If there’s a book vaguely related to Internet-related business staring at me at the library, I’ll borrow it. Or, in the other case below, I got it for free by buying a box of Clif Bars.

Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing by David Balter and John Butman

A gassy, overlong sell job by the “principal” of a company with the annoying name of BzzAgent (“I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat”), which seems to specialize in recruiting people to generate word-of-mouth marketing for free. I kept thinking of Faith Popcorn, which is not the sort of association these guys want, let me tell you that. (F. Popcorn, by the way, is a textbook case of when it’s imperative to resist an author’s insistence that she read her own book on the audiotape version.)

Vast swaths of these volunteers’ writings are excerpted in the book, copyrights for which are transferred from participants in return, from what I can see, for nothing. Only on the Web will people allow their legal rights to be extorted at no cost. BzzAgent hereby joins a select list of notorious copyright arseholes.

You’re also thinking: Is their site a Failed (Re)design? Of course it is, complete with tables for layout and unstoppable flyout menus. Those, along with copyright expropriation, are decidedly 20th-century concepts. Perhaps David Balter is rather less au courant than he thinks.

I have complaints about the typography (using Granjon and Legacy Sans; “designed by Joe Rutt”), with its REPEATED use of BALD CAPITALS for EMPHASIS. I produce better type on this personal Web site.

The word “incentivizing” is used. A brand of batteries is unironically rendered as Energizer®e²®. The authors take the conceit of “BzzAgent” so far as to write this sentence, again unironically: “BzzAgents who had been accepted for a campaign… decided not to wait for their BzzKits to arrive before they started Bzzing.” Bzz off.

To their credit, the authors document viral marketing campaigns that fail (like Oprah’s giving everyone in a studio audience a lemon of a car that itself has a typographically tricky name, the Pontiac G6). He’s quite vicious to Manoj Night Shyamalan and the Shyam of a “documentary” about him. (I welcome such attacks. An Indo-American who couldn’t possibly act whiter, Shyamalan outjews Hollywood’s Jews and outgays its gays when it comes selling out his own people.)

I also liked the chapter entitled “The Myth of the Influentials,” which explains why loyal customers are immune to sell jobs. (They’re already sold.) There are some lessons that Weblog marketers may learn here, though they are indirect and seem to be a case of the wrong people’s Internets (Technorati may be hot among Web developers, but “real” people like MySpace).

Balter and Butman completely flub a comparison of Netflix and the Segway; in cases like these, business-book authors need to be honest and admit that nothing is a surefire hit and no product or service is guaranteed to succeed, irrespective of press coverage.

I was surprised to read about Patagonia’s experience with its no-quibble guarantee. (I like their shit – I like all the high-end shit and nearly cried when Arcteryx got sold to Adidas – but the prices are unjustifiable.)

Even though some people seemed to be abusing the guarantee by returning loads of merchandise or seeking replacement of stuff they had just whacked the bejesus out of, it didn’t matter. Even the abusers were generating word-of-mouth that was far more valuable than the cost of replacing the clothes. Of course, Patagonia had no way of quantifying this.

Coverage of the Burger King Subservient Chicken gimmick was faint of heart. It reflects these marketers’ unshakable urge never to say anything that might offend a possible client, an urge seemingly at odds with the book’s unending paeans to truth, justice, and honest word-of-mouth. “I tried to make [the chicken] vomit, but for some reason the programmers hadn’t included that particular capability”: No, they specifically left it out, along with other obvious commands like “Go vegan” and “Renounce factory farming.” Yet the online commercial in which a Ford sunroof decapitates a cat is discussed as having “risked offending the legions of cat-loving car owners” – try reading that phrase quickly – “and dozens of animal-activist groups such as PETA.”

Another car commercial, the Volkswagen Polo exploding terrorist, is handled with delicacy rather than what was actually necessary, vociferous and unreserved denunciation.

