Manipulating Social Media

the-simpsons-mr-burns-excelSome time ago I wrote about my impressions after visiting Fork & Screen and mentioned how easily the AMC manipulated so-called social media, buying themselves tons of mostly positive publicity for the low price of 30 pieces of silver a few free tickets.
I am not sure why this disturbed me so much; after all I realize that most people would like to get paid for something they create. For most of us this wish never materializes, but once in a while somebody gets noticed, gets paid, receives a dream offer, a book deal or a coveted Pitch’s Best Of Kansas City Spot. After a long internal struggle even I put up some Google Ads on this blog and promptly made eleven dollars and sixty six cents in two months; local beggars make more than that relaxing on the Plaza and breathing fresh air. I think this proves once and for all that I do this just because I like it.

On the other hand, these social media promotional tactics are too close to shilling for my taste. Shills were shunned when the Internet was still a collection of crazy-blinking mile-long one-page framed sites of horrible colors, and they haven’t gained in popularity since. That doesn’t stop them from trying. Recently there was a case of the exposed “cruise shills” and some complaints of unfair manipulation on the review site Yelp. I am a frequent user of online reviews, recipes and advice and I realize that they are written by regular people with no qualifications whatsoever. However, it’s important to me that their opinions, no matter how ridiculous, are more or less independent. For example, for the longest time I’ve been coming to the Kansas City Lunch Spots for “keeping it real” restaurant reviews. The fact that the author (whom I know personally) is not gushing about a lunch spot in exchange for free food lends his blog the necessary gravitas. I don’t mind people getting compensated as long as it doesn’t sway their opinions.

Back to the infamous Fork and Screen case. What seemed like a fun social media outing turned out to be a carefully planned and heavily monitored promotional campaign. When the free invites where released into the “ecosystem” (that would be the self-important social media types) the elaborate tracking system gauged the reaction.

AMC’s social media manager, Justin Gardner, sent out preliminary invitations to bloggers via Twitter. Those who responded received invites to the event. Shooting video and pictures was encouraged as the bloggers were given a VIP tour of the new facilities.

The obvious goal was to generate local buzz a few days before the theater’s grand opening on Halloween.

The insight began running the day after the blogger event on October 28, 2008. Since Spark can look back in time, data came back as far as early summer 2008. The queries (search terms) specifically mentioned the Olathe Fork & Screen.

The day before the event, only 34 web sites mentioned Fork & Screen. Growth in the few days following the event was staggering:

• 24 hours: 54%, 73 sites
• 48 hours: 61%, 93 sites
• 72 hours: 76%, 155 sites

From October 28 to November 2, the Ecosystem grew 80% to 168 web sites.

Using the Relative Insight Scenario Spread, you can see the bulk of the Ecosystem’s growth comes from social technology Web sites:

• Blogs – Scene Stealers, I, Shane, Ramsey
• Social networks – Twitter
• Reference sites – Flickr
• Videos – YouTube

These categories combined make up 66.67% of the Ecosystem – and they are all sites where users can have conversations and exchange and share user-generated content.

It’s worth mentioning that 26.1% of the Ecosystem is made up of News Web sites. After drilling down into the results, I discovered most of these sites use a set of AP articles (most likely taken directly off the wire).

Compare the blog and social network activity the day before the event to 48 hours after. UGC exploded as soon as the bloggers could get home to their computers. Some didn’t even wait that long, sending out Tweets right from the theater.

Two other pieces of information indicate that AMC’s attempt at combining a “real world” activity with the digital world was successful.

First, AMC Web sites and press releases only make up 8.91% of the total Ecosystem. Second, the overall sentiment in the Ecosystem is overwhelmingly positive.

If you look at the Conversation Sentiment Spread graph, it shows that only 7.7% of the conversations that registered sentiment were neutral or negative.

Based on these percentages (company sites and press releases vs. social technology sites), AMC’s one-night investment was returned with a 750% growth in positive online buzz.

If this doesn’t make you people feel used I don’t know what will.

I don’t want to over-dramatize the situation, after all few local people had a good time at the movies, nothing wrong with that, but what I considered unbiased personal opinions before (maybe mistakenly) is now in doubt. Does the writer really like a book, restaurant, store, beer or a movie or does he/she have a vested personal interest in promoting it? I didn’t stop and think about it before but now I will almost have to.

As for this blog, rest assured that there will be no shilling here; not because I have integrity but mostly because I am never offered anything for free. No links or posts on this site (except for Google Ads) are sponsored and I do it just because I like to promote something on my own, like a friend’s concert, a deserving business or a guy cooking goulash.

