Reputation Management: How ‘Astroturfing’ Can & Will Hurt Your Business

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Reputation management is not a new concept. For years, marketing departments and agencies have worked to protect a company’s, brand’s or an individual’s public reputation. Recently, these practices have been called to question as there have been many individuals and organizations that have been caught utilizing more “black hat” techniques to boost the perceived positive image.

Summed up nicely in a recent article by Julie Bort, these practices “can involve anything from writing positive articles, launching websites to promote those articles, fake reviews, and biased Wikipedia articles, to plastering comments and links on blogs and other sites.”

The influx of online review sites has changed the landscape of a company’s online presence and the way consumers make their purchasing decisions. Some marketers have turned to black hat tactics, such as astroturfing, to protect and/or boost public perception of the brand.

Astroturfing: Customer Reviews the Wrong Way

Coined in 1985 by former US Senator Lloyd Bentsen, astroturfing in the digital world is the practice of writing fake reviews on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Google Local, etc.

As stated by The Guardian:

“In other words, the difference between the synthetic and the real, between bogus support for a position and the genuine expression of opinion.”

While there are many legitimate approaches to reputation management, these practices are not ethical, and in many states, illegal.

Legal Ramifications

Take for instance what happened last September in New York, when 19 companies had to pay over $350,000 in penalties for their astroturfing practices.

“The companies posted reviews on various sites while pretending to be real consumers, violating state laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices, the [Attorney General’s] office said. The alleged astroturfers spoofed IP addresses to hide their locations and make the reviews appear to come from multiple users.

“Each of the 19 companies signed assurances of discontinuation while agreeing to penalties anywhere from $2,500 to nearly $100,000.”

Aside from actual legal penalties and fines, there are additional ramifications of this practice.

Customer Loyalty and Astroturfing

In 2010, R2integrated (R2i) surveyed marketing professionals about astroturfing. The results, which showed that most professionals find the practice “highly unethical” or “unprofessional,” also provided key insights into consumer buying patterns.

“More than 70 percent of R2i survey respondents said they would stop buying from a brand or consider stopping if they found out that the brand had planted reviews.”

If you’re selling a product, or relying on consumer trust, this statistic alone should be reason enough to avoid using astroturfing as a means to protect your reputation.

Avoiding Astroturfing Claims

What is the easiest way to avoid any legal penalties? Eliminate any existing astroturfing practices and be as transparent as possible. To get started, check out this list of best practices from Kyle-Beth Hilfer:

  1. Never use fake online reviews.
  2. Disclose all material connections between your influencers and the brand.
  3. Understand that offering product or service or sweepstakes entry in exchange for a tweet is a material connection under the FTC’s standards.
  4. Review the laws of the state in which you operate. Chances are, it has false advertising statutes that empower state regulators to enforce the FTC’s standards.
  5. Ensure that your employees and agencies know you will not tolerate astroturfing. If you do not have policies in place, now is the time to create them. If you have policies, start monitoring to ensure their enforcement.

In Business, There’s No Room for Astroturfing

As you can see, astroturfing has an extremely negative affect on a brand’s reputation. In the short term, the practice may boost initial consumer perception and lead to a few sales, but the long term affects and penalties outweigh any short term benefit.

As you’re conducting business, partner with companies that know the value of customer service and are transparent with their internal practices. It’s also important that they know, and honor, all FTC guidelines. If you don’t, you risk tarnishing your own reputation as a side effect of their poor business practices.

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