Word of mouth can’t be manufactured

by Mathew on January 18, 2009 · 13 comments

Update:

Belkin has released a statement saying it was unaware such activities were taking place and that it is “extremely sorry.” The company said that Belkin “does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this. We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction.” The full note is at CrunchGear.

Original post:

A couple of days ago, an astute blogger poking around Amazon’s Mechanical Turk “crowd-sourcing” engine discovered that someone from Belkin — a company that makes computer and electronic peripherals like mice, USB hubs and so on — was paying people through Mechanical Turk to submit fake reviews to Amazon of Belkin products. The wording of the ad (which offered to pay the princely sum of 65 cents for each review) was very specific. It said:

“– Always give a 100% rating (as high as possible)
– Write as if you own the product and are using it
– Mark any other negative reviews as ‘not helpful’”

I have no doubt that whoever came up with this idea — I don’t know if it was Michael Bayard, the Belkin employee whose name was on the ad, or someone else in the organization — thought they were pretty smart. After all, what better way to harness the Web’s “conversational” marketing than by paying people to spread the good word about Belkin’s stuff? Simple as pie. I’m sure the same thoughts went through the minds of whoever came up with a similar Nvidia campaign a couple of years ago. Pay a few people to pretend they like your gear, and Bob’s your uncle. Web 2.0 FTW!

As I’ve often said when I talk to groups of marketing people about social media, this kind of strategy — or even Wal-Mart’s disastrous motor-home adventure — seem like a great idea, right up until someone finds out about it and blows the whistle (and surely by now everyone knows that’s going to happen eventually, the Internet being what it is). And when that happens, you will not only lose whatever goodwill you thought you were buying with your 65-cent reviews, but you will lose a bunch more besides. You will wind up in a hole, since people will now believe that even things you didn’t pay for were either paid for or fraudulent in some way.

It’s easy to understand why someone would come up with that kind of strategy. It must be frustrating to see word of mouth becoming such a powerful force, and your company not getting what you feel is your fair share of it. So why not goose things a little? Because it inevitably fails, that’s why. The best marketing, they say, is having a product and service that doesn’t suck. If you don’t have that, then paying people to say you do isn’t going to help, and in fact is going to put you even further behind the eight ball. To all of you in the marketing biz, please remember: Friends don’t let friends use manufactured word of mouth campaigns.

  • http://ari.kesisoglu.com Ari K

    wow, never heard of this before. What you say makes perfect sense, it's such a short term and dangerous strategy. Well, apparently we also need technologies to rate the raters :)

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  • http://thenoisychannel.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    A big part of the problem is the anonymity of reviewers. Why would I trust the opinion of someone who isn't willing to stand behind his or her recommendation? Of course, after the recent case of a Yelp reviewer being sued, I'm sure many people are afraid of being liable for the content of their reviews. But the problem remains: if reviewers are anonymous, it's that much easier for them to be shills. There's no deterrent of accountability.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    ” everyone knows that’s going to happen eventually”

    Oh? How do you know that? At the very least, admit the logical paradox.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Alright, Seth — I admit the logical paradox. Happy now?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=550606228 Scott Kinoshita

    I'm going to go out on a limb and say “experience”. I'm in the marketing industry and it annoys me when people want to try to “cheat”.

    For one thing, it ruins a system of reviews by polluting it with bad data.

    For another, like Mathew says, it's not worth the risk. When I look at the risk-to-gain ratios, you have the potential of MAYBE getting people's attention vs. definitely RUINING your reputation. To me, “cheating” to win just admits that the person or org. didn't think they were good enough in the first place.

    Social media isn't for forcing an opinion on others, I think the best use of it is to LISTEN to people.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Scott. I think you are right.

  • http://www.yaps4u.net shinerweb

    Good points, good article.
    You only have to look at the mess that “Web Hosting Reviews” have got themselves into.