I am not a journalist or a member of  social media, I am just a guy with a blog whose opinion is not for sale.
P.S.If you’d like to buy my opinion (real cheap) please contact me at the email address on this site.

  • The D

    I think I would have a problem with this if the bloggers were told that they had to give a favorable review in exchange for goods or services. All of these reviews were written after the event. Did they get other gifts or services in addition to what they got that night? I don’t know.

    I’m a runner or at least I like to call myself one. If someone gave me shoes to try out, or a new shirt made out of some space age material. And was told that all in needed to do was give a review of the shoes, pro or con, should I not take them?

    How do you thing Heather Armstrong (Dooce.com) makes a living she pulls in enough dough from her adds that she nor her husband have to work real jobs.

    There is nothing wrong with receiving goods or services for free or discounted and writing about them. The problem arises when the people that provide a blogger with said goods or services but then put a condition that you write a favorable review. Then your just a sell out.

    • D, but if someone is nice to you, gives you shoes, buys you a drink (gatorade of course) and pays for massage wouldn’t you feel like an asshole if you write a horrible review?

  • Chimpo

    Very nice post. To the D’s point in the comments, no one is telling you to write a good review, but everything always seems better to you when you don’t have to pay for it.

    To this point, I have only gotten one thing for free, and it was due to a Yelp review. I liked the food, I kept going back, I was rewarded for my loyalty and have never written a word about the place since.

  • Hey There

    I was actually able to go to the event where AMC previewed the fork and screen. I was never pressured into giving any type of reviews and was not given anything to maybe make me feel like hey here is a gift now go say something nice.

    AMC gave us a tour, let us sample some of the items they were gonna offer on the menu, and let us experience what it will be like to go to the fork and screen.

    Being able to preview this I was able to then go out to social events, family events, work, the interwebs, my blog, twitter, facebook, friendfeed, ect and say what I thought about it good OR bad.

    To me what AMC is WHAT using social media is about. who are you gonna believe more local bloggers who have no gain in it or just a commpany press release that tries to sell you on something?

    I know if I go to a local tweetup or social media gathering and 3 or 4 of the local social media types are raving about AMC, a new web service, or whatever I am more likely to check it out cause I know these people on a personal level.

    So in short I think AMC was just using social media to spread the word and I think they did a great job.

  • midtown miscreant

    I think there is a possibility of feeling obligated to write a good review or to push that free widget, gizmo or thingamajig. Like you, the only thing Ive been offered free is advice, usually advising me to shut up. I don’t do the ad thing on my blog, not because Im worried about selling out, but because there is no money in it. If there was, I’d have them all over my page. Advertising is fine, but putting up a 500 word post that is a poorly disguised ad for some business annoys me. It insults my intelligence, thats why I cant stand Hearne Christophers craptastic blog.

  • Bull E. Vard

    As someone who gets free stuff from time to time I’ve had to create a policy. I disclose whatever I’ve gotten for free and I write honestly about it. I have, on occasion, not written about something I got for free, not because I was going to write a bad review, but because I didn’t have anything interesting to say. I’ve also turned down offers where it seemed like I was going to be used to generate publicity.

    That being said, I wasn’t invited to the Fork and Screen thing. But, I guarantee I would have written the same thing about it that I did after I went there on my own. It was annoying, poorly laid out and more of a hassle than I seek when I see a movie.

  • I have received free things before to “review” them. Some was computer parts, the other was a board game. Neither of them came with any pressure of a positive review, in fact, the computer one was for an online magazine that had very set standards for the review.

    I think the point of social media is exactly what AMC used it for, an ecosystem where you can introduce information and it gets disseminated. They were very smart about it… I did not attend, but being there would a bunch of people I knew and enjoyed might have made a better initial impression that when I went and had strangers sitting next to me while I was having a dinner that was not so good… I still don’t like the place because of it.

    I am actually kind of impressed that our local social media crew was used in a case study, if they don’t feel used I don’t think it should bother you. You obviously know what you like and are smart enough to recognize a true review vs a bought review… that it was mostly positive I think was due to AMC putting a good show, not so much to it being free.

    • I want to reiterate, I am not concerned about people getting free stuff, I wish they get more of it. What bothered me is the way the whole thing was set up and measured, from free invitations, ego-stroking treatment to quantifying the success rate.

  • Bull E. Vard

    Just to build on what XO says, these “social media” types are going to end up ruining social media. I use social media to screw around, tell jokes and make fun of XO and The D. I don’t use it to talk about social media.

