Cyber-stealth marketers employ a number of techniques to trick consumers. First, as BMW is alleged to have done, they embed invisible keywords into their sites to make sure they come out at the top of Google listings against specific search terms. Or they pay companies to spam sites and blogs all over the Internet with thousands of links pointing to their site making it appear popular, hence pushing it up the Google ranking.
Second, the cyber-stealth marketers pay professional "Web raiders" to seed influential sites with positive customer reviews of their product. For example, nVidia, the graphics chip company, has been accused of using Web raiders masquerading as normal consumers to promote its products on a variety of video gaming forums.
Third, they launch fake blogs to rave about their product, as a number of brands, from McDonald's to Reckitt Benckiser, have done. Advertisers have even attempted to get fake "facts" listed on Wikipedia, the Web's open-source encyclopedia. So why is this happening?
Cyber-stealth marketing is part of a wider trend toward undisclosed communication from brands in reaction to the erosion of consumers' trust in traditional advertising. According to the "Yankelovitch Marketing Resistance Survey," 76 percent of consumers do not believe that companies tell the truth in advertising. This is driving some organizations to resort to "stealth" techniques to reach consumers. Perhaps the best example is Procter & Gamble, which over the past five years has built a panel of 250,000 United States teenagers who receive products and are incentivized to recommend them to their friends.
The growth of cyber-stealth marketing takes this to the next level, and can be explained partly as a response to what one might call the "stealth consumer" -- a new breed of Web- and marketing-savvy consumers who are exploiting the power of the Web to give them an edge over the brands that target them.
They use the friction-free nature of the Internet to get themselves the best deals -- the U.K.'s Kelkoo finds the best price, Epinions the best products. They use technology to avoid advertising; their Web browsers block ads. And if a brand doesn't deliver, they use the Web to air their grievances, either on blogs or on sites like ripoffreport.com.
But is it possible for companies to engage with the stealth consumer without having to resort to cyber-stealth marketing? Yes, by collaborating with them. Take Amazon in Japan. If you have a Web-enabled camera phone (and everybody in Japan does), you can take a picture of a barcode on any product in any store and send it to Amazon.co.jp. Amazon compares the code with its online database, and if it stocks the item, it will send you back a price which is typically lower than the in-store price.
As the Internet becomes more pervasive, stealth consumers will become the norm. They will equip themselves with increasingly sophisticated tools to assist their conscious consumption. Brands need to adapt to the needs of this audience, engaging them on their terms rather than trying to trick them.
Ben Richards and Faris Yakob are senior strategists at Naked Communications. (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com)
Ed. Note: "The New Next" is expanding its horizons. Our regular columnist, Paul Woolmington, partner in Naked Communications, is extending the platform to draw upon the talents of what he refers to as "the Naked global family of brilliant misfits." In the coming months, commentaries may come from Naked outposts in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, Australia, and New York. This month's column is a contribution from London-based Ben Richards and Sydney-based Faris Yakob, who tackle the concept of cyber-stealth marketing.