AstroTurfing the App Store [UPDATED]




iphone-thumb.jpgThe 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
+ 46+
* 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:
reverb-2
Source: MobileCrunch

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.

Update: Reverb has responded to these allegations (emphasis added):

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?

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    People have been spiking competitor services and products and building up their own services and products in Local Search reviews, Yelp, Yahoo! Answers, and other UGC-based sites for years. Why should anyone care now? Where was all this angst years ago?

    In fact, you’re supporting some of that kind of nonsense by promoting an article where the author presents his uniformed opinion as a fact: “… I don’t buy the argument that the interns and employees write reviews based on their own experiences: it’s a nice story, but at the end of the day, probably not true…”

    He may not have to prove his opinion in a court of law, but in my book it’s very foolish to take his unsubstantiated allegation as a fact.

    Maybe if I call you a liar and someone else writes an article supporting my accusation that will be sufficient for the world to believe you really are a liar.

    Is that fair by the ethical standards you want to uphold?

  • http://www.bigpictureweb.com Josh Braaten

    I might be in the minority, but I’m right there with you. Customer reviews mean customer reviews, not developers, not interns, not a PR team.

    Go integrity and anyone else that will uphold it.

    Call me an idealist. Call me naive. But you can be sure that people giving me props and plugging my services will be the real deal. That’s enough for me I guess.
    .-= Josh Braaten´s last blog ..Internet Meetups for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Beyond =-.

  • http://www.marketingpilgrim.com Jordan McCollum

    @Michael—personally, I never said the interns hadn’t used the apps. They may have. But when these profiles are posting only about client apps and always giving them five stars, after the company’s marketing materials promised prewritten reviews that hit the targeted marketing messages, somehow I’m disinclined to believe that these are their real, honest opinions.

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  • http://www.SocialMediaCommando.com Social Media Commando

    Further proof that no single entity can control the conversation in a World gone Social Media Crazy.

    Reminds me of Andy Beal and his loony idea that everyone is transparent these days
    .-= Social Media Commando´s last blog ..Watchable Web Video =-.

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  • cak

    Nice one Michael. The fact is that we have always hated this kind of “advertising”, the only different in this case is that we have proof. We have a letter from the PR company, as well as evidence on itunes of accounts only rating the PR’s apps, and only giving 5 stars. Maybe you have lost the understanding of the word honesty?

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    cak: “Maybe you have lost the understanding of the word honesty?”

    It means not using unsubstantiated insinuations to call someone else a liar. Perhaps you understood that to begin with but just wanted an example in use directed at you? That would be very disingenuous of you, would it not?

    Jordan, expressing your opinion is fine. Supporting a blogger who calls someone else a liar without proving they are a liar just isn’t cool in my book.

    Too often people don’t look more closely at the subtle propaganda that is being fed to them through hostile comments. This time you fell for the propaganda hook, line, and sinker, in my opinion. When people start attacking someone else credibility by substituting their opinions for facts, it’s time to look deeper.

    At the end of the day, how does one prove that the claim the interns don’t use the products is “probably not true”? How would you go about proving that claim if you were held responsible for it (simply because you supported the post in which it was made).

    If we can say that alleging guilt through propaganda is acceptable, then surely you cannot argue that guilt by association is inappropriate.

    You’re just as guilty as MobileCrunch of making up facts in this matter and presenting them as if they are true, aren’t you? After all, you didn’t call them on the carpet for being disingenuous and misleading — you applauded their character assassination.

    There is no moral high ground in these kinds of issues for people who play by double standards.

    Do I make my point more clear this time? Either MobileCrunch should just stick with the verifiable facts or it should just come clean and say, “Hey, we wrote a poison pen post and we’re making unsubstantiated allegations in order to ruin someone else’s credibility.”

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    Jordan, just blow a raspberry at me. I admit it: I’m not feeling well this week and people who know me well know I’m a bit testy when I am under the weather.

    Sorry.

  • http://www.marketingpilgrim.com Jordan McCollum

    I do understand the point you were trying to make better now. To be totally honest, I did have concerns about this story being very one-sided. MC contacted Reverb for a statement and Reverb said that they must have gotten their info from a disgruntled former employee, which is neither here nor there. They have since actually responded to the story, so I updated this story with their statement.

    Hope you’re feeling better soon!

  • http://www.marketingpilgrim.com Andy Beal

    @Michael – you know, you tend to have such strong opinions on many of the posts we publish–how do we get you to sit on the other side of the desk and pen one for us? ;-)

  • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

    @Andy – Wow – an invitation into the Lion’s Den. Who could resist?
    .-= Frank Reed´s last blog ..Good Sales Help is VERY Hard to Find =-.

  • http://www.bagsclub.com BAGS

    This is why I almost never buy an app unless I read a review on a reputable site. The star rating means next to nothing on most of these apps.

  • http://www.facebooklicious.com/services/iphone-developer iPhone Developers

    PR is really an effective way for a website. Nice info. Thanks
    .-= iPhone Developers´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

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