Can You Spot The Counterfeit Social Media?

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.

Case in point: NBC's "Fan It" program, which awards points to people who chat online about NBC programs. Here are some samples from the @NBCFanIt Twitter stream:



  • This just in!! NBCFanIt members can now accrue points by posting on the message boards:

  • NBCFanIt members...follow us to get the latest Fan It news PLUS earn 50 points!

    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!

  • 15 comments about "Can You Spot The Counterfeit Social Media?".
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    1. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, June 2, 2010 at 5 p.m.

      So well said Catharine. You point to the underlying issue that will ultimately undermine "social media."

      The promise of social media and what social media has become are two different things. I know many experts out there have their definitions of what social media is but I would like to offer my own -- "Social media is when your friends try to sell you stuff"

      Now that isn't very social is it?

      Keep writing Catharine and we'll keep up by reading you :)


    2. Matthew Schmidt from Small Planet Public Relations, June 2, 2010 at 6:28 p.m.

      I'd agree that counterfeiting is a disturbing trend. When any social forum offers incentives to "fan," then trust in the validity of the popularity measured there will fade.

      Ultimately, consumers will learn to question what's "real" and what is not in any forum that has a commercial sponsor. Does this open up an opportunity for truly independent forums? Maybe creating a "seal of trust" to validate that all comments/likes, etc. are from people who care, not people chasing rewards.

    3. Amy Sanderhoff from Sanderhoff Marketing, June 2, 2010 at 10:50 p.m.

      I just ran across that today and posted my disappointment on both Twitter and Facebook about Corona's Garden Stimulus Giveaway. To win, you have to post their promotion repeatedly to Twitter and Facebook for a month. More trouble than it's worth, IMO. As a marketer, I get it, but as a consumer, I find it obnoxious.

    4. Cathy Taylor from MediaPost, June 3, 2010 at 9:52 a.m.

      Hi guys,

      Thanks for commenting. Glad to see others are passionate about this.


    5. Elle Mahoney from We Take You Everywhere., LLC, June 3, 2010 at 10:48 a.m.

      Brilliant. What I tell my clients is, Be one of your consumers! It's not a volume game, it's a conversion game. Do they love me enough to watch, buy, visit, or not?

      NBC, Starbucks, Corona & certain others using this tactic are "socially bankrupt" and will poison the whole channel. They should back off, and if the FCC can figure out a way to enforce this b.s. they should.

      Watch the growth of S.M. drop off should this continue and extend throughout the social ecosystem.

      If the Marketeer is distinct from the Consumer in her empathic sensibility, then the outcomes will be suspect, tainted and unsustainable.

      Boycott NBCSTARBUCKSCORONA and all others who participate on this level and tell the FCC how you feel!

    6. Maggie Anderson, June 3, 2010 at 10:56 a.m.

      Like a news outlet that pays for an interview, this strategy will eventually reduce NBC and companies like it to a less trusted "sleeze" brand IMO. I recently had an experience choosing an overseas VA based on many testimonials from US clients. After a less than satisfying experience with my VA the company offered to pay me $200 for a testimonial. They got my money the first time around, but not only will I never use them again, I'll privately communicate to lots of others not to use them. And according to research, friends and family are still the most influential "social media."

    7. Kim McCarten, June 3, 2010 at 7:49 p.m.

      Yeah! The hype fever about SM is breaking ... thanks for the insightful commentary. Spot on---

      Ari: Great definition for Social Media!

    8. Chuck Zimmerman, June 4, 2010 at 9:24 a.m.

      I don't see any problem other than that so many marketers are trying to put new media into a nice measurable system so that they can prove ROI. This sounds like whining to me. Instead of worrying about what someone else is doing, focus on what you're doing.

      For example, if I create a topical blog and have employed multiple social networking elements to help distribute the messages and have developed a community of fans, followers, friends, etc. then I would consider it a success. So what if the competition claims to have the same thing, quotes bigger numbers, etc? My focus is my message or product or service or issue and engaging the people who are interested in the same topic and what I have to say. To me this is similar to the hard core journalists who complain that "bloggers" (as if they're something distasteful) don't follow the AP Stylebook when they write. Who cares? I don't, especially when I have more readers than they do!

      I think the bottom line is to be honest and transparent in whatever you do. This includes reporting your online statistics. In the example of NBC, they're doing the same type of promotion we've seen in all forms of media. I say good for them. Let consumers decide who and what they like.

