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.

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