Not Buying What You're Shilling

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Transparency and full disclosure don’t mean much in the world of Social Media anymore.

Do you remember when the FTC got involved in Social Media (more on that here: Mashable – FTC to Fine Bloggers up to $11,000 for Not Disclosing Payments)? There was a lot of public discourse on the matter and my general sentiment can be summed up like this: if certain companies within an industry are doing something that requires government intervention to get them to stop, there’s a problem. At first strike, penalizing Bloggers because they’re not disclosing if they’re being compensated by a brand seems somewhat petty in the grand scheme of things that the FTC should really be focusing on, but they may have been on to something.

Social Media can be very disturbing.

Social Media is pervasive. Just look at Facebook‘s statistics, the use of Twitter, Blogs and whatever else. Many people now command an audience and they are broadcasters (in some way, shape or form). There were two Twitter moments today that made me stop in my tracks and realize that many people are willing shills, not that clear about disclosing it and, ultimately, are quite boring when they are shilling. In one instance someone was discussing a food brand and asking people to retweet it (yawn…). In another, an individual was tweeting up an event they were attending as a paid Social Media spokesperson (but if you didn’t know they were being paid, it was kind of hard to tell).

It fails because the brands have no Social Media credibility.

This is noting new. In fact, I Blogged about a similar topic in 2008 titled, Trust Is Non-Transferable. Brands get two major things wrongs when enlisting people from within the Social Media channels to do their bidding:

  1. Brands assume that they will be trusted because the person talking about them has a trusted community. Trust in non-transferable. It has to be earned.
  2. Brands assume that all tweets, Blog posts, YouTube videos, etc… are all created equal. Not true. There are hundreds of people who I trust. People I am connected to. All of their tweets and Blog posts are not created equal. Each one is judged independently from the others. The ones that smell like shills are shills.

What’s a brand to do?

  • Embrace a Marketing mentality. When you engage in these Social Media activities, don’t treat it like an advertising campaign. You’re trying to build valuable and long-term relationships.
  • Trust takes time. Credibility takes even longer. Just because you’ve enlisted an evangelist, it doesn’t mean that a brand has any semblance of credibility within that community.
  • Don’t expect the evangelists’ community to be your community. In the end, those tweets and Blog posts that you’re compensating the individual for may be falling on totally deaf ears.
  • Don’t make people your mules. There seems to be this "drug mule" mentality with brands. They figure if someone else can do their bidding, it will seem authentic and real.
  • Get real. Engage with Social Media because you have a propensity to have an authentic and direct relationship with your consumer. Don’t do this as a thinly-veiled Marketing ploy.

It’s alarming how many credible individuals are suddenly shifting their values and selling out their community (and their credibility) to the highest bidder.


  1. Some people may read this comment I’m writing, click through to my site and become regular readers. You yourself might find this comment insightful and make a mental note of my personal brand. Both of these outcomes could, modeled as sequential conditional probabilities, lead to monetization.
    I feel awful that I’ve never disclosed any of this in any other blog comment.
    My point is that once you bring the heavy guns of criminal prosecution, the unintended consequences get out of control really fast.

  2. I totally agree… but if the context of your content is around personal opinion, etc… and suddenly the content is pure shill (but it’s hard to tell), how do we define opinion from paid sponsorship? Imagine if advertorials didn’t have any level of disclosure… what would that look like? People are already confused.

  3. I don’t think you should feel bad Peter about lack of disclosure. Mitch allows us to enter an optional URL (link) with every comment. It is a small thank you that can lead to benefit unless of course you make an obvious faux pas.
    Your comment made me click through to your blog and I was glad I did after a quick skim of your latest post. If I knew how to add your feed on my iPad it would have already happened.

  4. You’re absolutely right, Mitch, that it’s a problem for consumers. It’s very hard to get honest reviews about, say, email marketing software. Surgical solutions like Google algorithm changes or Arrington’s crusade against special offers can avoid this kind of collateral damage.
    Having said, I’m totally sympathetic that we can’t always count on an Arrington for every Zynga.
    @bill, thanks for visiting! I hope Mitch doesn’t mind if I link to RSS apps for iPad: (no affiliate, natch!)

  5. I am seeing more and more that companies are using social media as a veil because they know they should be using it, but don’t have the capacity to manage it. It sucks.

  6. I understand where you are going with this post but also feel you are giving the consumer too much credit. Marketers understand the ploys and games played by these ‘hired mercenaries’ but the general consumer doesn’t care.
    They instantly rationalize their purchasing decision by various metrics including brand recognition, recommendation, endorsement etc. This model has proven that consumers latch onto their favorite mercenary and ride the wave the whole way to the end. Jillian Michaels can promote brandA and because she is coined a ‘fitness guru’, this product must be great for me nutritionally.
    Brands are renting their influence but the trust is instantly associated with the recommendation. I completely agree with your premise but i think we would be remiss to not mention this trust is completely morphed and shaped based on the trust of the promoter.

  7. This is a brilliant post and I use that word sparingly. The beauty of social media is that it is a constant democracy. These shysters will be voted down, unfollowed, unfriended. Who needs this?

  8. Mitch, among other things said, “are quite boring when they are shilling.”
    Aside from the possibility (specious, I think) that the US Govt thinks it actually can lawfully intervene, being boring is thankfully (for me at least) obvious translates (again for me) into self-regulation. Reader Be Aware? If I am shilled, I deserve it. Side note: Tell me how the USA’s EEOC can prevent discrimination in hiring in any way, shape or form when candidates volunteer semi-clear images (plus more private stuff) of and about themselves on the web. For me, “Case closed.” sQs Delray Beach FL

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