Disclosure in Online Forums

I remember a conversation with my tutor and one of my fellow students early last term, and the issue under discussion was whether or not it was ethically correct for brands to covertly post product reviews on Internet forums, or join in peer to peer conversation under the alias of a normal person. One took the ethical standpoint, whilst the other was of the firm and unmoving belief that brands were fully justified in the covert approach, much to my surprise. He believed that people were aware of marketer infiltration and were careful to bear this in mind when reading reviews, evaluating it against learned criteria that comes from experience with the medium. Is the review a glowing account of the product – alarm bells should probably ring if it is! – but should they?.. do others share the view, does this sentiment echo across other forums? Even if someone would read a review and feel it is trustworthy as a result of applied learning and common sense, is it? The fact is we can never know if the messages we are being fed online are legitimate or not. Around 90% of forum visitors are lurkers and only 1% are heavy contributers, so  how do we know that those vocal few are trustworthy sources? If we are entering forums to gain the opinion of real people who can relay real life experiences with a product, we should know when we are getting this and when we are being fed a marketing message. It may even be the case that the marketer review is a true account of the product performance, in which case why not be upfront and disclose who you are, your consumers may be impressed that a brand is taking the time to be involved in the conversation and provide further information where it is needed? You may even receive feedback as to where you can improve your offering if people know you are listening? And if you have inserted a sugarcoated review that the product fails to live up to, consumers will be dis-satisfied with you as a brand and you will still have lost out in the long run, especially if that customer returns to post a negative review in response. Therefore i see little benefit in being deceptive in communication.

In addition, the older generation who are perhaps not as computer literate, or are less aware of marketer involvement in forums ,would appear to be at risk from marketer manipulation, and this to me is worrying. When looking for Christmas presents I remember advising my mum not to take consumer reviews posted on online stores too literally as they may in fact be subliminal persuasion from a brand source, and it may not reflect the true performance of the product she was considering. She was shocked at the thought that the review may come from a commercial source, and honestly was not aware that it was common practice. Is this ethical or appropriate? I think not. Further to this my dad asked me for the film Drag me to Hell (unashamedly appropriate title) for Christmas based on the “glowing reviews” he had read about it online – now anyone who has seen that film will know glowing reviews couldn’t be further from what it deserved, but still he was insistent that it was what he wanted. Unsurprisingly, he was disappointed. Surely it is not fair to manipulate people into spending money on things that are not what they seem, and it angers me to think that it goes on, and that people are vulnerable to its effects.

There has been a lot of debate recently surrounding this issue, and as of the 1st of December, any product reviews or brand promotion that is the result of some vested interest, be it material connections or emplyment, must be disclosed under new FTC guidelines. I don’t believe brands should be absent from consumer forums, quite the opposite, but I do believe that they should have respect enough for their customers to disclose their presence. I believe it is possible for brands or their advocates to gain the trust of people in these spaces if they are overt, and in doing this they will not only be improving their image and building a relationship with their target audience, but they will also be laying the foundations for brand loyalty as consumers come to appreciate their information, advice and accessibility.

There is a right way and a wrong way for brands to enter into web 2.0, the right way is slower and more challenging, but it is definitely more advantageous in the long run.

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~ by Vicky on December 26, 2009.

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