Astroturfing & Disclosure: Where Do You Draw the Line?

As more businesses start peppering their marketing plans with social media projects, activities that previously were reserved for the geeky early adopters are now coming under scrutiny when used for commercial endeavours.

astroturf-belkinWith all this new media growth, there’s no clear rule book yet. We’re writing it as we go, and just like the Bible, there are an awful lot of different interpretations of the same guidelines.

Certain aspects of blogging and online brand identity are seeing their limits pushed by certain brands lately…

Belkin, the computer peripherals manufacturer, was caught red-handed recently when The Daily Background Blog uncovered that a Belkin employee used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and similar services to solicit paid reviews. An anonymous tip-off from a Belkin staff member seemed to confirm this wasn’t a one-off either.

Belkin apologised publicly for the actions of its employee, but “Is that enough?” asks The Responsible Marketing Blog.

The above is a clear case of astroturfing, but rarely is the line quite so clearly drawn into the fake plastic grass.

Before I go any further, let me pause and let Wikipedia explain the concept of Astroturfing:

Astroturfing is a word in American English describing formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf.

Back when I worked for Active Hotels, we prided ourselves in having a hotel review system that was much more fool proof than average; only guests that had stayed at the hotel, paid for their stay & been confirmed by the hotel would be able to leave a review. The site was engineered to discourage astroturfing on the part of overzealous hotel managers – while it didn’t stop them, each attempt would cost them a commission, which in most cases was enough of a deterrent. Trip Advisor couldn’t exactly say the same of their reviews. Ethically, again the line is fairly clear; you haven’t stayed, you shouldn’t make up a review about a hotel. Still with me?

Via Simon Collister, I then I found a blurry line, one written by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (who often strike me as not “getting” the online world at all):

“[CIPR] Members’ use of social media must be transparent, and they must make extra effort to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. … In this regard, members should be aware that ‘ghosting’ a blog is illegal”

Woah, hold your horses there, Georgie! Surely, their definition of a ghost blog is different to mine then? A ghost blogger, in my experience, writes on behalf of the CEO, politician or other high-profile person, who may have called the PR team from across the country to give an outline of what they wants to say, letting them find the exact words.

Marketing teams are used to committee-written press releases, so blog entries often get the same treatment. Circulating between the marketing team, the CEO and the legal time a few times in a three-way table tennis match, the watered-down, reviewed entry gets posted. It may not be the most genuine method of writing, but it certainly isn’t something I’d consider illegal.

I suspect that what they refer to as ghost blogging is in fact the above-described astroturfing, which deserves a long stay on the naughty step and a spank to the bottom (not in a good way!)

How does this scenario (not the bottom spanking, the ghost writing for the CEO one), and every other one in between, fit in alongside all other transparency issues encountered online?

It’s not the first time I bring up my issues with non-disclosure & dodgy marketing practices, but as social media becomes a more mainstream interest for marketing bods of all walks of life, I truly hope that we’ll all take a few moments to think about the opportunities available to us. If organisations spent as much on building positive branding and community relations with their audiences as they do on being snake oil salesmen equipped with smoke and mirrors, the relationships could have a far longer shelf life.

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