Wondering what "flogging" is? No, it's not when you take a big old strap and beat yourself senseless with it... (though Sony may be considering the idea right now) it's when you set up a "fake blog" in order to promote a product or service. Now it's important to note that there's absolutely nothing wrong with using a blog to promote your site or your services, you simply need to make sure that you are operating under full disclosure. Internet users are a savvy bunch and they have a way of ferreting out the companies that try to scam them. That's what happened to Sony and the reactions haven't been pretty.

It all started back when Sony decided to do a little "stealth" blog marketing and hired viral marketing firm Zipatoni to help them set things up. Zipatoni pitched the idea of a blog called alliwantforxmasisapsp that would feature two writers that talked about how much they wanted a PSP and all the ways that they tried to talk people into buying them one. The site featured images of the writers "friends" wearing PSP shirts, had e-cards that could be sent and was pretty much a horrifically blatant shill for the game system. Apparently "subtle" and "viral" didn't go hand and hand in the planning when this site was setup. Not surprisingly, site visitors became suspicious pretty quickly and it didn't take long for someone to look up the WHOIS.

The domain was registered to Zipatoni, a firm specializing in buzz marketing. From there it wasn't to difficult to figure out what was going on and oh did the fur start to fly. Gamers do not like to be gamed...at least not unless it's done with style and creativity. Popular opinion has it that this campaign had neither. In fact, bloggers are buzzing with commentary about Zipatoni's campaign.

"If All I want for Christmas is a PSP is the best that PR firm Zipatoni could come up with, they should be ashamed of themselves for actually taking Sony's money for this." - InsidePSP.

"If Sony asked Zipatoni to do this, that's sad. If Zipatoni pitched this as an idea to Sony, that's sadder." - TwistImage

"It boggles my mind how many mainstream marketers/agencies look at new marketing from the same one-dimensional, traditional, advertising based- and biased lens. When you think about it, it's no wonder that the inevitable outcome every time is fakeness instead of authenticity." - Jaffe Juice

The criticism is even harsher for Sony...

"Once upon a time Sony's stuff was so cool they didn' need to fake user enthusiasm. It's sad to see them scramble and lie instead of making something worth creating a buzz over." - Dvorak Uncensored.

"Ok, Sony, you're a major conglomerate, with an already ethically questionable past. We know. So, next time, try not to be so "too cool for school" with that pathetic attempt at speaking "our" language. Who wrote that, really?" - Beyond Madison Avenue.

While Sony did fess up in a sheepish "we just wanted to be cool" sort of apology on the site, many in the marketing world are calling for a more serious statement. After all, it's not the first time Sony has been caught faking it.

The incident obviously is going to generate some bad press for both Sony and Zipatoni before it goes away, but it also brings up a greater point in regards to viral marketing and buzz marketing campaigns. It seems that many marketers and businesses are still pushing too hard when it comes to viral. After all, the whole point of viral is that your customers do the marketing for you. If you have to pretend to be the customer via a fake blog or fake reviews, then chances are your idea just isn't cutting it. Add in the obvious embarrassment that comes with getting caught (I mean seriously, nothing says desperation like sending yourself flowers...) and you have a recipe for disaster.

Good products and good campaigns present loads of opportunity for good viral spin-offs. For example Sony could have taken advantage of the story about Tiger's pitcher Joel Zumaya who was sidelined from the ALC Series with an injury from playing too much Guitar Hero, a game on Sony's PS2. A humorous video series that showed Zumaya going through physical therapy to recover from the injury and warning players about the dangers of getting too into the game likely would have shot across the gaming world and climbed it's way up YouTube. In fact, I'm still waiting for Sony competitor Nintendo to expand on their popular "Wii would like to play" commercials by having the team from the commercials show up at REAL people's houses to play (bringing along a hard-to-find Wii and leaving it as a gift of course) and turning those visits into the next installments in the commercial series.

So what can you learn from this whole incident? Well for starters...people don't like to be lied to. If you want to start a blog or "fake" site for the purpose of promoting your product that's fine...just be honest about it. The larger take-away though should be that you just can't PUSH viral. Spend your time and effort coming up with an idea that's unique enough that people will spread the word on their own. There's nothing wrong with giving people a little encouragement or with planting the seeds to start the campaign, but ultimately, it's going to have to spread on its own. Sony and Zipatoni are learning that the hard way...learn from their mistake and make your viral campaigns ones that will be talked about in a good way.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

December 14, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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