AstroTurfing the App Store [UPDATED]
The last time I criticized AstroTurfing, I caught a surprising amount of flak. <sarcasm> I guess honesty and integrity are overrated these days anyway, so I’m updating my morals to get with the times—and to applaud Reverb Communications, a PR firm that’s also gotten with the times by having its interns positively rate clients’ apps in the Apple Store.
Reverb is one of the top gaming PR companies in the world. (No pun intended.) They represent companies including Harmonix (makers of Guitar Hero), MTV games and dozens of other iPhone developers. They say they have “personal,” “first party” relationships with Apple. They do Apple’s TV commercials and Apple has even referred developers to them. MobileCrunch, unfortunately, says that Reverb doesn’t “always follow the rules, and they have been stupid enough to tell that to prospective clients.”
Update: Reverb issued a statement to MobileCrunch denying these allegations.
Minor rant: rules?! What rules?! The FTC hasn’t definitively stated that their guidelines will apply to PR interns rating clients’ apps without disclosing that they’re getting paid to say those things. And besides, what the crap is the federal agency in charge of regulating advertising and marketing doing interfering in the Internet? Can’t they see this is clearly outside of their purview? Pff.
But apparently one of Reverb’s prospective clients wasn’t so open minded. They forwarded MobileCrunch one of Reverb’s pitch emails that touted their astroturf services:
Reverb employs a small team of interns who are focused on managing online message boards, writing influential game reviews, and keeping a gauge on the online communities. Reverb uses the interns as a sounding board to understand the new mediums where consumers are learning about products, hearing about hot new games and listen to the thoughts of our targeted audience. Reverb will use these interns on [your] products to post game reviews (written by Reverb staff members) ensuring the majority of the reviews will have the key messaging and talking points developed by the Reverb PR/marketing team.
I mean, seriously, could there be any better way to manage your reputation? And it gets better!
Internal User Reviews Process:
o Internal “User Reviews”
o Pre-written by in house writers
o Positive reviews – not over the top – but endorsing the game as a good product
o Age ranges
+ 12 – 18
+ 19 – 25
+ 26 – 34
+ 35 – 45
* Written from the angle of each age group including key words that resonate with each audience
* Reviews begin to go live on day of launch on the iPhone storefront
o Release reviews starting at launch as stretch over 14 days from release
So they go to extra trouble to make sure that their prewritten reviews using their targeted marketing keywords look totally natural—nobody will be able to tell they’re not written by rabid fans of your app!
MobileCrunch (aka KillJoy) went to all the trouble of searching out some of these reviews. With some digging through Reverb’s known clients’ apps, they came across a few profiles that only rated Reverb client apps (from several different developers), and always gave those apps five stars. Look at the lengths these people go to to be the wet blanket:
Rest assured, no one else has noticed, not even Apple. MobileCrunch/KillJoy/WetBlanket is pretty upset about all this innocent, totally acceptable marketing:
Ultimately, this is fraud. Plain and simple. Reverb Communications is using anonymized reviews as a way to boost sales, while lying to iTunes users. . . .
Furthermore, this story only dives into the iTunes fraud. Frankly, this was enough for us, and it was also the best place to catch Reverb in the act. However, the document sent to us by Developer Y indicates that they don’t just mislead folks on iTunes, they also use “online message boards” and other ways to communicate with potential customers. . . . To me, the actions on the iPhone app store, Reverb’s willingness to talk to prospective clients about these actions and the pervasiveness of the problem across all of Reverb’s iPhone app developers, mean only one thing: they are shady people. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they had similar ethics-be-damned practices in other parts of their PR approach.
Let’s see. What did generous commenters imply about me when I said it was a good thing the FTC was cracking down on this? Self-righteous, disingenuous, stupid, dishonest—it was almost as good as when I criticized Ask.com‘s fun, sexually-liberated commercials.
Reverb would like to clarify a few items regarding the MobileCrunch story about our agency that ran this weekend. The article “Cheating the App Store” is unfortunately full of emotion, logical holes and for the most part untrue. Here are the facts:
1. The writer forgot that Reverb Communications is not just a public relations agency, but is also a sales and marketing agency. Reverb’s marketing department has interns that do social viral marketing.
2. Our interns do not post reviews on iTunes. Our employees don’t post fake reviews. It’s common for Reverb team members to purchase the games and write a review in iTunes using their personal accounts AFTER they have played the game. In many cases Reverb has provided technical feedback and gameplay guidance to the app developer, long before these games hit the App Store, so we know these games extremely well. We also like these games or we wouldn’t take them on as clients. The entire list of iTunes accounts in your story are from staff members who have played the games.
3. 1 person=1 iTunes account=1 credit card. We do not have hundreds of accounts to “trawl” through iTunes – it’s simply untrue. We have 10 staff members who choose to post on the games when and if they have played the game. We have to buy and play the game in order to have an opinion.
4. This same writer contacted several of our app store developers wanting negative comments from them regarding Reverb. They all gave positive feedback, but the writer left this aspect out of the story.
Which covers it pretty well—except for MC’s claim that this information was based on Reverb’s own marketing materials sent to a potential client.
What do you think? Is this par for the course in
PR sales and marketing or is this a black spot on the industry?