Now it's time for me to get back to a topic I was going to write about six weeks ago, before the Social Media Insider was so rudely interrupted by week after week of diatribes about Facebook.
I'm not sure the topic I'm writing about actually has a name, but let's give it a shot: counterfeit social media. If you look around, we're moving ever more deeply into an era in which a lot of social media is moving from its natural state (woman-is-mad-at-retailer- and-blogs-about-it), to a less natural one in which companies actively push consumers to stick their brand into the tweetstream (talk-about-us-and-earn-points!). And while the former certainly hasn't -- and won't -- go away, I'm wondering how the growth of what I am not-very-kindly calling "counterfeit" social muddies the waters, and makes the voice of the consumer, well, not so pure.
While I'm all for letting consumers spread the word about a brand if that's what they truly want to do, it's easy to see how participating in either of the activities above can start to skew people's perception of what's really happenin' on NBC.
A sudden surge in postings on NBC message boards might lead viewers and advertisers to think some, or all, NBC shows are more popular than they actually are -- since, from what I can tell from experimenting with it, there's no indication once you've posted to an NBC message board that you did so because you might get compensated in points. Meanwhile, if there's a sudden explosion in followers on Twitter to @NBCFanIT (right now there are only 661) it might not be what it seems. Are people suddenly rediscovering NBC programming, or has NBC just diverted marketing dollars to social to make it seem that way?
My point here isn't necessarily to pound on NBC, but to question how much of what we're seeing, and will see in the future, will fall into the counterfeit category. Is Starbucks really that popular, or is it just that lots of people want in on that new nationwide Mayor offer which gives Foursquare "mayors" a buck off a cappuccino? Does that indie movie really have a lot of underground popularity, or have those who are tweeting about it been offered a role as an extra in the director's next movie?
Of course, what I'm talking about here echoes the great blogger controversy of 2009, when the Federal Trade Commission weighed in on whether bloggers needed to come clean when they were getting freebies from the companies they posted about. (The FTC ruled they did.) But the issue gets more difficult when it works its way onto other social platforms. Should tweets and status updates that are the result of a promotion or online game be tagged as such? How does counterfeit social affect social media measurement if the motives aren't crystal-clear?
So far, I haven't seen these questions asked very much beyond what goes on in blogs, but as commerce becomes more deeply immersed in social marketing, and brands more and more depend on consumers as distribution channels, it's time to start.
Editor's note: Check out the agenda for OMMA Social NY on June 17th. It's going to be awesome!