User-generated content is a veritable goldmine for businesses, whether the content supports sales, as in the case of reviews, or user-generated content IS the business model, as on YouTube.
Examples of user-generated content include Apple, which encouraged iPhone users to develop apps, resulting in the full-fledged app store they operate today. Or services like YouTube and Facebook that are built entirely around the sharing of user-generated content. User-generated content is all around us. Other types of user-generated content, such as user reviews of products, are valuable because they are organic. People are more inclined to trust a user review than a review from another business because users have no “skin in the game” and thus have no reason to lie.
But while user-generated content may look like organic content produced by a single individual who has no relationship to the company, that’s not always the case. In fact, by using a reliable proxy network, bot accounts, and pre-written content, a business or other entity can quickly spread its branded content while passing it off as organic user-generated content. Evidence from the 2016 election for US President shows how bots successfully manipulated emotions that potentially impacted the results.
The shed at Dulwich
We all encountered fake user reviews, or at least highly suspicious user reviews, at least a few times when researching products online. Such fake reviews are annoying. Moreover, the false messaging may cause potential harm when users buy products that don’t measure up to the review. The manipulation of user review systems not only has real consequences for users but may also cause severe damage to legitimate businesses when users distrust fake reviews. These reviews are such a serious concern that Amazon and other retailers work tirelessly to ferret them out for removal.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Vice reporter, who succeeded in getting their garden shed listed as a top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor.
Aptly named “The Shed At Dulwich”, all the reporter did was invest in a £10 burner phone, although you can use your own phone to save money, buy a domain name, and build a basic website. Oh, and he did manage to get a celebrity endorsement from the British actor Shaun Williamson (Barry from Eastenders, or Extras, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on). Still, anyone can get one of those these days.
After getting his friends to post some fake reviews for his fake restaurant, he cracked the top 10,000 restaurants on TripAdvisor. After hitting this point, requests for bookings at the restaurant inundated the reporter’s team and resulted in a flood of emails. Of course, there was no restaurant, so to hide the fakeness of the restaurant with the glowing fake reviews, anyone attempting to make a reservation was told the restaurant was fully booked, without disclosing an address for the restaurant or anything that might shed light on the fact there was no restaurant. The fake restaurant grew until it eventually hit the top of TripAdvisor.
The reporter succeeds with nothing more sophisticated than a £10 burner phone and a relatively small number of user reviews written by real people. The reporter’s stunt shows the real-world impact that fake reviews online can have.
Anyone who spends more than a few hours browsing Reddit’s most popular content on r/all or r/popular soon discovers an unhealthy love affair with Elon Musk and anything relating to Tesla/SpaceX. The level of admiration for Elon Musk isn’t just unhealthy, it’s unnatural, not only in terms of the amount of content posted about the brand and its primary shareholder but, thanks to Reddit’s signature upvote/downvote system, the level of apparent admiration for the man and his machines. Content and commentary that positively portrayed Musk got a disproportionate amount of exposure compared to content with more accurate portrayals of Musk.
The only other figure on Reddit able to attract the same unnatural level of praise as Elon Musk is Donald Trump.
Astroturfing involves people or organizations attempting to control the narrative surrounding them by pushing their message through apparently organic means. In the real world, astroturfing involved sending paid actors to local government meetings and paying them to ask particular questions or raise specific issues. Or, paying actors to show up to bolster flagging attendance simply. Online, astroturfing refers to the use of apparently regular individual user accounts to push a message.
When we look at the Reddit statistics for people like Elon Musk or businesses like Nintendo, we can see clear signs of online astroturfing. When you have multiple users saying the same thing consistently across various threads, you reasonably conclude astroturfing as the cause. Because Reddit gives its users control over what content gets promoted (upvoted) and which content gets buried (downvoted) if you employ enough users spreading a positive message, it’s possible to hide any negative news before other users see off message posts.
What does this mean for marketing?
Wherever you find user-generated content, marketers seek to exploit the situation. The power of organic, word-of-mouth marketing is undeniable. Marketers don’t need to resort to drastic tactics like astroturfing to promote their clients using user-generated content.
It is also clear that some users themselves are unable to distinguish between genuine user-generated content and marketing content when the brand uses individual accounts to hide the nature of the message. When brands use tactics like astroturfing, the two types of content are sometimes indistinguishable. However, many brands mastered the illusion to the point where even sophisticated users can’t detect their fakes. These brands ultimately end up pumping out a constant stream of apparently organic user-generated content that actually promotes their clients or pushes their marketing message rather than reflecting honest user opinions.
Online platforms must police themselves effectively or risk damage to their reputation. For instance, Facebook accepts videos from brands that appear to do the impossible. Over time, users discover the feats are, in fact, impossible and refuse to buy any products promoted through Facebook videos. Thus, false advertising hurts legitimate brands by eliminating a marketing tool and, ultimately, hurts Facebook by reducing the number of advertisers on the platform. Therefore, users themselves become wary of online advertising.
Further, using disingenuous tactics to produce fake user-generated content can backfire on the brand and result in alienating some of their audience when their users discover the deception.
Until online platforms hosting user-generated content start taking the issue more seriously and instituting harsher crackdowns, marketers can decide for themselves how aggressive they want to be in taking advantage of user-generated content. For some businesses, it might be best to dive in with both feet, but many should take a more cautious approach.
However, you decide to leverage user-generated content for your clients and brands; it is vital that you do so with an awareness of what you are doing. Remember, flooding online platforms built around user-generated content with artificial marketing content may severely damage your brand.
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