Astroturfing - is it worth the risk?

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Astroturfing is an extremely controversial marketing practice. No wonder that usually such activities are presented in a negative light. Why? Because they are dishonest and dishonest. Even so, they are… everywhere. You do not believe? Read and find out. 

The chances that each of us has encountered astroturfing are close to the 100%. How it's possible? If the people behind him have done their job well, chances are we didn't even know it. Especially in the age of social media. Let's start, however, by explaining what this quite mysterious-sounding phenomenon is.

What is astroturfing? Definitions

Astroturfing is an informal term for a campaign or news that appears completely natural at first glance. However, they are actually bottom-up, by companies or other organizations. The very name astroturfing was created as a combination of the meanings of two terms. First of all, AstroTurf is a popular producer of artificial grass in the United States, which covers e.g. sports fields. As the brand itself advertises its product, it is intended to provide the playing surface with the most realistic sports performance, the longest durability and solid protection for the player. This grass just looks real.

The second term astroturfing is based on is a term grassroot, denoting the roots of real grass and referring to grass-roots activities, created by people spontaneously and on their own initiative. When these activities are quasi-spontaneous and quasi-genuine, they are made to appear real, we are dealing with astroturfing campaigns.  

Astroturfing hides the financial and business links between the company or other entity initiating the action and the message. The goal is to make corporate communications more digestible and even welcomed to the public. This is unlike open propaganda that the public can easily dismiss. The key element of astroturfing is to create a false impression that a given idea or opinion has broad public support. 

How does astroturfing work in the online world? 

In today's world, astroturfing can be done in the mode online or offline. In both cases, the problem with astroturfing is that, thanks to dishonest tactics, companies are taking advantage of people's trust. So regardless of the area of operation, they cheat here and here. 

Traditional astroturfing was aimed mainly at decision-makers and politicians. It was intended to support or oppose an idea, politician, or event. While traditional astroturfing was successful in some areas, new communication channels, and especially the Internet, have fundamentally changed the rules of communicating with audiences. They also provided new possibilities in the field of astroturfing. 

From a social psychology perspective, the impact of online astroturfing can be compared to that of social evidence on people. The effect of online astroturfing can be defined as the degree to which an astroturfing campaign has changed the viewer's opinion or level of conviction on a specific topic. Astroturfing is undertaken by companies that present a product as highly desired and sought after by a certain group of customers via message boards, blogs or sponsored articles. There is no evidence whatsoever to support such a claim. 

70% consumers trust the opinions posted by other Internet users on the web.

Make sure they are of use to you.

Astroturfing and professional ethics

If you want to reflect on the relationship between astroturfing and ethics, you first need to outline how astroturfing works and explain what ethics actually is.

It is safe to say that astroturfing is a technique as old as the world. Once upon a time, long before the Internet was popular, astroturfing was a bit more complicated. Its implementation required considerable financial outlays and a lot of commitment. Today - in the era of online opportunities - activities in the field of astroturfing have become easier to implement. Is that okay? Not necessarily.

Hundreds or even thousands of people can now be misled without much effort. Astroturf marketing can manifest itself, for example, in buying flattering opinions about a brand or products, or creating favorable comments about competitors. The purpose of such action is to create artificial popularity. Build hype around the brand and discredit competition. Thus, achieving market dominance, generating greater profits, distinguishing yourself from the competition. Is it ethical to pretend to be a consumer, spreading false information and thus spreading disinformation? I guess there is no doubt that it is not.

Professional ethics is a set of norms that set out specific moral obligations related to the performed profession and social professional relations - otherwise they are written norms answering the question of how, for moral reasons, representatives of a given profession should and should not act.

Ethics in marketing is carrying out advertising activities in accordance with generally accepted social principles and values important to society. Honesty and authenticity are considered the most important principles of ethical marketing. The messages created are not based on fraud and understatement, but on truth, trust and credibility.

Ethical marketing is about building a positive image based on honesty, trust and effective communication, as well as lasting ties with recipients. The ethical campaign should not mislead the target group, which is not in line with the assumptions of astroturfing. Astroturfing is an act of natural spontaneity. It is a strategy that is based on a lie, and as the old truth says, "lies have short legs." So is it worth the risk?

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Astroturfing - is it worth the risk?

Is astroturf marketing really… marketing? Although the name is misleading, there is no doubt that astroturfing should not be considered as a promotion. Marketing is customer relationship management, which consists in satisfying their needs by creating goods that respond to these needs - while communicating the value of created products. Marketing supports sales by striving to respond to the desires and expectations of customers and building strong relationships based on trust and partnership. Astroturfing is creating artificial noise around a brand / product or causing scandals around specific companies (usually competitors). It is a deliberate misleading of the target group and has nothing to do with marketing.

Is it worth using astroturfing? A modern entrepreneur must exercise extreme caution before taking any action on the market. Why? Because today's recipients are more aware, open and demanding people. They are not manipulated so easily. They have access to many tools that allow them to verify the accuracy of information. Scams and insincere actions always come to light sooner or later. Unfortunately, unethical actions can destroy customers' trust in the brand - and remember that even a short-term decrease in trust can have very negative consequences in the future of the company. Campaigns based on sowing disinformation are the easiest way to lose loyal customers and consequently undermine company reputation.

