Does social media make astroturfing acceptable?

In light of Samsung's fines for paying people to post negative comments about competitors, we ask Australian and international marketing experts and CMOs for their views on the practice of astroturfing in the digital age

News that Samsung was fined $US340,000 in Taiwan after paying people to post negative comments about competitors on online user forums is definitely not the first case of astroturfing to occur, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

But it did make the team here at CMO think: Has the rise of digital marketing and social media as a communications and promotional channel actually made these types of covert tactics more acceptable? And where should marketers draw the line when it comes to steering public commentary around their products and services?

‘Astroturfing’ as a term describes brands or companies engaging in creating a positive impression around an issue, their products or services by paying people to fake support. It’s the opposite of genuine, grassroots support. Although the term can refer to activities undertaken offline, such as a counterfeit letter to the editor or funding a focus group, it has gained prominence in the Internet age, where communication is multi-faceted and there are more ways than ever to influence opinion.

Karen Ganschow, head of customer relationship marketing and digital, Australian Financial Services and chair of ADMA, said marketers should be putting their efforts into customer engagement, rather than focus on their competitors.

“Marketers should be spending their time being fanatically close to the customer imperatives rather than being seen to undermine their competition,” she told CMO. “The winner will be the brand that services its customer the best, not who can disparage others.”

Director of marketing and digital at Auto & General, Jonathan Kerr, wasn’t averse to positioning a brand against competitors, but called on marketers to always put their name to such comparisons. “No discussion, that is the line in the sand,” he claimed.

“It’s disappointing to see astroturfing being used, but I also believe most consumers can spot it when they read it. In fact there is so much of it out there now that I think consumers apply something of a filter when they read any comment either too negative or too positive.”

For Ted Rubin, former chief social marketing officer at Collective Bias and a leading social marketing strategist and consultant, the industry shouldn’t have to ask whether astroturfing is ethical or not.

“It is simply inappropriate, unauthentic and a foolish path to follow,” he said. “In this day and age, where connection and sharing is a click away, you risk way to much trying to game the system. Personally it has never been an option in my marketing playbook, but even for those who think it is OK, it is simply too easy to expose today.

“Eventually you get found out, very often sooner rather than later, and you do damage to your brand. Your brand/business is what you do; your reputation is what people remember and share.”

Kerr believed the rise of digital and social media has made it easier to resort to negative tactics such as astroturfing and negative SEO attacks. “But in my book at an ethical level, an anonymous attack by any means is just as unethical as it has always been,” he said.

“I may sound naive but I trust that putting all of our resources behind smart work, great execution, award winning products and customer service should win the day.”

Rubin also admitted digital avenues are raising the desire to figure out short-cuts, attributing this to the fact that social media marketing is hard work and raising the bar for so many.

“Also there is the fear of what people ‘really’ think, so now that all those opinions are out there some feel compelled to tip the scale themselves,” he said. “This is especially true of agencies and PR firms, who are so used to shaping and controlling the message.”

While the rise of social media communication has lifted the opportunity for more underhand tactics such as astroturfing, Ganschow said this shouldn’t be an excuse to use them.

“I feel customers see through this and in fact the rise of social media puts all brands and businesses on note to deliver a great proposition with authenticity,” she said. “The biggest judge of a brand’s performance is less the competition but the customer’s rating of the business offering.”

Taking responsibility

Despite these comments, however, astroturfing continues to be a reality worldwide. The most recent case against Samsung is actually the second time the company has been found paying for positive reviews of its own products, and negative stories about competitors. First discovered in April, the company was again pulled up in August for trying to pay developers to promote an app development competition.

A similar case unfolded in New York in September, where 19 reputation management, SEO and client firms were found guilty of posting fake reviews on consumer-review websites and fined between $2500 and $100,000 for doing so.

Another example is Canada-based marketing agency, Morrow Communications, which in 2009 admitted to creating a blog to promote the use of bicycles in Montreal that was faked as part of a marketing campaign.

So what can the marketing industry as a whole do to quash these practices?

All of our respondents said the first step has to be made by the brand and individual. “It is not an industry question in my eyes, but a personal decision by each marketer and the brands they represent,” Rubin said.

“Be authentic, don’t just ACT it. This might seem obvious, but authenticity is on the verge of becoming just another buzzword in social media and marketing in general. True authenticity, not just using that word often in your tweets and posts, will set your brand [product or personal] apart in today’s highly competitive market.”

Kerr suggested the marketing industry is too broad and international to do anything about it as a collective, and again put the spotlight on those engaging in such activities.

“We are starting to see decent websites deploying algorithms to spot and prevent fake reviews and Google is doing its best to eliminate the impact of negative SEO attacks. I hope we see more initiatives like those,” he said.

“In the end, we have libel laws in place to deal with it. Cases such as the Samsung fine and the New York State Investigation [into fake online reviews] are what is needed to make marketers think twice before they risk their brands reputation by spending some of their marketing budget on such activities.”

Ganschow argued astroturfing will ultimately do more harm than good for the brand in question. “I would hope proud brand marketers would rise above and focus on the customer imperative,” she added.

- With additional reporting from Jon Gold at Network World .

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO Australia conversation on LinkedIn: CMO Australia, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia

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