300′000$ Fine for Astroturfing

While I am an eBay employee, these opinions are my own.

According to Wikipedia: Astroturfing refers to apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms.

Astroturfing Fine

It’s not a new thing- actually I remember that the manager of a famous Internet Agency in Germany told me some years ago that they always do it to get better results on their customer campaigns. Back then I found it already a bit shocking because usually I am on the other side. I am one of these customers who try to rely on the results they get from certain campaigns. Actually most of the time I decided based on the findings from old campaigns or customer feedback to develop new campaigns.  When I am hiring an agency to speed up my product sales online and to bring my community and feedback section to live I expect they do it without astroturfing or other tools to raise click rates etc. When I surf in the internet as a private person to get insight in a new product I saw in the TV-ads last night I want to rely on the results I find in the feedback boards and discussion forums. Is this naive?

Some weeks ago the american company ” Lifestyle Lift” -which claims to have 100′000 customers in the US-was fined to pay a 300′000$ to New York State for publishing positive reviews on discussion boards and websites pretending they are consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories. Apparently the company leaders themselves engaged employees to bombard Internet message boards with positive stories about themselves. Lifestyle Lift employees were directed to create accounts with various Internet message boards and pose as satisfied customers of Lifestyle Lift. They even “attacked” real posters to force them to take of negative messages about Lifestyle lift. Lifestyle Lift really believed that they are able to keep control over messages posted about them in the internet not thinking about consequences if someone would figure it out.

Now they really have a problem not just that they have to pay the fine they are in the news all over and furthermore their online reputation is worst then ever.

To build trust again will be the hardest thing they ever did.

It’s the first case I read about where a company actually got fined for using this growing practice and it shows another trend: The internet is not as free and uncontrolled anymore as it seems. There are consumer groups out there and people who are passionate fighters for transparency and fairness in the internet? More and more cases pop up. More and more companies show up on the black list of so called “Watchers” (i.e. AntiAstroturfing)

I have to say that I like that there are internet users out there and control the practices of the big companies and their tries to influence the consumer in an intransparent way. But on the other hand: It was always the goal of marketing and PR to influence consumers in a positive way to make them buy certain services or products- it’s not new. Or as one of my former Marketing professors said: “Marketing is perception”. To get the right perception you need to find ways to influence it. Astroturfing exists since years. Just think about the pharmaindustry. Just today I read about a very intransparent Marketing campaign which was meant to convince parents to immunize their 12-17 year old daughters against the HPV VIRUS “Heftiger Disput zwischen Nobelpreisträger und Ärztekammer-Chef” (article in German) In Germany an immunization for HPV is officially advised by the commission of immunization (“Ständige Impfkommission- SIK) and is meant to prevent cervical cancer.

So where shall we draw a line? Where does Astrosurfing start and where does it end?

One of the learning’s I see here is: “Never force your employees to rate on your company products to help you boost up the sales:)”
If you want to comment on forums or message boards you should do it like eBay does. They have so called “pink liners” in their community boards. These are employees who are allowed to comment on the message boards. You recognize them on the logo next to their name, the official eBay address as well as the pink line on the top of their comments.

Example of an eBay Forum

This makes it very transparent for every community member. Within eBay only officially appointed pinkliners
are allowed to comment as an eBay employee or in the name of eBay. By this you ensure transparency.
I would be very interested to hear your comments and learn about your experiences concerning astroturfing.

Some interesting links:

About the Author

She is German, studied Business Economics and specialized in Digital Marketing by doing her Master at one of the top European Business Schools in Europe: the IE Business School. She has 9 years experience with E-Commerce and Internet projects, loves chocolate, books, writing and rockabilly festivals.