Research firm Gartner has released a report predicting the importance of online reviews and social media “Likes” will result in Fortune 500 brands and large enterprises increasingly “astroturfing” and paying for positive mentions. Specifically the percentage of paid-for mentions, Likes and reviews will reach 10 to 15 percent of the total by 2014.
Gartner goes on to assert that there will be at least two high-profile FTC actions against Fortune 500 companies during the same time frame. The FTC published and updated guidelines in 2009 about the use of testimonials and endorsements in advertising. Those rules extend to bloggers and others offering online product reviews. The guidelines require disclosure of a paid relationship.
Presumably these FTC rules would extend to any corporate campaign to generate positive social media buzz and related product endorsements, where the paid nature of those reviews, Likes, etc was not disclosed to the public.
Companies tempted to manipulate social media mentions or ratings with false Likes/reviews do so at their own peril. Putting aside potential FTC investigations and fines, the public humiliation and negative impact on brand image would be potentially significant, although perhaps hard to quantify.
A number of authors on Amazon over the years have been caught faking positive reviews for their own books and writing negative reviews for rivals under pseudonyms. If caught there’s a lot of public humiliation (and schadenfreude) that follows.
Similarly, about a year ago, Samsung faked testimonials when it introduced its new Galaxy tablets at a trade show. The company was caught and endured significant grief at the hands of bloggers and tech journalists. Yet that public shaming didn’t appear to hurt device sales (of mobile phones; the tablets were weak).
More recently Nokia faked video images from its new Lumia 920. It was quickly caught and had to apologize after being outed, distracting from the launch announcement and further damaging Nokia’s public image. Thus, it’s a safe bet that social media astroturfing will be uncovered with corresponding PR damage (and fines) to the brands behind it.