Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mommies become secret spokesmodels (with benefits) for corporate America

Are they scoring -- or whoring?
       (12/8/13)  It seems like only yesterday that our buying decisions were being manipulated by cynical advertising executives, who used focus groups and psychological research to analyze our aspirations and insecurities.
    Now it's the housewife next door -- the spokesmodel in sweatpants -- who's calling the shots. A multibillion-dollar industry has sprung up that presumes to identify the "influencers" among us, who can be bribed into becoming "brand ambassadors." A program last night on the Live Well Network gleefully described how women can get "unbelievable tons of free stuff" -- from wrinkle creams to laptops to vacuum cleaners and pricey toys --  merely by agreeing to place helpful customer reviews on Amazon, Target and WalMart; on their "mommy blogs"; and via Facebook and Twitter. Some of the biggest corporations in the world are clients of these firms, which seduce ordinary women into providing the best advertising there is: word of mouth. This begs the question: How trustworthy are all those reviews that had seemed to provide such a democratizing resource for consumers? Those who write the best reviews can receive thousands of dollars in the coolest new products, and even trips to some of the most exotic resorts in the world. So we who want to make intelligent buying choices are still being screwed -- just by greedy women instead of ruthless men.

   Isn't this quite sad and discouraging? The advent of online reviews by and for ordinary consumers was very exciting. It constituted its own "marketplace of ideas," as people attempted to help each other determine which products were the most effective and durable. I have been very grateful for the time people have taken to explain the pros and cons of various items, and they have certainly had an impact on my buying choices.
    I think it's been clear to most of us that the reviews weren't always credible. A few of them seemed to be "plants," as if the boss of a merchandiser had told his secretary to submit something that would "really boost our sales."  These "fake reviews" raved in a way that was so gushingly over the top that we just rolled our eyes and ignored them.

    It's become harder over time to tell -- haven't you found? -- which of the positive reviews is sincere and accurate. I find myself giving more credence to those that are negative, and then identifying common threads among the more positive ones to try and find the truth. 
    But to learn that there is a massive, calculating, Big Data-driven campaign by some of the most prestigious names in consumer culture to infiltrate our "marketplace of ideas" with "bought and paid for" reviews is very disappointing. Hundreds of thousands of women have signed up to join this Platoon of Persuaders, standing at the ready for their marching orders from corporate America, and then steathily spreading "the word" about whatever they're ordered to. 
    One marketing researcher said that these women "gain immensely in their self-esteem" by having such an impact.

You ladies are so trusted and special -- your peers look to you for leadership!
     I think they probably have too much self-esteem already, if they think it's OK to mess with our heads for their own personal gain.
    It really should be illegal (and technically it is, but so are a lot of other common marketing practices. We are lied to all the time on national TV - "this shampoo makes your hair ten time stronger after one use" -- and no one does a thing about it). 
    We should be able to have these islands of honesty, where we regular folks can provide aid and guidance to each other, without the infringement of Big Business and its Big Posse of Calculating Psychomaniacs.
   And these people -- our friends and neighbors! -- who allow themselves to be "bought" should be identified and shunned, just as traitors were in the bad old days. 
    They are traitors, who have chosen their own material pleasure over their loyalty to their own kind. They are the handmaidens of the One Percent. 
    And they call themselves "mommies"!   

   An article this morning in the New York Times reported that as consumers rely more on one another's opinions in making buying decisions, the power of marketers is being undermined. "A wealth of online user reviews is causing a fundamental shift in how consumers make decisions," the article noted. Companies should focus their attention on what and who are shaping those opinions, it said.  
    Amazon.com, which must surely realize that it has a problem with fake reviews on its site, actually generates some of them itself. Its Amazon Vine program -- an "invitation-only program" -- uses "elite reviewers," who are sent free merchandise to review every month, according to an NPR segment in October. 
Coiling its influence around our perceptions.
     "Literally every other day there's UPS boxes piled up at the door," one of them says.
    Through Vine, he has received everything from cheap earbuds (worth a few bucks) to multifunction laser printers (retail price about $500) to a spin bike (worth almost $1,000). In all, he says, he's received thousands of dollars worth of merchandise through the program. 
    Anindya Ghose, an NYU professor who studies consumer reviews, said, "As humans we are hard-wired to give in to this sort of enticement where if you continuously get things for free, then you're more likely to be biased positively than biased negatively," he said.
     In a new study by Dimensional Research, 90 percent of respondents said their buying decisions were influenced by positive online reviews, and 86 percent were influenced by negative reviews, according to an article last month in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. 
    There are efforts under way to police this Wild West of fake reviews. On Sept. 23, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that officials had busted 19 companies that were writing or commissioning fake online reviews, after a year-long undercover investigation. 
    These were not the "housewife hooligans" that the Live Well program was about, though. 

A few dollars goes a long way in Bangladesh.

