Tim Ferriss & A New Era Of Astro-turfing?

by on 01/10/2011 • 34 Comments | Social Media

I try to avoid social media on the weekends, both for my own sanity and the sanity of those around me. But sometimes, I “accidentally” log in and catch good snippets. And this weekend was no exception.

If you missed it, on Sunday evening Jeremiah Owyang wondered aloud why it was that so many of the 5 Star reviews being left on Tim Ferriss’s new book The 4-Hour Body were coming from first timer reviewers. The book hasn’t been out very long and yet has already racked up more than 500 five star reviews. Jeremiah thought it smelled a little fishy. I thought it sounded a little juicy. Was Tim buying reviews or does his street cred simply carry that much weight? After noticing many of my followers tweeting nonstop about their new Tim-inspired diets, I was inclined to believe it was the latter. But what do I know?

[On second thought, don’t answer that.]

Twitter user @Jesse quickly hopped into the conversation and attributed the large number of reviews to The Land Rush book promotion (Google cache – original post is down) that Tim organized. The promotional campaign doled out an astounding $4,000,000 worth of once-in-a-lifetime prizes in just 48 hours. It didn’t ask or require people to leave positive reviews, just to buy the book in bulk. An adamant Tim responded on Twitter that he’s never used prizes as a way to get reviews. To his credit, I haven’t seen any proof that he has. But what he did was use millions of dollars in trips to create the world’s largest hype machine ever. And it seems it worked. People are talking about the book, they’re spreading the book, and, even better, they’re buying the book. And they’re doing it all in large numbers.

Welcome to online book promotion in 2011.

I’ve mentioned before the struggle I face with my dueling marketer/user personalities, and this is one of those areas where it kicks into overdrive. When the line between promotion and astro-turfing starts to get a little fuzzy and not even the best marketers are sure which side of the line they fall on. When is “creative marketing” just smart and when is it deceptive? It’s becoming harder and harder to tell.

Last month Marketing Pilgrim writer Cynthia Boris wondered if astro-turfing was really so bad, citing a September R2Integrated survey that found 87 percent of people thought that companies planted reviews and that only 35 percent thought the behavior “highly unethical”. Looking closer at the bottom line, just 9 percent said they’d stop buying from a company they found guilty of astro-turfing.

But when is it astro-turfing and when is it social media marketing?

  • Is it astro-turfing when you submit a guest post that mentions one of your clients?
  • What about when you take on different “personas” and identities and tweet for them?
  • How about when you send pitch emails using a fake name?
  • How many community forums start out “seeding” content written by fake users?
  • What about review sites who write fake reviews or rewrite reviews from other sites to get content?
  • How about authors who put together wild book promotion tours to (somewhat) artificially boost sales and numbers?

Where’s the line? Do we know the difference? I want to believe that astro-turfing is about purposely deceiving, while social media marketing is about bringing awareness to something of value. I’d argue Tim’s was the latter, but just on a much larger scale than most of us are used to.  But maybe I’m fooling even myself.  I hope not.

I can’t speak for other agencies, but at Outspoken Media our social media marketing services are geared, in part, toward helping companies bring more awareness to what they’re doing and to help them connect that content/service with the people who should know about it.  It’s not about creating a false presence or deceiving consumers, but helping them to find information that suits them.  It’s not about creating unfounded hype, but qualified buzz. For us, that’s the difference.

But what do you think? What’s in bounds and out of bounds for you as a consumer. How about as a marketer?  Is there a difference?

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

34 thoughts on “Tim Ferriss & A New Era Of Astro-turfing?

  1. Well it’s a lot like some old marketing tactics, when the brand told us we needed it or everyone is absolutely loving it. I would think that todays social media “peeps” can see through this type of hype. I remember seeing TF’s tweets about all the giveaways when books are purchased in bulk and thought it was a little strange, but he is a master at this stuff.
    Great post, I really enjoy reading your blog.

    • I think the difference is in most cases the promotion isn’t coming from the brand, or at least not directly. The brand is leaving fake reviews, posting fake comments, or having conversations as made up people and consumers can’t always tell the difference. That’s when the waters start to get a little murky. If I’m starting a review site and need reviews to seed it, can I make some up to put content there and get people interacting it? Or can I rewrite legit reviews that appear on other Web sites? Where’s the line?

