Oh dear. Creative Commons shack up with BzzAgents

According to the Creative Commons blog, CC have now entered into a pro bono arrangement with ‘word of mouth’ promoters BzzAgents so that the latter can promote the former:

Creative Commons is fortunate to have a partnership with BzzNet Inc., a word-of-mouth marketing firm based in Boston. Today, BzzNet launched a grass roots marketing campaign to promote Creative Commons. What does this mean? The marketing campaign is a network of volunteer brand evangelists who share their honest opinions about products and services with other consumers. The Bzz agents are regular joes like you and me who bzzz (or promote) different campaigns.

BzzAgent’s GoodBzz Partnership provides selected non-profits with a pro bono 12 week marketing campaign. To become a BzzAgent and help support Creative Commons in this BzzCampaign, visit BzzAgent.com.

Oh dear.

The concept behind BzzAgents is that they bring together bloggers and companies so that the companies can benefit from the ‘word of mouth’ promotion of their products by the BzzAgent bloggers. What happens is that BzzAgent launch a campaign, then the BzzAgents can sign up to a campaign if they like the look of it:

After a BzzAgent signs up for a BzzCampaign, their BzzKit will arrive in the mail a week or two later. This kit usually includes a product sample and a BzzGuide, the custom guide created to help BzzAgents create real, honest Word-of-Mouth Bzz about the product or service.


BzzAgents are given a list of BzzActivities to help spread Word-of-Mouth Bzz in every BzzGuide. These activities make it easier and more fun for them to spread Bzz.

Every time a BzzAgent ‘spreads Bzz’ they earn points, which they can then redeem for rewards.

Now, if companies want to try their luck with BzzAgent, that’s up to them. I don’t like the idea of trying to manufacture buzz because I think that it detracts from real thing, the stuff that’s earnt by having a really good product. To me, it pollutes the blogosphere with bought, fake ‘word of mouth’, but I can see why companies would want to try it.

But for Creative Commons to start using BzzAgents is, not to put too fine a point on it, a betrayal of the work done by grassroots activists who are genuinely concerned about the state of copyright today. The people who have been working hard on promoting CC, who are contributing CC material to the ever growing commons, who are writing about copyright reform, putting together seminars and events, these are CC’s ‘buzz agents’, and they do all this work for free, because they believe on a fundamental level that it is important.

Creative Commons is not a new gadget. It’s not a new flavour of tea. I’ve been reading about CC, copyright and digital rights as much as possible over the last year, and still there are areas where my understanding is fuzzy. So how much reading and research are BzzAgent going to expect of their bloggers? How hard will a blogger have to work before they can start writing in an informed manner about CC? Or are the BzzAgents simply going to be saying ‘Whoa, this CC shit is cool! I get free stuff!’?

I think that getting BzzAgents to promote CC is doing a massive disservice not just to all the people who promoted CC because they believed in it, but also CC itself. In using fake ‘word of mouth’ promotion they devalue the work done by real supporters by polluting the blogosphere with fake buzz.

Of course, the counter-argument will be that BzzAgents are honest, only saying what they think about a product and not committed to always being nice. I accept that many BzzAgents will undoubtedly try to adhere to this, but you can’t get away from the fact that they are being rewarded to write about something, and that in and of itself affects not just one’s subconscious reaction to the thing you are writing about (and as someone who has written product reviews professionally, I am intimately acquainted with this problem), but also the perceptions of the reader.

If Creative Commons want to promote their work, there are better ways of doing it than with BzzAgents. The whole point of the blogosphere is that it allows you to easily find those who are interested in the stuff you’re interested in, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t reach out to individuals within the CC community and discuss with them how best to raise awareness. But instead, they have chosen to get into bed with a company whom one friend of mine characterised as ‘fuckwit liars’.

Just rereading that first paragraph of the CC post makes my blood run cold. ‘Grass roots marketing campaign’? ‘Volunteer brand evangelists’?

CC is supposed to be about cutting out the corporate bullshit, but here they are, buying into it. Very disappointing indeed.

