By JULIE BOSMAN
AS advertising conferences go, the take-home message at the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association meeting was a little unusual: Don't advertise.
But at the conference, held here last Thursday and Friday, more than 450 advertising and marketing professionals listened to speakers tell them how to reach customers using some alternatives to traditional advertising, like viral and buzz marketing, that are becoming increasingly popular within the industry.
The conference was called "Word-of-Mouth Basic Training," and it was aimed at teaching attendees how to tap into the power of word of mouth, an ancient form of communication that many marketers have updated by using new technology like blogs, podcasting and online message boards.
At times, the conference could have been mistaken for a religious convention. Among Friday's offerings were sessions titled "Turning Customers Into Evangelists," "Word of Mouth in Faith-Based Markets" and "How to Create Brand Converts." (Later that afternoon, two speakers explained how to "Bring Brands Back from the Dead.")
Speakers with titles like "marketing medic" or "manager of influencer marketing" extolled the effectiveness of nontraditional tactics in an industry that has all but declared the 30-second TV commercial obsolete.
There were many cautionary lessons in what not to do. Years ago, marketers began randomly pitching products to teenagers who appeared to be popular, in the hope that the trendsetters would pass the information to others and create excitement about the product.
That practice has become much more sophisticated, said Jamie Tedford, the senior vice president for marketing and media innovation at Arnold Worldwide in Boston, part of the Arnold Worldwide Partners unit of Havas.
"The search for the cool kids, the kind of cool hunting that we all used to be a part of - it's just not that cool anymore," Mr. Tedford said.
Marketers are now reaching out to "evangelists," who are already die-hard fans of a brand, and persuading them to spread the word through their existing social networks.
"A lot of our evangelists are evangelists because they simply love the product," said Laurie Weisberg, a senior vice president of Informative, a word-of-mouth marketing firm. "They don't need to be rewarded with discounts or anything like that."
Loosely borrowing from Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book "The Tipping Point," Ms. Weisberg lectured on the importance of using "influencers," or people who have large social networks and are good communicators, and "promoters," people who talk positively about a brand.
Word-of-mouth marketing makes it easier for people to do something they already do: share knowledge about new products so they can feel more important, said George Silverman, the author of "The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing."
"People engage in word of mouth because they want to look good," Mr. Silverman said. "Word of mouth is the most honest advertising medium there is. People don't want to hurt their friends and family and colleagues with bad information."
The importance of ethics and full disclosure was also a recurrent theme at the conference, as speakers repeatedly warned attendees not to misrepresent themselves when, for instance, pitching a product on an online message board. In other words, do not try to be stealthy, said Robert Ricci, the director of Web relations for Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm that is part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
"If you're working on a video game, and you go onto a video gamer's blog, let your contacts know that you are an employee of said company," Mr. Ricci said while leading a session titled "How to Work with Bloggers and Communities, the Ethical Way." "Always let them know what your intentions are up front."
But replacing traditional advertising with word-of-mouth and viral marketing is an outlandish notion for most companies. A session devoted to integrating word-of-mouth marketing with traditional advertising drew a crowd, but the main lesson seemed to be how to persuade a C-list celebrity to market your product free. (In this case, the agency for Downy, the fabric softener from Procter & Gamble, enlisted Delilah Luke, a radio D.J., to rave about new Downy Wrinkle Releaser on the air.)
Some word-of-mouth firms are hired as a small part of a company's complete publicity campaign, which includes traditional print and television advertising. Bob Hutchins, the owner of BuzzPlant, a marketing firm in Franklin, Tenn., was hired to help promote "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to Christian markets.
"Marketing to a Christian audience is no different than any other audience - just that they exercise choice based on a value system," Mr. Hutchins said, adding: "Once the faith-based community can get behind something and they believe in it, they will pass it along. The key to success to both of those movies was going to the gatekeepers."
The gatekeepers, in this case, were volunteers and other "field agents" who distributed promotions for the movies at church events, Bible study groups and youth organizations. (He said their compensation was often as minor as free movie passes.)
As the conference concluded, some attendees sounded almost awestruck about the possibilities of word-of-mouth marketing. "When you do word of mouth, you're finding out exactly what your customers are saying," said Parrish Johnson, the chief executive of Grapevine Marketing, a marketing and promotions firm in Atlanta. "That's what's scary."