Viral marketing continues to rise, spurring efforts to demand disclosure on the origin of content.
scott wallace -staff
Whether it's Microsoft paying a journalist to edit the company's entry on Wikipedia or the CEO of Whole Foods giving an anonymous online thrashing to competitor Wild Oats or Sony Corporation funding an "independent" fan blog, deceptive marketing practices on the Internet are a growing problem, new-media analysts say.
This type of consumer manipulation is known as "astroturfing," and efforts to stomp it out are growing. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has been honing a set of voluntary ethical guidelines for its members, and the European Union recently banned the practice altogether.
"The Internet functions on trust," says Joel Postman, a corporate communications specialist and founder of Socialized PR, in Boulder Creek, Calif. "As more and more people do business in the digital world, more consumers than ever need to know who they can rely on to tell the truth."
Astroturfing, a word widely attributed to former US Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, is an umbrella term for any sort of fraudulent message masquerading as grass-roots word of mouth. It comes alongside a continued explosion in the world of viral marketing – self-replicating techniques that use text messages, video clips, images, and other means to encourage people to pass along a marketing message voluntarily and spontaneously. According to WOMMA, viral marketing has grown 39 percent in the past year alone, generating nearly $1 billion. Some 65 million American consumers shared their personal views on products with others online, according to a 2006 study by EMarketer, an Internet research firm.