Jack, John and Joe are talking about games.
Jack has played a new game. He likes it. He tells John and Joe, who, knowing Jack’s reputation for giving games a fair, balanced review, and that their tastes and his are often similar, decide that it’s a game they should try. So, based on Jack’s recommendation, they buy the game, as do several other people who have been listening in.
These kinds of conversations are the stuff of legend in the advertising community. Getting a consumer so excited about your product that he’ll tell others to buy it is essentially free advertising, and the most effective form besides. Marketers call it “buzz,” and they track it as religiously as brokers follow the stock ticker. They even try to create it, by sending trained salespeople, or “shills” into places where normal people congregate in order to get those normal people talking about their product. These days, the tactic has moved online.
Jack, John and Joe are all members of an internet community forum. Their conversation is not taking place in one workplace, but several; each of them is typing his part of the conversation onto his computer and posting it on the forum. Each message is then read by more people in other workplaces, some of whom live across the globe. John and Joe visit the site during their off-hours, or from their desks, when they should be working. Jack, however, actually is working when visiting the site. His job is to post messages to internet forums frequented by people like John and Joe, and to convince them to buy products represented by his employers. Jack is an internet shill.
Jack is what is called an “Online Guerilla Marketer,” or “OGM,” and his name isn’t Jack. He’s agreed to speak to The Escapist on the condition that we not identify him. Like an undercover cop or secret agent, Jack’s effectiveness at his job depends on his ability to remain anonymous. He’ll often spend days, even weeks, infiltrating a community to earn the trust of its members before he strikes – inserting a recommendation in the right place, at the right time to generate interest in the products he represents.
A typical day for Jack starts with checking “to make sure I haven’t been discovered,” he says. “I check logs and IP pings, and I revisit forums and posts I recently made for comments. I return to the threads, chat rooms or other places and respond to posts I have already made. I then go through and talk like a normal poster would – commenting on other subjects, talking about politics, throwing in some wood into a flame war, etc. – pretty much just to fool anyone that might be suspicious of my activities to show them that I’m a ‘real’ person and not some corporate shill.
“I have to flow along with the community and react to the changes which will change the way I post. The point is to completely blend in with the community, whether it is a place normally visited by 15-year-old suburban males who like rap and videogames, or a stay-at-home wife community that supports each other’s problems with their husbands and diapers. My personalities range from a 10-year-old girl to a 78-year-old man and across different ethnicities, stereotypes and ages.”
Jack has been living the life of a corporate-sponsored internet secret-agent for “about four years, employed by two different companies,” he says. In that time he’s used his clandestine tactics and marketing know-how to shill “about 20 products – mostly videogames, websites, computer hardware and a few other small products.” He declines to name names for fear of damaging his reputation in the industry and those of the companies he’s represented. Because, in spite of how good he is at his job, in spite of how many companies employ his services – and those of people like him – OGMs are often looked upon as pariahs by the very people to whom they are trying to connect. At a time when most consumers are becoming more and more media savvy, the OGM is viewed by many advertising firms as a weapon of last resort and by the denizens of the internet forums the OGM is tasked to infiltrate as a threat to the very existence of the internet community itself.
It is this strange dichotomy which makes online guerilla marketing such a delicate dance, and why people like Jack (who have become so adept at juggling the moral ambiguities of the job) consider themselves elite movers and shakers in the internet community and – oddly – morally superior to the rest of us.
“It’s evil,” Jack says. “I’m evil, and I will make you buy this commercial item or visit some site using any means necessary. That’s my job, and I have to admit, I’m pretty damn good at it. I don’t believe people are dumb while they are online, they just ‘relax their minds.’ They want to be dumbly entertained just like [when] watching TV. But I … pity them, because they don’t expect it and I blindside them. They don’t know what they are getting themselves into by going online.”
What they are “getting themselves into” is an advertising engine which is rapidly surpassing television in market share and effectiveness. Pundits, analysts and even some journalists have taken to calling it “Web 2.0,” in an effort – one supposes – to comprehend this new, larger and more participatory iteration of the barely 30-year-old computer networking technology. The youth of today, however (that magic percentage of people falling into the 18 to 24 demographic), simply call it “the internet,” and have been using it their entire lives.
