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Paid Reviews – a different angle on their power

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!
First, a thank you to Matt McGee for getting my attention with his recent post about this Time magazine article about the power of word-of-mouth marketing.
As small business owners know, getting a good on-line review that spreads a positive message about your company can be a super thing for business. But, in the offline world, large corporations are going at this in a way that may surprise you. They are signing up volunteers to talk about products to their friends and acquaintances.
I’ve experienced this personally as a result of people getting involved with Amway. Amway members are constantly, and often aggressively, trying to promote Amway products to people they meet because they are getting kickbacks for doing so. You may have encountered this, too. I’ve found it fairly easy to spot an Amway promotion hitting me, but if a friend of yours mentioned in passing that she loves Celestial Seasonings peppermint tea, would you ever suspect that she was actually being paid to say this to you? Seems like a real friend wouldn’t do such a thing.
Nevertheless, the Time article reports that the huge corporation, Procter & Gamble, uses hundreds of thousands of people every year to do precisely this type of word-of-mouth marketing. They are getting youths to gab about shampoo to their buddies and mothers to rave about cat food to their friends. The ‘marketers’ are given coupons and materials and, though this may sound crazy, are voluntarily promoting Procter and Gamble. According to the Time article, people enjoy doing this because it “gives them social currency”. That struck me as an odd reason, but it’s the one being given.
By dint of this marketing tactic, there is a constant buzz going on about Procter & Gamble’s products that must be highly beneficial to the corporation.
But let’s look at this from a different angle, now
If it’s possible to spread great news about a business, it should be equally simple to spread bad news about them. Motel owners must do Internet searches on their business names rather fearfully these days, dreading that the guest who found a dead mouse in their bed has written up their experience in vivid terms on TripAdvisor. And, in the offline world, if your Mom warned you never, ever to eat at Joe’s Chili House because she got glass in her food there, chances are, you wouldn’t go.
So, what about Procter & Gamble? I found it a bit ironic that this was the main company focused on in the Time piece, as they are one of the most hated corporations in the U.S. from anything like a ‘green’ point of view. The very power this corporation is using to increase their revenue could potentially be used to ruin them, if an environmental group with the clout to set a viral marketing campaign in motion took steps to do so.
Let’s start with this quote from the Time article:
Procter & Gamble, a pioneer in the field, has been taking control of word of mouth for six years through its Tremor division, which has enlisted 225,000 teenagers to tell their friends about brands like Herbal Essences…
Herbal Essences shampoo recently made big headlines, and not good ones. This product is contaminated with high levels of the carcinogen, 1,4-Dioxane…not something anyone with a brain cell in their head wants to rub into their scalp! The Breast Cancer Fund recently published this article on the subject imploring the FDA to wake up and outlaw this. But what if they did more than just write an article? What if they hired hundreds of thousands of volunteers to say, “Oh my gosh, you use Herbal Essences. Didn’t you know it’s totally toxic?” to all of their friends? The power of such a campaign could be equal to that of Procter and Gamble’s pro-toxic-shampoo campaign. Potential results would be that more people would be protected from exposure to carcinogens, and Procter and Gamble might wake up to the idea that they can’t make us sick if they want us to give them our money.
The highly-respected Animal Rights organization, In Defense of Animals, runs a number of websites, and this one is entitled Procter and Gamble Kills. IDA apparently runs an on-going protest-letter type campaign in an attempt to get Procter and Gamble to stop performing animal testing. But what if IDA took their cues from the bad guys and got hundreds and thousands of volunteers to mention the fact that P&G tortures rabbits in order to bring you Ivory soap and a host of other household products? What if, instead of urging people to use a form on the Procter and Gamble Kills website to petition the corporation to stop this practice, they asked people to sign up as volunteers to market their anti-P&G message to their friends? Knowing animal lovers, I’m betting a healthy number of them would sign up for such a campaign and it really could make a difference.
It’s situations like these that make me look at the power of marketing from a different angle. In general, the goal of Internet and traditional Marketing is to promote brand awareness and to increase revenue. But what if it were used to influence consumers to influence corporations to provide safer, better products?
A trip to any good grocery store makes it obvious that things like animal testing are completely outmoded and unnecessary. All of the cruelty-free labels that have popped up over the past decade make this apparent. But the years and billions of dollars P&G has put into making their brand a household name are still resulting in huge profits for them. Most of their customers are likely completely oblivious to the horrible practices they are supporting each time they purchase Old Spice, Dawn, Joy, Pampers, Tide, Crest, Bounty, Charmin, Gillette, Head & Shoulders and the scores of other products manufactured by this company. Thanks to the Internet, this may be about to change.
There are a lot of things that worry me, from an ethical standpoint, that go on in the marketing world. But the flip side of this coin is that the very tactics which are used to promote dangerous products and ideas can be used to promote healthy alternatives. The Internet is making it harder and harder for unethical companies to hide what they are doing from the public. Even though the big guys hire reputation managers for the very purpose of attempting to force negative press down the SERPs, enough links and enough buzz will get you into Google’s Top 10 if you’re committed to getting there, and it just may be that we can set higher standards for manufacturers and service providers if we copy their marketing strategies, tuning them to higher aims.