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Flogging & Astroturfing isn’t wrong, it’s advertising.

August 19th, 2008 · 27 Comments

BLUF: Last weeks post highlighted a Fake Blogger (Flogger) and the comments following the post illustrated the emotion attached to this issue by many in the industry.  But in my research for this post, I’ve reached a surprising epiphany- Flogging & Astroturfing isn’t wrong, it’s advertising.

The Epiphany

Flogging and Astroturfing aren’t inherently wrong, or evil.  They are just a form of advertising that we aren’t familiar with, yet. The reason so many in Social Media react so strongly is that we’ve not built up our defenses to this form of advertising.  We can’t see it coming, so when it’s finally discovered we are chagrined, dismayed, betrayed, and feeling foolish.  And our reaction to that is often anger.

What is the difference between these types of advertising:

  • The Radio DJ who talks about how much they love the local hot spot.
  • The Magazine Advertorial which is almost indistinguishable from the content.  So much so in fact that it’s wrapped in a box labeled “Advertisement” just so you can tell.
  • The audience of the TV infomercial who goes crazy for the latest kitchen gadget.
  • The Facebook friend who tells everyone they use this brand of lipstick, or deodorant, or blogging software?
  • The blogger who extols the virtues of the medicines they take.
  • The “housewife” or “construction worker” who loves the new Ford or Cadillac on a TV commercial.

They are all deceptive ads designed to bypass our learned defenses and gain our attention to deliver their message.   These ads aren’t deceptive to fool you, they are deceptive to fool your defenses.  They are simply trying to get noticed.

The reason so many in social media have an aversion to Flogging and Astroturfing as that we are upset when we feel deceived.  We feel like we’ve been foolish.  Taken advantage of.  Betrayed.  But the real reason is that we didn’t see it coming.

The Remedy- we need cues for these ads.

Most importantly we haven’t developed the cues to inform us “Hey this is an ad.”  Because it’s all about perception, and if I perceive that it’s an ad I’m not going to feel betrayed, deceived or fooled.  And the Advertiser won’t suffer any of the blowback, repercussions, anger, and frustration of the community at large.

What we as Social Media Mavens need to do are help the industry develop the mechanisms that can indicate to the casual observer “Hey this blog comment- this twitter message is really an ad!”

Because when you know what’s coming you won’t be fooled into letting down your defenses.  Then it can’t hurt you and you won’t be angry.

What are you going to do about it?

First, I’m a lousy poker player, and a lousy liar and actor.  Therefore you won’t be seeing me creating any Flogs or Astroturfing anytime soon.  And I think there are still some very big mine fields out there for the field to negotiate, (like medical, pharmaceuticals, and lifestyle issues).  But the leaders and strategists in the field need to think about how we can help our customers create these ads.  All of this talk about transparency and honesty and openness is useless without some concrete guidelines on how to deliver realistic ads that work in the space.

Over the next several weeks I will outline several methods and techniques Marketers can use to create Flogs, Astroturf and other Personna Based Marketing initiatives without raising the ire of the marketplace.

Tanks for reading,

Chris

NOTE: Jonathan Trenn and I have been discussing this subject for several days.  His take on it can be found in this excellent article: http://marketingconversation.com/2008/08/19/what-chris-kieffs-wife-can-tell-us/

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27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Woodruff // Aug 19, 2008 at 6:46 am

    Hot topic, Chris, and it needs to be broached and discussed. As you and I talked about over the phone, a lot of this boils down to disclosure. If I know that something is commercial in nature, and I choose to interact with it, then all is well. And if I have the choice to close it off, then all is well. It’s when something pretends to be one thing (in a milieu where authenticity is assumed), but proves to be fake, that there is blowback. We don’t assume authenticity in most traditional mediums where advertising occurs, but the social media environment is built on it. It will be interesting to see how commercial speech gets incorporated into this realm with full disclosure, and with respect for the way things operate here.

  • 2 Scott Monty // Aug 19, 2008 at 8:14 am

    I agree – on the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using these methods in social media. The problem is the bait-and-switch. I like to know what I’m getting into, and if I know upfront that it’s a brand that’s going to share promotional material (like @DellOutlets on Twitter), I have no problem with that. But I don’t like being deceived or lied to.

    When I’m watching an ad on TV, I know I’m watching an ad. In social media, we just need ways to be more obvious about it.

  • 3 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 8:19 am

    Steve & Scott,

    What we need to do is find the way to deliver the cues so people know what’s an ad and what’s not. That will solve the problem.

    Chris

  • 4 Alanna // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:18 am

    What about the person who comments just to drive traffic to their blog, even fi they are a real blogger? Or the consultant who writes a blog to create a perception they’re an expert? Or Penelope Trunk’s? Entre existence?

    I think that there are a lot of shades of grey when it comes to authenticity.

  • 5 Leigh Duncan-Durst // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:23 am

    I agree with Steve and Scott… in the era where the word “friend” has become a verb and not necessarily a state of being, it’s important for people to have full disclosure up front. This is especially true in media channels that emphasize “social” and relationship-driven dialog.

    I think there’s a certain “nettiquette” forming in these new channels related to social media and the cues, language and protocols are being developed as we learn now NOT to offend people.

    Leigh

  • 6 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Alanna & Leigh,

    I completely agree. There are many gray areas, and the cues and protocols need to be created. That’s what I’m advocating, that we develop these cues so we can get on with the business of Social Networking.

    Chris

  • 7 Marc Meyer // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:33 am

    Isn’t this really about trust? If I subscribe to someone’s blog for instance, and that person says that I should read this, or check out that. My first reaction is that, it is that person’s opinion and because I trust their opinion, it’s worth my time to check it out.

    The problem may arise when that person sells out and doesn’t let us know. I may still trust their opinion but in the end, I think I have to know who they are sleeping with and who they are not.

    “I’m not a doctor but I play one on television” and for that reason you should buy this product…because you trust me…

    So the cue might be…<<<here comes the shameless plug….

    I’m down with that. The rub might happen when the spokesperson or advertising vehicle endorses a notsogood product- but it was cash they couldn’t turn down. Talk about losing street-cred fast! When it comes to getting paid, I imagine it might be a risk we’re all willing to take, or is it?

  • 8 Alanna // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Just wanted to apologize for all the typos in my last comment. I should never comment when uncaffeinated.

  • 9 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Marc,

    That’s a slightly different issue- endorsements. I’m talking about creating personna’s exclusively for the purpose of advertising.

    Jonathan Trenn said this very well in his blog post curiously about my wife (sort of): http://marketingconversation.com/2008/08/19/what-chris-kieffs-wife-can-tell-us/

  • 10 stacyvanwickler // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:42 am

    What’s wrong with these fakers is not that they are deceptive. It is that they are not using truly social media. As supposed professionals, they’re not understanding this new force, at all.

    Marketing has a place in our world–we let it into every corner of our worlds so now we must live with it. But what has me so excited about social media is that we are not just “joining” the monster of marketing, but we are beating it, too.

    We the people are fast-becoming the most influential marketing medium ever. As such, proper social marketing takes time — to be honest, gain trust, make friends, retweet.

    So when my online friend tells me (honestly) he loves his Adidas/Toyota/Quaker Oats, I’m listening. Or when an online contact seeks advice about a purchase and a flood of reply tweets or comments sends him to a number of (branded) solutions, THAT is social media. That is how it should be used. But that level of trust takes time and far more finesse.

    These cheap tactics are just old ad hacks (or clueless newbies) trying to get into the social game and failing, miserably and (fortunately) publicly.

  • 11 Kerry Gaffney // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:47 am

    I’m really rather confused.

    Setting aside the arguments for and against the evilness, or not, of flogs and astroturfing. If you make it clear that your flog or astroturf campaign is a paid for activity, i.e. advertising, then surely it is not actually a flog or astroturfning activity, it is actually an ad.

    And if it is just an ad, then surely the defences you mention are up and the activity is no more effective than traditional advertising?

    or did I miss something huge in there?

  • 12 Marc Meyer // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:50 am

    Chris I see what you’re saying. I think blending and blurring a bit, but I do think I’ll remain steadfast on the trust issue. But you’re right, the more info I have going in, the better I can determine how I choose to react.

  • 13 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Stacy,

    I’m just saying that we need to rethink our knee jerk reaction to Flogging and Astroturf.

    And there will be hacks and clueless newbies doing this just as there will be talented and well intentioned professionals. There is nothing wrong with bringing attention to a good valuable, fairly priced product. And with people living on Social Media platforms there is nothing wrong with advertising to them there. As long as they know which are ads and which aren’t.
    Chris

  • 14 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 9:55 am

    Kerry,

    See my last comment re: knee jerk reaction. Also read Jonathan Trenn’s excellent piece on my conversations with him: http://marketingconversation.com/2008/08/19/what-chris-kieffs-wife-can-tell-us/

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  • 16 Phillip Zannini // Aug 19, 2008 at 10:29 am

    Ok. I really gave this some thought and I’d like to respond here – but I had too much to say! (imagine…) so, here’s the full skinny of why this is just SO http://metrohair.blogspot.com/2008/08/its-not-social-media-its-spam.html

  • 17 Jonathan Trenn // Aug 19, 2008 at 10:36 am

    I guess where I disagree is the basis of all this. By definition (and granted, the definition was created by one of us at some point and it spread), a flog is a fake blog.

