Monday, 9 March 2009

Cruise shills outed by their proud puppet-masters

Anita Dunham-Potter of reports this week on a marketing program disclosed by the Customer Insight Group, Inc. in which people were rewarded with free cruises and other perks for posting sufficiently prolific praise for their client, the Royal Caribbean cruise line, on and other “travel communities, usenet groups, travel blogs and personal journals.”

The Consumerist picks up the story, and highlights this statement attributed to Royal Caribbean’s manager of loyalty marketing: “The key to success in viral marketing is to subtly influence the influencers without them overtly realizing they are being influenced.”

How was this pay-for-praise shilling scheme exposed? Royal Caribbean and their public relations company boasted about it in a presentation at an unnamed recent “loyalty marketing conference”, and in a post on another marketing company’s newly launched blog.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, or the first time that the people behind these shill-nets have outed themselves and their practices. At the 2006 PhoCusWright conference of travel executives, as I reported at the time:

Nowhere was travel marketers’ focus clearer than in the workshops on blogs and community media. I had hoped there would have been some interest in using them as a tool for learning about what consumers and travellers want. But no — they were seen only as a channel that could be exploited to push top-down commercial messages.

Elias Plishner, V.P. of the interactive division of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency, boasted that, “We have an entire division in Singapore [where labor is cheaper than in the USA] devoted to seeding online forums and bulletin boards with targetted content” for our advertising clients. Worse, these people are paid to spend months, in between assignments, creating profiles and posting “neutral” messages to establish a credible online persona and background from which to post their secretly-paid advertising messages, such as to promote a newly-released movie. founder Sean Keener left the room livid: “They’re spamming me!” Shilling is a more precise term for it, but the anger is appropriate.

Ken Leeder, Founder/CEO of travel blogging site , and Founder/CEO J.R. Johnson of travel rating and review site were equally outraged when I related Plishner’s remarks to them the next day. “It makes me want to block every posting from a user in Singapore, although of course I wouldn’t. How can I stop these guys?”, Johnson asked. “They’re sabotaging our credibility”, said Leeder. “But what can I do?”

So what can you do? Don’t believe everything you read. Shills are most prevalent on accommodations review sites, where a few glowing reviews by shills (or negative reviews of the competion) can make the difference between profit and loss for a small hotel, guesthouse, or bed & breakfast. If there are only a few reviews of a place, assume that there is a good chance they’ve been planted by friends or foes. If there are many reviews, act like a statistician, and start by dropping the outliers. And always remember that there’s no accounting for taste: Even impartial reviewers may have a completely different reaction than you to the same conditions or situation. Every review reflects the reviewer as well the thing reviewed — and on the Web (except perhaps in the blog of someone you know personally), you only know how reviewers describe themselves, not what you would think of them if you met.

[Addendum, 10 March 2009: I meant to mention in my original post yesterday that another travel consultancy, Eye For Travel , is holding a travel marketing conference today and tomorrow here in San Francisco entirely on Social Media Strategies for Travel , including presentations on topics like, “See how Walt Disney World is deploying separate social media ventures to drive sales. How does Disney leverage brand advocates to convert new audiences?” To an advertiser, everything is a vehicle to use to “push” their marketing message. I had suggested to the organizers that they have a session on how travel companies can use blogs, bulletin boards, etc. as a feedback channel to listen to and learn from their customers, but got no response.]

[Update: Follow-ups from , Jaunted , Dennis Schaal (including a discussion of other travel review sites, with a response from the CEO of, and Chris Elliott ; statements from Royal Caribbean and Cruise Critic ; and an interview of Royal Caribbean’s associate vice president of marketing by Cruise Critic’s editor in chief.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 9 March 2009, 18:13 ( 6:13 PM)

The only site that I visit with any regularity that features these comments is tripadvisor, where it's often easy to spot a few shill reviews. What I look for in reviews is the specific things that people praise or complain about, where our reaction would be opposite. For example, noise isn't a big concern for us - we live near railroad tracks and a busy street, so we can tune it out pretty well. However, a hotel that is pet friendly is bad for us due to my wife's allergies.

Posted by: Bill Ward, 10 March 2009, 08:08 ( 8:08 AM)
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"Don't believe anything just because you read it on the Internet. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, and they do. The Internet is the most effective medium in history for the rapid global propagation of rumor, myth, and false information." (From The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, 2001)
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