NBIF Portfolio Company Radian6 CEO Tells Forbes Why Brands Need To Listen

Social Media Sock Puppetry
By Dan Woods | Forbes.com | Link to original article

For some it is a trap so alluring they cannot resist. Posting a fake comment, providing incentives for a positive blog and making up customer testimonials all seem like a good idea at the time, but these things often end in a fiercely negative backlash.

Some degree of overtly false and inauthentic communication is a recurring illness for most Internet communities and social networks. The term of art for such behavior is called social media sock puppetry, a name for inauthentic and deceptive communication from organizations and individuals. Examining why sock puppetry fails provides a clear explanation of how social media can really be effective.

I first heard the term from Andrew McAfee, a fellow Forbes columnist and MIT research scientist. In conversations with him and through research with other experts, I think I have identified the fundamental misunderstanding of social media that leads people again and again to such behavior.

People and organizations engage in sock puppetry when they think of social media as a one-way channel for broadcasting their message. In most marketing channels, lead generation or sales activities, messages are crafted and then sent to evoke a specific response.

“People who see things with a channel mindset think that the first thing they should do in social media is to start broadcasting,” says Marcel LeBrun, CEO of Radian6, a social media monitoring software company. “You must start by listening. Sock puppetry is the opposite of what works.”

The first problem with sock puppetry is that it is rapidly found out. Wal-Mart’s fake blog about a tour across the country was exposed as such. Posts from enthusiastic advocates for a product or service sound too good to be true and are not taken seriously. Individuals who set up accounts for fictional users to praise their own content are easily detected. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is mandating disclosure of incentives provided to bloggers.

Paul Gilliham, director of customer marketing of Lithium, a provider of SaaS-based community software, says it is easy to tell when a user is engaging in such behavior. If a community has a rating system, for example, and a bunch of newly created user accounts start rating another user very highly, it is not hard to figure out what is going on. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has avoided putting an explicit reputation system in Wikipedia because he suspected it would be gamed in this fashion. But such reputation systems are a key part of most large Internet communities, are a proven method for increasing engagement, and there are well-established methods and tools for ferreting out the gamers.

The disapproval of a community manager is generally mild compared to the lambasting people get when they are caught attempting to spread marketing messages on behalf of a community. When some new arrival to a community starts making overtly promotional statements, the first question from community members is, “Who are you?” and the second is “Why are you here?” When credible answers are not forthcoming, the flaming begins.

Joe Cothrel, chief community officer of Lithium, put it this way: “Most companies don’t think that deceptive messages are appropriate in other marketing channels, but for some reason they forget this when it comes to social media.”

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