Monday, November 8, 2010

Social Media Monitoring and Astroturfing

In my last post, Monitoring Social Media, I discussed how Gatorade is monitoring social media to, among other things, protect its brand. Gatorade has constructed “Mission Control,” a social media monitoring operation staffed by four Gatorade employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal that described Mission Control:

Sitting in a glassed-in converted conference room at Gatorade headquarters [in Chicago], Meg Poulelis tweets encouragement to high-school athletes before big games and taps out responses to Facebook queries such as when to use the new protein drink. . . . Whenever someone uses Twitter to say they’re drinking a Gatorade or mentions the brand on Facebook or in other social media, it pops up on a screen in Mission Control. On Saturday, the staff jumped into a Facebook conversation to correct a poster who said Gatorade has high-fructose corn syrup. . . . Aware that consumers may be wary of intrusion, Ms. Poulelis and her colleagues have to figure out when to pipe up – and when to hang back – when someone is talking about Gatorade. “If they’re directly asking where to buy products, we’re going to weigh in,” Ms. Poulelis said. “If they want to talk about working out, we let them have that conversation.”

Putting aside what some consider an intrusive practice, when the staffers at Mission Control jump into an online conversation to talk about Gatorade, they use the Gatorade logo as their avatar and identify themselves as Gatorade employees, which, of course, is the correct way to do things. Doing it the wrong way can have serious legal repercussions.

That is because in October, 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it had approved revisions to the Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising to specifically cover bloggers and social networking sites. Specifically, the FTC’s revised Guides made clear that any online posts by a blogger connected to a marketer must disclose the blogger’s connection to the marketer in such posts. Then, in late August of this year, the FTC announced a settlement with a California based public relations firm, Reverb Communications, Inc. and its owner, Tracie Snitker. The settlement resolved claims that Reverb and Snitker had engaged in “astroturfing” on behalf of its video game developer clients.

Specifically, the FTC alleged that between November 2008 and May 2009, Reverb employees posted reviews about its clients’ video games using account names that gave readers the impression that the reviews were written by disinterested consumers, not by individuals who had been hired to promote certain games. The employees “astroturfed” by consistently giving the Reverb clients’ applications four or five stars or by positively commenting on them with testimonials such as “amazing new game,” “one of the best,” and “one of the best apps just got better.”

As part of the settlement, Reverb agreed to remove any posted endorsements that misrepresented the authors of such posts as independent users or ordinary consumers, and that failed to disclose the connection between Reverb and the video game developers. The settlement also prohibited Reverb from engaging in such deceptive practices in the future.

There are two interesting aspects to the Reverb matter. The first is that the FTC chose to go after the public relations firm and not the video game developers, thus establishing that the employees of a marketer’s public relations firm have the same duty of disclosure as the marketer’s own employees. Second, the FTC went after conduct that occurred before the December 1, 2009 effective date of the revised Guides, thus establishing that it has always considered “astroturfing” a deceptive practice.

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