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Posted on: Friday, 09 January 2009 by Rajiv Popat

At Multiplitaxion Inc, a lot of us in the product teams were busy building products and shipping features. It was a great team of thick-skinned, competent, one-man armies who felt very strongly and passionately about the products being built. When features didn't work they were out there, willing to take calls in the middle of the night and support what they had written. This was a team of really hard working developers who had a lot on their plate.

They were building the product, enhancing it, supporting it and they were out there to listen to the customer and help them when they had a problem. Obviously they were busy; and because they were all busy, when we started marketing the product to the mainstream market we came up with the idea of having a different team take up the marketing websites, the product videos and the blogs.

The idea seemed innocently simple, efficient and effective at first; and then it happened.

Websites with (In)Frequently Asked Questions started springing up. Blogs having the same content as the marketing website started showing up. Posts started to including a very strong marketing touch to them. Below, I provide an example of one of the many posts that multiple individuals in the team started coming up with:

Do you know the [data-about-your-organization-that-the-application-provides-reports-on]? Or, do you know if [more-data-reported-the-application-includes]? "No"? Then I think you should. Trust me, this is a crucial piece of information that every organization must have. After all, [data-that-the-application-provides] is important for any organization.

Your next question would be how I can capture this information. And answer is through [product-name]. 

The above example, is a rather small one. Overall, the whole bastardization of Blogs, Wikis and even Forums for the purposes of traditional marketing began and that was indeed starting to become a little frustrating for me. On the bright side, however, that wasn't the first time in this history of internet marketing that this was happening. In fact, we weren't even close to misusing blogs compared to a lot of other big names who had indulged into what Wikipedia defines as 'fake blogs':

A fake blog (sometimes shortened to flog or referred to as a flack blog) is an electronic communication form that appears to originate from a credible, non-biased source, but which in fact is created by a company or organization for the purpose of marketing a product, service, or political viewpoint. The purpose of a fake blog is to inspire viral marketing or create an internet meme that generates traffic and interest in a product, much the same as astroturfing (a "fake grassroots" campaign).

Fake blogs are corrupted forms of public relations, which as a discipline demands transparency and honesty, according to the Public Relations Society of America's code of ethics and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's code of ethics. Authenticity and transparency are important in social networking and blogging, as these codes of ethics attest.

As social networking tools gain in popularity, corporations and special-interest groups legitimately use their own blogs to promote company agendas without cloaking their identities (one such example is http://www.blogsouthwest.com, a blog sponsored by Southwest Airlines and written by its employees).

One notorious example of identity cloaking, resulting in a fake blog, was exposed when Edelman, an international public relations firm, created a fake blog in 2006 called Walmarting Across America. It was purportedly written by two Wal-Mart "enthusiasts" who decided to journey across the United States in an RV, blogging about the experience as they visited Wal-Marts along the way. While two people actually did travel across the United States in an RV, the publicity stunt was revealed to be paid for by Wal-Mart, a client of Edelman. 

But, like all things in life, the internet and the software development world in general are real places where common sense, simplicity, transparency and the laws of karma eventually prevails. Tim Nudd describes how Sony was ripped and hugely criticized for their acts of trying to bastardize blogging as a medium to do fake promotion of PSP. He reports the whole incident rather articulately:

All I Want for Christmas Is a PSP pretends to be a fan blog (run by a guy named "Charlie", who says he's helping his buddy Jeremy get a PSP for Christmas), but it's a poorly disguised marketing effort—the URL is registered to Zipatoni.

Visitors to the site are letting Sony have it in the comments. Says one: "If you want a PSP badly enough you should get together with an ad agency. Then try to sell the product through a lame website while attempting to speak down to what you consider your target audience." Even more comical: "Charlie" keeps posting his denials, in pseudo hip-hop speak. More than once he writes, "yo where all u hatas com from... juz cuz you aint feelin the flow of PSP dun mean its sum mad faek website or summ... you-all be trippin."