    Do you think Alexander Graham Bell and his contemporaries used the phone to talk about using the phone? No, they used it for phone sex! Twitter should be used for the same thing. If your spending your time on Twitter talking about Twitter, you’re doing it wrong.

  • I don’t know how far the hand of ethics should extend, or whether a blogger should feel obligated to disclose whether something was complimentary.
    It’s hard to say because most professional critics do not have to pay for the items they review (theater, CDs, meals). Nor should they. The difference is that they go into things with the mindset that they are there to critique, whereas a casual blogger might just be geeked to get free stuff.
    It comes down to integrity, and not everyone has it.

  • It’s getting to the point that I’m starting to throw up in my mouth a little every time I see the words “social media”. Especially when it comes from twenty-something social media types who work for social media companies hyping the fact that social media is so important and world changing.

    As someone who uses social media constantly, I’m here to tell you…it’s a freaking chat room. Get over yourselves. It’s the latest way to pass notes in class.

    As far as the “Fork & Screen” goes, I can eat and watch a movie at home. Why would anyone drive all the way to Olathe (Mordor) to do it with a bunch of annoying strangers? I predict a big FAIL after the novelty wears off.

  • Whitney

    Full disclosure: I researched and wrote the case study quoted in your blog entry. Those interested can read the entire thing here. Also, I did attend the AMC Fork & Screen event.

    First, I disagree that it was manipulative for AMC to invite active bloggers to take a look at the theater. Let’s be clear about what took place at the event – it wasn’t a glamorous, VIP situation. There were appetizers, a short tour and a free movie in the Fork & Screen (NOT the upscale Cinema Suites). We were given a folder with a few press releases and two free tickets to use before 1/31/09… which I never used. I paid for my beers and meal, and was even double-charged for my dinner by accident (that was graciously corrected a few days later). No one was pushy or sleezy. The attitude was “come, take a look, write about what you see.” Despite the hiccups, I thought it was a great place to spend your money.

    Second, I think it’s important to acknowledge that conversational media (blogging, social networks, user-generated content) has completely upended the business to consumer relationship. Message control is now in the hands of the audience, and the best a business can do is keep their audience informed – not pretend they don’t exist. Given that shift, if you were a marketer, wouldn’t you want those influencing your message to be as informed as possible?

    In this case, I don’t think anyone felt obliged to write a positive review… unless they wanted to be a PR monkey. There are bloggers who eat up swag like candy. They’ll say whatever you want as long as you give them some goodies (like movie critics who say they like bad movies just to get invited to studio press junkets) There are also bloggers who focus on solid, honest content.

    Like any peer review, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Judging by the large amounts of data I studied to write the case study, there were positive reviews across the board… and the crowd at the event was comprised of some of the most intelligent, well-spoken people in the KC interactive community. I think you sell them short to say that they were used or manipulated by a company that is simply trying to move its marketing efforts beyond 20th century thinking.

    I’m sure there are companies that try to manipulate peer reviews, but you can’t hate on AMC for experimenting with merging digital and real-world marketing… and doing so in a non-cheese way.

  • Whitney

    I’d also like to disclose that AMC did not pay for the monitoring. It was done out of curiosity on my part to see what kind of conversations were generated by the event.

  • It doesn’t really bother me that people get free stuff. What really ticks me off is that I don’t get enough free stuff.

  • I was one of the bloggers who attended and I wrote about it afterward. I enjoyed the experience a lot. I wrote about it. I also have made suggestions to Justin about how I think that AMC can improve the experience (hello, bacon and cheese fries!).

    I’m also someone that works in marketing (and now to an extent in social media) and I heard someone talk at a virtual conference yesterday about how “social media is essentially word of mouth on steroids.” Marketers are always trying to find ways to get that valued word of mouth mention by Joe Public and social media is a new way of engaging with people directly. As a marketer, it’s hard to judge Justin for studying exactly how that engagement affected the bottom line. C-level executives all want a measurement they can point to. As more and more people are online, it’s important to take your message to them where they are.

    It’s a fine line though and we as marketers have to be careful that we don’t go into the realm of looking as though we are paying for mentions. But the power of social media can be explained with an example:

    When Universal Studios went to launch the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, they didn’t have a huge press release or event. They had an exclusive webcast and invited seven people. Those seven people were the 7 most prolific community members of MuggleNet, the Harry Potter fan site. Those seven people managed to get that message to over 350 million people within 24 hours. That’s what we’re striving for. The only thing that Universal gave them was a preview. Which is basically all AMC did for us. Your opinion of the Fork & Screen might be different than mine. I love the experience and have shown it with my dollars, paying to go back time and time again.

