According to a report by Small Business Trends this week, a group of SEO companies and small businesses in New York State were caught in a sting operation called “Operation Clean Turf.” Spearheaded by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the operation uncovered unethical pay-for-review programs. Un
der the guise of “reputation management services,” SEO firms were offering to post fake reviews for businesses on social networking sites such as Yelp! It seems that social media’s dirty little secret is not so secret anymore. Inauthenticity, not authenticity, seems to be the rule of the day.
Businesses Cannot Risk Authenticity
Despite social media marketers losing their breath from the excessive shouts of “authenticity!” in the medium, the need for positive online “social proof” is so incredibly important in the decision-making process for consumers that brands simply don’t feel they can risk being truly authentic.
Social media consultants recommend that businesses allow consumers to freely contribute both positive and negative discussions within their social media properties. Encourage, reward, and celebrate the positive in order to turn happy customers into advocates. Embrace any negativity with honest and quick responses to demonstrate the firm’s interest and excellent customer service.
Many PR and customer service representatives advise that a customer who’s had a negative experience is an opportunity to create a loyal advocate if their concerns are addressed satisfactorily and quickly on social channels. The added benefit of having this exchange amplified across social media broadcast the firm’s customer care and establishes a specific brand persona.
Intellectually, we understand this. In practice, do we have the courage to embrace it?
Marketers Embrace Inauthenticity
Despite the mandated “authenticity” in social media communications by marketing and public relations professionals, they’re among the first to break the rule. Be it in the strategies they create for their clients, or the social personas they create for themselves, social media is rife with inauthenticity.
Arguably, this is most evident in the “influencer” category of social marketing. Thanks to social influence scoring platforms that rank influential people online, and, more importantly, the weight that businesses place on such rankings, the need to create a persona that elevates a personal brand to the top of these lists is important.
We’ve read stories of airlines and hotels that provide preferential treatment to people with high Klout scores. Publishers have awarded some authors book deals based, not on their proven expertise or results in a particular field but on their social popularity, which they bet will translate into sales. In fact, Internet marketing in general is based on inauthenticity. The promise of the Internet for start-ups and small businesses is that they can compete with larger competitors because it’s the “great equalizer.” A small business can appear as big as it wants to portray itself through technology and design.
Should we really be surprised that manufactured brand personas and fake reviews are part of the fabric of the Internet, social media, and influence marketing schemes?
Inauthenticity Is Big Business
The practice is called “astroturfing,” which is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message (e.g. political, advertising, or public relations) to give the appearance of it coming from a disinterested third-party.
Schneiderman’s office shared some of the ads allegedly posted on sites like Craigslist, ODesk.com and Freelancer.com like this example by one of the SEO companies it targeted in the fake review sting:
“We need a person that can post multiple positive reviews on major REVIEW sites. Example: Google Maps, Yelp, CitySearch. Must be from different IP addresses… So you must be able to have multiple IPs. The reviews will be only few sentences long. Need to have some understanding on how Yelp filters works. Previous experience is a plus…just apply, we are a marketing company.”
Right there, out in plain sight, we’re advertising inauthenticity.
This summer, I shared the findings of a group of researchers at UCSB that studied the growing practice of hiring cyber shills who are paid to manually inflate positive reviews and ratings. Such companies have existed for some time in the United States, including ShortTask.com, Microworkers.com, and MyEasyTask.com. Because of labor costs, however, most are focused on improving search engine optimization using software programs and processes.
Shill: An accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others.
A new crop of overseas cyber shills like Zhubajie.com or Sandaha.com is quickly growing in popularity because of low operational costs. Such companies artificially increase the social proof of their customer’s individual and business profiles for mere pennies. And business is booming.
The authors of the study stated that they “have found surprising evidence showing that not only do malicious crowd-sourcing systems exist, but they are rapidly growing in both user base and total revenue.” These companies have access to thousands of human shills seated front of computers, doing what software can’t do: registering for services and product trials; signing up for social accounts; liking/following people and brands; and providing the screen captures, blog posts and commentary to demonstrate their affinity and actions. And all for a price that makes it near impossible for unscrupulous marketers and brands to ignore.
What does this mean for businesses?
The potential benefits and threats can’t be ignored, and, clearly, they’re not. Astroturfring has become a big industry. Businesses around the world use software and services to mask their identities and provide the impression that real clients are providing endorsements of their brand or criticisms of competitors. More and more studies are emerging that suggest astroturfing has reached a point where public viewpoints and actions are, in fact, affecting brand perceptions and purchase decisions.
As more of these stories are uncovered, consumers will become more cynical and rely less on the social proof created by reviews, paid endorsements, and perceived “influential” social celebrities. More emphasis will be placed on the reviews, comments, and recommendations of those in the customer’s personal, trusted circles.
This is one of the reasons that Google Search Plus Your World, which prioritizes the content created, shared, and promoted by a person’s personal social graph, has become so important to the practice of SEO and influence marketing. Inauthenticity, the true nature of social media marketing, has given birth to contextual influence marketing practices.
Maybe there is hope after all.
Is the nature of social media marketing truly inauthentic?
Will the growing reports of fake reviews, followers, “Likes,” and fans render social proof sites ineffective?
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego