The perils of ‘astroturfing’ for your business
This is an article ‘The perils of ‘astroturfing’ for your business’ by Marc Primo Warren
Everyone seems inundated with a variety of online information daily. With broad access to thousands of websites, not to mention targeted ads and spam that clutter our inboxes, it's safe to say that we are in a digital era where both blackhat and whitehat marketing strategies can gain audience traction.
Astroturfing is one of the most frequently used black hat strategies in both advertising and the political realms. While the results stemming from such practice may be promising and quick, you'll soon find out why sticking to legitimate digital marketing practices like search engine optimization (SEO) or paid search (SEM) will give you more bang for your buck.
First, let's discuss what 'astroturfing' is all about. It may help if you remember how New York's state attorney general released a report last year on how some US companies and their cohorts are conniving to hack the country's democratic rights. According to the report, deceptive parties utilized bots to generate millions of fake comments and emails that push partisan agendas into public discussions. These artificial inputs were noticeably crude and manufactured even with AI-powered tools, eventually prompting authorities to investigate. That, in a nutshell, is what astroturfing is all about.
Any campaign that appears to produce a tidal wave of messages voicing similar and seemingly hard-selling opinions is commonly attributed to such black hat strategies. However, astroturfing is not exclusive to political campaigns, as more companies have already resorted to such practices to generate website traffic. The only problem with this on a commercial scale is that it leaves out essential details that consumers need or want to know.
Here are the key reasons why such a strategy is not advisable to companies who want to push their brands in a general market that is looking for authenticity online:
Why astroturfing should be your least likely option
Upon further review of how astroturfing works, such blackhat marketing strategies can entail higher logistical requirements, which can prove to be more costly, not to mention risky, in the long term.
A few backfires that may arise from such practices, aside from cost inefficiency, include:
Inconsistencies in messaging vis-a-vis specific audience targeting
More tedious work from a community management perspective
Missed opportunities for better customer journeys and experiences
Lower traction for engagement
Some marketers who have resorted to astroturfing have applied specialized tools for audience targeting. Such acquisition of tools may also require higher budgets to build a team of content creators, community managers, graphic designers, and social media specialists to maintain a brand's online credibility, visibility, and engagement.
As a better alternative, whitehat digital marketing strategies such as SEO, SEM, content management, email marketing, and social media marketing, among others, work best for brands at lower and more flexible costs. Complementing strategies that push a brand's organic and paid ad campaigns are more successful in increasing website traffic by 68%.
In fact, 66% of today's online marketers have increased their digital marketing spending this year. Businesses believe that whitehat strategies are still the best ways to drive traffic to their websites and create valuable customer engagement that results in increased conversion rates.
White hat practices provide reliable data
Aside from giving brands the leverage to adjust their ad spending, these strategies allow for specific and reliable audience targeting via dashboard data and analytics, A/B testing, and personalized messaging to ensure that brands connect with their higher-value customers to boost conversions and lifetime value (LTV). In turn, target audiences can better appreciate how brands customize their engagement with potential customers and address their pain points more personally.
As today's digital marketing trends have shown, 88% of today's consumers are looking for more authentic experiences with brands they can trust, especially during disruption. Resorting to whitehat strategies can vastly improve a brand's marketing funnel from awareness to conversion, create worthwhile customer journeys in every stage, and retain a cyclic process that increases brand loyalty throughout an inbound marketing flywheel.
Aside from these points, Google's algorithms continue to work hard to deliver the exact results that match every user's search intent, if not more accurately. With numerous recent updates, Google's machine learning features can easily detect astroturfing content and issue red flags for such accounts that practice it. Complementing your meta and title tags with schema markups can quickly tell Google what your landing pages are all about for faster crawling and, more importantly, that they are reliable for targeted users. These code rules are often not utilized in astroturfing strategies that mainly resort to front groups and sockpuppeting to gain online traction.
Is astroturfing illegal?
If you ask any country around the world connected to the internet, the short answer to the question would be yes. Astroturfing has been an unwelcome strategy that hinders truth in advertising for years and has also been used in dubious political campaigns worldwide. Laws exist to prohibit companies that engage sockpuppets in their payroll for fake product reviews on e-commerce platforms or testimonials on community boards. One infamous case of astroturfing is that of Fortune 500 electric company Entergy. The company paid $5 million as ordered by the city council for hiring paid actors who participated in public demonstrations that aimed to push a controversial New Orleans project. Such cases drum out the voices of real people within a community or country who need support or help to address pressing issues. This example presents the dangers of astroturfing not only in the political arena, but in various industries and fields as well.
Reviewing current trends in white hat practices can help you appreciate the end-to-end process of inbound marketing. These tried and tested strategies perform well at the start of the awareness stage and down to increasing conversions. Most of all, you avoid getting penalized for practicing overt and deceptive marketing strategies like astroturfing, covered by US and European laws that aim to eradicate the estimated one-third of all online reviews considered false. Besides, ask any customer, and you'll discover that nothing beats genuine marketing, impeccable service, and honest product quality. Plus, the reward you get is the unparalleled trust that your customers, constituents, or stakeholders give your company and stance.
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