To partially quote from Wikipedia, Astroturfing is when an individual disguises the efforts of a commercial entity as an independent public reaction to a product, service or event. It’s an orchestration of overt outreach tactics by covert means.
More to the point, it’s something you don’t do as a responsible marketer. The thing is, the rules are easily bendable, the tactics are highly tempting and the ethics are typically questioned. After all, what “harm” can it really do? Well, actually a lot — and I have a fresh and unfortunate story to share with you about it.
To give some background: One of the main activities we do as a social media company is key influencer identification and blogger outreach. Our outreach efforts are always about approaching people on a personal level. In other words, asking for permission, being short and sweet about our agenda, and even apologizing up-front in the event our outreach is perceived as irrelevant to a blogger’s interests and audience.
Recently, we came across an influential blog that posted about our client’s product. But before we could start slapping high fives, the blogger made an additional post that specifically called out one of the commenters. Although the commenter in question had good intentions, clarifying some false statements made about the product, his enthusiasm took things to the point of spewing marketing jargon in his comment. Dead giveaway.
As one of the shark commenters clued into the chum, the blogger was inspired to do a little investigation. You know where it goes from here. What he easily found was the commenter in question was using a fake name with a standard email address. From there, the blogger not only identified the commenter as a marketer, but even discovered when he was hired.
So of course, he owed his readers a juicy post about this discovery. Today, that marketer was fired. And as many might agree to that being an over reaction, the reality is the marketer’s company and client was dragged into a search engine index-able conversation among far more than a normal room full of people.
Could it quickly smolder out and go nowhere? Absolutely. Could it be dragged to other blogs, becoming the latest meat puppet case study in social marketing? Absolutely. So the harm, aside from possibly losing your job, is not only the potential of short-term brand damage – but also long-term search engine results associated with the brand, its’ products, services, etc.
From my position, I understand how someone could be reasonably fired for this. At the same time, I believe this particular person simply made a naive mistake that blew up like a firecracker in a child’s hand.
If he would have disclosed who he worked for up front, this all could have been avoided. In all fairness, the most obvious things are sometimes the hardest to see – and in the world of internet marketing, learning on the job is commonplace.
This just in (this post has been evolving throughout the day as I’ve written it): the marketer wrote an apology to the blogger today. The blogger responded by emailing an apology regarding the job loss, removing his original post about the client’s product, and the post that called out the marketer as deceptive. Wow.
What is your take on this? How would you have respond as the blogger? How about the employer or client?