    It's so bad that it is basically pointless paying any attention to pretty much any of the reviews out there. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is nigh on impossible for anyone without a clue about web hosting (exactly those who would need to search for reviews in the first place).
    Do a google for “web hosting reviews” and you'll find that most of them on the first two pages all use affiliate ID's in links back to the web hosting companies.
    They actually take payment from web hosting companies in order to artificially rank higher.
    Who ever pays the most, ranks the highest.
    Being able to track the person giving the feedback does give some confidence, but even then, that can be managed.
    Best only to take the opinion of friends and associates which is one area that building a reputable list of contacts via Social Media can help, but only if you don't just blindly add every Tom, Dick and Harriet to your list.
    I like the system used on Ecademy (http://www.ecademy.com), but even that has been and is being abused. But it's better than most other systems.
    When someone on there recommends something, I can at least look at their profile, gain an understanding of how much trust I can place on their opinions.
    Build a network of people whose opinions and thoughts you can trust.
    Never trust the word of a reviewer you don't know.

    Chris

  • http://computermusicman.blogspot.com music man

    I always check the product reviews on amazon before buying something. this post makes me think twice about trusting these reviews. This sort of thing happens all over the place not just amazon

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  • http://www.agentwildfire.com Sean Moffitt

    Mathew,

    I'll take a slightly contrarian view here – but before I do – i'll agree with you – WOM doesn't get manufactured although it may get hosted, paying people is wrong, product is always the name of the game and goosing is wrong in nearly every arena of life – as a word of mouth marketer – you can wear a white hat, play by the ethical rulebook and still make your clients come out better.

    The bad examples tend to get the media attention, where the good ones can get short shrift by traditional media (nobody likes to hear about saving cats out of trees either).

    Here's the counter argument – great products can be ignored, average products don't appear different – why?

    They lack a compelling idea/story, the experience they provide at all touchpoints not just the product is hamstrung, they fail to reach the right influential audience, they don't incubate an experience with the brand, they don't create dialogue or interaction that builds value to the brand, and they don't learn from what's being said in the grapevine about their product/brand.

    Would it be better to support brash advertising that speaks over top their audience and brags “look at me, look at me”, or pushy PR that peddles manufactured stories at vulnerable journalists or overpriced, lazy sponsorship that brandishes a corporate swath on huge chunks of culture without really believing or living it – no, good friends don't allow friends to spend in a one-way world when people/customers are craving connection, collaboration, communication and community. That's the bigger sin.

    There are good guys plying their trade out here in WOM land that are uncomfortable being lumped in with the MLMers, Roach baiters, shill marketers and fake bloggers…it does the entire industry a disservice when you don't make the distinction.

  • http://www.agentwildfire.com Sean Moffitt

    Mathew,

    I'll take a slightly contrarian view here – but before I do – i'll agree with you – WOM doesn't get manufactured although it may get hosted, paying people is wrong, product is always the name of the game and goosing is wrong in nearly every arena of life – as a word of mouth marketer – you can wear a white hat, play by the ethical rulebook and still make your clients come out better.

    The bad examples tend to get the media attention, where the good ones can get short shrift by traditional media (nobody likes to hear about saving cats out of trees either).

    Here's the counter argument – great products can be ignored, average products don't appear different – why?

    They lack a compelling idea/story, the experience they provide at all touchpoints not just the product is hamstrung, they fail to reach the right influential audience, they don't incubate an experience with the brand, they don't create dialogue or interaction that builds value to the brand, and they don't learn from what's being said in the grapevine about their product/brand.

    Would it be better to support brash advertising that speaks over top their audience and brags “look at me, look at me”, or pushy PR that peddles manufactured stories at vulnerable journalists or overpriced, lazy sponsorship that brandishes a corporate swath on huge chunks of culture without really believing or living it – no, good friends don't allow friends to spend in a one-way world when people/customers are craving connection, collaboration, communication and community. That's the bigger sin.

    There are good guys plying their trade out here in WOM land that are uncomfortable being lumped in with the MLMers, Roach baiters, shill marketers and fake bloggers…it does the entire industry a disservice when you don't make the distinction.

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