      • It gets VERY murky! That’s why the educated consumer is the one hopefully with the power. It makes me think of the hired actor talking about the latest ab workout device….the furthest thing from an honest review. Oh, but you get the little disclaimer in fine print ;-)

      • Your comment Lisa made me think of the movie “Boiler Room”, especially the line “There’s an important phrase that we use here, and think it’s time that you all learned it. Act as if.” The rest of the line is pretty inspiring although a little wild to post on such a nice-looking blog. ;)

        I think there’s no line, just ethics. If you feel good posting fake reviews, it might work for you for a while; but you better have a heck of an idea good enough to support your murky endeavors. Otherwise, you’re just working against you… Ok. Ethics is on the line and I better pick up. See you soon! ~Paul

        • I’m typically wary of using the “ethics” word on marketing posts (or “intent”). But I do think you’re either willing to use marketing to deceive people or you’re not. Thanks for the response. I guess I have to go track down Boiler Room on Netflix now? :)

  2. Hey Lisa – Thanks for mentioning Cynthia’s post at MP.

    As for astro-turfing? When we get outside of our Internet marketing centric circles does anyone know the difference? If professionals are having a tough time drawing the line I suspect that most consumers wouldn’t understand the concept (or even care).

    Does that make it right? Wow, that’s the million dollar question. I think that in most cases there would be some industry dart throwing like between Owyang and Ferris (ever wonder if this was a behind the scenes play by them? That was courtesy of my inner conspiracy theorist which occasionally surfaces) and then everyone goes their merry ways cashing checks due to their ‘promotional’ techniques.

    My two cents which hopefully is worth full value. Thanks for making me think.

    • I think if the stats you guys posted about on MP are any indication, no, people don’t care. And that may even be the scariest thing of all. That if a consumer finds out a brand is posting false information, only 9 percent would stop doing business with them. Clearly, we have high expectations of the companies we do business with…

      • Brand loyalty is a convenience. It eliminates friction points and saves us work.

        Once I choose XYZ Services for all my lawn, garden and landscaping needs, that eliminates a whole class of future decisions I might have had to make. XYZ needs only do an acceptable job to retain my business. They can even raise their prices (within reason). Point out to me that XYZ is paying outsourcers to post fake 5 star reviews on Yelp and odds are I’ll still stick with them….because everybody posts fake 5 star reviews on Yelp.

  3. Nice post Lisa although I have to admit I had no idea what “astroturfing” was until I looked it up. Now I will be on the lookout for sure. Thanks for enlightening me to a practice I had never heard of, let alone was wary of.

    Garry

    • Hey Garry,

      Thanks for the comment and definitely for reminding me that not everyone may be familiar with the term. I updated the post to link to a definition. Seems I need to step outside of my own bubble. Thanks.

  4. Taking the book promotion post down seems to me like disguising a formal marketing campaign as “spontaneous, popular ‘grassroots’ behavior,” marked by bestselling status.

    Thanks Lisa for continually making me think about current issues like this I’d probably miss!

    • Yeah, the fact that the promotion post is now longer active on the site made me raise an eyebrow a bit. If he had kept it up – exactly, normal book promotion. But why are you trying to remove traces of it? That didn’t seem to fit.

      • Hi Lisa and Melissa,

        I worked with Tim throughout the entire promotion. We took down that page because we’re still getting emails and comments from people wanting bonus gifts, even though they purchased books weeks after the promo’s deadline. We tried putting “This promotion has ended” in big bold letters throughout the written portion — didn’t work. I had to put together all the slideshares in that post, so it pains no one more than me to see it taken down :) But we did have a reason behind it.

        – Charlie

  5. Tim Ferriss’ whole M.O. is astroturfing. For instance, Ferriss’ “kickboxing championship” was won by using a radical dehydration technique to enter a much lower weight class and then pushing people out of the ring. We know this because he brags openly about it! His “guest lecture at Princeton” consisted of renting out a room and holding a small talk, something the janitor of Princeton could also do. Digging a little deeper, I found that pretty much every claim of Ferriss’ as to his own reputation is suspect. Unfortunately tactics like Ferriss’ are becoming more and more the norm, in part due to his own “success” and bragging about how he cheated various systems.

    Many have suspected that Ferriss’ first book received so many positive reviews because of his army of VA’s in foreign nations which may have posted short 5-star reviews to artificially inflate ratings. This is speculation, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

  6. I just read the book because I was cruising for something new to read and this one popped up on the Kindle bestseller list and caught my eye. (Hey, I’m guilty. Who doesn’t want to know short cuts to losing weight, building muscle, and having better sex?) It’s the first book I’ve ever read that actually asks the readers to get on amazon.com and leave a good review. I mean, the request for an amazon review is right there in the book! That’s pretty unprecedented. He also sent out an email to his blog subscribers asking him to review the book. I can’t remember where I read it, but he said somewhere that his goal was to rank ahead of George Bush’s book.

    Okay, he comes across like a jerk in the book. Meanwhile, am I trying his tips? You bet. But that’s neither here nor there.

