The connection between ethics and relevance: what we can learn from astroturfing A group of us at Edelman had an interesting conversation today about astroturfing. It's a wonderfully descriptive term that refers to what happens when people try to start a grassroots movement that's not quite real. In this particular case, we were discussing whether it's ever OK for Edelman employees to reach out to our 2,000 colleagues in 45 offices around to world to ask them to check out a particular web site or blog we played a role in creating for a client. We have the ability to reach every Edelman employee in the world with a simple mouse click. We also have several subsets of Edelman employees, such as Moms or Young Men. But having the ability to reach them isn't the same as having the right. My colleague, Phil Gomes, really gets his underwear in a knot when he senses someone is astroturfing. And rightfully so. Phil understands the ethical dilemma this presents. After all, Edelman was instrumental in helping to draft the ethics code adapted by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. The fact is, "running up the numbers" just isn't ethical. Clients should never have to wonder if the traffic to their site or blog is from genuinely interested parties. (By the way, in most cases, they don't have to wonder: in the online world, it's pretty easy to track where traffic comes from.) And then there's the pragmatic reason not to try and influence traffic through systematic means (also known as cheating). Get caught and your reputation could go south faster than you can say the word "irrelevant." Hell hath no fury like a blogger or reporter who has been fooled. That's as it should be, in my never-to-be-humble opinion. Maybe you've been tempted to make your product, service or company look better by taking a few liberties here and there that, on the surface, don't seem to be a big deal. Perhaps you've even asked friends, relatives, colleagues and business affiliates to "help" you with an online promotion. Do as your conscience dictates, but be aware that you're taking a huge risk. As the Internet increasingly becomes the vehicle of choice for connecting with our target audiences, so too comes an increase in the likelihood of being ratted out as our audiences grow more sophisticated. Don't let that happen to you. Moreover, don't let someone else "fudge" on your behalf. Remember, you can't be "mostly ethical" any more than you can be "kind of relevant."


At July 17, 2006 12:06 AM, Blogger Mike Sacks said...

What do you think of Congress trying to make it more difficult to send emails in order to stifle astro-turf campaigns? They want to add logic puzzles and math probrlams as part of the criteria to send an email.

Many legislators insist that, although they have no proof to offer, many advocacy campaigns generate false emails. Not one congressman has been able to point to a case where a campaign used astro-turfing.

At July 19, 2006 10:20 PM, Blogger Marilynn Mobley said...


That's a great question. The short answer is, I'm always for less government, not more. I don't think astroturfing should be a congressional issue. The marketplace will take care of this problem on its own.

Meanwhile, I wish they'd worry more about their own campaign techniques. I have a firm policy never to vote for a candidate that sends me a "dear neighbor" e-mail or leaves a message on my answering machine when we've never had any interaction before! Thanks for writing!


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