I get, how do I make other people interesting, and how do I make other people fascinating in a way that also involves my brand? So, it’s really shifting the focus, the attention somewhat off of the company, off of the product and into the story that can spread, and obviously that story kind of involves your brand in some way shape or form it would have that power, it would be: “Hey, did you hear about you know, this crazy company that changed the name of a town to the name of the company?” “No, I didn’t!” you know, “No I didn’t! Where is that, what’s going on, who is that?” you know? And then inevitably, Half.com is embedded into that conversation because it’s part of the story. And it’s a different method of going to market, it’s a different way of thinking. And there are many, many opportunities and many, many touch points you need to – whether it’s the way you answer the phone or whether it’s your tag line or whether it’s the simplest of things, every opportunity and every touch point is an opportunity for someone to say: “Hey you know I’ve got a plumber and he wears a bow tie to every single engagement!” You know, whether he’s cleaning the sewers or whatever it is, that’s something interesting, that’s something fascinating, you know, the plumber with the bow tie, and I’m just making this up. So there’s a lot of opportunity and there’s a lot of touch points to give people a reason to talk.

Danny: For sure, and it doesn’t have to be something so “out there”, I mean, the thing that people comment on about me all the time is that, you know, “you answer email right away, and the sea is flooded, you don’t expect a response.” I answer all my emails right away, which, as purple cow traits go, that’s really not all that purple and yet it makes a dent. So it’s just a matter of what I’m hearing, it’s just a matter of how can you be remarkable and memorable enough for people to notice and you know, think about talking about it?

Mark: Yeah, I mean I know people who are stock brokers and they, you know, for the first time I think about a year ago, they did a focus group that maybe you… it wasn’t really a focus group, it was more so just dinner and some of their top clients, and they got to know them, it was you know going out for dinner, but at the end of the night they went around and asked each and every single one of them  individually, you know they went off in a corner: “We need to ask you a question: Why do you do business with us?” and they said it was the scariest question they’d ever asked any of their clients, because they didn’t know what they were going to-

Danny: They’re afraid they’ll say “You know, I don’t know, maybe there’s no reason!”

Mark: Yeah! “Maybe I don’t know, maybe I should find another broker!” who knows?

Danny: “Thank you for bringing that up!” 😉

Mark: Strangely enough, most of them, the majority of them said: “You know the reason why I do business with you is I can get you on the phone.” And they’re like: “That’s it? Just because you can get us on the phone and we’re responsive?” And they said: “Yep.” They said “I’ve had other brokers, you know, and I’d be relegated to a junior person or: oh no, you know the broker’s in a meeting or whatever it is.” And so what they did is they just had a team structure with the two major brokers and a super-awesome assistant and they made a change such that there was coverage all the time. And so if one person was on the phone, or one person was in a meeting, the protocol, the standard operating procedure was to have the second team member talk to them and when new people came and they said you’ve got to be able to be on the phone with the client within minutes, because we never know what’s happening they have an urgent situation and they want to sell the stock immediately whatever it is, so they changed some of their protocols, they thought they were pretty responsive already but they changed the protocols based on a very simple kind of rule of thumb, but it was very good for them.

Danny: Cool. So how would a small business owner or entrepreneur go about finding these kind of triggers that could be creating buzz in their own business, like, what would they do? The way I try to wrap up these interviews asking you know if someone was listening to this call and was totally blown away by this call and was like: “Oh my god, I’m doing everything wrong, I’ve got to change this around. I’ve got to stop talking about me, I’ve got to start giving people stuff they can talk about and I’m clearing my afternoon, I’m clearing three hours this afternoon to start putting it into practice!”  What should they do with those three hours?

