November 18, 2013

Best practices for grassroots social media campaigns

Image by calmenda on Flickr

Ditch the skulking and try genuine, open engagement

Target audience: Marketing and PR professionals, campaign strategists, brand managers, businesses, educators, Web publishers.

Chris AbrahamAvenerable tradition in marketing and public relations is the grassroots campaign. Get a solid issue behind you and get out the vote! Get people to chime in their support and try to get some attention. Maybe even circulate a petition. You don’t have to be in PR to know what this is and how effective it can be when done right.

But when we started shifting PR online, we started shifting other things, too. Grassroots started to seem so 20th century. If, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, why bother getting real people for your grassroots campaigns? Why not fake the whole thing? These fake grassroots campaigns, called astroturfing, caught on about 10 years ago and still haven’t died out.

All this was brought to mind when I recently did some dog food research for a client and it occurred to me that quite a few of the comments are astroturf. For example, here’s one over at Golden Retriever Forum:


“jrr,” join date: May 2012, post date: June 1, 2012, Location: SW Va, Posts: 40. How do I know this is astroturing? Well, from 2003-2006 I had a lot of experience with it. This post is typical and exhibits all the aspects of shilling: only around 20-50 posts (most proper members have accumulated hundreds of posts), never moving past “new member,” generic profile photo, minimal background profile info, and a tendency to fire and forget.

Here’s another one from The Lab Retriever Chat Board:


“Snapperhead,” join date: June 2010, post date: January 16, 2011, Location: Irmo, South Carolina, Posts: 20. Again, it’s currently late 2013 and the number of posts has not progressed since 2011.

The roots of astroturfing: Stealth marketing is easy to do

Here’s how this happens:

1) Create an account

2) Fill out an entire profile

3) Engage in the community outside of whatever you want to promote for a couple of weeks just to become a known entity until you rack up 20 or more posts

4) Write a post about your client in such a way that it seems like the content is natural, organic, and part of the conversation.

This sort of stealth marketing is very effective, it seems, as it hasn’t gone away. Yelp is riddled with this stuff. And take a look at recent press coverage:

There’s fake everything online. But you really don’t need to go that route. Try to engage genuinely through message boards, blogs, forums, and chat.

11 steps on how to evangelist your brand online

Here’s what you need to do:

1You don’t need to skulk around anymore. The thing about being a mole is that you need to spend half your life pretending you’re something you’re not. If you’ve got a product, a service, an expertise, or access to an industry, you really have something that would be not merely compelling to certain online communities but actually a real draw. Stop spending most of your time on spycraft and setting up the perfect back story and cover and spend that time, instead, becoming a generous contributor using your real name and your real brand.

2You really don’t need fake reviews. If you’ve got something to promote you shouldn’t outsource to an army of shills. Rather, you and your team should become bona fide members of the online communities that are germane to what you’re selling, to what you’re marketing – and, if you’re not in the middle of selling something, even better. It’s always better to become friends without intent and with no agenda. Build up the good intent and the trust before you start dropping links and using all that cheesy marketing copy your advertising team keeps feeding you.

3Become a brand ambassador. People think professionals are cool. They only act like you’re “management” or “a sell-out” or “corporate” because they’re sure you think you’re too good for them. Prove them wrong. What’s cooler than having the developer of an app or a phone or a line of clothing spending time hanging out and getting to know people on their respective message boards or groups? Nothing!

4Make friends and influence people. Please remember that the only way you’ll actually fit in on a message board as an authentic member and brand ambassador is to remove as much distance from you and your fellow message boards denizens. And don’t engage as your brand or as your products and services, it’s better to engage primarily as who you are, secondarily what you know, and only finally as what you do.

You really need to not be a robot or a customer service rep or a stiff drone. It’s essential that you really and seriously make friends and influence people. And, if you think this is all a waste of your time and you’re not totally into it, over a long haul, then you’d better leave it be or find someone else who can participate passionately, consistently, and with the sort of enthusiasm worthy of your brand, your products, your contribution to the world. Just be sure to remove all salesy and shilly language from what you write. Engaging online is about being generous, about being a good role model for your brand.

