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Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems: The Ethical Implications Behind Buying Your Customers

Insights December 19, 2013

As The Notorious B.I.G. taught us, mo’ money means mo’ problems. But as a recent college grad, I may have to disagree. Money can provide opportunity, flexibility, and even power. Yes, Mr. Smalls, money would actually fix most of my problems. And yet on a larger scale we see the problems associated with money everyday. From paid politicians to athletes shaving points, money is frequently a player in the game of corruption.

As brand agents, it’s critical to decide not only who your ideal customer is but also how you’re going to gain their loyalty. Being cognizant of the competitive landscape in our ad-saturated society, some marketers resort to purchasing their following, leaving the masses to jump on the bandwagon unaware of their leaders’ paid affiliation. As foreshadowed below in Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the purchased opinions of even our closest family members may not be too far into the future…


A Visit From the Goon Squad

“Alex leaned against his cushion… He’d spent the afternoon trying—and failing—to tell Rebecca what he’d agreed to do for Bennie Salazar. Bennie had never used the word “parrot;” since the Bloggescandals, the term had become an obscenity. Even the financial disclosure statements that political bloggers were required to post hadn’t stemmed the suspicion that people’s opinions weren’t really their own. “Who’s paying you?” was a retort that might follow any bout of enthusiasm, along with laughter—who would let themselves be bought? But Alex had promised Bennie fifty parrots to create “authentic” word of mouth for Scotty Hausmann’s first live concert, to be held in Lower Manhattan next month.

Using his handset, he began devising a system for selecting potential parrots from among his 15,896 friends. He used three variables: how much they needed money (“Need”), how connected and respected they were (“Reach”), and how open they might be to selling that influence (“Corruptibility”). He chose a few people at random and ranked them in each category on a scale from 10 to 0, then graphed the results on his handset in three dimensions, looking for a cluster of dots where the three lines intersected.”

-Except from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad


“The problem is…it’s not about sound anymore. It’s not about music. It’s about reach.”

Egan’s story is fictional, set in the future as a warning of where our society could go.  Yet, I see more similarities to her fable than differences in our current digital world. On top of the holiday ads attacking my every sense (at the mall, on the computer, in my mailbox, etc.), I’ve also been introduced to a new kind of promotion.  Social media has quickly evolved into a platform for advertising, relying primarily on the relationships that live there. On Facebook, the share button is used now more than ever, displaying gifts, political opinions, restaurants and hilarious cat videos that my own friends wanted me to see. Of course they are sharing these because of their inherent value, not because they’re being paid … I think. 

The trend towards this genre of marketing is certainly not a bad thing for consumers, resulting in many targeted and appropriate advertisements (“Your friends Ashley and Kayla love Birchbox! Do you have one yet?”). Of course most of these advertisers aren’t literally paying my friends, but many do carry incentives to those who advocate for their brand (get 50% off your next order if you get 3 friends to sign up!). This presents a sliding scale of transparency, one that each brand has the opportunity to customize. So, how much do you disclose? What’s stopping everyone from trading in their integrity for cash?

And what can marketers do to ensure they’re still acting ethically?


Rules to Live by:

Here are some guidelines to ensure your visibility is earned, not purchased.

Do Unto Others:

When developing a strategy, put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. Many of you have heard about the Interflora scandal – when the flower company sent a group of blogging-floral-enthusiasts flowers just prior to Valentine’s day this year in hopes of achieving a jump in the SERPs. But Google knows all and Interflora was penalized – dropping from even their branded search queries. So, if you’re relying on bribery to obtain a placement, you may want to reconsider your strategy.

Avoid Questionable Strategies:

If you are constantly dodging questions regarding paid affiliations, it may be time to revamp your game plan. Using a tastemaker to help market your product is great – trying to hide this affiliation is not. Besides adding to the mountain of collateral that could be used to your detriment in a PR scandal, this wears on your relationship with your consumers.  And just like rumors of an unfaithful spouse, rumors of hidden endorsements travel fast.

Capitalize on Your Existing Resources:

People who can speak highly of your brand are great, and it’s likely (if you’re not selling complete crap) that you already have a few brand evangelists on your team. These people already like your brand, were thrilled with your customer service and would be happy to say a few things on your behalf – so give them a platform to speak. Leveraging your existing collateral in the form of brand advocates should be a priority in strategy creation (and it’s a lot cheaper).

Tapping into new technology to best market your brand is what keeps you ahead of the game. But if Egan’s excerpt left you feeling a little too much like Winston Smith in the year 1984, then it would likely leave your customers feeling the same. All good strategies require balance. Utilizing your brands power and influence in a responsible, transparent way will result in trust, loyalty, and best of all, a nice return on your ROI. Happy marketing!

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