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A venerable tradition in public relations is the grass-roots campaign. Get a solid issue behind you and get out the vote! Get people to chime in their support and try to get some attention. Maybe even circulate a petition. You don’t have to be in PR to know what this is and how effective it can be when done right. But when we started shifting PR online, we started shifting other things, too. Grass roots started to seem so 20th century. If, on the Internet, no one knows you are a dog, why bother getting real people for your grass-roots campaigns? Why not fake the whole thing? These fake grass roots campaigns, called astroturfing, caught on about ten years ago and still haven’t died out. 

All this was brought to mind when I recently did some dog food research for a client and it occurred to me that quite a few of the comments are astroturf. For example, here’s one over at Golden Retriever Forum:

eukanuba

“jrr,” join date: May 2012, post date: June 1, 2012, Location: SW Va, Posts: 40. How do I know? Well, from 2003-2006 I was in the astroturfing business. This post is typical and exhibits all the aspect of shilling: only around 20-50 posts (most proper members have accumulated hundreds if not thousands of posts), never moving past “new member,” generic profile photo, minimal background profile info, and a tendency to fire-and-forget. Here’s another one from The Lab Retriever Chat Board:

tractorSupply

“Snapperhead,” join date: June 2010, post date: January 16, 2011, Location: Irmo, South Carolina, Posts: 20. Again, it’s currently late 2013 and the number of posts has not progressed since 2011. OK, here’s how it goes:

1) Create an account 2) fill out an entire profile 3) engage in the community outside of whatever you want to promote for a couple weeks just to become a known entity until you rack up 20 or more posts 4) write a post about your client in such a way that it seems like the content is natural, organic, and part of the conversation.

This sort of stealth marketing is very effective, it seems, as it hasn’t gone away. I gave it up when my employer gave it up–or, was giving it up, as far as I knew; however, it seems like a lot of it is happening, too, based on recent press:

And, if there are fake reviews then there’s fake everything online. But, you really don’t need to, at least when it comes to engaging online with message boards, blogs, forums, and chat.

Here’s what you need to do:

1) You don’t need to skulk around anymore: the think about being a mole is that you need to spend half your life pretending you’re something you’re not, you’re somebody you’re not: you really don’t need to be. If you’ve got a product, a service, an expertise, or access to an industry, you really have something that would be not merely compelling to certain online communities but actually a real draw. Stop spending most of your time on spycraft and setting up the perfect back story and cover and spend that time, instead, becoming a generous contributor using your real name and your real brand.

2) You really don’t need fake reviews: While I haven’t done this in a while, it worked like magic back when I helped my friend Paul Barrett promote his book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun on the gun world’s sundry message boards and forums. I wrote about it a year-and-a-half ago in How Paul Barrett Won Over Gun Forums–when it comes down to it, if you’ve got something to promote you shouldn’t outsource to an army of shills; rather, you and your team should become bona fide members of the online communities that are germane to what you’re selling, to what you’re marketing–and, if you’re not in the middle of selling something, even better. It’s always better to become friends without intent and with no agenda. Build up the good intent and the trust before you start dropping links and using all that cheesy marketing copy your advertising team keeps feeding you.

3) Become a branded brand ambassador: People think professionals are cool. They only act like you’re “management” or “a sell-out” or “corporate” because they’re sure you think you’re too good for them. Prove them wrong. What’s cooler than having the author of a book on the history of Glock? What’s cooler than having a representative from the NRA checking in on your local forum? What’s cooler than having the developer of an app or a phone or a line of clothing spending time hanging out and getting to know people on their respective message boards or groups: nothing! Nothing’s cooler.

4) Make friends and influence people: Please remember that the only way you’ll actually fit in on a message board as an authentic member and brand ambassador is to remove as much distance from you and your fellow message boards denizens. And don’t engage as your brand or as your products and services, it’s better to engage primarily as who you are, secondarily what you know, and only finally as what you do. Not incidentally, though. It’s not about coincidentally–you don’t jump on the board, make super-besties, and then spring it on your new mates that you’re selling jet-packs–you want to lead with what you are; however, it really cannot be all you are. You really need to not be a robot or a customer service rep or a stiff drone. It’s essential that you really and seriously make friends and influence people. And, if you think this is all a waste of your time and you’re not totally into it, over a long haul, then you’d better leave it be or find someone else who can participate passionately, consistently, and with the sort of enthusiasm worthy of your brand, your products, your contribution to the world. Also, remember that message boards are asynchronous forms of communication–they’re not IM or chats–so you can consider what you’re going to say before you say it; and, you’ll be able to consider each and every reply, brainstorm on how you’ll address a question, and you’ll be able to really strategies and consider all ramifications of what you say and do. Piece of advice: put everything you say through the “used car salesman” filter. Remove any and all salesy and shilly language from what you write. Engaging online is about being generous, about being a good role model for your brand. It’s about having access and building connections–and a fan base–deep inside of the generative belly of the online world. In the same way that stars are born in nebulae, gossip and reputation are born in message boards, including reddit and all the boards that still not only exists but thrive online.

