Marketing via social media is smart indeed. In stead of paying companies to spread your message (e.g. via ads from Google), you get the users to spread it themselves. What a great idea!
But there is one tricky part: it’s called “free will” and even though there is philosophical debate over it’s existence, it can still kill your campaigns.
What if people don’t spread your message? What if there is no buzz on blogs, Facebook, Twitter? What if the comment fields below your Youtube-videos remain empty? Then it’s really, really tempting to start writing the comments yourself, as if they came from a cheerful crowd of grass roots. But when you do that, you have crossed the line to astroturfing. Astroturfing is the discipline of faking public interest and has it’s origin in politics – it’s also known as “rent-a-crowd”.
But this is why it works – at least in the short run:
Many phenomena – bot offline and online ( like the now infamous “Karen26” campaign from VisitDenmark ) are not primarily spread socially by their contents alone. Often it’s only when a video, Facebook-group etc starts attracting interest, will it become interesting to the masses. Imagine that you see 100.000 people looking at the same object in the street on your way to work. What are the chances that you will look at it as well? The social interest itself makes the object more interesting – no matter what the object is. So if you can fake interest, more interest is more likely to follow.
Getting a high ranking on Google by creating link farms and thereby tricking google into thinking that your content is interesting is related to astroturfing, but there is a difference. When you hack Google, you trick a machine – when you astroturf, you trick people. (And if you do it badly, you end up in the Rachel Maddow show as seen below about 1 minute into the clip ).
The FACES of Coal campaign is a clear cut case of astroturfing, but what in the case of Karen26? Apparently, a seeding agency was used (GoViral?!) to plant it – and most importantly – to get the media hooked. My own first knowledge of the case came from a danish news reporter, who mailed me and wanted to know if I had any gossip and personally I think that the video would have flopped if it wasn’t for online newspapers. But is seeding astroturfing? And is it wrong?
I will not moralize here – it’s not my thing. And I can not draw the excact line between astroturfing and seeding. But I can give you one reason why I think it’s really unhealthy to use deception and try to hack people’s free wills into spreading your message:
It will not address the main issue here: that your product probably sucks. Fix it!