There's a blog post on MobileCrunch regarding a PR firm having their employees/interns put up fake product reviews on behalf of their clients. For the younger folk in the industry, let me make sure it's clear that these techniques are nothing new. The difference is in today's world the risks associated with such a move are so much higher, as you are more likely to get caught. For us to simply say "duh, don't do it" just isn't enough. The massive shift into self-publishing platforms (aka "the era of social media" - yawn) has radically enabled individuals to expose virtually every "truth" that's out there.
This means disingenuous behavior is more likely to be exposed to the public than ever before. While I hear "gurus" preaching about openness and transparency, our advice to clients leans more toward the importance of authenticity. Sure there is value in some amount of transparency, but it is hard to properly define and must have limits (companies *are* allowed to work on secret projects, and we must preserve this ability). Whereas preaching authenticity simply has no bounds and is easily definable.
In a nutshell, a company must behave, in every way and at every time, authentic. Nothing fake, anytime. But that doesn't mean you cannot sing your own praises, nor hire others to do so on your behalf. You must, however, make sure it is known. Some examples:
- Personal Blogging: If you have a personal blog, you must have an "about" page which clearly lists your employment. Further, on any blog post that particularly pertains to a topic related to your company/industry, you must add a disclaimer/disclosure statement to that post. There is no such thing as too much clarity when it comes to potential conflicts of interest.
- Commenting: Same as per blogging, with some extra rules. First, no anonymous comments, anytime, anywhere, ever, on anything industry-related (I additionally recommend no anonymous comments on non-work-related blog posts too, but that's more a matter of principles). Second, don't be intentionally deceptive in comments, especially if it pertains to your competition. Third, don't comment when you aren't adding value to the discussion - if you can't find a way to get "your message" in naturally, it's probably best saved for a future time (this can be painful at times, but is a great rule to follow).
- Ratings: The best policy possible would be to abstain for rating your own (or competitor's) products. But even the President is allowed to vote for himself in an election, so ultimately I see no reason why you cannot give your own product a 5-star rating on a review site. That is, if you have used the product! There should be no "rallying the troops" to game a system. If you haven't used your own company's product, you have no business rating it. It should go without saying by this time that no "fake" ratings are ever acceptable.
- Popularity Contests/Votes: This is one of the trickiest topics in my opinion. The problem is these systems are inherently gamed - in other words, nobody should ever assume they are honest. As an example, for last year's NHL All-Star game, one of the fans of the Canadiens created a script to auto-vote for the players. It wasn't done or condoned by the team. But we all know using it was wrong, even if we wanted our team to win. As a result, they did win numerous spots on the ballots, but it's shrouded in distrust (despite the fact that Montreal also boasts of one of the largest fan bases of any NHL team AND had a solid lineup that year AND the NHL claims they were able to purge the auto-votes from the system). My general philosophy is that all popularity contests are bad things, and everyone should avoid them like the plague. If you must participate, well then one-person, one-vote, and just leave it at that.
Incidentally, when we train companies on the above behaviors, we recommend they be passed around not just internally to the entire team, but to friends of the company as well. Spouses, other family members, investors, roommates, etc should all be playing from the same book.
And now for a positive-minded case study. When I worked at Sling Media, we were doing "social media marketing" long before it even had such a label (and before all the so-called experts even knew what an online community was). We were big believers in letting our product speak for itself. We all followed the above guidelines, and as a result, I can still look back at the product's Amazon page 4 years later and see a 4.5 star average review from almost 200 people.
I can show that link with pride, not only in that we built an amazing product, but that it's reviews were authentic and genuine. Yup, I sleep at night pretty well.
It is not uncommon for a company to find themselves in a position where being opportunistic would appear to have good results. I do believe that good products ultimately speak for themselves (as do bad ones), and if you want to practice any kind of sustainable marketing, you need to let the natural course of events transpire. Can you engage your user community to go write product reviews? Sure - they are your customers! Can you offer them a free company product to do so? No - that's called a bribe, and it's never acceptable.
Whether it's blogging, tweeting, social networks, or other vehicles for communication, it's safe to say that cover-ups are near-impossible to pull off. Every action you take that is disingenuous or unauthentic will be remembered. Fake reviews will be sniffed out. We recommend taking the high road, regardless of what you see others doing. It may take all your strength at times to not take the easy path, but trust me, it's worth it in the end.
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