Dave Balter apologises

Both on the BzzAgents blog and in my comments, as well as privately by email, Dave Balter has apologised for calling me and Corante liars. As he has publicly apologised I will publicly accept his apology. Some may not be pleased with me for doing so, but I am prepared to believe that calling me a liar was a mistake made in the heat of the moment. I have nothing personal against Dave, and turning this into a slanging match is not my desire or intent, because it obscures what’s really important and that’s the raft of problems that I and others have with BzzAgent’s modus operandi and this proposed relationship with Creative Commons.

Dave has also written an open letter to Lawrence Lessig about the matter, and you will find many interesting and well written comments on both his response and the issues in general over on Larry’s blog. I still have a number of serious problems with BzzAgents – in fact, I have more now than I did on Saturday morning – but as most of them have been so well addressed there, I see no benefit in rehashing them here. Instead, I will advise you to go and read the whole thread from top to bottom, if you haven’t already.

In the version of his apology that appears on his blog, Dave does ask for suggestions for how to improve his business, and my advice to him would be the same as that which I would give to an aspiring writer: murder your darlings. As F Scott Fitzgerald realised, the aspects of your work which are most dear to you are frequently the bits that need cutting out, for the good of the whole. These are also the bits that you fight hardest to keep because these are your darlings, your flashes of genius, your best work. Trouble is, your ‘flashes of genius’ are actually more likely to be a steaming heap of crud, but you just can’t see it.

Dave reacted very much like inexperienced writers do when they receive their first critical review. Their first reaction is denial: this criticism can’t be true. Their second is anger: you must be an idiot not to see how great my work is. If they are lucky, their third reaction is acceptance and growth: I see where I went wrong and I will work on improving it.

From the comments on Larry’s blog, which numbered 78 the last time I looked, it seems clear that the majority of people think Dave’s business model is flawed and that his BzzAgents’ modus operandi is at the very least bordering on unethical and immoral. Dave encourages us to ‘dig deeper’ to find out what’s going on ‘under the hood’, but misses two important points:

1) If people’s initial perceptions of BzzAgents are so negative, then you have a serious problem with communicating what you are really doing.

2) If people’s informed opinion of BzzAgents is so negative, then you have a serious problem with the way you are running your business.

Maybe, Dave, you need to murder your darlings. This business is your ‘baby’ and as such you cherish it. But maybe your basic premise is wrong. Maybe you need to stop the activities that are being perceived as shilling, reassess the way that your promotional campaigns are constructed, and stop encouraging people to manipulate the conversations they are having in order that they might create an opportunity to toss up some verbal spam.

Don’t just write off negative comments as being valueless because they are from people who ‘don’t understand’ – that’s the oldest trick in the sulky teenager’s book. Try instead to understand how your business looks from the outside, find out what it is that people object to, and how best to address those problems. Then take visible steps to correct what’s wrong, accepting and fairly assessing feedback along the way.

6 thoughts on “Dave Balter apologises

  1. I’ve stayed out of this debate because I couldn’t think of anything to add, but now I do.

    I’m a registered BzzAgent. That said, I was not even aware that I would get any kind of reward for being one. I merely viewed it as a way to get early (and free) access to stuff I like.

    I’ve been told by people that I’m a “connector” a la Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and so it seems natural to me to “promote” products I like. Not because someone told me so, but because 1) I’ve used it and 2) I like it.

    So far the only “reward” I’ve gotten is a free copy of Guy Kawaski’s The Art of the Start. I also signed up for Seth Godin’s latest, so I should be getting that soon. I liked Kawaski’s book and do recommend it to people starting a business. I also recommend Arnold Kling’s Under the Radar (which could really use a BzzAgent campaign of it’s own – it’s an excellent book but sadly not well-known).

    The thing is, I probably would not have read the Kawasaki book if I didn’t get it for free. I’ve read many books about starting a business, so I don’t really need another one. Nonetheless, I did learn from it and enjoy it, and I do recommend it to others. So IMO it’s a win-win-win: for Guy, myself and anyone who reads it on my advice.

    I don’t think I’ve earned any compensation from BzzAgents for doing this, but maybe I’m wrong.

    My recommendation to BzzAgents: drop the “reward for participation” part and just think of us as similar to book reviewers. Send us free stuff. If we like it we’ll talk about it. If not, oh well. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

  2. dang.

    I had to get 25 bucks worth of istockphoto credits to get that book. Haha. I was buying the credits anyway, though.

    Personally, I gotta laugh my ass off at any serious attempt to manipulate word of mouth. It’s fake, everyone involved knows it’s fake, and it is only marginally worthwhile.

    The BzzAgent folks are halfway right in that the best way to generate buzz about a product is to get it in the hands of people who like it and are willing to tell people about it. But I find their method of discovering these people to be slipshod and, well, low-value.

    If BzzAgent were really smart, they’d be paying people with strong connections in a particular area… of course, that sounds a bit too much like being a traditional sales rep, doesn’t it?

  3. Great points, Suw. Totally agree.

    I’ve just posted comments on my blog about this issue, but short version?

    BzzAgents, however ethical, are simply helping to further old-school thinking: building and maintaining walls between companies and consumers. BzzAgents helps, maybe short term, but certainly doesn’t help build long term relationships with consumers. Without those relationships, we haven’t progressed beyond 1960s marketing textbooks.

  4. I don’t accept that you should always adapt your business to your sternest critics.

    To take a trivial but not wholly erroneous example: where would JK Rowling be today is she listened to the dozens of publishers who rejected Harry Potter before she ran into Bloomsbury?

    Or look at the string of naysayers who said they couldn’t see the point of Hugh Gapingvoid’s English Cut, when it was just a twinkle in his eye?

    Maybe BzzAgent should adapt but I get the impression it’s actually working as a business at the moment, even if a lot of people are ticked off about it.

    I’m not saying that makes it morally right – but I wonder if it’s possible that it actually makes its agents happy, and not because of the fairly small incentives either? Maybe there’s something here for bloggers to learn…, not just for BzzAgent?

  5. Johnnie, I agree that you shouldn’t just meekly follow other people’s recommendations, whether they are from critics or supporters. That’s why there are so many maybes.

    At the end of the day, Dave has to look at the criticisms, evaluate them dispassionately, and act on the suggestions which he thinks will improve his business. I can’t comment on whether BzzAgents is working as a business right now, as I have no data as to that sort of thing, but what I do think is that to ignore the criticisms, even the harsh ones, would be to waste an opportunity to improve not just what he’s doing but how he’s doing it and how that is all perceived by outsiders.

    No one should blindly acquiesce, but to write off your critics is just as short-sighted. Of course Dave has to have belief, but he also has to be strong enough to examine his beliefs and discard any which he then finds to be flawed.

    (Oh, and personally, I think JK Rowling could do with learning to kill off a few darlings too, but that’s a whole different discussion.)

  6. Most of the time, perception is reality .. on the basis of the perception that has been created (from what I can see) CC would do well to pull out of that unfortunate initiative.

    On a more personal note, what do I believe ? Oh, well . that *rewarding* people ot *help others become more conscious about the benefits of brand this-or-that* is a nuanced way of saying “we’re in the PR business”.

    WOM evangelism stemming from beliefs, values, delight with experience is something different.

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