It’s been quite the hot topic since the massive surge in popularity of social media sites over the last decade. But marketing in these media channels has proved to be a much more challenging task than many companies anticipated. The obstacle it seems is that people inherently distrust marketing messages, particularly when they’re on a personal level.
What many people do trust though, are the opinions of customers and respected public figures. These come in the form of endorsements, testimonials, reviews and ‘likes’. As such, many websites and search engines place a special focus on these popularity indicators.
These developments prompted leading IT research company Gartner to carry out a study [link to study article] which concluded that by the year 2014, as much of 15% of this online publicity will be faked by corporations. A practice known as astroturfing (the opposite of grass roots). In addition, it predicted that at least two Fortune 500 companies will face legal action for these activities.
Increased Focus on Social Media
The source of this problem comes down to how hard it is to generate real publicity on the web, particularly positive reviews. The saying “You won’t hear from a customer until something goes wrong” applies here. But with such a massive amount of people frequenting these social media sites, it’s a practically irresistible marketing medium.
Often respected bloggers and copywriters are paid to write compelling reviews on popular sites and also often disparage competing companies. Companies generate ‘likes’ by creating thousands of fake profiles (an activity which Facebook is fighting to reduce) [link to article about fake profiles] who follow a particular brand. In some instances companies just simply fake the endorsements and testimonials themselves by making people, and their reviews, up.
The marketing consequences of being caught doing this are also debatable. On one side there is damage to the brand image, consumer trust in the company and a general sense of public humiliation. On the other side, there’s no real financial indication that it harms a company or brand’s profitability in meaningful way. As much as people are indifferent towards web marketing, they are also indifferent to the follies of it.
Astrorturfing isn’t just a bad business policy, it actually illegal if the authors don’t publicly declare their relationship with the company. These are prosecuted by independent bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US. Gartner predicted that two large companies would be fined for unethical marketing in this way.
The FTC has strict guidelines that stipulate the disclosure of paid relationships. If their investigations reveal an infringement, it can lead to quite steep fines. Many Online Relationship Management firms actually devote much of their time identifying fake negative reviews about clients and taking legal action against the authors.
Despite all these measures, fake reviews and testimonials are bound to increase with the popularity of social media. The two are almost inseparable concepts. Consumers can only hope that websites become more adept at identifying them and perhaps invest less in what they read online.