In this photo: aggressive astrotrufing

In this photo: an astrobeast

It seems like every month or two a high-profile brand or agency gets caught using some questionable black-hat tactics. Over the summer, Reverb was nailed trying to manipulate the App Store by posting positive reviews with fake accounts. The agency admitted no wrongdoing and went to great lengths to justify their practice as completely innocent. More recently, Sports Illustrated was discovered openly soliciting Digg users in an attempt to force mediocre content to the front page. When word got out, the press—particularly the social media press—were sure to make a moral example of these two naughty companies.

Let’s not be naïve here: Black hat marketing goes on all the time, in every channel that will permit it (think back to what e-mail was like prior to all of the CAN-SPAM regulations before you start thinking that this only affects SEO and social media). The people who get caught are a small fraction of the people who actively do it. And while it would be easy for me to take the cuddly-indignant social media line on black-hat practices and denounce them as crimes against our common humanity, the reality is that you can boil the issue down to 2 points:

  • You shouldn’t use black hat techniques because people love exposing it like they love celebrity gossip.
  • There’s no reason to do it when you can achieve the same goals just as easily (and sometimes more easily) with honest, transparent techniques anyway.

Let’s look at the Sports Illustrated case: Their social media guy contacts a Digg user who has posted sports content before and asks him to submit SI content in exchange for SI merchandise. Aside from the amusingly corporate tone and the offer of merchandise (which is a pretty weak exchange for what’s essentially access to a Digg power user’s influence and network), what you’ve got here is a simple request for help—the same sort of request that thousands of marketers and PR people send to thousands of industry experts and influencers every day. Take out the memorabilia bribe, and it’s one pitch among a million.

At Pandemic Labs, we’ve known influential members of the Digg community for quite a while now. We certainly understand the marketing value of a front-page story on Digg, of course, and, when they’ve had something worthwhile, we’ve helped some of our clients get some attention on various social news sites by connecting these users with our clients. Our contacts won’t push bad content; they’re rightfully concerned with maintaining their reputations, as was the user Sports Illustrated contacted. Even if they will, we stand to gain nothing from trying to force-feed an online community bad content. It hurts reputations, lowers the quality of information, and drives away users (who are by and large clever enough to identify content that’s been forced through).

To “game” Digg, as Mashable so pejoratively put it, but to do it honestly and transparently, is very simple:

  1. Create quality content
  2. Connect with a Digg users who likes the kind of content you create
  3. Make (actual) friends, as a responsible social media marketer should do
  4. Most importantly, don’t do steps 2-3 if you haven’t done step 1

We’ve turned down more requests from clients to help them promote their content on social news sites than we can count, and it’s because we know that when you do what Sports Illustrated did, everyone loses.

Watch your step

Watch your step

Where Sports Illustrated’s failure was simply to misunderstand how social news sites work, Reverb’s astroturfing represents a much more dishonest and calculated game. If we put the ethics aside for a moment, the problem with astroturfing is that to have the influence you want, you need to maintain a huge number of users, complete with believable histories, philosophies, political views, and opinions about a wide variety of subjects. I know it sounds obvious, but go try it and see how quickly you fail and end up falling into the patterns that make your users stand out as fakes: Copy-pasted posts, incomplete profiles, and boring user names.

One of our client’s competitors (no, we won’t be naming any names) has been astroturfing on forums for months. They’re nice enough not refrain from disparaging our client directly, always preferring to say that while our client was great, our client’s competitor was just a little bit better, or more friendly, or a better value.

We discovered the ploy during one of the regular brand audits that we conduct for this client. These audits compile data on online conversation about our client and our client’s competitors. We quickly noticed that there were a significant number of similar forum posts about our client’s competitor, and after 5 minutes of reading we realized that the competitor had simply written a few stock forum posts and then tasked some unfortunate intern with the job of making user accounts and posting the stock language everywhere he or she could.

There’s nothing inherently dishonest with getting on the forum circuit (whether it’s really the most efficient way to spend your marketing dollars is another matter entirely). But as with Digg, you need to have the content. A forum user won’t care who you are if you’ve got something they like.

It’s unfortunate that the astroturfers out there who try to make up for bad content with grunt work have made it much harder for conscientious, content-driven marketers to try to give people what they want. Any misjudgment on a social news site or a forum can severely compromise the reputation of a company or its agency, and every time one of us gets caught it makes us more like the annoying traditional marketers we claim to be different from. But we’ve got not right to complain: as an industry, we brought it on ourselves.

Written by Clint Fralick