17 thoughts on “Oh dear. Creative Commons shack up with BzzAgents

  1. Sue –

    Thanks for the post about the launch of the Creative Commons GoodBzz Program. I appreciate your views and certainly your concerns, but do want to clarify a few points:

    1) BzzAgent isn’t in the business of bringing companies and bloggers together. As a matter of fact, blogging has very little to do with BzzAgent. We are in the business of helping organize honest, authentic word-of-mouth for companies and organizations. Over the last 3 years, we’ve received over 160,000 word-of-mouth narratives from everyday consumers, and over 80% of these interactions are on a face-to-face, person-to-person basis. Blogging, while persistent and interesting, is not the primary means of word-of-mouth.

    2) You state that we help clients “manufacture” buzz, which is absolutely untrue. There is no way for any company to be able to manufacture buzz – or word-of-mouth. You may be able to accelerate and augment natural word-of-mouth, but create it? Not a chance.

    3) You state that, “there’s no reason why they [CC] couldn’t reach out to individuals within the CC community and discuss with them how best to raise awareness.” Exactly! This is the intent of the program. We find BzzAgents who have a passion for CC and discuss with them how to best raise awareness. If you haven’t noticed, CC isn’t the easiest thing to describe to others. Some CC fans could benefit from understanding how to share the most valuable elements of CC with others in a concise and effective format.

    4) As for rewards, look all around you. Stop spending on your credit card because you get airline miles. Stop using your Starwood loyalty program because you get free stays. Getting rewarded for things you do is a fact of life, and people don’t seem to have a problem getting things for themselves. Oh, but when you help a brand your passionate for, you shouldn’t get anything? Why is there a double standard?

    You seem like you really appreciate Creative Commons. We do, too. It’s a world-changing idea that needs help communicating its message. That’s why we’ve provided them service free of charge. The question is: would you like to help them communicate their cause more effectively, or focus instead on trying to slow down the progress of their passionate consumers?

    And for those who call us liars, I’d suggest that if 1/2 the companies out there were as transparent as we are, you’d find much more devious behavior than honest communications.

    Dave Balter
    Founder, President

  2. “You state that we help clients “manufacture” buzz, which is absolutely untrue.”

    Except that it *is* true. The whole premise is that people get rewarded for going to a party, and interrupting a conversation about politics so that they can talk about what shoes the politician were wearing. I didn’t pick that example out of thin air: I got it directly from the BzzAgent website.

    “We find BzzAgents who have a passion for CC and discuss with them how to best raise awareness. If you haven’t noticed, CC isn’t the easiest thing to describe to others.”

    If you haven’t noticed, we bloggers have been talking about Creative Commons for months and it’s made its way into a popular blogging software (Movable Type) and a popular photo sharing application (Flickr) among many others. There are high-quality discussions about Creative Commons in weblogs, including ones that question the legality of the licenses–btw, I encourage all supporters of CC to read that article, and I say that as a supporter of CC myself–and it’s actually pretty easy to explain. It’s not clear to me why Creative Commons needs to go to a firm to find people who are passionate about alternatives to the current copyright regime when all they have to do is post to their weblog. The post just before the BzzAgent partnership announcement appealed to George Lucas and Star Wars geeks to license their fan fiction under Creative Commons, and famous musicians are jumping on to the copyright-alternative train (Trent Reznor being a recent example, though not explicitly CC).

    “Some CC fans could benefit from understanding how to share the most valuable elements of CC with others in a concise and effective format.”

    Sounds like blogging to me.

    “As for rewards, look all around you. Stop spending on your credit card because you get airline miles. Stop using your Starwood loyalty program because you get free stays. ”

    That’s a ridiculous statement. So I went to a party some months ago, wearing my Creative Commons t-shirt partly because I didn’t know I was going to a party (I would have dressed better if I knew) and partly because I believed in it enough to pay some of my hard-earned money to promote something I don’t have an affiliation with and partly because it made me feel cool. That it prompted a conversation with a pretty girl about something I was knowledgable and passionate about was an unexpected reward. With BzzAgent, rewards are expected, just as the rewards from using your credit card to get airlines points are expected. For those promoting Creative Commons for free on their own time and even donating to the non-profit (I fit all those categories), it’s disappointing that that the organization has to use undercover marketing–and that’s what BzzAgent is, it’s product placement in real life–because it’s creepy.

