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?