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Astroturfing On A Tight Budget

Journalists are often accused of being in the back pockets of the companies they cover. I've been accused of being a Microsoft shill many times when I say something favorable about the company, and even accused of being on their payroll. But all that effort for positive press coverage is so 1990s, dude. Why even deal with journalists when you can take your schmoozing and deception directly to the people?
Journalists are often accused of being in the back pockets of the companies they cover. I've been accused of being a Microsoft shill many times when I say something favorable about the company, and even accused of being on their payroll. But all that effort for positive press coverage is so 1990s, dude. Why even deal with journalists when you can take your schmoozing and deception directly to the people?The problem with advertising and marketing is that people can often see through the hype. When journalists are doing their duty, seeing through the hype is exactly what they are supposed to do. That's why some companies prefer a technique called "astroturfing" because it gives an impression of "grass roots support" that can circumvent the press and generate positive coverage that doesn't look like advertising.

So let's say you're responsible for generating good buzz about your company's products, but budgets are tight. Astroturfing is possibly the answer, you reason, but you don't have the people to spare in order to post all the glowing reviews. The answer might lie in services like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which provide an efficient forum for doing piecework.

This sort of reasoning appears to be what drove Belkin's Mike Bayard to post his request on the Mechanical Turk site. Make no mistake, Bayard is painstakingly clear about what he wants: "Write a 5/5 positive review on a Web site ... It doesn't matter if the reviewer doesn't own the product or has never tried it ... Write as if you own the product and are using it." If that wasn't blatant enough, the instruction writeup adds, "Mark any other negative reviews as 'not helpful' once you post yours."

Is Belkin the bad guy here? Not necessarily; it may have been one knucklehead working on his own. I have hired PR firms to generate buzz, only to find that their main activity was ham-handed astroturfing in discussion forums. Most regulars in any forum could see through such a stupid move, and when one of the forums told us what was happening we fired the agency. So perhaps nobody else inside Belkin knew this was happening, which would explain why Bayard went to Amazon in the first place -- he couldn't ask Belkin employees to do this dirty job.

So what is the moral of this story? Well, if you didn't know it already, it's a good idea to be skeptical of anonymous opinions you read on the Internet. But there's good news here, too. Instructions at a site like Mechanical Turk are there for all to see, and they can't be vague if you want people to do the job "right". That makes it easier for citizen journalists to investigate and expose shady practices in a way that we could never have done a decade or two ago.

Editor's Choice
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer