Kare Anderson of Say it Better pointed out this piece of fiction to me from The New Yorker magazine. “Raj, Bohemian” is about a guy getting the distinct feeling that everyone around him has fallen into an endless cycle of promoting things. It gets to be a little much when he realizes that some of the people in his circle do this for a living, as a way of spreading the word around about their clients’ products and services. Word of mouth marketing gone stealth. The Pay Per Post of the spoken word. It makes me wonder about our online communities and the notion of reputation.
The Internet is perfect for this kind of thing. We don’t even have to see our face to face friends. Our new social network “friends” can tell us plenty about products without telling us whether they’re being paid to talk about it. Should we be critical? Should we see advertisers under every stone?
Stealth Pitching and Communities
People are more wired than ever before. It’s real easy to find holes in information, simple to fact check a little bit. To that end, companies that are willing to risk their community’s trust by pitching in a stealthy way are taking chances with their brand. Every time we see a Walmarting Across America, that sticks with us. Sometimes, we change our behavior as consumers because of it. Other times, we don’t.
By the way, I’m sure these tactics work, so let’s not discount the fact that stealth pitching brings in cold hard cash for companies.
I should point out that apathy is in abundance on such matters, and has been since the end of the 1960s (at least in America). We learned how not to trust our government. We understood that companies were (are) in it for the money. And in lots of cases, we shrug and we don’t care. Not all of us, surely, but there are plenty of people who shrug off the things big companies do, and just accept them as the status quo.
Maybe you’re someone who fights against such moments. Me? Admittedly, I fall into the “apathetic” category from time to time. I shop at Wal-Mart sometimes, even though I know the negatives that go with it.
So, here we are with a lot of questions, and not many answers. We are awash in opportunities to be covertly influenced on our social networks of choice.
It Comes Back to Trust
I have a very healthy respect for staying true to this community. I never want you to wonder whether something I’m raving about is because someone paid me to say it. It’s just not on the table. When I feel there’s an external influence to something I’m saying (like if I talk about Utterz, I always try to mention that I’m on the advisory board), then I will do my very best to separate that from random ravings about something. The currency of my relationship with you is trust. You won’t bother reading what I have to say if you wonder about my ulterior motives.
Am I completely unbiased? No. Is anyone?
Mechanisms for trust need to find their way into social networks. Reputation systems, not unlike the ones created in eBay and LinkedIN and Amazon, would help add much needed context and history and transparency to the “me” that floats around on the web, on Twitter, on Facebook. Perhaps this is an opt-in situation, like logging in via OpenID, or maybe it’s just some kind of 3rd party validation system you can send someone to, should a conversation veer into waters where it’s necessary.
I’m not suggesting that privacy be surrendered. This isn’t something that requires people give up the option of having an anonymous persona on the web. Instead, I’m saying that for people who seek to represent themselves for who they are, a reputation engine might be one way to clear up some of the fears of blind, stealth pitching.
Doing an Honest Job
I think advertising and marketing and public relations can be done honestly, and that turning pitches into conversations isn’t inherently evil. I believe people DO want to understand products and services, and have a relationship with certain brands. My concern is with tactics, and especially with how people might use social networks and social media to forward an agenda without being explicit about their involvement.
I never want to discount the good work professional advertising, marketing, and PR people are doing with social networks.
Are You Secretly Being Pitched?
Some would argue that we’re ALL pitching something. When I use Twitter to share the link to this post, that’s a pitch. When I show you my nifty new ebook, that’s a pitch. But the question is more on the hidden motives, more than whether or not you’re being encouraged in one direction or another.
What’s your take? on all this?
The Social Media 100 is a project by Chris Brogan dedicated to writing 100 useful blog posts in a row about the tools, techniques, and strategies behind using social media for your business, your organization, or your own personal interests. Swing by [chrisbrogan.com] for more posts in the series, and if you have topic ideas, feel free to share them, as this is a group project, and your opinion matters.
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All the screen caps I do are made with Plasq’s Skitch.