Pathetic. Over at the Something Awful message boards, a commenter makes a good point about this effort: "Makes you wonder why they can't cough up the $8 to do private registration, to keep people from easily seeing that their 'blogs' are owned by promotional companies." 

Tim describes how the whole Sony PSP episode finally ended:

Sony has now posted this mea culpa on the site: "Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn't a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products, and use this site to give you nothing but the facts on the PSP. Sony Computer Entertainment America.". 

Singling out Sony in the whole post seems like a lame thing to do. There have been many more including Wal-mart, Coke and many others. Internet mavens are in fact pushing so far as pursuing criminal prosecution for organizations which indulge in the act of marketing through false blogs

What we were doing at Multiplitaxion Inc, was nowhere close to fake-logging; but we had made a big mistake; while our PR teams and business analysts wrote the blogs they forgot two cardinal rules of blogging:

  1. Blogging is like lifenobody cares about you or your products; unless you have something for them.
  2. Blogging is like great sex – it is very difficult to fake the passion.

If there was one word which described what we were indulging in, it wasn't fake-blogging, it was lame-blogging. Thankfully, we failed early. Before any of these blogs went live we asked our PR team to stop writing posts till they genuinely connected to the product and if they couldn't connect to the products genuinely, they didn't have to write about the product.

Crowd-sourcing, collaboration, social networking and blogging might be seen by organizations as mediums to promote their products and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. A lot of organizations including Microsoft – through ASP.NET and Channel 9 – do this rather elegantly and honestly. A lot of individuals including Scott Guthrie, Phil Haack, Scott Hanselman and many others also blog honestly, passionately and informatively. They provide genuine knowledge and value along with some really honest feedback to their readers, even when they are talking about their own products or products built by Microsoft.

When people visit your blog, it is your personality, knowledge, spine and conviction that they are relying on. The whole I-was-paid-to-say-good-things-about-my-organization-and-their-products-so-I-did argument doesn't work in the long run. If you want to write about your organization, know your organization inside out and write about crap that goes on in your organization while you sing it's praises. If you want to write about your products break the good news and the bad news; in fact the guys at 37signals suggest that you publicize your screw-ups.

With blogs you are not just pushing content. You're participating in a discussion and you're contributing. You're interacting and connecting with people. You are reaching out and in more ways than one ways, you are asking for their involvement, interaction, time, help or some combination of one or more of these. When you reach out the a huge group of people asking them to give you time, involvement, help, or combinations of one or more of these, you are judged by your integrity, transparency and honesty more than anything else. If communities  can donate a staggering four million to Wikipedia they can also call the Sony PSP blog pathetic and laugh at wall-mart for being caught with it's pants down.

So, go ahead and assume that marketing pitch on your posts and consider your readers to be first grade idiots; go ahead and write those crappy FAQs; go ahead and create fake blogs; go ahead and share your frustration, write your depressing diary or genuinely contribute and participate by being open, honest and transparent. The choices are all yours; make them wisely; because your users will make theirs based on yours. They may decide to abandon your blog, send flame mails, angry-comments or grace you with more visits, appreciation, comments with honest opinions and interesting discussions. Just like everything else, blogs follows the rule of karma – what goes around comes around; In fact, it often comes around 10x magnified.

Next time before you press that submit button, think. Question yourself about what it is that you're sending out - is it knowledge, inspiration, experience, wisdom, lie, sugar-coated-marketing-message-which-you-are-being-paid-to-spread, depression, frustration, random HTML that will get you a higher Google ranking and then cause disappointment to the visitors when they land on your website or is it something else? What ever it is that you're sending out, do you really want it multiplied 10x and coming back in your life? If not, may I suggest that you take your mouse far away from that publish button and delete the post immediately.

Whether you're an individual or an organization, your blog is your third place and one of the best reflector of your personality, don't bastardize it. Write with conviction, add genuine value and then support what you write; after all, what goes around comes around. Now go write something that you genuinely believe in or are genuinely passionate about. Seriously.