    “It’s a world-changing idea that needs help communicating its message. That’s why we’ve provided them service free of charge.”

    Not good enough. The individual BzzAgents themselves aren’t doing it free of charge.

    “And for those who call us liars, I’d suggest that if 1/2 the companies out there were as transparent as we are, you’d find much more devious behavior than honest communications.”

    That’s a silly way to defend your company. You cannot justify unethical behaviour simply by saying others are more unethical.

  3. My ten old son understands CC (enough said).
    I was feeling that CC was reaching the tipping point, and now this. Unfortunately, there is no alternative, so I’ll wait before I buy my CC T-shirt.

  4. “As for rewards, look all around you. Stop spending on your credit card because you get airline miles. Stop using your Starwood loyalty program because you get free stays. ”

    Why do you think companies have rewards programs? To get people to spend more. Offering incentives totally changes the way people act — offering incentives for social behavior destroys people’s trust. It takes away from the honesty of social interaction.

  5. So now Creative Commons is getting into astroturfing?!? I guess they really are common …

  6. “honest, authentic word-of-mouth”

    This is the part that baffles me. How does Bzz know if people are lying? Is there a ploygraph involved? What policies and procedures are in place to prevent a Bzzer from changing his/her mind?

    If I were unscrupulous, I would become a BzzAgent and chat up everything under the sun, irrespective of whether I believed in it or not. Just to make money. How does Bzz keep people like me out?

    The result of things like BzzAgent is that, from now on, I and my friends will look askance at anyone who starts talking about CC positively in a conversation, and that’s a damn shame. This isn’t how you market something, it’s how you kill it.

    That’s my honest opinion.

    Or is it?

  7. Ben Yates:
    “…offering incentives for social behavior destroys people’s trust. It takes away from the honesty of social interaction.”

    This is precisely the problem with stealth marketing and it’s a point that needs to be hammered home. Imagine what the world will be like if stealth marketing becomes widespread, a world where I have to be on a constant state of alert, having to evaluate whether *any* person I talk to is going to try and sell me something. I have to evaluate whether it’s worth the *risk* of talking to someone. When somebody asks me to take their picture I have to think, is this person trying to sell me a camera? Now what I am going to do? I’m simply going to ignore anybody who asks me to take their picture. I’m going to ignore any stranger who asks me a favor. I’m going to ignore any stranger who starts to talking to me in public places (although Bzzt has got private places covered pretty well don’t they?)
    Walking downtown will be like walking through a bunch of carny’s at the fair: Just look at the ground and ignore them.

    I’m willing to spend my time helping someone out, but I’m not willing to spend it being marketed to. At the very least, it should be *me* who decides that I want to spend my time being informed of products, not you Mr. Balter.

    “Now, if companies want to try their luck with BzzAgent, that’s up to them.”

    I object to this statement. Why? Because it’s not up to *me*. I don’t get a choice to be a part of the stealth marketing campaigns. Any other type of marketing I can opt out *except* this one.

    I don’t want your product Mr. Balter. How do I opt out? Should I be a hermit? Do you suggest that I constantly be on guard with everyone I talk to? I know that your agents aren’t going to introduce themselves as such. Should I prepare to walk through the valley of carny’s every day?

    Your methods truly disgust me, they are insidious and prey on the good nature of people. Some may say that for any other product/marketing, this would be fine: if people don’t want it the market will respond, people won’t buy. In this case however, I, and everyone else, are consumers of your product, and have no say in the matter. The market can’t correct this.

    Mr. Lessig, I think you have greater social responsibilities than promoting Creative Commons.
    Even aside from social responsibility this will hurt Creative Commons. You will definitely lose respectability among the people who spread the *real* word of mouth. People who believe in the cause so deeply that they don’t need, nor want, money to spread the word. Look at the outrage already. You may gain the laymen but you will lose the experts.

