A shared goal of every marketer toiling in the social spheres is to identify and amplify the voices of their brands’ most passionate advocates. The process of finding, anointing and catalyzing online brand ambassadors has evolved over the years after a rocky start.
In the pre-Twitter and Facebook era, one cruise line “listened to the online conversation” and identified its frequent voyagers who happened to be prolific posters on cruise review sites. The company seduced these folks with exclusive invitations to launch parties and early access to cruise news. These anointed few were all too happy to subsequently sing the praises of their new benefactor…until of course The Consumerist site outed the relationship as a kind of pay-for-play scheme. Here’s how that piece opened:
“Caribbean Champions,â€ a group of fifty prolific posters to popular online communities that Royal Caribbean rewards with special access and free cruises in exchange for their frequent and positive commentary. The Champions were outed by their creators, the Customer Insight Group, which boasted on their company blog that the potent group is â€œregularly leveraged for ongoing marketing initiates. Members of the popular reviewing site Cruise Critic, one of the main targets of the program, are understandably pissed.”
|Vail Ski Resort (Photo: RockyMountainMagazine)|
The travel industry seemed to be chock-a-block full of nefarious methods to build “third-party” endorsement. A mommy blogger friend of mine, with a large following, accepted a free (fam) trip to New York City to hear from Vail Resorts about just how special it is. The mommy’s subsequent post gushed with this sentiment.
Even this blogger is often emailed by ethically challenged marketing types promising payment for writing about a certain subject or guest-posting their pre-fabricated story.
In the social media era, marketers look for influencers on Twitter and brand advocates on Facebook whose product-promoting musings they seek to amplify through paid and other means. (Didn’t Facebook settle a lawsuit in October whereby it amplified many Facebook denizens’ POVs without their permission?)
The industry continues to struggle with ethical challenges involving pay-for-play, or play without cognizance schemes. Who’ll forget Wal-Mart’s infamous astroturfing campaign whereby “Jim and Laura” traveled in an RV from store to store ostensibly to praise the company. One problem: what was publicly positioned as an organic happening, was not. The two held jobs at the retailer’s PR firm.
In a not dissimilar vein, we now learn of an expensive advertising campaign by one of America’s biggest wireless and ISP providers Verizon. Apparently, Verizon fiOS has “incentivized” several of its happy broadband customers to tweet about their experience and to answer questions from randoids in the Twittersphere.
What’s more, the company is featuring them in a prime time TV commercial with their real Twitter handles.
“The thrust of the ad is to present customers Liana Rowe, Mike â€œThe Gooseâ€ Steinmetz, and Regina Schneider as normal human beings â€” not just paid shills â€” who genuinely love their FiOS product so much that they are willing to answer any tweet-questions you have about the fiber-optic service. ‘Send a tweet to a real FiOS customer, and theyâ€™ll tell you just how amazing FiOS really is,’ Burrellâ€™s narration implores as the three customersâ€™ twitter handles appear on-screen.”
The ethical issue lies of course in their description as “real fiOS customers.” They may be real, but they’re also paid for their services in spite of the following disclaimer attached to their Twitter profiles:
â€œThis Twitter user is a real FiOS customer incentivized by Verizon to share his/her own opinions and thoughts on FiOS service. The thoughts and opinions expressed by participants in this program are completely independent of Verizon.â€
At least Verizon is upfront, though not too specific about the nature or amount of its inventive to these real customers. I still find it a bit squirrelly, especially since the pay-for-play element will likely be lost on most viewers.
Full Disclosure: The blogger is a happy fiOS customer.