    A challenge for marketers is to keep the conversation genuine. It’s not easy. But I think that Justin and AMC are doing a good job at that.

  • RamseyMohsen.com

    I’m not going to reiterate a lot of what’s already been said — but I agree with most of what’s already been posted as comments.

    That said, I’ll agree with you Meesha from one angle; which is that AMC should have voiced to the public that their efforts in reaching out to bloggers was open-ended — in the sense any opinion or feedback published, good or BAD was completely fair game.

    Bottom line (and the piece of information you’re missing) it was up to all the bloggers discretion to make the decision to post positive or negative reviews

    Simple as that.

  • Cara

    “Wouldn’t you want those influencing your message to be as informed as possible?” One man’s “information” is another’s propaganda, frankly. If AMC didn’t think it would promote their business, they would not have hosted the event – period. And if they didn’t think that manipulation of social media wasn’t beneficial to them, Justin Gardner would not have a job.

  • Burrowowl

    So for eleven dollars and change you’re cool with helping some evil corporation farm information about our web-browsing habits, but somehow giving away free samples of your service in hopes that you’ll get some good word-of-mouth is bad? Should we be publicly shaming the ladies trying to get you to taste free samples at Costco? Boycotting movie trailers? Demand an end to Free Comic Book Day?

    When people put on an advertizing campaign of any kind, they bear some responsibility to account for the value gained from that campaign. So basically my comment can be boiled down to “zOMFGWTFBBQ, a business is acting like a business! The horror!”

  • After seeing the most hits and most comments on this here blog I can add a few things:
    Shane’s answer made me think that companies used to spend millions of dollars on people like Shane-the-professional and now they spend some petty cash on people like Shane-the-blogger to achieve the same result (your own theme park example),so figuratively speaking, social media is to marketing what illegal immigrants are to construction industry – cheap labor. In addition, by design or not the people invited were the nicer bloggers, i.e. the most read and the most prolific TKC wasn’t there because there was a chance he would go with his usual “white privilege” theme. Another thought is that while no one asked you to write positive reviews or any reviews at all, unless you are a real a-hole you would feel bad saying something bad after being treated nicely. I definitely would not be inclined to bitch (publicly) about bad food after being invited to someone’s house and being treated well. My review would probably concentrate on positives. Lastly,giving out samples at Costco is not in the same category – it’s a lifeline service next to police, fire and ambulance. Those ladies are saints. Please do not say anything bad about them on this blog or I will ban you without regret.

  • m.v. – “…social media is to marketing what illegal immigrants are to construction industry – cheap labor…”

    Perfect! You nailed it, my friend. As long as we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the marketing dweebs, we are the cyber equivilent of mescan roofers.

    Rise up! Grow some balls! Don’t be seduced!

    Anyone using the term “social media” is looking for a way to use you to make themselves rich.

    Don’t be a tool!

  • Ramsey Mohsen

    There’s something I think we should all take a step back and look at.

    Meesha, I realize you have no context, no reference, no idea of the communication, collateral, conversations, or manners in which AMC was completely open with us as bloggers who attended. In fact, all the outside public saw is the “exclusivity” of select bloggers going to preview the AMC theaters. So everyone was left to jump to their own conclusions of ‘how it worked’.

    My point is that the public at large isn’t informed about the openness that AMC provided. We as bloggers knew, we experienced it first hand — but to the outside world everyone just saw a ton of content published all about our experiences, which just so happened to be all positive (because the theaters are pretty darn sweet).

    Food for thought.

  • Ramsey Mohsen – “Food for thought”. Exactly. That’s kinda the whole point.

  • DLC

    Aw Jeez, I’m sorry I didn’t see this until today. Everyone ranted without me 🙁

    I have opinions and I’ll keep them to myself for once. I just wanted to stop by, say hello, and click a few Google Ads.

  • actually I was looking forward to your comment,pro or con, now I am left to wonder.

  • DLC

    It was an obvious attempt to garner buzz about the venue, but I think the bloggers and Twits who went knew exactly what the situation was. The attendees were themselves ‘social media’ types, and were naturally interested in taking part in a campaign that allied with their own interests and professions. That makes sense to me.

    But there did seem to be a willingness to play along that was unsettling. All the live tweeting was simply excessive, and a new movie theater frankly doesn’t seem interesting enough to warrant a blog post.

    XO and others are right in saying that overuse of these channels for marketing leads to their inevitable demise. It becomes less about fun and conversation and more about how the chairs are at the #amcforkandscreen.

  • Banky

    Bloggers ain’t journalists.