5Get to know the Majordomo, the Administrator, the Board Owner, and the Superusers. Most message boards these days experience a lot of abuse. From astroturfing to shilling to DoS attacks to brute-force hacking. If you want to be welcome into a small town, get to know the mayor, preacher, and judge. Likewise, if you want to connect well and deeply with message boards and forums, engage openly and truthfully with the board owner. See if there’s any way he might be willing to introduce you to the community. Or, maybe he has a sponsorship route or an advertising program. It’s expensive to run a board. The more successful the board, the more it costs in upkeep, hosting, and bandwidth. Write some checks, but be sure to keep advertising separate from building trust with the community. Never go for the short win, go for the long game.

6Become a sponsor – spend some money on the message boards. One of the things I have noticed is that most message boards have sponsors. They’re about a dozen companies that pay to be featured both in contextual advertisements but also have relative carte blanche to cruise the online forums being the awesome topic, product, and issue experts they are everywhere and anywhere they wish. And I don’t believe it’s very expensive, especially compared to the cost of either skulking about astroturfing on boards pretending to be someone you’re not, always looking over your shoulder, always hoping you won’t be exposed by your suspect IP or because your tell or because nobody knows you or because they can smell desperation in your words. Or, by throwing money into the bottomless put known as Google AdWords, hoping that your ads will end up coming up all over the boards you hope to target.

7Produce good content. You really need to bring your A-game all the time. If you commit, you need to do it consistently and forever. Forever. And it’s a little bit of a game of hot potato. When you engage, you need to make sure you always monitor for replies, queries, and direct messages. What’s more, you also need to monitor content that’s not your own.

There are no bigger passion players and super-influencers and extreme gurus than there are on message board

8Don’t expect an overnight success. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Once you start, you need to commit through the life of the project. Most message boards allow you to subscribe to threads and posts and have replies and direct messages shot directly to your email Inbox. Be sure to check that email box and be sure to respond promptly. Take all of this seriously even if hanging out on message board feels lame to you or too much like play to recreation: it’s not. There are no bigger passion players and super-influencers and extreme gurus than there are on message board. I have learned everything I know about motorcycles and firearms from message boards and forums. If you take some time, you’ll probably become as passionate about what you as you were when you either started your company or first accepted the offer of employment.

9Don’t beat a dead horse. Sometimes, it’s not a love connection,no matter what you do. So don’t force things. That said, don’t give up right away. Most old-timers on message boards and forums have been hurt before. So be careful. Becoming a part of someone else’s life may well feel like part of a strategy toward better brand recognition, market engagement, and sales but it’s also very much someone else’s real and legitimate family. Virtual relationships are real relationships. Trust me. If you’re feeling like you’re getting a cold shoulder it might very well be because someone like you who came before wasn’t very nice in the end. They might not trust based on past relationships. They may well be testing your mettle, hazing you a little bit. Give it a chance but don’t throw good money after bad if it’s really not much of a love connection.

10Know when to walk away, know when to run. If you end up getting beat up, ganged up on, used for your money, generally ignored, or if you can’t sustain the time and attention required, but sure to take your leave – but don’t just disappear. Sometimes it’s not about them or the community. Sometimes, it’s because of your mistakes. Think twice before you bail but when you bail, do it gracefully with the intent of not burning bridges. Message boards are bastions of gossip, controversy, speculation, and conspiracy. Always be sure to make nice.

11Never underestimate the power of begging for forgiveness: I always recommend: be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. That’s Philo of Alexandria and as true now as it’s always been. Be kind. Be generous. Be understanding. And, if anything goes wrong, never underestimate the power of begging for forgivingness. And, even if it feels like appeasement; and, even if you hate the man you’ll have to become to apologize for something you don’t even think you’re responsible for, discretion is the better part of valor. It’s essential that you live to market another day.

Good luck, pilgrim!Chris Abraham is a partner in Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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2 thoughts on “Best practices for grassroots social media campaigns

  1. Great article. I never really gave much thought to being a “brand ambassador” on forums and such, but I will in the future, thanks!
    I ran into this article because a company recently asked me if I would be interested in doing “grassroots” social media. Even though I work in social media, I was a bit confused by the term “grassroots” and I’ve been looking around the internet but I can’t seem to figure out what exactly is the difference between “grassroots” social media and just social media. Any insights?