It's a meme, it's word of mouth online, it's Buzz Buying!

Using the Net to market your company or product - it goes by many names.

I've heard it referred to as viral advertising, or consumer-generated media, creating a meme... but in its current state, I think of it as "buzz buying." By that, I am referring to the desire to buy what has been happening naturally.

Consumer-generated media is content created online by someone other than a professional individual or organization and that is made available online. Blogs, message boards, online forums, RSS news pages, consumer feedback & reviews sites are all examples of ways to offer media. Apparently, the people who do it for a living have noticed.

A hot example these days is the film Snakes on a Plane. This unreleased film started getting buzz online naturally, but now the producers are fueling it with websites, hoping to build on that free advertising. Of course, the trick is to do that without it seeming commercial, at which point the buzz will die.

So, isn't this just the old "word of mouth" without mouths? The earliest online viral used email and that still exists. You saw a good site, heard a rumor, saw a funny picture, had a video and you emailed the link. Then bandwidth got bigger and email accounts allowed larger attachments so people sent it to you in the mail. Now, even with the bandwidth, it's cumbersome to send these big files, and so sites like YouTube and Google Video were created to "host" this sort of content. And now you can see the most viewed videos or which movie trailers are getting buzz, and the line between the amateur and the professional is blurring a little. I can tell at a glance that some music videos are professionally produced and that others are just some kids messing around with video.

But when I look at a mashup of John Lennon's "Imagine" with footage of President Bush, I see a political statement that's selling something to me and I'm not sure where it's coming from.

I'll bet that someone showed you or mailed you one of the JibJab videos around election time (probably the "This Land is Your Land" one which really went viral). This is a lot more than some kids playing around. But what is it? Are they just trying to make a buck on banner ads? Do they have a political agenda?

As educators, we need to be looking at these trends, and then looking at them with our students and asking the same kinds of questions that we want to ask about using websites for research. This is certainly Internet literacy.

The academic side that wants to make a study of this likes to call this a meme (pronounced meem, not mem). Richard Dawkins came up with the term back in 1976 to mean a phenomenon that "refers to a replicator of cultural information that one mind transmits (verbally or by demonstration) to another mind." It is part of his book The Selfish Gene. He was using songs, catch-phrases, clothing fashions, as well as deities, theories, beliefs,habits, and dances as examples which propagate within a culture - all pre-Internet.

He also talked about how a meme propagates itself and compared it to the way a gene replicates with integrated cooperative sets called memeplexes. Since then some have likened it instead to natural selection with variation, mutation, competition, and inherited influences - and, of course, extinction, survival, and mutations.

Finally, I'm not ignoring the idea of using all of this in the marketing of a university.

Find out more:

Viral advertising

Consumer-Generated Media (CGM)

Richard Dawkins and memes


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