Archive for November, 2007

The Astroturfing Debate Continues…

Anti-astroturfingYesterday’s post generated a lot of interesting debate points in the Comments section re: astroturfing.  For your reference, Wikipedia defines “astroturfing” thus:

Astroturfing is a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior … The goal of such a campaign is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction …”

Here are some excerpts from the Comments that are worth highlighting…

From Michael Monello – one of the producers of the original Blair Witch Project (and one of the students who hatched the whole program):

While we were building out the (Blair Witch) website and the community, we always knew we were walking a line, but we decided we were not going to try and hoax people outright. The regular members of the Blair Witch community … knew it was a work of fiction … We were not trying to fool anyone …
“(Regarding) the difference between Blair Witch and LonelyGirl15 … The fans of LonelyGirl felt they had a relationship with the character, they communicated to her and she responded back to them. They were all part of a community, so when it was revealed that she was a fiction, people felt betrayed because they were emotionally invested in her.
“If you are going to walk that line, you have to be respectful of your audience and their emotions. People love a good prank, but they don’t like to have their emotions manipulated falsely.”

Michael’s comment was much longer and more nuanced than I can suggest via an excerpt, but he makes a fascinating point:

Community investment is the key to understanding community reaction. 

Blair Witch fans were invested in solving a mystery; LG15 fans were invested in a fellow community member (or so they thought).  Likewise, Facebook users are passionate about the service; thus, when FB disrespects the amount of “ownership” that FB users feel for their interactions with the service (as with the original flavor of Beacon), the backlash is intense.

Which leads me to this note from the Comment by Joel Richman:

(Is there) a huge difference between what The Commotion Group is doing with videos, and what every SEO/SEM firm operating on the web is doing with text or links? Gaming organic results, right?
“What about parallels in other mediums? Having ‘fake’ comments and multiple people ‘in’ on getting a controversy started around a video is a little like having a laugh track on a sitcom, don’t you think? It’s there to infect the audience and get them invested in what they’re seeing.”

Ethical SEO is not about gaming the system, it’s about optimizing a website’s design & content such that Google effectively recognizes what the site is truly about.  And those lame-o laugh tracks are more akin to spam.  In both cases, the so-called manipulation is at the surface-level: these are half-assed ways to influence the masses, not abuses against a community.

Other great points were also raised yesterday; I hope that if you have something to contribute to the conversation, you’ll comment either here or on yesterday’s post.

Either way, if you’re getting value from these chitchats, make sure you’re subscribed, ‘kay?  Have a nice weekend!

Astroturfing Like It's 1999

BlairwitchconfessionWow, what a difference a day makes.  I felt bad after I stalked out of the blogosphere yesterday, but the real-world subsequently got very interesting.  Among other signal events (that I’ll hopefully be able to reveal soon), I also talked for a solid hour with a Wall Street Journal reporter about “marketing in the social media era.”

In the course of the WSJ chat, the subject of the Comotion Group’s scandalous TechCrunch post came up.  The scandal came from Dan Ackerman Greenberg’s admission of some “clandestine marketing” tactics on YouTube:

Every power user on YouTube has a number of different accounts. So do we. A great way to maximize the number of people who watch our videos is to create some sort of controversy in the comments section below the video. We get a few people in our office to log in throughout the day and post heated comments back and forth (you can definitely have a lot of fun with this)…

Also, we aren’t afraid to delete comments – if someone is saying our video (or your startup) sucks, we just delete their comment. We can’t let one user’s negativity taint everyone else’s opinions.”

Ugh.  Sound familiar?  FWIW, a lot of Greenberg’s OTHER suggestions in the TechCrunch post were pretty darned good (and ethical).  Anyway, it’s been widely covered.  But, here’s what got me scratching my head: when the WSJ reporter asked me…

How were the tactics described by The Comotion Group all that different from the tactics used by The Blair Witch Project producers, in 1999?  Didn’t that campaign generate a lot of positive buzz, ostensibly by duping people online about a fake mystery?”

We agreed that nowadays, the vast number of interconnected online sleuthers would quickly ferret-out the truth about a Blair Witch-style campaign. 

But the question remains:  if someone was clever enough to pull off the same type of stunt, would we applaud as we did back in 1999?  Or would we hiss at the lack of authenticity?

My take: most folks don’t mind going along with a joke; they’ll participate in online scavenger hunts, for example, even if they know they’ll be purposely misdirected at times.  But no one likes to play the fool, especially as our time seems to grow ever more precious. 

Calling a Time-Out

Sometimes – in fact, most of the time – I love what I’m doing, count my blessings, and get mawkishly excited about the future of Marketing & Public Relations.