    9. Peter Seronick from Freelancer/Emerson College, June 4, 2010 at 1:44 p.m.

      This is a very interesting point you raise. I asked 70 of my students this past semester about their media consumption etc...I was shocked to hear the majority of them rant against people like me, ad agency people, for taking social networking, and turning it into social media.
      They resented corporate America stealing what was simply a way for them to meet and socialize into a marketing tool.
      While not really a research finding, it was interesting to hear from an age group that loves social networking, but not necessarily social media...

    10. Mark allen Roberts from Out of the Box Solutions, LLC, June 4, 2010 at 4:35 p.m.

      This a timely post,

      As social marketing becomes too will we see the ugly smores raising their hands as I discuss in my blog ( and click on #15)

      Mark Allen Roberts

    11. Shelly Kramer from V3 Integrated Marketing, June 4, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.

      I think it's all about filtering, guys. We filter out traditional TV spots that we're not interested in by fast-forwarding. We filter out things in the Twitter stream we're not interested in, by scanning through. On Facebook (and elsewhere) people from all over post and/or share things that I would not have otherwise known about, seen or even be interested in, but for seeing them in that venue. And, as like everything else, I filter out the things I'm not interested in and focus on the things I am. That, for an information junkie like me, is wonderful. Never mind how much the information I gather in the various social mediums in which I participate help me from a business standpoint and benefit my clients.

      Filtering. It's no big thing. It's how we live. It's how we read. It's what we do, even when we don't know we're doing it. We say, "Oh wait, that's a post by Catharine ... I'll make time to read that!" And, by opting for you, Catharine, oftentimes that means I filter out other, equally interesting content, because I just don't have time for it at that particular moment.


      And that's the society in which we live in. We have filtered email spam for years, along with telephone spam, direct mail propaganda, etc., and focused on what's pertinent to us.

      Why is social media any different? And why should it be? And from a sustainability standpoint and totally being a treehugger for a minute, I'd much rather be given the option of filtering through Facebook (or Twitter or some other social medium) content and possibly even "disconnecting" from the source if I ultimately decide to do so, than reading old school direct mail, form letters, FSIs and other useless marketing materials and then carting them to the recycling bin. Waste versus filtering. Hmmmm.

      It's faster, easier, more efficiently handled, more green and infinitely less annoying.

      Idiots are just as easy to identify (and punt) in the social media realms as they are IRL. Filter.

      Just my take.

      Shelly Kramer

    12. Lee Rappaport, June 4, 2010 at 8:06 p.m.

      Faux Social Media---Kind of like fake or knock-off designer bags sold on the streets of any large city.
      I want the genuine item. Pure Social Media with no gimmicks.

      Glad to be informed about the "getting points" system. How ridiculous. Thank you for enlightening me on this subject, Catherine!

    13. John Fredette from Alcatel-Lucent, June 5, 2010 at 8:50 a.m.

      I think the point about "filtering" is well taken. Often you have to rely on your gut reaction to determine what is real. When reading posted reviews for a restaurant I often feel I need to weed through non-legit posts either because the posters have grudges to bear, are competitors or are BBF of the chef. It gets cloudy sometimes but sincerity can usually be found but it can take effort.

    14. Ron Ladouceur, June 8, 2010 at 4:39 p.m.

      I still remember the phone call I got in the 80s from an old high school friend who, after an enthusiastic "long time no see," tried to trade on our relationship to sell me insurance.

      We haven’t spoken since.

      Friends who shill (for Prudential, NBC or anybody else) don’t remain friends for long. Counterfeit tweeting, like all paid-for “word-of-mouth” advertising, is a violation of trust, but is self-correcting, and will never amount to more than a minor annoyance in the social ecosystem.

    15. Michael Peck from Collections Etc., June 16, 2010 at 6 p.m.

      An excellent point, but I do think (and perhaps I'm being too optimistic) that counterfeit social media (nice term, by the way) will take care of itself because it misses the whole point of what makes a customer want to engage with you.

      If I have 10,000 fans on my Facebook page, and I got them without any kind of compensation, they're much more likely to be engaged with my brand because they truly care about it. If I "bought" 100,000 fans, on the other hand, I have short-term bragging rights or, at best, a list of names to market to and nothing more. Those aren't people who care much about what I do, and every time I want to get their attention, I'm going to have to pay them off again.

      When I was a kid, I trained my dog to sit and roll over by giving her a treat each time she did it. I soon learned: no treat, no trick. Now, I may be on thin ice likening my fans to a beagle/fox terrier mix, but I'm betting the behavior won't be much different in any meaningful way.

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