5) Get to know the Majordomo, the Administrator, the Board Owner, and the Superusers: Most message boards these days experience a lot of abuse. From astroturfing to shilling to DoS attacks to brute-force hacking. If you want to be welcome into a small town, get to know the mayor, preacher, and judge; likewise, if you want to connect well and deeply with message boards and forums, engage openly and truthfully with the board owner–he’s the mayor. See if there’s any way he might be willing and able to introduce you in. Or, maybe he has a sponsorship route or an advertising program. It’s expensive to run a board. The more successful the board the more it costs in upkeep, hosting, and bandwidth. Write some checks, just make sure the money does go towards shilling or pay-per-posting–keep advertising separate from building trust with the community. Never go for the short win, go for the long game–none of it’s a waste, I promise you.

6) Become a sponsor–spend some money on the message boards: One of the things I have noticed is that most message boards have sponsors. They’re about a dozen companies that pay to be featured both in contextual advertisements but also have relative carte blanche to cruise the online forums being the awesome topic-, product-, and issue-experts they are everywhere and anywhere they wish. And I don’t believe it’s very expensive, especially compared to the cost of either skulking about astroturfing on boards pretending to be someone you’re not, always looking over your shoulder, always hoping you won’t be exposed by your suspect IP or because your tell or because nobody knows you or because they can smell desperation in your words. Or, by throwing money into the bottomless put known as Google AdWords, hoping that your ads will end up coming up all over the boards you hope to target. Really? Spend a little time getting

7) Produce good content: you really need to bring your A-game all the time. If you commit, you need to do it consistently and forever. Forever. And it’s a little bit of a game of hot-potato. When you engage, you need to make sure you always monitor for replies, queries, and direct messages; what’s more, you also need to monitor content that’s not your own. If you sell Seecamp pistols, you need to monitor the boards for people who are discussing not only Seecamp pocket pistols but also belly guns, pocket pistols, .25, .32, and .380 semi-automatic handguns, and also possibly pocket and easily-concealable revolvers as well. If you play your cards right, you can engage in other people’s conversation. How would you maintain a firearm that spends most of its time in a linty pocket? What do you think the best small-caliber ammunition is? Ball or JHP? What do you think about the caliber wars? You’ll sell more little Seecamp pistols based on your prompt, generous, and honest contribution than if you’re Always Be Selling.

8) Don’t expect an overnight success: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Once you start, you need to commit through the life of the project. In the event of Paul Barrett’s book, you’d need to participate for the entire book tour and also through the softcover edition and through the audiobook and then through reprints and all that. Don’t worry, most, if not all, of message boards allow you to subscribe to threads and posts and have replies and direct messages shot directly to your email Inbox. Be sure to check that email box and be sure to respond promptly and not lackadaisically. Take all of this seriously even if hanging out on message board feels lame to you or too much like play to recreation: it’s not. Like I said, there are no bigger passion-players and super-influencers and extreme gurus than there are on message board. I have learned everything I know about both firearms and motorcycles from message boards and forums–and not just about the mechanics, what to buy, what to shoot or ride, and how to shoot and ride, but also their respective cultures and the amazing people who are the boots on the ground in both cultures. If you take some time, you’ll probably become as passionate about what you as you were when you either started your company or first accepted the offer of employment.

9) Don’t beat a dead horse: sometimes, transplanted organs don’t take to the host. Sometimes, it’s not a love connection. No matter what you do. If you’re trying to sell black plastic striker-fired pistols on a Colt 1911 .45 message board, don’t expect a lot of success; if you’re trying to push light, all-road, 4-stroke Japanese enduros on Harley-Davidson boards, same thing. That said, don’t give up right away, OK? Most old-timer on message boards and forums have been hurt before. They been promised things, they’ve taken people at their words, and they’ve become attached and then their favorite new friend/corporate sponsor lost funding, passion, interest, or ran the numbers and decided it wasn’t worth it and didn’t even realize that he or she broke hearts in his or her wake. Be careful. Becoming a part of someone else’s life may well feel like part of a strategy towards better brand recognition, market engagement, and sales but it’s also very much someone else’s real and legitimate family. Virtual relationships are real relationships. Trust me. If you’re feeling like you’re getting a cold shoulder it might very well be because someone like you who came before wasn’t very nice in the end. They might not trust based on past relationships. They may well be testing your mettle, hazing you a little bit. Give it a chance but don’t throw good money after bad if it’s really not much of a love connection.

10) Know when to walk away, know when to run: if you end up getting beat up, ganged up on, used for your money, generally ignored, or if you can’t sustain the time and attention required, but sure to take your leave–but don’t just disappear. Sometimes it’s not about them or the community. Sometimes, it’s because of your mistakes. Think twice before you bail but when you bail, do it gracefully with the intent of not burning bridges. Like I said before, message boards are bastions of gossip, controversy, speculation, and conspiracy–it’s where they’re born. Always be sure to make nice.

11) Never underestimate the power (begging for) forgiveness: I always recommend: be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. That’s Philo of Alexandria and as true now as it’s always been. Be kind. Be generous. Be understanding. And, if anything goes wrong, never underestimate the power of begging for forgivingness. And, even if it feels like appeasement; and, even if you hate the man you’ll have to become to apologize for something you don’t even think you’re responsible for, discretion is the better part of valor. Don’t be a hero. It’s essential that you live to shill another day.

Good luck!

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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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