Mark: Well the answer is never simple. You know, I’ve had some readers of my book, you know, write me and say that: “After I read your book I thought boy! You know, follow these maxims and steps and the answer to viral marketing would be right at my fingertips!” But you kind of get what you put into it as well, so it does require some time and it does require some focus, and it does require some thought. But the what I like to do is force myself to think on a different plane, so obviously you know, your followers and your readers, they run their businesses and they’re doing a good job with it, but you know they have, I think you probably need to force yourself to think in a different plane. So imagine yourself: okay great – you need to triple your business in one year, you need to quadruple your business in one year because of whatever. Because of a relative had an accident and they need money for care or whatever it may be. But how would you go about, you know, quadrupling your business in a year. And that requires a totally different plane of thought, it doesn’t require thinking about what you’ve been doing already and just doing it better, it requires base ten math, it requires you to think in base twelve math. And I think that’s probably the best way to start. If I needed to quadruple my business for whatever reason. I had a friend who had cancer and he had a family and he was given a certain amount of months to live and, you know, months/years to live, and he needed to go make enough money for his family and he thought on a  totally different plane and guess what? He did it. He also beat cancer and now he’s retired. But he made enough money to have it all there for his family so that, if he died in that time frame, that it would be there. I think that’s the best place to start. Obviously, you want to read you know folks like Seth Godin, perhaps even my book, you know, there’s a lot of good books in terms of how to think on a different plane, and I think also readers are readers, so if you’re reading and consuming and just thinking about how other people have done it, maybe not necessarily in your same industry. Those little nuggets that you will find based on different frameworks will get you to that base ten math and get you to a place where that idea can get to the base twelve math. So it’s, you know, not easy, it requires focus, it requires time but I think you need to force yourself into a place where, if it was a matter of life or death, how would I quadruple my business? And that’s the first place to start and I think if you’re earnest about it and you take on the challenge seriously, you will find a way.

Danny: That’s awesome. That’s really, really powerful advice. I think I just might clear my own afternoon today and do some thinking.

Mark: Fantastic.

Danny: Mark, before we wrap up, let me ask you something, I mean, the book came out, I don’t know exactly when, but quite a while ago and it was a huge success, you’ve obviously been hugely successful at Half.com, it was acquired by eBay, what have you been up to since then? What’s new and exciting in your life and, of course, how can people be a part of that, where can they find you?

Mark: Sure, there’s a two things that I while at Half.com before it got acquired by eBay were, word of mouth, certainly, but also very cost efficient, online advertising. And that’s not necessarily, it was the engine that drove a lot, and the two work well together. And strangely enough I’ve come back to that side of the business, the very cost efficient online advertising and discovered that there’s a major flaw in the way that we measure and reward the various advertising dollars that are spent. And you’re trying to spend them online very, very, very cost efficiently, and that problem that we discovered, you know was called “last ad attribution” where all the cool technology systems give credit to the very last ad in place. Basically ignoring that, you know, the process a consumer goes through, namely the funnel, the sales funnel, it doesn’t even exist, and it just gives credit to the very last ad, so what we’re trying to do…

Danny: You’re absolutely right, it’s something… I happen to be at a conference a while ago and Avinash Kaushik was the keynote, he was, like, railing against this the whole time, he’s like: “you have to look at the analytics they see that such and such and ad is not getting results because it’s not the last path, and they cut it and the business falls apart.”

Mark: It’s very true, it’s a hangover from the ad tracking systems that were evolved in the late and mid 1990’s and the hangover is still around and, I would say for the most part, when it comes to advertising analytics, especially online, it can amount to a lie. So what we’re trying to do is right that situation, and we’re trying to increase the effect of advertising that the entire digital media industry and obviously that’s a lofty task, the name of our company is C3Metrics and you know whether it’s our company or some of our competitors we feel it’s a big leap, and it’s akin to word of mouth which is basically about how do I get more out of my advertising marketing dollars, and C3Metrics is doing that with technology. But it’s along the same theme as getting more money out of what you spend.

Danny: And who are your target audience for your company, I mean, is this something that our listeners might be interested in, or are you going after more the enterprise level, like Proctor & Gamble, General Motors kind of spenders?

Mark: Well we certainly do, we certainly do want that P&G and GM advertisers, but there’s medium sized advertisers, that, you know, if they’re spending like $100,000 a month on online advertising and more, that’s our target, for C3Metrics and that goes all the way up to, you know, to the P&Gs of the world, we’re trying to kind of create a new standard in online measurement. And you know, you think about a couple hundred years ago there was something, some person who had to invent pounds because we weigh 171 pounds or whatever there was some person who had to create inches and yards and whatnot, so we’re trying to create those things standards and measurements to get more ROI for the industry.

Danny: And if anyone wants to learn more they go to C3Metrics.com?

Mark: Yep!

 Danny: Awesome, Mark, thank you very much for taking the time to do this it has been absolutely a pleasure speaking with you and I’ve been a fan for quite a long time. Thank you for taking the time to do it I know it’s going to be incredibly valuable for our listeners.

Mark: Danny, thank you very much, have a great day.

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