  8. This whole scheme brings to mind an article I read in the WSJ a couple of weeks ago. It exposed “product experts” who have appeared on morning news and local news programs as having developed “tours” for which manufacturers pay upwards of $15,000 for an endorsement. Other than the dollar value, I see little difference between what the produce experts are doing and what BzzAgents are doing.

    The CC folks SHOULD end that relationship immediately if they don’t want to lose credibility. While manufactured grass roots marketing has been around forever, there’s a big difference between someone standing on a busy street corner handing out free samples and someone extolling the virtues of a product or service in a private setting under the guise of objective interest. I offer this with nearly 20 years of experience as a marketing executive.

  9. Whether or not this event happens to lead to any “bzz” it has certainly succeeded in creating a bit of publicity. I bzzlaughed so bzzhard that my bzzsides bzzhurt!

  10. I find this very disappointing by Creative Commons. They are becoming more corporate by the day. But this is an old problem when the bureaucracy move in the believers move out.

    The raison d’etat of Creative Commons should be the promotion of free culture, but should stop well short at the manipulation of people. Its a cheap trick and is more like advertising than engaging in debate with people and explaining the advantages that CC has for creators.

  11. Hmm.. my French has never been great but I mixed up coup d’etat and raison d’être…

    but perhaps it was a freudian slip…

  12. Hi. I’m a bzzagent. I have ‘bzzed’ many items in the past, ranging from batteries to toys to books. It’s very clear to me that all of you who are throwing insults at Bzzagent.com have no clue what it’s purpose is. Bzzagent was designed to create word of mouth for products and services. This word of mouth can be positive, negative, or neutral. It’s HONEST opinions about products. What Suw posted is a fairly accurate description of what goes on with regards to joining a campaign, but there are some very important and key pieces of information that she left out.

    First of all, when you join Bzzagent.com, you have to fill out a lengthy survey detailing your likes, dislikes, what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, what you talk about with your friends, and what people come to you seeking advice over. All of this creates a profile which limits the number of campaigns you can join. The purpose is to only allow individuals who are knowledgeable about a certain subject to join a campaign that contains an item in that subject. So, for example, would someone who said he is computer illiterate, and often seeks advice from others on computers, be allowed to join a campaign dealing with a new computer product? No, he wouldn’t. This eliminates a lot of the “fake” bzz that you are proposing happens. Secondly, when listing a new campaign, Bzzagent just doesn’t ask if you want to join it. It lists information about it and asks if you are interested in the product first. I personally have passed up two campaigns that did not interest me, one because I couldn’t bzz about it, and one because it was a product I never use. Again, this eliminates more “fake” bzz news, as well as insures only interested parties who feel that they can bzz about something participate in the campaign.

    A point that was mentioned is that because rewards are offered, people would submit fake bzz just to get the points so they can get prizes. It doesn’t exactly work like that. Submitting bzz reports takes a lot of time. You have to fill out a lengthy survey about the bzz that you created, including who you bzzed, how as it bzzed, what time, what place, etc etc. So now, you’re probably thinking what’s the point? If I see rewards, I’m going to submit as much bzz as possible in the amount of time allowed, and get my points to get my cool awesome prizes. Don’t think so. You are limited to the amount of points you can receive per campaign (I believe you can only collect points for the first three bzz reports submitted). This does not amount to a lot of points. Furthermore, even if you do manage to collect and save up a lot of points, the rewards that Bzzagent offers are based on the campaigns you are in. For instance, in a recent campaign I was in, the rewards offered were other books by the same author, as well as others in the same genre. Also offered was a way to donate your points in the form of money to a charity. Hmmmm, seems to me to be another safe guard against fake bzzz.

