This is an archived blog from when I ran Conscious Public Relations Inc. from 2008-2018. Excuse the potential outdated-ness!
A few months ago, a colleague told me that a marketing firm phoned her up and offered to attempt to get her company a top spot in the Georgia Straight‘s Reader’s Choice Awards and only if successful would she have to pay them.
Similar to marketing services like this, I was very intrigued by an article in the November issue of BC Business Magazine, in which Niko Bell profiles a company called Gravytrain Marketing.
[Erik] MacKinnon‘s company, Gravytrain Marketing Ltd., specializes in an advertising technique called guest blogging. A client hires MacKinnon to promote a website; one that sells, for example, aromatherapy products, travel packages or even health insurance. MacKinnon and his staff of 15 writers create dozens of short articles on the topic, each article including a link to the client’s site. Finally, he convinces bloggers around the web to host the articles as a free way to increase their traffic.
While I have heard of the concept of ghost blogging and have no qualms with professional communicators like myself writing a blog or article on behalf of a company (the client) in order to educate readers and increase web traffic, my issue with Gravytrain’s business model is that the writers of these blogs are fake and imply to readers that they are reading information from a real person, or a credible source. And it boggles me that in this day and age, when many bloggers are protective of their brands, they would cave so easily to hosting this type of content, no matter how well it may have been written.
Gravytrain’s rates start at $30 per ghost blog post (clients pay monthly for a standard # of posts), and they also offer Press Release Services to newswires starting at $79 per release. Their guest blog post rates are not visible online, though BC Business says it’s about $65 per article. They also offer other copywriting services, including dating site profiles.
Public Relations professionals like me are trained on the importance of ethical storytelling. Spin is a bad thing, at least in my glossary. I would rather yield little to no results for a client in a publicity campaign that I executed honestly and to the best of my ability, rather than lie about the client and suffer the consequences later when someone finds out the company and I or my partners, were not telling the truth.
MacKinnon churns out articles offering tips for travel in Thailand or advice on luxury cruises. He has done neither. “We don’t pretend to be journalists,” he says, in defense of his articles: “It isn’t art, but it’s good enough to keep people clicking. ‘What it is, is high-quality crap,'” he says.”But what isn’t, online?”
Bell says according to a recent study by a tech research company, 15% of online reviews will be paid for by companies (i.e. fake) by 2014.
I once advised a previous client to remove his/her Yelp review when it was obvious that it was written by him/her (due to the writing style and the alias used). And I know that there are many other companies that lie to the public to make money. Say, for example, ads for cleaning products that claim to melt away grime from dishes or remove stains from clothing in one wash, or use all-natural ingredients that don’t harm the earth (coupled by fine print to protect themselves, of course). The difference with Gravytrain, is, they’re writing the ad (in this case, content) for the company, but pretending to be someone else.
This is not the way I would encourage others to do business and it makes me question where the future of marketing is going, especially now that we move into the web space more than ever, where people have little time to question what they are seeing or reading.
David Silver, chair of business & applied ethics at UBC, says faking the source of an advertisement – even just to attract viewers – crosses an ethical line. “If you look at all the theories that are out there, from the most right wing to the most left wing, you do not engage in deception.”
MacKinnon responds: “The reader is interested in facts and knowledge. If that’s what we’re presenting, what’s the problem?” he asks. “I’m not a woman. I write in a woman’s persona all the time. So it’s lying, I guess. But it’s writing. And yes, it works, or we wouldn’t have any clients. You’re right, that’s fabrication. But that’s what we’re paid to do. That’s what marketing is.”
I love the science behind marketing, and the practice not only of influencing the public, but also its ability to create positive change in the world. The kind of marketing that Gravytrain does is not the kind of marketing I stand behind, but I’m glad to know about it, even though it rubs me the wrong way.
Where do you cross the line in what marketing services you pay for?