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How much can you trust buzz?

Critics can be so cruel. So Dave Balter, founder of the Boston-based marketing firm BzzAgent, thought it would be nice to have some nonpoisoned pens writing on his behalf when his book was published earlier this month. ''Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing" is Balter's first book, and he wanted to give it every possible advantage. The review from Publishers Weekly, posted prominently on Amazon.com, was a cast-iron pan. Grapevine's ''slapdash, 'admittedly nonscientific' analysis is backed by little more than enthusiasm, quotes from The Tipping Point and three years of BzzAgent anecdotes," PW wrote. ''Balter's gee-whiz, narcissistic writing voice won't help win converts, either."

But ''Grapevine" received a much warmer welcome from the amateur Amazon.com reviewers, who bestowed on the book an enthusiastic four stars (out of a possible five). It helps that many of the most glowing were written by foot soldiers in Balter's army of 117,000 BzzAgents -- volunteer product promoters who get free samples of new products. Two thousand of his buzz agents got an advance copy of Balter's tome.

In a world where authority is shifting from the elite few to the wired masses, from The New York Times Book Review to the constant reader's blog, is that so wrong?

BzzAgent and Tremor, a rival firm owned by Procter & Gamble, have both assembled networks of individuals who are willing to evaluate new products and services and help spread the word among friends, co-workers, and family. In Bzz-Agent's case, prospective members sign up on the company's website, and provide some background demographic information.

BzzAgent's clients then pay the firm to get access to particular clusters of these people, offering them a free sample, along with an information kit that describes the product's benefits. Balter says the firm is currently managing 300 ''live" buzz campaigns. The company has worked with clients such as Levi's Dockers, Anheuser-Busch, Cadbury-Schweppes, and the publishers of ''Freakonomics" and ''Eats, Shoots, and Leaves," both bestsellers. (The firm also works with some nonprofits on a pro bono basis, including WGBH and the Wang Center.)

Agents aren't paid for their work, but they can collect reward points by participating in campaigns, which are redeemable for goodies, such as an iPod. They're not obligated to be positive in what they say about a new coffee-maker or a business book, but they are expected to file a report with BzzAgent letting the firm know what they've been up to.

Balter says an agent might go into a supermarket and ask an employee whether they carry Hahn's Yogurt and Cream Cheese (a current client), and inform BzzAgent headquarters that the supermarket had ordered the product, for example, but it wasn't in yet.

Agents are supposed to disclose they're connected to BzzAgent. Part of the firm's code of conduct, Balter says, is that ''when buzzing others, you must first let them know that you're involved with BzzAgent."

Balter says that while BzzAgent uses its website to recruit and manage its network of agents, about 80 percent of their buzzing takes place in the offline world. That might mean, for instance, bringing a free sample of the new blueberry flavor of Hahn's Yogurt and Cream Cheese to a brunch, and talking it up.

''The other 20 percent may be posting something on a blog or on Amazon, or writing a review somewhere on the Web," Balter explains.

BzzAgent has displayed an impressive knack for garnering publicity for itself, as has Tremor. Fifty-person BzzAgent was the subject of a feature story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine last year, and has been covered by Newsweek, NPR, and Business 2.0. In a way, they've proven their ability to build buzz by pitching themselves so successfully.

''Everyone talks about it, so it becomes a story," says Andy Sernovitz, chief executive of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association in Chicago. He says that 43 percent of all marketers are planning some kind of word-of-mouth initiative, but not all of those will involve agencies like Bzz-Agent, Tremor, or M80, a Los Angeles firm that helped revive the animated TV show ''Family Guy." Some word-of-mouth campaigns may be as simple as handing out free samples of cheese in a grocery store.

But along with all the attention has come controversy, mostly over whether BzzAgent's volunteer promoters were being upfront about their connections.

Last month, a consumer advocacy group connected to Ralph Nader, Commercial Alert, wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into whether buzz marketing firms were ''deploying buzz marketers who fail to disclose that they have been enlisted to promote products."

Commercial Alert executive director Gary Ruskin said, ''People think they're talking to an ordinary person when they're talking to a shill. This is like telemarketing, but right to your face."

In May, one of BzzAgent's pro bono clients, a copyright reform group called Creative Commons, ceased working with the firm because of questions about disclosure.

And then came Balter's book. Balter relied on thousands of his agents to provide feedback on drafts of several chapters, and to react to cover designs and suggested titles. (The publisher rejected their favorite cover, which featured a bunch of grapes, but used a version of the subtitle they'd endorsed.) Two thousand agents got an advance copy of the tome.

Many of the 35 customer reviews posted to Amazon.com shortly after the book's publication came from BzzAgents who acknowledged their link to the firm in the text of their reviews. Among them was a short write-up titled ''awesome book," by one of Balter's buzz agents, who gave ''Grapevine" five stars:

''This is a great book, you cannot put it down once you start it. It really gives you good insight on how things travel by word of mouth. You don't really give much thought to some conversations you have with others. I am a bzzagent and am so glad that I am."

Last week, though, Balter was complaining about a negative, one-star customer review on Amazon from someone who hadn't read the book, but was griping about all the plugs from Balter's agents. Trashing the book just because several BzzAgent members had recommended it ''doesn't make sense," he said.

I was suspicious about some of the customers who gave ''Grapevine" a favorable write-up, but didn't mention any link to BzzAgent. Four of them, who gave the book between three and five stars, had also posted reviews on Amazon of ''Freak-onomics," a popular new economics book that was an earlier client of BzzAgent.

BzzAgent spokesman Joe Chernov checked for me, and discovered that three of these four reviewers were in fact part of the network. (The fourth he wasn't sure about.) He wrote via e-mail that that was ''completely unacceptable in our system," but also said that he thought BzzAgent was ''winning this battle" over disclosure. Balter, meanwhile, said these reviewers will be ''talked to."

Some people argue that what BzzAgent is doing is no different from handing out samples of a new brand of mints at a subway stop. Are the recipients of those mints obligated to disclose to their friends that their glowing endorsement is based on a free sample they received?

But since BzzAgent is building its business atop its word-of-mouth network, and encouraging agents to join that network by dangling rewards, I think it needs to get more serious about disclosure.

It's one thing to ask agents to be honest and open, but BzzAgent would avoid more bad publicity, and do well by its clients, if it gave its disclosure policy some teeth -- kicking agents out of the network when they fail to disclose their connection.

Even if that means Balter's new book might lose a half a star on Amazon.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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