    Maybe it’s astro-turfing. Or maybe it’s the power of simply asking. I never ceased to be amazed at what people will do for you if you just ask!

    • It’s the first book I’ve ever read that actually asks the readers to get on amazon.com and leave a good review. I mean, the request for an amazon review is right there in the book!

      Well, I guess that answers the “how did he get so many reviews so fast” question. :)

      Maybe it’s astro-turfing. Or maybe it’s the power of simply asking. I never ceased to be amazed at what people will do for you if you just ask!

      That’s such a great point. Knowing he put a call to action in the book ASKING people to leave an Amazon review really turns this conversation into a different direction. And you’re right, people responded really well when you specifically ASK them to do something. The same way bloggers ask people to comment at the end of the post.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  7. Consumers have grown accustomed to being deceived, which I believe is illustrated by the mere 9% of those surveyed indicating they’d stop doing business with a company that engages in astroturfing.

    Unless, of course, those being surveyed didn’t fully understand what astroturfing is. Which is a term that many outside the political and marketing arenas are unfamiliar with. It’s also important to note that only 284 people were surveyed, which certainly isn’t a large enough data set to be indicative of consumers as a whole.

    If we all stopped doing business with the companies that deceive us, no one would have cell phones, Internet access, cable or satellite service…or buy used cars, for that matter. The real question here really is intent. There’s a fine line between malicious manipulation and affable persuasion.

    • LOL, thanks for the comment, Alysson.

      You’re definitely right in that they didn’t use that large of a sample size, but the 9 percent number still really surprised me. But, sadly, you’re right. If we didn’t do business with companies that deceive us…we’d have no service providers. How very sad is that?

  8. As a consumer I don’t think I would be shocked OR turned off to discover that a new forum site, for example, seeded the forum with some fake posts in order to get the discussion going. I would see this as facilitation, not manipulation.

    That aside, the TF promotion and resulting reviews doesn’t qualify in my eyes as astro-turfing, nor even riding that murky line. Why not? Because the give-away promotion was out in the open, his asking for reviews was out in the open, and as far as evidence shows thus far all the resulting reviews were real, just aided by a really potent promotion campaign.

    I think the “ick” factor you’re trying to put your finger on doesn’t have to do with astro-turf type deception, but rather overt hype for material that doesn’t strike you as deserving so much praise. Do people really love the book that much? Or do they love the feel-good juice they’ve been pumped with during the promotion? Is TF really that good of a writer? Is his advice actually sound? Is TF even a nice enough guy or a smart enough guy to deserve all this praise? Or is he nothing more than a writing pop-star who knows how to whip the crowd into a frenzy, but completely lacking in any actual talent?

    So maybe the real question is…Tim Ferriss – Rock Star or Pop Star?

    • I wouldn’t be turned off by a forum seeding conversations or even a review site rewriting reviews that exist on a different site. You need content there to get people to engage. I agree that it’s more facilitating the conversation and usefulness of the site. I don’t think Tim entered any murky waters, though I do find it odd he removed the book promotion post after it ended. That felt a bit like he was covering his tracks. Maybe I’m just paranoid.

      I think where I start to get uncomfortable is when we create completely artificial conversations. That’s something I struggle with. Especially because often my job IS to create conversations. How do I make sure they’re organic and not just hype.

      As for Tim, I think he’s a Rock Star. And I think his ability to market himself made him one.

  9. Great post Lisa. We run a reviews website and for the record, we started by asking our friends and family to write (legitimate) reviews of the businesses they’ve used and ask their friends and family to do the same. (Now up to 150,000 reviews.) We sometimes run incentives which reward people for writing reviews but the difference is that they choose which businesses they review and whether the reviews are favourable or not. The more content there is, the more useful it is for everyone. Occasionally we get unscrupulous business owners writing their own reviews but these are generally very easy to spot as they tend to read like an ad rather than a real customer. (We also use many automated checks which flag any anomalies in accounts, reviewing behaviour, etc.)

    I think the beauty of the internet is that even though it might be possible to plant content that influences your own brand, it’s mostly self-correcting. If your business / product doesn’t live up to its reviews and users begin to doubt their credibility, the response (backlash) is likely to be pretty critical. Eg if someone sees a heap of 5-star reviews for a restaurant and then goes there to get average service, they’re likely to come back and enter a review to let everyone know about their own experience.

    The advice we give businesses is simple. Focus (genuinely) on providing a great customer experience, and then encourage and respond to feedback (of all sorts).

