Is Astroturfing Smart Content Generation?


We live in a time when most consumers, for both B2C and B2B, search the Internet to find information and solutions. They may not buy the product or service online, but they’ll often know exactly what they want to buy before they contact the supplier.

This demand for information has fostered a new era of content generation; and in a myriad of formats: blogs, articles, press releases, white papers, case studies, PDFs, interviews, chats, posts, texts, infographics, animated graphics, photos, slide shows, webinars, RSS feeds, videos, podcasts… An overwhelming and never-ending deluge of content designed to entertain, inform and educate (and ultimately persuade) you. Your expectation, as a consumer, to find an abundance of relevant and available information has spawned more information in the past decade than the world has ever produced in its history. This content generation is all for you, do you feel special?

Marketers would like you to feel special. They would especially like you to heed their content, see the wisdom in their information and subscribe to their solution. But, more often than not these days, you’re not listening. And, it’s not just the deafening cacophony of all this content shouting for your attention. Many consumers aren’t listening because they are distrustful of branded sources of information.

Corporations are working hard to build their brand online and earn your attention, maybe even your loyalty. While many consumers are skeptical of corporate motives, preferring instead to place their faith in the online reviews posted by strangers. The Internet has democratized the age of information.

What’s a corporation to do to cut through the noise and gain your attention, when your ear is tuned to other consumers rather than corporate messaging? It may be tempting to help sway public opinion with some guided content masquerading as consumer-posted blogs, comments or testimonials.

From Wikipedia: Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.

Essentially, astroturfing is corporate content posing as unbiased, public support to positively position a product, service or brand. This is done via a fake blog (flog) or website, fake reviews, endorsements, comments, etc.

Some marketers may simply see this as a form of online guerilla marketing. Marketing is about persuasion after all, what could be better than packaging information in a manner that will readily be accepted by the targeted audience? If the information is correct and true, does it matter how it is presented to the public?

I believe that it does, and that consumers see it this way as well. Astroturfing is disingenuous; it is the opposite of grassroots support, which is a primary objective of most branding efforts. Along with n aspect of information democracy, the Internet has facilitated greater transparency. Consumers may not expect more from their brands, but now they can often determine how well brands are living up to their messaging. It is incumbent on corporations and marketers to proceed with integrity. When it comes to building awareness, trust and positioning a brand — fake it ‘til you make it is not a good philosophy.

Engaging in astroturfing is misleading at best, and never a good way to try and build a consumer relationship. Establishing a strong brand and earning consumers’ attention and loyalty takes time and money to do it right. The corporations that invest in insightful and worthwhile content, who listen to their audience and invite a dialogue, who are genuine in serving their consumers’ needs — these are the brands that will rise above the cacophony and build loyal relationships.

For some guidelines on creating good content, check out Donna Kind’s Back to School: Content Generation 101.

For some thoughts on using social media to engage your consumers, check out Alexa Oliver’s Customer Service Is Social.

What are your thoughts on astroturfing; where do you draw the line when creating content for consumers?