    To me, an adblog (there’s another new word) with obvious cues is not a flog. To me, a flog is something that’s inherently misrepresentative. And I see a clear difference.

    But I’m sure the ad exec or PR guy in that big office downtown will think differently. So what I think may not matter.

    That’s business.

  • 18 Kerry Gaffney // Aug 19, 2008 at 10:40 am

    @Chris

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with bring to people’s attention good products and every company has the right to advertise.

    And your wife is right too, flogs and astroturfing are just forms of advertising but they are unscrupulous forms that rely on the fact that people don’t think they are advertising to increase their impact.

    That is why its not the job of social mavens to “help the industry develop the mechanisms that can indicate to the casual observer “Hey this blog comment- this twitter message is really an ad!”. It’s their job to help educate readers so that they can tell a flog or fake poster for themselves and to call shenanigans whenever they see it in practice.

  • 19 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Kerry,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem as I see it is how to tell a faker (advertiser) from a deceiver.

    A deceiver as ill intent- to trick you into doing something. Where a faker (advertiser) just wants to get a little of your attention.

    Chris

  • 20 Jim McGee // Aug 19, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Perhaps it is my cynicism getting the best of me. You seem to assume that marketers would want to signal that they are advertising and marketing to you. I’m not so confident. Sure, I’d be happy if I had more reliable clues/cues to differentiate flogs/blogs and astroturf/grassroots. I would contend that flogs/astroturf are designed intentionally to mislead (as were infomercials in their earlier days). If we somehow regulate/self-regulate, shortly thereafter we will see the next round of efforts to get past my defenses.

  • 21 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Ken,

    I don’t think it’s going to be possible to teach people how to tell fake from real. There are too many talented people in Advertising who are trying to too hard, with too much money to spend on it.

    Chris

  • 22 Chris Kieff // Aug 19, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Jim,

    Upon further reflection- I think that marketers today would want to signal their intentions, to avoid the knee jerk reaction they get for flogging now.

    Perhaps in a few years after the defenses are constructed the signals will go away…
    Chris

  • 23 Kerry Gaffney // Aug 19, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Chris,

    Forgive me for being a cynical brit here but are adverstisers also trying to get a little of my cash as well as my attention? I can’t really see the difference between faking and decieving tbh

  • 24 Chris Parente // Aug 19, 2008 at 11:23 am

    A few comments that come to mind. My perspective comes from using 2.0 media to support public relations objectives of clients in b2b and b2g. Exec blogging, blogging relations, community development.

    1. Full disclosure, full transparency. If I mention a client in my blog, they are identified as such. If I make a comment in a blog on an issue that touches a client, I id myself. Clients write their own copy, we don’t ghostwrite.
    2. There are already ways to place ads in blogs
    3. Deception angers people — no epiphany there. When I was in American U program we were taught about “ethical persuasion” being the goal
    4. Being cynical about something doesn’t equate to actually knowing anything about it — see David Letterman
    5. I just blogged about Pandora and others social networks seeming to not have a business model, but fake blogs sure aren’t the answer.

    I agree with Stacy’s comment above — doing it right takes more work and time, but will bring big dividends.

  • 25 Matt // Aug 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    In my opinion, brands have two options for engaging in the conversations that social media offers.

    1. Join communities that already exist. This means starting a Facebook page (clearly an ad), a Twitter feed (not-so clearly an ad, but an ad), a MySpace page, etc. On those, be entertaining/engaging/conversational, and perhaps give away stuff if you can.

    2. The not-so easy option: start a community from scratch. McDonald’s picked this one and created an Alternate Reality Game called Find the Lost Ring. ‘Players’ (actors) used blogs, Twitter, Flickr, to update players on what was going on in the game. McDonald’s didn’t tell people that they were behind it. Someone found out.

    One would argue that this world wasn’t invented to sell Big Macs, although clearly, they invented this world to sell Big Macs. The world was invented to entertain. At the end, if people were suitably entertained, they might feel more affinity to McDonalds. That might mean, next time they are hungry they buy a Big Mac.

    That said, my point is this: be entertaining and no one will care. Be boring, and people might not notice. Be boring and secretive about who you are, and people might get angry and start tiwttering about the brand.

    When engaging in a social media campaign, my advice is to copy the WWE. Yes, copy professional wrestling. Entertain, pretend to fight, but, with a wink, let people in on the game.

  • 26 Chris Kieff // Aug 20, 2008 at 8:57 am

    Matt,

    There is the third option that most brands are taking today- To Do Nothing.

    That is based on fear of damaging the brand, creating animosity and alienating the influencer’s in the space.

    I’m trying to get people off the dime and get them moving in either direction. If we can get them to do something some of them will join the conversation.

    Chris

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