Earlier this month, I wrote about a Gartner study that predicted by 2014, as much as 15 percent of all social media reviews online will be paid for, rather than voluntarily submitted by satisfied customers.
Now, new research suggests the problem of illegitimate posts may be even more widespread. According to this new study, more than one-third of all social media comments on certain controversial topics may actually be generated from artificial sources such as “pay-per-click” sites, “content farms,” “robot” responders and others with a financial interest in the debate.
KDPaine & Partners recently analyzed more than 300,000 tweets, comments and posts about three health topics that have been generating a high volume of online buzz: childhood vaccinations, genetically modified foods (GMOs) and the use of high fructose corn syrup. The results of the analysis are somewhat startling, and they certainly cast a shadow on how reliably social media platforms truly reflect the opinions of valid, independent consumers.
Among the findings:
- More than one-third of all comments appeared to be created by bogus sources such as content farms, bots and other artificially generated sources.
- Nearly two-thirds of the posts came from people who merely commented once or twice on a topic, resulting in little engagement from others.
- Those who posted most actively on these topics were frequently marketers representing companies that stood to profit by stirring up debate and controversy.
- Many of the most vocal commentators were actually in a “pay-per-post” relationship with these companies, and they accounted for the greatest volume of negative viewpoints on these issues.
(See an infographic with more findings here.)
“The media often gauge the level of interest a topic has by the amount of discussion that topic generates, so they focus on places like Facebook and Twitter in the false belief that is where the main debates are taking place,” said Katie Delahaye Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners. “Unfortunately, less than ethical marketers and pay-for-post operators have beaten them to it artificially raising the volume on certain issues like the ones we tested. The real conversations are taking place in smaller, focused online communities.”
In fact, researchers found that the greatest level of true engagement and discourse on these topics took place among those who participate moderately on forums or blogs. Rather than taking extreme or unyielding positions, or pommeling others with argument after argument, these medium-level posters in the study participated in thoughtful dialogues and exchanged informed opinions on subjects ranging from organic farming to physical fitness when weighing in on GMOs, vaccines and corn syrup.
So, when trying to gauge public sentiment related to a product or service, marketers would be wise to take certain hotbeds of online controversy with a grain of salt.
As Paine points out, some commentators purposely create false controversies.
“A high volume of comments on sites such as Facebook and Twitter does not necessarily translate to high consumer interest,” she concluded.