Astroturfing isn’t just about grassroots political campaigns anymore.
It is being increasingly used by advertisers and PR professionals to promote their companies and products online under the guise of consumers. It creates rigged word of mouth marketing usually in favor of one organization.
Why is this a problem? Well for one, word of mouth marketing has proven to be the most effective way of persuading consumers for years, and social media has now made it even easier. Now anyone can create an account, gain friends or followers, and spread their messages. However, the person behind that tweet, status, or blog post may not actually be a real consumer. The entire profile or blog may in fact just be a well planned marketing campaign.
According to the Guardian online journalist Alex Wade in a recent article, the creation of a false persona online to support an opinion is called sockpuppeting. He cites the example of Orlando Figes, a well known Russian professor who created fake accounts to place negative comments on other historian’s works on Amazon.com. However, sockpuppeting doesn’t just happen at the individual level. The “Wal-Marting Across America” example from last week’s post shows corporate sockpuppeting.
Is astroturfing worth the risk? Keep in mind the 6 rules in the social media code of ethics presented by the Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft. According to this code, companies should be transparent and credible. Neither of which would apply if fake accounts to promote products and services are being created. Trust is one of the most important aspects in the corporate-consumer relationship, and according to an article on congress.org, it is just as easy to get caught with a fake twitter as it is to create one.
With new FCC and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regulations on social media coming into place this year, getting caught astroturfing can have even greater consequences than just loss of consumer trust. An article in New Media Age entitled Extension of ASA remit helps make social media safe for marketers,explains that online advertising will now be regulated in the same way as traditional advertising mediums. Astroturfing and flogging (or fake blogging) will not be tolerated. The FCC also will pursue cases in unfair or deceptive advertising practices online according to Information Today’s article Drafting Social Networking Policies.
Finally, it is also important to note that organizations can also be charged at a more local level. The New York attorney general received $300,000 in 2009 from a case brought against Lifestyle Lift when it was found out that the cosmetic surgery company was having employees write false testimonials online for the service.