The same applies to a straight-faced discussion of using WITH rather than AT marketing (sic) for U.S. military recruiters. “In 2005, the armed forces were having trouble attracting new recruits for many reasons, including the possibility of prolonged and hazardous service in Iraq.” Indeed: These kids are not being stubbornly immune to marketing messages that an ad agency promised would work; they’re making a rational choice about preservation of life and limb. It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure – plus it’s a way to cut your life short, lose a leg, acquire permanent brain injury or PTSD, and live with the ethical repercussions of homicide for the rest of your life. Won’t your missus love that?

Indeed, let’s draft them, too: “What if wives and kids of soldiers” – but not, of course, gay and lesbian spouses – “had a voice? What if all aspects of military service could be discussed?” Then you wouldn’t have marketing, because you’d be exposing the truth, which manifestly is not what “marketing” does. At that point not even Cletus and Brandine would sign up to go to war. Get a fucking grip, please.

The book simply is not effective at dissuading me that marketing is, at root, pernicious, and that absolutely any marketing attempt can be (self-)justified in some way, if only to preserve the marketer’s own psychological integrity. I do not want word-of-mouth marketing any more than I want in-your-face marketing like megabins.

Anybody who signs up for this hokum is not my kind of person. Most of the time I’m OK letting u b u, but I draw the line at BzzAgents.

Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar (a title so pretentious it needs a chain of subtitles) by Gary Erickson and Lois Lorentzen

Clif Bars, the curiously cookie-like “energy bars,” are an important adjunct to my diet. (Surely no company has so aptly used Eagle Bold in its packaging.) They’re all vegan; they’re all at least edible (the plainer flavours are less sweet; I still miss Apricot, apparently unavailable in Canada); they’re generally moist and succulent unlike the spray-coated drywall the competition sells; and they keep me from having a protein crash, something that’s affected me since my teenage years. I bring a large cache of Clif Bars with me to foreign countries (also soy milk). I came up with a list of Clif Bars of the future.

I’m a serious fan. I must be, because the store gave me a copy of this hardcover book for free. It attempts to combine the school-of-hard-knocks business lessons of starting a company in your garage (an option available only in warm climates) with the life lessons learned from endurance bicycling, sometimes across harsh mountain terrain.

Clif Bar cofounder Erickson and his cowriter try mightily to link those threads together, but it doesn’t work. The book seems padded, and not because of the wide-open spaces in the form of the book. The graphic design is great – pages look exciting and lively at arm’s length – while the typography is lousy. With blank lines between unindented paragraphs, excess leading, missing ligatures, fake small caps, and inconsistent use of spot colour (check the page headers at the outboard edges), the whole thing looks like a Microsoft Word printout.

I was rather concerned at the authors’ reticence to name Erickson’s original business partner, described as such or as “partner” 25 times (excluding back matter and index) but listed by name only 20 times and by full name exactly once. She is, in fact, Lisa Thomas, an out lesbian. Erickson finally gets around to admitting he gave Thomas excess equity (50%), yet he spends too much time whining about Thomas’s attempts to exercise her right to cash out when she felt like it. That’s showbiz, and it’s obvious from the book that only one partner had actual business sense. Erickson, a kind-hearted idealist perennially struggling to find his way, was mismatched with Thomas, a no-nonsense businesswoman with balls of steel.

I do, however, have a great deal of sympathy for, and interest in, his attempts to fend off takeover bids. His description of the industrial psychology involved will be familiar to anyone who’s ever had Apple, Google, Microsoft, or some other “desirable” hight-tech firm come courting:

The thought of another partner made me ill [a bit de trop, Gary? – Ed.], yet… I entered into negotiations with a venture-capital group. The process felt eerily similar to the process of selling the company. Again it began with the soft sell: “This is an amazing company. We really love you. We can help you grow. We want to invest in Clif Bar.” […T]he venture-capital group demanded an excessive level of management control.

Remember, you don’t have to sell out; there is no rule that states that your business must indefinitely expand. Don’t let hubris or peer pressure blind you to the fact that you can always say no.

Erickson spends a lot of time discussing organic ingredients, but not vegetarianism. His interest in design is apparent, particularly in his use of CAD to develop an irregular stamping die so that each bar looks slightly different. And I never knew how important it was to set up a succession plan if you own your business.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.07.22 16:00. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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