Online astroturfing is the practice of creating fake reviews of products and services for the purpose of building seemingly “grassroots” support for a brand. Competition for consumers’ attention across a wide spectrum of media channels has led some marketers to employ deceitful conduct to give their clients' products a positive spin in review sites, Twitter, blogs and other forms of social media.
Word-of-mouth marketing, peer reviews and recommendations have become such a powerful force that some marketers are willing to go to any means necessary to get an edge over the competition. Yet astroturfing and similar practices are dishonest, unethical and can expose companies to significant consumer backlash, reputational damage and even litigation.
The free-wheeling nature of the web and ease of anonymous communication have created the conditions for unscrupulous operators to game the system. It’s incredibly easy to find any number of people willing to write glowing fake 5 star reviews for as little as just a few dollars. However, well-intentioned companies can be caught off-guard to learn that marketing messages which mislead consumers breach both the Australian Consumer Law and the Code of Ethics of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA).
Many companies are learning the hard way that fake reviews are more trouble than they’re worth. A New York plastic surgery franchise had to pay $300,000 in a settlement case with the New York Attorney General’s department for posting fake consumer reviews online. The travel review site TripAdvisor has been plagued by fake reviews to the extent that it is now under investigation by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) due to allegations that hotels are paying agents to boost their reviews.
The astroturfing problem has become so widespread that researchers from Cornell University have developed computer algorithms to detect fake reviews which have got the attention of companies like Amazon that rely on user-generated feedback to sell its products.
The fact of the matter is that successful marketing on the social web is predicated on radical transparency between brands and consumers. Companies that pretend to be who they’re not for short-term benefit just diminish the quality of everyone’s online experience in a race to the bottom. Companies should focus instead on creating goods and services that people love and in turn nurture genuine brand advocates.