Buzz -- Is Yours Good or Bad?
by Mary Beth Guard

Meet the "Customer from Hell," learn how anti-domains are being used to damage reputations, and find out how some companies are enhancing their reputation with the Net, while others are feeling the Internet's heat.

Buzz. Buzz causes stock prices to go up or down, depending upon whether it's good or bad. It increases curiosity and drives traffic to Web sites. In the world of e-commerce, buzz sells. And in the world of banking, it can attract, or repel, customers.

Word of mouth builds buzz like nothing else. In pre-Net times, word of mouth used to mean one friend telling something to another. Although it was never a terribly efficient means for spreading the word -- good or bad -- about a product or service, it was nonetheless powerful because the source had credibility with the recipient. We tend to put more faith in the opinion of a colleague than we do in the exhortations of an anonymous pitchman.

You've heard the old saying that a dissatisfied customer will tell umpteen others. (I've heard numbers ranging from five to nine.) With the Net as a soap box, an unhappy customer can blow the old numbers away.

Now that e-mail and the Web have become ubiquitous, the change in the speed with which word of mouth communications travel is much like the change from impulse power to warp speed on the Starship Enterprise. The difference is breathtaking. With less time and energy than it used to take to convey information one-to-one, a message can now be transmitted, virtually cost-free and instantaneously, to an enormous group of people. And with a simple Web site, an individual can post a billboard in cyberspace that can be seen by the world.

What does this mean for banks and other businesses? Marketing dreams -- and marketing nightmares. Witness two ambitious online companies who are counting on excited Net users to make them high profile. Set to launch soon, exit23b hopes to become a favorite source for electronics, interactive games, music & video and more. I hear you yawning, but wait a minute. To build the buzz and create excitement, the company is giving away one hundred thousand shares of its pre-IPO stock, split between ten winners. If you had been one of the first to visit its Web site and input your name, e-mail address, and the name of the person who referred you, you could have a chance to win. [And, in the process, the company developed a robust list of e-mail addresses of potential customers to send a site launch announcement to!] Referring others got your name entered again, once for each referral. Excited surfers, believing this could be "the next big thing," quickly spread the word.

E-Compare Corp. goes one better. If you had been one of the first 50,000 customers to register, the company would send you 10 free shares of its stock. No winning necessary. You simply had to act quickly. While there to register, surfers see what E-Compare offers, a search engine that compares prices for books and other products across a group of online merchants.

Ploys like these get people talking. They create positive buzz. The Net can also be used to wreak havoc on a company's image, as Chase Manhattan Bank has learned. Recently, a disgruntled Chase customer spent a few bucks to register two domains, and, and invited the world to read about his displeasure with the banking behemoth. This new cyberterrorism has led some companies to take preventive measures, registering what are referred to as anti-domains, to keep them out of the hands of mischief-makers. Go to WhoIs, and do a search for yourself. You'll find that G.E. owns the domain; Charles Schwab & Co. owns You'll find registrations for a host of other anti-domains, from to and While some have undoubtedly been registered by representatives on behalf of the companies whose reputations they could tarnish, others are being held by those who intend to use them in destructive ways.

One person finds the site and tells five others. E-mails with the Web address fly across the Net. Click, click, click. (Bad buzz.) The endless combinations of disparaging terms make this a tough war to win. One thing's for sure: satisfying customers becomes more important than ever before. It's simply too easy and too cheap for a dissatisfied customer to express his displeasure to the universe. Can the companies make a case that this constitutes trademark dilution or trademark infringement? Hard to say.

Meet Bruce Lightner from La Jolla, California, the self-described "customer from hell." After a clerical error apparently resulted in an ATM deposit being recorded as a withdrawal, Lightner decided to make his deposits in person to an employee of the bank. When Bank of America changed its procedure for verifying the identity of customers cashing checks or performing split deposits, Mr. Lightner didn't take kindly to the change. Not only did he insist upon a deviation from the procedure for his transactions, he decided to broadcast his displeasure with the bank to the world at large via a Web site he titled Bruce Lightner vs. The Bank of America (The Customer from Hell). Ouch. Starting to get the picture?

Smart companies are staying tuned in, watching every development, keeping their eyes on the competition, learning what their customers expect and want and delivering it. And then there are the others . . .

What are you doing to create excitement about your company? What are you doing to avoid the kind of customer irritation that leads to anti-domains and negative Web sites? Times have changed. The way financial institutions enhance -- and protect -- their reputation has changed, too.

Copyright, 1999, Thomson Financial Publishing.

First published on -- 4/05/99