     The prosecuted firms were paying writers "from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe $1 to $10 per review."  
    "The investigation revealed that the Internet was being flooded … with fake consumer reviews," Bloomberg Businessweek reported.  The accused companies were fined, and agreed to stop using phony reviewers.  
    But Mary K. Engle, who directs the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices, told Bloomberg,  "I’ve heard estimates that 15 to 20 percent of online reviews are still fake."  
    The Live Well Network program, "Deals," profiled one mom who "is collecting tons of stuff that she got for free," from an iPod Nano to a $120 baby exercise toy.

    "All of these products in the store would cost me about $2,000 but as a product reviewer it didn't cost me any money, just a little time," the featured blogger mom beamed.
    "One of the best products I've reviewed is the Dyson bladeless fan. I actually reached out to Dyson to attend an event and they asked me if I wanted to review this fan, DIDN'T COST me a dime. In the store it would cost you about $200. But for me, all I did was write a review on it on my blog and post it on Facebook and Twitter." 

    She proudly pointed to a massive heap of products that had arrived at her doorstep for free -- in exchange for her reviews. She especially loves her Hoover Steam Mop and another pricey home helper, the Rowenta iron and steamer.
    But, it's not just products, she exuberantly added.
   "I also review entertainment spots. We've done a dinner cruise, I've done Disney, I've gone zip lining, I've actually taken a dolphin cruise and we also review restaurants."
   So how does she do it -- the program asked her -- and how can the rest of us "get started"?
  "If you are a soccer mom, baseball mom or active in the PTA they love these kind of moms because you are the one that's going to go out there and tell them about the product you've tested," she said.
Beyonce loves Pepsi, so they give it to her for free. That's sweet.

    There are numerous web sites that screen prospective reviewers for their scope of influence and link them to various products and services. These are ambitious, complex operations that promise Big Data metrics to their clients that reveal, practically down to the millisecond, how much impact their "viral" marketing efforts are having.
    One of the most interesting of these operations is BzzAgent.com, which refers to its "brand ambassadors" as advocates.
    "With insights from over 400 million shoppers around the world, BzzAgent delivers precise targeting and a powerful social engagement platform," the web site claims. "And our advocates know a thing or two about influence. They’re highly active in social media, they love to talk about brands and recommend products, they create and share more brand content than the average consumer and people listen to them."
    BzzAgent urges prospective clients to "activate their voices around your brand and track their impact on product sales and return on investment." 

L'Oreal wants your beautiful mouth for its word-of-mouth.
    BzzAgent's many prominent clients include Jim Beam, Dunkin' Donuts, Michelin, Nestle, P&G, Focus Features, Colgate Palmolive, Danone,  Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, Hasbro, Dove, L'Oreal, White Wave, Wrigley, and McCormick.
   In its outreach to prospective product reviewers, the site says: "Want to experience and share great products and services like this? Become a BzzAgent!"
    The firm publishes one dazzling, if somewhat unsettling, case study after another, in which its "agents" (just ordinary moms!) have unleashed a fury of consumer activity on behalf of its clients. Below are three of the studies. They are fascinating to read (http://about.bzzagent.com/word-of-mouth/casestudy/case-blog):

Case study: Burt's Bees
Goal: Drive Targeted Trial and Sales
Burt’s Bees needed to increase awareness of their Natural Acne Solution line and drive measurable sales with the help of BzzAgent.
Campaign Strategy: Sample Experience
15,000 Agents with an average age of 24 participated in the campaign. They were given a BzzGuide with product information and activities including a campaign page, a full product set for Agent trial as well as samples to pass along.
Results: Reach, Trial, Purchase
  • Reached 900,000+ people via in-person conversations with hundreds of thousands more reached via digital dialog
  • Generated 182,322 unique triers during the 8 week campaign
  • Drove and incremental 30,000 sample requests via a client microsite, effectively doubling the request rate 
Thanks, honey!

Case study L’Oreal’s Revitalift
Goal: Use Consumer Testimonials to Prove Product Performance, Gain Awareness
By targeting a specific group of Agents, engaging them with the product through samples and coupons and informing them how to spread the word about their experience BzzAgent generated thousands of testimonials and increased awareness for L’Oreal’s Revitalift.
Campaign Strategy: Target, Engage, Activate
The Campaign targeted 15,000 woman Agents ranging from 40 to 59 years old. The women were sent a Bzzkit including a BzzGuide full of product information and ways to spread the word about the product. Agents were also sent a full product set and pass-along samples.
Results: Reach, Advocacy, Sales

  • Campaign reached 840,000+ people via in-person conversations alone
  • Increased advocacy levels 20 and 40 percentage points for the L’Oreal and Revitalift brands
  • Drove over 112,000 incremental consumers during the 8 week campaign
Brush up on your impactfulness!

