Astroturf, we all know, is the grass that you have when you don’t have grass. It is faux lawn; plastic turf masquerading as the real thing. I might add it’s a pretty good proxy for many greensward applications, but there are serious doubts about its merit in the world of social media.
Marketers are skilled in delivery of carefully constructed outbound messages to chosen customers. If it’s advertising, the sponsor of the message is clearly the brand owner. If it’s PR-generated editorial, the sponsor’s identity is often ambiguous. If it’s viral campaigning, the sponsor is concealed.
Just as there are established conventions for communicating via email (don’t SHOUT by using CAPITALS) there appear to be emerging conventions in social media interactions. One of them is to be honest about your identity.
Astroturfing is a term of social media abuse. It’s when the genuine motivation for, or source of, a message is concealed form its audience, for example, when a commercially-inspired tweet pretends to be from Joe Public. So what, you may ask. It happens all the time in business. We don’t expect every celebrity endorsement of a product to be truthful, do we? Of course not! But that’s not the point. The point is that we expect contributions to blogs and online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to be genuine, just as we expect face-to-face word-of-mouth to be genuine. Deception is unwelcome.
However, temptation is too strong for some companies. Even the best can succumb. Sony, a much respected brand and organization, once created and seeded a seasonal blog called “All I want for Xmas is a PSP” designed to spark console sales. The gaming community exposed the blog as Astroturf written largely by Sony’s marketing personnel.
This raises a number of questions for me: should companies empower marketers to generate content for social networks? Is there an emergent code-of-practice for marketer-generated content? What is inadmissible?