Astroturfing – Advertising without telling anyone

What is Astroturfing?

“The last time a friendly tourist asked you to take their picture with an impressive new camera or an attractive woman at the bar said you could buy her a drink; they both may have been working.”

Astroturf originally refers to the fake grass that is often used on sports fields to replace grass. In the marketing field, astroturfing also goes by the name of undercover marketing, stealth marketing or buzz marketing. These words are enough for anyone to figure out that whatever methods are involved, they are not too pretty, and probably border on unethical.

This sort of marketing involves advertising to people in a way that they do not think of it as advertising. The best example, as listed by Wikipedia, is Sony Ericsson which, in 2002, hired actors to accost strangers on the street and ask them to take their pictures with their Sony Ericsson phone. This automatically showed the stranger how good a device it was, a fact further driven in by the hired man continually talking about the great features of the device without making it look like marketing. There are no statistics to show how effective this was, but it is easy to imagine how successful this campaign must have been.

We, of course, are not worried about marketing on the streets. We are concerned with what goes on online.

How effective is it?

The mesh of wires termed the Internet affords marketers and anonymity level not provided by offline marketing. This can allow undercover marketing to be used much more effectively.

Probably no one knows how to use astroturfing better than Apple, whose products always generate a hype of a level unmatched by products of any other company. While it is unlikely that you will be able to get your message out to as many people as Apple, the tactics employed by them are still worth studying. The leaked prototype of the iPhone 4, for example, is considered by many to be a deliberate attempt to generate buzz.

But how do you market services effectively? Or how do you market your products? Surely, a leaked product by some little known manufacturer will be of little consequence, rendering Apple’s tactics useless.

How do you use it?

“I was with a bunch of hot girls and we would just walk into bars, whip out our BlackBerries and try to get guys to look at them by flirting.”
-Julia Royter (source)

To make undercover marketing work, you need a team. It is virtually impossible to do it alone.

One of the most effective methods to do it is to ghostwrite a few blog posts positively speaking about your product or hiring freelancers to review your product/service on various forums.

Another tried and tested method is to use sites like Yahoo! Answers. You might have yourself noticed people giving a link in the “source of answer” field. Sometimes, they are honest individuals who really did get their information from there. Most times, they are marketers who have probably even hired someone to post relevant questions so that they can answer with their links. The average man is none the wiser.

Sites like Wikipedia are also widely used. Since it is so easy to create/edit a page on Wikipedia, numerous marketers use it to create a page for their company, making sure to use a positive tone throughout.

Is it dangerous?

You bet it is! While the dangers of undercover marketing online are much lesser compared to offline marketing, the dangers still exist. In many cases it can backfire. For example, if someone realizes you faked a Wikipedia page and if that someone happens to be a popular blogger, he/she can bring your reputation crashing down with one blog post. You can forget selling your product/service after that.

Astroturfing, undercover marketing, stealth marketing or buzz marketing – whatever you call it, there’s no doubting the fact that it is extremely effective. Used correctly, it will generate huge profits with very little investment.