Typing Faster

July 21, 2010

Can You Trust Social Media? How Marketers Are Rigging The System

Filed under: Social Media — petertypingfaster @ 7:00 am

Continuing on from my last post, I thought I’d point out an interesting article in Wired that talks about How Marketers Rig the Social Media Machine.

It’s easy to understand why social media is the Holy Grail of marketers.

These systems are based on trust and loyalty, and as such, they present a massive opportunity to marketers who want to encourage those traits in their customers. People are more likely to trust people or companies that have lots of friends or YouTube views, so the incentive clearly exists to artificially inflate those counts – and a cottage industry is emerging to help them do just that.

In addition, because real friends trust each other, marketers try to insert themselves into those conversations by offering product discounts or cash when people mention brands in messages to their friends. Suddenly, friendship is as ripe an area for product placement as music videos (and in some cases, music itself).

Trust and loyalty, the two key ingredients for an enduring brand. Companies like Toyota and BP are great examples of what happens to a brand when the public starts to lose faith in it. Talk about a consumer backlash!

Despite the risks in misleading the public, the allure of social media is just too great for companies to resist. So the question then becomes how are they rigging the game?

The Star article talks about four broad strategies that can be broken down roughly into the following:

  1. Buying Followers
  2. Selling Updates
  3. Ponzi Schemes
  4. Guaranteed Views

So what do these all look like?

Friends and followers for sale

Anyone who wants to look important, loved, influential or trusted might be tempted to purchase Twitter followers or Facebook friends by the thousand, and they have plenty of options when it comes to buying them.

Twitter spokesman Matt Graves pointed out that Twitter’s rules forbid selling followers unless the seller has been “specifically permitted to do so in a separate agreement with Twitter.”

“It’s fairly simple for us to identify and suspend mass-created accounts with ‘10,000 followers,’ so it’s also a terrible purchase in general,” he told Wired.com. “They’re never ‘real’ followers.”

Some clients of these services tell a different story. Affiliate marketer Jonathan Volk posted charts showing how his purchase of 1,000 Twitter followers from Followers for Sale using its recommended setting that adds followers “very slowly” so as to escape detection, resulted in real followers being added to his account on a steady basis.

“Before ordering this service, I had a negative trend in followers. After ordering, I gained the followers that I paid for pretty quickly. Now the main (and obvious) question [is], who are these followers? Are they real or just some bot accounts? After talking with some people, apparently the followers are indeed real people [with] real Twitter accounts, etc. The way I understand the service to work is that these real people are paid a small fee to follow [clients of the service]. It seems like a great way to increase your Twitter following and as a result increase your sponsored tweets, price, etc.”

I’ve definitely noticed some Twitter accounts with suspiciously high follower counts in my time around the internets. But it seems to me that these kind of attempts would be pretty transparent anyways. People tend to group and follow based on interests. If all of a sudden a quilter has a whole bunch of followers who have no interest in quilting, then something’s probably up.

Much more insidious, however, is the selling tweets or status updates, basically having a third party pay you to tweet about them. This is more troublesome because it doesn’t violate your network’s trust in the same way, in essence recreating that oh-so-difficult to achieve word of mouth marketing.

The general consensus is that…

“…word of mouth generated by social networks is a form of marketing that must be earned – unlike traditional advertising, which can be purchased.”

That’s not necessarily the case. Sponsored Tweets notoriously paid the celebrity Kim Kardashian $10,000 per tweet for mentioning certain products to her millions of listed followers, but the company also allows anyone…to monetize their Twitter followers by sending them brand messages. Thousands of Twitter users are listed on the service.

A spokeswoman for the company tells Wired.com that Sponsored Tweets and its sister site, Pay-Per-Post, which pays bloggers to write about certain products, have about $10 million in funding, over a million sponsored messages, 400,000 participating bloggers and tweeters, and over 40,000 advertisers.

And it’s by no means alone. SocialTwist rewards social network users for promoting products to their friends, offering advertisers “highly viral, word-of-mouth marketing campaigns online by combining consistent marketing messages, the power of referrals and the social platforms customers use most – from e-mail, IM, to popular social networks and bookmarking sites across the web.” So far, the company says it has produced campaigns for Intel, P&G, Kraft Foods, Jamba Juice, KLM and Barnes and Noble, and claims its ability to increase revenue and drive page views is “proven and measurable.”

A study by media research firm PQ Media (available for purchase only) describes these “sponsored conversations” as one of the fastest growing segments in advertising, having increased 14 percent last year, and set to grow 26 percent this year to about $57 million-worth of paid tweets and blogs.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to question the latest link my “friends” post on Facebook. At the end of the day this is just the next iteration of corporate spokesmodels. Instead of hiring a celebrity that a companies target demographic aspires to be, they hire people from within the demographic itself to promote their products. It’s not that deceptive in and of itself, but it sure is obnoxious.

Even worse though is the rise of so-called “Ponzi friendships.”

San Francisco marketing firm Mekanism has drawn lots of criticism for encouraging people to promote unique links touting how much influence they have amongst their friends while trying to convince their friends to sign up, so that they can gain even more influence.

How obnoxious is that? Thankfully it seems like the overwhelming response to marketing tactics like this have been disdainful, otherwise I’m sure we’d be under a deluge of “please join my network” requests from friends and acquaintances (though I guess this is pretty much what happens with Facebook users and games like Farmville).

Lastly comes the idea of Guaranteed Views, companies that claim they can get people to view your YouTube video / blog / photo collection. The biggest example of this is a company called Sharethrough, which claims to be able to increase the number of views your YouTube video receives.

“Similar to how traditional media companies sell impressions and measure performance based on clicks (i.e. clickthrough rates), Sharethrough sells video views and optimizes for sharing and user endorsement (i.e. sharethrough rates),” Sharethrough CEO Dan Greenberg told Wired.com. “Sharethrough manages…paid advertising placements across a set of premium web partners that place our videos in key entertainment destinations. Viewers will see them and proactively choose to share them across social networks, social games, applications and other portals because they enjoy the content for its entertainment value or its relevance to their interests.”

I’m not exactly sure what any of that really means, and I’d be skeptical to pay them to do it for one of my projects, but who knows? It might just work!

At the end of the day, though, I doubt that any of us joined or use social media networks to be bombarded with advertising. While it’s nice for people to be able to monetize their media projects, doesn’t using methods like the ones described above irrevocably damage the social media landscape itself? I’m not sure, but I know I don’t want any more advertising in my life than absolutely necessary.


1 Comment »

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