Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 10:30AM - Comments: (6)
Who can you trust? You’d think that the Internet explosion and the current boom in blogging and social media would make life easier for the wannabe cruising sailor looking for information on boats, equipment, and cruising in general. But when you start peeling back the layers of information—everything from bulletin boards to blogs to e-zines—you find that the Web is rife with contradictions, bad advice, and now, some contemptible stealth marketing.
True, you’ll find some great tips on the Internet, but making the distinction between fact, unfounded opinion, and outright lies is getting harder. The small sailing market has generally escaped the insidious practice of fake blogging and the posting of bogus reviews of gear and equipment, but as new companies find it harder and harder to connect with customers, the temptation is great to try anything.
Rich Borens, a cruising sailor and blogger whose company makes reverse-osmosis watermakers, recently offered an inside look at how this sort of stealth marketing works:
"I have no doubt that the vast majority of cruising blogs out there are indeed real, and I've met the crews in anchorages and exchanged emails with them all the time; however, about two weeks ago, I was solicited by a web marketing firm over the phone and what they were trying to sell me surprised and shocked me. . . . To cut right to the chase and spit it out, there are cruising blogs out there that you could be reading and following that are fake, along with product reviews on many of the sailing and cruising sites! There is no cruising family or couple; there is no boat, no real crew, no real landfalls, no real experiences, and no real adventure. The only real thing about the blog is the products they talk about as must-have cruising gear and the links they provide to the company's products!
"As a business owner, with my cell phone and email listed on our Cruise RO Water and Power website for sales and customer support, I get email and phone solicitations galore, seven days a week. They are easy to spot within the first five seconds of the call, and I usually start talking Spanish to them and they disappear, or hit the spam button if it's an email. But for some reason, this lady sounded different, like she was a long lost high-school friend, so I kept listening as she described this 'fabulous opportunity for me to increase sales.' She went on and on (phone salesmen know to not pause during their pitch for you to interrupt and boot them off) about what her company did and why I should buy her services. I was at first confused, which grew into disbelief, and then to anger at the outright dishonesty and fraud of what I was being told was the latest and greatest Web marketing approach.
"The basic advertising package would cost $1,250 per month, which by the way is about the cost of a half-page magazine ad in a popular cruising magazine, as an FYI. I would then write three blog post reviews per month for the products I wanted to sell and then they would place the 'gear reviews' on what she called their 'network of promotional blogs.' At this point, I was still a bit confused as to what exactly I was being sold and what a 'promotional blog' was, so I asked how cruisers would let someone pose as them and post fake gear reviews on their blogs. Then as she explained, the whole ugly details came to light, as she told me how their advertising system worked. The marketing company set up and maintained a series of cruising blogs on what she called the major sites: sailblogs, yatchblogs, blogspot and a few more common sites where cruisers host their blogs. They don't just do this for cruising gear and blogs, but she rattled off an impressive list of other types of blogs that targeted products from home entertainment systems to camping gear that they do what she called 'active user product placements.'
"But wait, there's MORE I was told, I should consider their 'Gold Package' where their staff would not just help me write fake product reviews for posting on the fake websites, but they would also provide me with a critical value-added service. There are dozens of various sailing, cruiser, and boating related chat rooms on the Internet. If I subscribed to their Gold Package for an additional $250/month, they would use their Web searching software to do a daily search of the top 30 cruising/sailing related chat rooms for the keywords around our products and for any mention of our company name. When found, they would then notify me via email with a link to the site, and I could write a fake testimonial to send back to them for posting under one of their anonymous site member names that they maintain. These would cost me $25 each, but as she said, would result in lots of positive word of mouth feedback.
"Are you getting pissed off yet? Well, I sure am, just rehashing the phone conversation.
"As she sensed I wasn't ready to give a credit card to start the marketing campaign, I was told how this is standard operating practice on the Internet today and that I shouldn't feel bad about using the latest in marketing technology to sell my products. After all, she said, the goal of a marketing campaign is to sell product and their approach was a proven winner, why wouldn't I want to participate in what everyone else was doing? I told her that we had already maxed out our advertising budget for the next few months and then she of course wanted to call me back in June to see if I wanted to start a campaign, she hung up and I sat there stunned.
"It doesn't surprise me that there are people out there willing to do unethical things for money, heck that has been around since man himself, but what got to me, and I've been having a hard time accepting, is just how easy it is to pull off lies and deceit with the anonymous powers of the Internet. As more and more of us turn to the Internet for information, do we know WHO is providing that information and presenting themselves as the unbiased authority on the subject? If I now have to research the person making an 'unbiased' product review on a blog to make sure it isn't a bogus company plant, how much harder is it for me, and all of us, to get good information?
"When we looked up a word in Webster's Dictionary, you could be pretty darn confident that the meaning you found was true without spin or slant. But try looking up a word on the Internet today that could have any type of controversy around it and you won't just find a definition, but multiple sites all giving their own spin on the word. I'm not quite sure what the take-home message is behind the realization that anything you read online needs to be approached with skepticism, other than that obvious point!"
For readers who want to follow Rich Borens' very real blog of his sailing adventures, you can find him at http://www.sailblogs.com/member/svthirdday/.
If readers suspect they’ve been a victim of Internet fraud with a marine-oriented online business, or are convinced a blog is fake, send us a link to email@example.com, and we’ll check it out.