Is Honesty Always the Best Policy Online? Marketers Disagree

Using message boards, blogs, and consumers themselves to market through word-of-mouth on the Internet is effective for now--but not for much longer, unless the industry becomes more transparent, warned Dave Balter of BzzAgent at Ad:Tech on Monday.

"Word of mouth right now is pretty much an honest industry, but if we keep corrupting it with deceptive and misleading campaigns, word of mouth will become as hated as spam, and all its authenticity and potential for growth and innovation will disappear," Balter said, on the "Word of Mouth Marketing Management and Measurement" panel. The panel was moderated by JanMarie Zwiren, strategic consultant at the Eleman Catalyst Group, and the other panelists included John King, vice president of business development at Procter & Gamble's Tremor division; Pete Snyder, founder and CEO of New Media Strategies; and Justin Kirby, CEO of viral marketer DMC.

While Balter advocated for transparency, other panel members insisted that some degree of deception could be useful. For instance, said DMC's Kirby, the campaign for the movie "The Blair Witch Project" depended on duping Web surfers. "That's one hugely successful marketing campaign, Blair Witch, which would never have worked if they had upheld any degree of transparency," said Kirby.

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In the summer of 1999, Haxan Films and Artisan Entertainment released an enigmatic--and basically misleading--Web campaign previewing a pseudo-documentary by three student filmmakers who supposedly disappeared into the woods near Burkittesville, Maryland, while searching for the fabled Blair Witch. The film has grossed well over $100 million.

While Kirby and Balter disagreed about exactly where the industry should draw the line, everyone present granted that the stakes were high, and that the alienation of consumers was a recipe for disaster. "We cannot trick them," remarked Procter & Gamble's John King, adding: "We cannot deceive them."

Potential illegitimacy was not the only matter raised, which threatens the potential growth of word of mouth. A seeming rush to conclusions and principles by many in an industry so young appeared to disturb the panelists. "Marketers have to remember that not every product can be marketed like an iPod," said Kirby. "The danger is to say that there's only one way to proceed with word of mouth, and we all have to do it one way."

Another risk is that, as the industry attempts to co-opt a special group of consumers known as "influentials," or plugged-in trendsetters, they risk upsetting parents and children's rights activists who perceive marketers to be taking advantage of children's vulnerabilities. "We no longer see popular kids, advocates for our brands, as trend setters, but as trend spreaders," said John King, who defended industry methods by pointing out that his company, Tremor, sends explanatory "welcome kits" to budding young "influencials," and will regularly communicate with entire families.

"We have to keep producing results, profits, and creative innovation," said New Media Strategies' Pete Snyder. "Word of mouth is going to grow and evolve."

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