    • Wow, thanks for the comment, Fiona. I appreciate sharing a bit about how you got your review site off the ground. It’s always interesting to hear how people found success and it sounds like you definitely have. So props! :)

  10. I saw Jeremiah Owyang’s tweet and wondered if you were going to post about this! Thanks for clarifying the issue. I think Tim Ferriss does a good job with staying just on the right side of the line. Though his toe seems to be edging towards it…

  11. Interesting point Lisa. Like you, I have this strange tear in myself between the marketing side and the user side. You also raise a good point, what do people consider “astro-turfing” and what do they consider marketing (well, enjoyable marketing)? The problem is that everyone will answer that differently.
    I even find myself saying sometimes “I wouldn’t ever do something like that, but it’s a really good idea I kind of wish I thought of.” There’s sometimes a fine line between something considered sleazy and something considered awesome. I guess as people who work in the space we can just try new things with good intentions and honesty. It’s the people that are deceptive on purpose that give others the bad name.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    • Hey Sheldon, again we find ourselves going back to the idea of “intention”. Are you launching something with the intent to deceive people or with the intent to spread something good? Maybe it all really does come down to that.

  12. Tim Ferriss is approaching the publishing business in an entirely different way than most are. With his first book, The 4 Hour Work Week, he created different ad campaigns to create the best title possible for his book. With his second, he asked his readers to create ads that simply worked that he would use to promote the book. Of course, by creating the ads and putting them on their websites, he was getting free publicity. That was incredibly smart.

    I was a bit skeptical of the million dollar give-aways, but what concerns me most are the number of people that purchased multiple copies of books and aren’t receiving anything that was promised to them. He was very active in getting people to buy 3-30 copies of his book, and now he is active in trying to get people to write the reviews on Amazon. Everything he does seems to work the way he wants it to. Heck, I even wrote 5,000 words about the book on my site.

    Needless to say, astro-turfing (which is a new term for me) is a problem that is not going to go away easily as long as it keeps working for them, whether it’s on Amazon or TripAdvisor, or other sites.

    • I was a bit skeptical of the million dollar give-aways, but what concerns me most are the number of people that purchased multiple copies of books and aren’t receiving anything that was promised to them.

      Have there been reports of that happening?

      Tim is certainly a superior marketer and knows how to sway people toward a specific action. You can’t fault him for that. Sometimes I get wary, though, of where all this is going.

    • James- You wrote:

      “what concerns me most are the number of people that purchased multiple copies of books and aren’t receiving anything that was promised to them.”

      It’s true that some people had parts of their orders held up, due to a number of factors (B&N selling more signed copies than they had in inventory, international orders getting delayed, etc.) But to say they haven’t received anything that was promised is simply not true. We are making sure everyone’s order is carried out. The reality is that the vast majority of people who took part in the promo have received all of their gifts. Anyone who hasn’t is being taken care of.

      If you haven’t received something that you ordered, feel free to contact me (charlie AT fourhourbody). I’m more than happy to help you out.

      – Charlie

  13. It is fair game as long as it is clean. If it guest posting adds value to the user and the person reading (the user) does not walk away with a feeling of having been fed cow dung.

    Asking is fair depending on the incentive. Putting a in a book “if you like this book, don’t forget to rate it” is just a perfectly fine and juicy way of letting people know how to tell others what they have appreciated.

  14. One of the reasons that astroturfing has become so en vogue is that the nature of the web pushes marketers to take these actions. Back in the mid-90s (when I started working in the dotcom world), everyone online was all about helping each other out. Nowadays if you want a review, a link, whatever, it’s all about “what’s in it for me?”. As a result, people take less than honorable approaches to build buzz for their products or websites.

    My favorite example of this is Digg. Writing a good/interesting article does not matter if you want it to show up on Digg. What matters is finding the all powerful “superusers”. I’ve had more than one SEO firm tell me that for the low, low cost of $10k per month, they will make sure that among other things, our articles are on the front page of Digg on a regular basis. When I asked how, the response was “I have an arrangement with some superusers”.

    The web community has created this environment, so it should never come as a surprise when companies provide “incentives” to people to write positive reviews, give links, etc.

    Meh.

  15. The line is always blurry and subjective. On one hand you have purists who despise and reject any advertising, basically arguing that a good product should sell itself. On the other hand, you have shameless con artists who are willing to cheat in every possible way to get every dollar they can. There are many shades and colors in between, and it’s always up to you as a consumer or a business owner to set your own standards.

    Regarding Tim and my personal opinion, I believe the guy is good and smart. Pleasing your customers should be the central part of any business, as well as making profits, so I can’t see anything wrong with encouraging bulk orders using prizes. And asking your customers for reviews, even if Tim did that explicitly, is also perfectly ethical in my book.

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