Even though astroturfing may bring benefits for a while, it comes with too much risk. They are more effective in the long run marketing activities in accordance with the principles of ethics. Ethical marketing is a challenge. However, it is definitely worth taking up the gauntlet. A properly planned strategy and well-considered, well-conducted activities are a recipe for success. It's a way to build a positive brand image on the market – an image based on trust, authenticity and honesty.

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A company that acts fairly has a greater chance of achieving spectacular success on the market than a company that uses manipulative techniques, plays on the emotions and feelings of recipients, and acts dishonestly. Ethical marketing causes positive associations to appear in the minds of customers when thinking about the brand. Recipients identify with the brand, and thanks to this, it achieves excellent results and climbs up the next levels of the market hierarchy.

An alternative to astroturfing - how to ethically gain popularity?

We already know that astroturfing is not the best way to promote a brand. A campaign based on disinformation carries too high a risk. A much better solution is to use other forms and marketing tools that - unlike astroturfing - are safe and at the same time highly effective. An example would be viral marketing.

As part of viral marketing, the company prepares an unusual, interesting message that is shared on social media. It can be a movie, an infographic or a photo with an appropriate inscription - it all depends on the distribution channel and the brand's vision. The most important thing is that the post is attractive to users. Thanks to this, recipients will continue to share it until it goes viral (hence the name of this form of marketing). A well-planned and properly conducted viral marketing can generate huge ranges, and thus create hype around the brand. But how to prepare a good message?

A brand that wants to use viral marketing in its strategy should first of all know the market in which it operates. Knowing your target audience is crucial. It is up to the recipients whether the prepared message will be accepted. They will share it further, generating ranges, or completely oil it, because it will not suit their tastes.

Therefore, the first step should always be to analyze your target audience. You should examine the expectations, preferences, interests of recipients, learn about the values they follow, the jokes that make them laugh, the things they like and those they don't like.

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Creativity is what counts in viral marketing. The message must be brilliant, attractive, original and memorable. It has to stand out from the thousands of pieces of information users find when browsing social media. Viral advertising it can amuse, move, delight or otherwise influence emotions. It shouldn't be negative. It cannot offend, pigeonhole or harm someone else's dignity. It should be positive, perfectly suited to the character, identity and vision of the brand and fully suited to the target group. A good viral ad is one that subtly combines promotion with entertainment. It does not focus solely on promoting a product or brand. There is more to it than that. The point is to effectively interest the recipients and evoke specific feelings in them. Promoting your brand / product is just a small addition.

Multiple source effect, i.e. the power of persuasion 

Astroturfing can be effective because its mechanisms are based on the use of knowledge about human nature. The multiple source effect was first identified in the 1980s. During the experiment, the researchers found that people who received multiple arguments from multiple sources were most convinced compared to the other study groups. In groups where participants received a single argument from multiple sources, they were less convinced.

The members of the third surveyed group were the least convinced, receiving many arguments from one source. The study showed that both the number of sources and the number of arguments play an important role in persuasion. Another experiment sought to find out why multiple sources make it target group is more likely to recognize the message addressed to her. The results of the study showed that multiple sources improve human message processing. According to the audience, arguments from various sources are more likely. They are seen as different perspectives provided by different people.  

In environment online the identity of users who generate different content is virtually impossible to verify. People who post reviews on the Internet use any identifiers, such as a username or an IP address. From a technical point of view, it is impossible for normal network users to see who is behind them. Online astroturfer can therefore easily disguise itself with different identities, and users may see these identities as independent sources of information. Consequently, Internet users may believe that the information comes from many different users.

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Astroturfing in Poland 

Why, despite the risk, some companies still decide to astroturf? 70% of consumers trusts the opinions posted by other internet users on internet forums and in social media. No wonder that companies perceive astroturfing as attractive, because it is an exceptionally effective form of reaching customers. UOKiK examines this type of unfair market practice in terms of violating collective consumer interests. However, the Internet and its anonymity as well as good preparation of entities that implement astroturfing make the scale of this phenomenon impossible to fully estimate. Especially since some agencies accept such orders, forgetting about professional ethics.  

Promoting anything with fake information and mixing fiction with reality is a very dangerous technique. Atroturfing is forbidden in many countries. There are serious consequences for detecting actions bearing its hallmarks. In Poland, this type of activity is not legally regulated, or at least not directly. There is no relevant legislation. Most of your advertising rights apply to the item being advertised, not how it is advertised. An EU directive is in force, according to which advertising messages in the media must be clearly marked. Nevertheless, the development of technology combined with the ingenuity of marketers allows a lot.  

Consequences of astroturfing  

While many of the fictional comments may be deceptively real, if the public discovers it is astroturfing, they will have no mercy. Consumers perceive such manipulations very unfavorably. Therefore, if a company is caught astroturfing, it can be of great harm not only to it public relations. If the incident is widespread or well-publicized, not only the company's image but also sales and reputation will suffer.  

It is estimated that up to a third of all online reviews are faked, meaning some forms of astroturfing are common. Effective marketing, customer service and product quality make the need for astroturfing activities unnecessary. Especially since if they are discovered, the danger of losing credibility and even the possibility of taking legal action against the company outweigh the potential benefits. Loss of credibility, i.e. how customers, stakeholders, competitors and the general public perceive you and your brand, depends on many factors. However, credibility is one of the brand's most important assets. The use of deceptive practices can effectively undermine it. 

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