    Like Suw said, once joining a campaign, a bzz packet is sent, often containing a product sample of sorts, and a lot of information about the product. This packet contains all sorts of information to make the Bzzagent an informed individual. Word of mouth works best when the information being passed on is factual. I will give you this, the information contained often presents itself like a sales sheet. It even presents ways to bzz about the item. But something you clearly don’t understand is that Bzzagents don’t want you to just randomly interrupt someone or a conversation just to talk about the product or service. They expect it to come up in natural conversation. For example, some ways to bzz about a book. Set it on your coffee table and see if anyone picks it up. Give the book as a gift to a friend. What is NOT suggested is to shove the book in someone’s face and say ‘hey look at this!” Because the people who join the campaign are limited (from the reasons above, interest, ability to bzz, and results of survey) this item or service had a good chance of coming up naturally anyway. People talk about their interests in every day conversation. That is what word of mouth is all about. People talk to other people of similar interests about those very interests.

    Bzzagent is NOT stealth advertisement. It’s not giving in to corporate garbage. It’s honest word of mouth discussions about products and services. Bzzagents encourages positive and negative bzz, I had one particular product which I found appalling, and if asked about it, I provided my honest opinion. I was worried that Bzzagents would be mad about that, but my bzzagent correspondent (the person who reviews the bzz reports) replied saying great bzz and not to worry about it being negative; they never asked for all positive bzz, just your honest opinions. You can rest assured that any bzz that is created regarding the CC product will be honest, real, and productive to the end result.

    And just for your information guys. I am not a part of the Creative Commons campaign. Also, I have NEVER turned in my points for a reward, and have never bzzed about a product unless it actually pertains to the conversation at hand. That is what true word of mouth is, and that is the purpose of Bzzagents. Suw, before you start insulting a business model or practice like this one, may I suggest you join BzzAgents? Actually try it out. You may be surprised.

    Thanks, Josh

  13. As Richard (www.justagwailo.com), I also used to wear my CC tshirt here in Brasil, for the same reasons. It really feels unconfortable for me to know that some people would be doing that for a buck. I think I would stop using the tshirt.
    Ain’t we changing the procedures?

    José Murilo Junior
    Ecologia Digital

  14. I don’t know, this almost comes across a bit snobby to be honest. One of those ” Oh the grovelling masses are learning about our secret it’s not any good anymore” type attitudes. So it’s okay to wear your tres chic tshirt, but uh oh the peons know about it- I am ashamed of the idea?

    Read a book called “crossing the chasm” – It talks about the idea of where a niche product goes from elite/early adopters to widespread acceptance. If you want the idea to gain widespread acceptance you have to be willing to let the masses be exposed to it. And if I understand this Bzz thing , it wasn’t costing CC anything.

    So now instead of a few 1000 more people out spreading the news about a (fairly) new idea, you have a bunch of elitists denouncing the whole idea.

    Way to save the purity of the idea.

  15. No, this isn’t about snobbery or elitism. Not once have I said that the CC message should not be spread, just that BzzAgents was the wrong mechanism for doing it. CC’s success will depend upon widespread adoption, but that can be achieved better by creating a genuine grassroots movement – similar to the Spread FireFox campaign, for example – than through an artificial and ethically ambiguous method like BzzAgents.

  16. Didn’t say you (Suw) were being the snobby one. I was actually referring to the guys saying they wouldn’t wear the shirts. At some point in an idea life cycle you have to get the widespread acceptance or the product won’t reach it’s full potential.
    For example, look at the Ipod. the grassroots/early adopter stage and only the tech savvy are using it or even know about it. But then you get the groundswell going and a Bono superbowl ad. You start to get widespread acceptance and suddenly there are all sorts of new and upgraded Ipods – color, bigger HD, and the shuffle. So yes the Ipod marketed itself and lost some of the uniqueness/ubercool factor, but at the same time you got lowered prices, and better features.
    BetaMax was the best playback device, but it died because it never got to the widespread acceptance.
    At some point, for Creative Commons to succeed, it will have to get the widespread acceptance. Is it better for them to have to pay for it, or get it free?

  17. It’s best if they get it through morally and ethically unambiguous methods, paid or unpaid.

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