To the millions of potential young consumers populating sites like Myspace, the internet is a communication tool, an information store, a recreational exercise, a friend, a confidant and a place to pick up chicks. It is, quite simply, the place where life unfolds, and it is through this medium that those who make their bread by convincing others to spend theirs are hoping to fill the rapidly growing advertising vacuum in the living rooms of America.
That’s where Jack comes in. Disguising himself as just another consumer turning to the internet for entertainment, advice and counsel, he prowls community forums looking for an opportunity to share his “opinion” of his clients’ products and services. But his task isn’t easy. Part of the reason many consumers are turning away from television in the first place is the pervasiveness of advertising, and they will not hesitate to thwart the efforts of marketers in what they deem as “their space.” For Jack, this is what makes his job both challenging and fun – avoiding detection becomes a game, and one that Jack is incredibly good at.
“I’ve never been caught,” he says. “No accusations have been made to or about the companies I’ve worked for or any of the clients that I have done work for. Most of the time, I can [spot an OGM like me]. I say ‘most of the time’ because there are others out there that are as successful as I am, and I have not noticed them at all. But OGMing isn’t some new-fangled complex idea; companies do it all the time. Often, the companies do not employ someone trained in online guerilla marketing – they grab one of the interns and tell them to do it. Or worse, the executives get the urge to try it. I have called out 15 different companies that have unsuccessfully tried to OGM their product because they were so obvious.”
Jack then lists a number of companies whose OGMs he’s “outed.” They are mainly technology and entertainment companies; one of which is among the largest entertainment media conglomerates in the world. To that company, Jack offers this bit of advice: “Seriously, did you think posting your press release with the exact same wording across a dozen sites (saying ‘what a new cool show! OMG!’), with different usernames, using the same IP that resolved back to your home office, wouldn’t be noticed? I can’t even think of how to [do] worse.
“Many forums are tightly-knit communities of people who ‘know’ each other pretty well. Any [newbie] that starts posting random stuff about products and stuff is just going to draw an immense amount of … bad attention. That account and/or IP would be banned if I acted too quickly. For the tightly-knit forums, I’ll be charming people toward my client’s product after a week of innocent posts. Other super-huge sites … can be coerced within an hour.
“I never only have one account. I always have several accounts. Why? Because people follow the popular crowd … everyone does, just like a herd of cows being moved to the slaughter. If several people are talking about a certain ‘something special’ and how awesome it is, it seems more popular than it really might be.
“About 25 percent of my day is spent switching between different ISPs, proxies and other forms of IP spoofing. Would a post from a sergeant in the military who has commented about how crappy Iraq feels compared to home be posting from New York, Michigan or Canada? Course not, his IP traces back to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, but not Iraq because I haven’t found a way to do that yet.”
When asked if he enjoys his job, Jack seems to be conflicted. His apparent glee at being able to influence so many people is obvious, but it is also clear that the job can be draining. “I like the creativeness that I have freedom over,” he says. “The thrill of the reactions of people online in response to my efforts and the false power that I feel while doing my job over the online masses. Unfortunately, I’m not an evil person, so the unethical and immoral strategies that I employ [weigh] heavily on my soul. It’s hard to keep doing this [for] 50-plus hours a week (at one point, my contracts had me working 85 hours a week) without being spiteful of yourself.
“Honestly, it’s a form of advertising that is completely legal, but ethically, I’m convincing the ‘online sheep’ to go where I tell them to, whether I personally think the product is good or bad. I’m a fun person [who] likes to socialize, go out on the town and hang out with friends, but when I’m working, I’m methodical, unrelenting, charming, convincing and completely uncaring of my targets and of the people around me. The problem with this ‘night and day’ mentality is that during the ‘twilight’ hours, I’m sad and remorseful of what I’ve done.”
“Will I ever be caught?” He asks. “Sure I will, right? Good always wins over evil, right? LOL, [newbies]. Now go back to the forums and chat rooms and complain and rant about this expose. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist and the host of Escape Radio, The Escapist‘s podcast. He has been writing on the web since it was invented and has played every console ever made.