But sometimes (like today, obviously), I am daunted by the sheer volume of conversations, ideas, petty arguments and silliness that I feel like … well, like this:


I’m taking a Social Media time-out.  For just one day, there’ll be no Twitter, no Facebook, no obsessive scanning of the RSS feeds for me.  I’m staying out of the sandbox.

Meanwhile, though, I don’t expect that ya’ll are also feeling cranky, so I’m going to sign off for the day by pointing you to this most excellent freakin’ post about Social Media Releases, by Brian Solis.


Facebook: Wrong Way to Engage in a Conversation

SheepI am a bit late to the Facebook Privacy Pity Party, but I’ve been galvanized into action. This is an issue that the PR/social media bloggers need to spend more time sussing out.

When the Facebook Beacon system (“social ads”) was announced, Mark Zuckerberg said, “It isn’t an ad system based on pushing messages out. It’s based on getting into the conversations that already happen between people.”

This is important stuff.  But it’s also hard to figure out.

According to Pollara Strategic Insights (as quoted in the Globe and Mail):

26% of business and marketing leaders say they are less familiar with social media marketing than their own customers… (yet this approach is) becoming more important than traditional mass media… 85% said these forums have become an essential component of the communications mix.”

Important!  But hard to figure out.  I think proud young Facebook has yet to get it right.

Using Beacon, for example, advertisers and e-commerce sites can capture and publish your activities to your newsfeed, which in turn advertises your movements to your friends. 

Get it?  Your movements become their advertisements.

As Charlene Li found out, buying a coffee table at is no longer a personal process.  All her Facebook friends now know what she bought, and how much she paid: it was published as part of her newsfeed, without her permission.

“Big deal,” you think.  “It was a coffee table.”

But be sure to read the Comments that accompany Charlene’s post.  THIS ONE in particular.  This poor guy, “Will,” bought his girlfriend an engagement ring at, and soon after:

Imagine my horror when I learned that Overstock had published the details of my purchase (including a link to the item and its price) on my public Facebook newsfeed, as well as notifications to all of my friends. ALL OF MY FRIENDS, including my girlfriend, and all of her friends, etc…


What should have been a life-altering, sweet conversation between two lovebirds became a very public disaster, thanks to Facebook.  (Only Scoble would buy a ring that way!)

There are far smarter people than me discussing these issues, but I think Tony Hung (whom I deeply admire) actually got it wrong on this one.  He suggests that Facebookers are sheep who ultimately won’t care about the data & privacy abuses of the Beacon system.  But I think that when a major news outlet like CNN (or even an aggregator like Google News) catches wind of stories like Will’s, it’s gonna explode – along with Facebook’s current book value.

Starting a conversation that invites others to join in, at their leisure, is okay.  Participating in an ongoing conversation (with transparency) is okay. 

But hijacking a person’s privacy in order to sound informed when entering or starting a conversation is wrong

As Danny Sullivan recently said of Facebook’s new advertising system in Advertising Age: “Go. Away.”

UPDATE: This issue continues to smolder.  (And no one smolders like Hugh MacLeod.)  I wonder if Facebook is listening?

Giving Thanks

IStock_000004002358XSmallI am thankful to the fast-moving, fast-thinking and indefatigable people of SHIFT Communications. 

I am thankful to our clients, who entrust us with their precious reputations. 

I am thankful to my colleagues in the blogosphere, who use their valuable time to inspire and educate us all. 

I am thankful to y-o-u, the readers of this blog: the fact that you take the time to read & participate here still astounds and humbles me.

I am thankful to God, Lady Luck (and her brother, Dumb Luck), for any successes I’ve enjoyed in my work and in raising a family.

I am thankful to my first real boss, Herb Foster, who never hesitated to scrawl a Big Red “X” through my initial press release drafts.  He wouldn’t tell me what I’d done wrong – coulda’ been a typo, coulda’ been anything – he made me figure it out for myself.  The teaching of self-reliance is a gift.

But mostly, I am thankful to Bill Miller. 

Bill was a college buddy of mine.  During those fuzzy, drug-addled days, he was my go-to guy when I needed to confide some doubts and frustrations about my current girlfriend.  We were going through a rough patch and I was seriously considering a break-up.  Or so I thought.

I can still remember every detail of the moment in which Bill exploded my misconceptions. 

C6311-1193691006“Give me a break,” he grunted.  “You are absolutely crazy about that girl.”

It was the closest I’ve ever come to a sun-through-the-clouds revelation.  With that simple, matter-of-fact declaration, I (finally) knew it; it soaked right into the marrow: she was The One. 

Almost 20 years later, I’m still thankful to Bill for helping me to realize it. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  I’ll be back to blogging next week.  But now, I’m outta here.  A certain Special Someone is baking her famous apple pie today …

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