Astroturfing: The Icky Side of Social Media Marketing

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11 Sep 2009


Photo by Mario Sixtus

It’s disingenuous. It’s dishonest. And, it’s everywhere.

It’s called “astroturfing”. Chances are, you’ve been exposed to it. And, if the folks behind it have done their jobs right, the chances are pretty good that you didn’t even know it.

Social media is powerful stuff. In its most basic form, it’s the high-tech equivalent of your best friend recommending Gap jeans or your next-door neighbor telling you that she never shops at XYZ grocery store anymore because the cashiers are rude.
The truth is, we’re all influenced by what our friends think. Most of us buy books or see films based on the recommendations of friends we trust. We’re probably more likely to try a new restaurant if a few people from work say the food’s good. And yes, if everybody jumped off a bridge . . .

Well, we’d probably at least think about it for a second.

But imagine if your friend was getting kickbacks from the Gap. If every time she plugged her favorite jeans, she got fifty bucks. Or if your neighbor was getting free groceries from XYZ grocery store’s competitors whenever she badmouthed the competition.

Ick, right?

That’s the difference. Legitimate social media (where consumers or groups of friends share feedback, make recommendations, rate products, etc.) is a way for all of us to share our favorite things and do some research before we make a decision. We can connect with people who like the same things we like, we can enter contests, and we can gripe if we’re not happy with a product or service.

Astroturfing, on the other hand, is what happens when companies (or political parties or special interest groups) fake it: They pay people to rate products they’ve never used or to post glowing reviews for services they’ve never received. Or to show up at meetings or protests or debates and voice opinions that aren’t really theirs.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with voicing your opinion. I don’t have any moral qualms about advertising or trying to convince a customer to buy your product. I love when I hear about a fun, creative social media campaign.

But, using social media to create a false buzz about your product?

Like I said. Ick.

Want to see some good (or, I guess, bad) examples of astroturfing? Check these out:
Fake iPhone app reviews
Comcast hires “customers” to say nice things on sports-related message boards
• My favorite: A plastic surgery company gets caught instructing employees to post fake positive feedback. Heh, get it? Fake reviews from a company that makes fake . . . well, you get the idea.

So, what’s your take on astroturfing? Know of any good examples? We love (real) comments!

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September 22, 2009

They say that some press is better than no press but in the age of social media, like you say, this is not really applicable. I know at feedback for restaurants is monitored to ensure no fake posting or less than honest responses.


Andrew Zar

September 22, 2009

Disturbing practice. Ick is almost too good a word! I have to believe that, in the big picture, companies using this tactic do worse than if they didn't. When a business becomes known for this type of practice, you lose some respect that is nearly impossible to get back - so, hopefully, when it all shakes out, karma wins.



September 23, 2009

Restaurant Zoon and Andrew Zar -- yes very disturbing! Similar to this practice, I had a guy call me yesterday and with a straight face ask me to write testimonials for 150 websites, each for a different product. I asked where he was getting the testimonials. He said, "Well, they're...freehand." I said "So, you mean you're making them up." He said, "Well, yeah." Like that was the most normal thing in the world. I told him I didn't think we'd be a good match -- it was the most polite thing I could think to say. It was all I could do not to go off on a lecture on morality. I really just couldn't believe he obviously thought there was nothing wrong with this practice.



September 23, 2009

I agree, Wintress -- it's amazing to me that anyone sees this is a legitimate practice -- and, I'm soooo glad we didn't get "Mr. Freehand" as a new client :) Andrew, I do hope that there's some sort of karmic payback in the end . . . some of these fake-grassroots campaigns do get exposed, and I think that companies who get caught faking it will suffer some backlash. I mean, people don't like to be lied to. The thing that always gets me is how organized some of these campaigns are. In case anyone's interested, The New Yorker did a piece a couple of years back on Wal-Mart, corporate image, and -- of course -- astroturfing. It's kinda long, but I thought it was fascinating.


Have You Ever Heard of Astroturfing | Park Avenue Ideas

November 3, 2011

[...] a bad way of creating awareness or advertising a new product that’s used by some companies.  Astroturfing simply means making the people falsely believe that a particular product has already a [...]


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