Case study: Sonicare
BzzAgent engaged 30,000 Agents across the US and provided them with a comprehensive BzzKit which included:
  • A Sonicare Essence toothbrush (a $90 value)
  • Five $10 mail-in rebates for additional toothbrushes to give to others
  • Online product information and suggestions on who and where to Bzz
Objective: Generate Mass Reach and Trial
  • Campaign generated total reach of 1.2 million consumers
  • Virtually all Agents used the toothbrush during the campaign and 95% felt that Sonicare performance exceeded that of their old toothbrush
Objective: Increase Positive Opinions and Boost Consumer Advocacy

  • 95% of Agents ended the campaign with a positive opinion of Sonicare – nearly doubling pre-campaign levels
  • Net Promoter® Score of 80 (more than 2 times the BzzAgent median) indicates strong consumer advocacy of the Sonicare product
Objective: Increase Sales Results and ROI
  • Both Agents and BzzRecipients reported high purchase and purchase intent of the Sonicare product, resulting in over 40,000 units sold
  • Based on sales analysis conducted by Philips, friend and family recommendations drove 18% more sales in 2006
  • This increase in sales resulted in an approximately 100% Return on Investment for the Sonicare BzzCampaign
    Who needs print or broadcast advertising with results like these?
    Klout.com's program, Klout Perks is "the largest, most successful influencer engagement program," the firm's web site claims. "We connect the worlds top brands with key influencers to generate authentic earned media and have delivered over 1 Million Perks to-date."
    Klout has the largest consumer base of any influence marketing platform, the company asserts. "Our business tools empower marketers to identify and engage with millions of top influencers, increasing earned media and improving brand lift."
    Its clients include Motorola, Doritos, Red Bull, Disney and Chili's.

How much clout do you have with your peers? It's another one of those crazy algorithms!
    "We use more than 400 signals from eight different networks to update your Klout Score every day," Klout tells its reviewers. "Influence is the ability to drive action. When you share something on social media or in real life and people respond, that’s influence. The more influential you are, the higher your Klout Score.
Perks are exclusive rewards you earn for your influence. Every day,
influencers receive amazing products, discounts and VIP access
that is only available to Klout users.
    "The majority of the signals used to calculate the Klout Score are derived from combinations of attributes, such as the ratio of reactions you generate compared to the amount of content you share. For example, generating 100 retweets from 10 tweets will contribute more to your Score than generating 100 retweets from 1,000 tweets. 
You're not as cute as you think you are!

    "We also consider factors such as how selective the people who interact with your content are. The more a person likes and retweets in a given day, the less each of those individual interactions contributes to another person's Score. Additionally, we value the engagement you drive from unique individuals. One-hundred retweets from 100 different people contribute more to your Score than do 100 retweets from a single person."
    Sure, it's complicated, but that's why they get the big bucks for their services. They claim to measure more than 12 billion signals every day.
    All this MegaData mumbo-jumbo is very tiresome. It's infesting every aspect of our lives. Is it artificial intelligence, or authentic stupidity? It's stupidity. (http://kronstantinople.blogspot.com/2011/11/does-big-oil-think-youre-slick.html)

    Tomoson.com seeks reviewers for thousands of products. Each product has criteria that the prospective reviewer must meet, and most of them require thousands of unique monthly visitors to her blog, at least hundreds of Facebook friends and fans, and just as many Twitter followers, etc. Whether it's a free jar of coconut-oil cream, a camera, hip new sporting gear or a dining-out card, you'd better have great stats to prove your range of influence.
    "We give your products away to bloggers and people in your target market, to create word of mouth buzz," the site explains. 
All abuzz with the latest in shopping options.
    "Studies have shown readers trust the blogs they read. Businesses can submit free products to people for a minimal cost. The person's influence may be thousands if not millions of people that will see your product review and make a potential decision to purchase your product. In short the cost of getting your product in front of millions of people could be the cost of one free product. Now that’s a return on investment anyone can live with." 

MomCentral.com "is a community filled with moms like you. Here, you'll get the opportunity to find out about new products and promotions, try the latest products for free, and voice your opinion on these products. It's like a testing panel, with all these extra perks —  like exclusive giveaways, coupons, sponsored product parties, and the chance to become brand ambassadors for those brands you believe in. Sign up today, start having your say.
if you're a mom blogger, brand-friendly, active blogger (updating your blog at least once a week), then sign right up."
    One reviewer was invited, along with 10 other families, by the Paradise Island Tourism Development Association to visit and stay at the Comfort Suites in Paradise Island, Bahamas, with free air travel from Jetblue.
    "The entire weekend was an incredible opportunity and experience that will last us a lifetime. Next time I plan a vacation I know where I am headed – directly to the Comfort Suites, Paradise Island. This is a place where everyone’s frowns are always turned upside down!" the reviewer exclaimed.    

My mommy is so dang amazing!

When it's free, it's so much more fun! 

    Another reviewer "was so excited to discover the Le Creuset Panini Set so that I could make these delicious hot sandwiches at home. The set is comprised of a square skillet and ribbed weighted press, which simultaneously heats the top and bottom of grilled sandwiches."
When it's free, it's so much more tasty!