Faux Viral Maketing

January 1, 2009
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Today, when I was looking at recent Twitter updates from the people I follow, I saw one that read:

Just started using http://twply.com/ to get my @replies via email. Neat stuff!

Curious, and perhaps a bit groggy from last night’s festivities, I signed up for a free account. I then found that twply sent out a tweet on my behalf with the same “neat stuff” message. I deleted the message immediately (to the limited extent that one

Today, when I was looking at recent Twitter updates from the people I follow, I saw one that read:

Just started using http://twply.com/ to get my @replies via email. Neat stuff!

Curious, and perhaps a bit groggy from last night’s festivities, I signed up for a free account. I then found that twply sent out a tweet on my behalf with the same “neat stuff” message. I deleted the message immediately (to the limited extent that one can delete anything on Twitter), but I was quite annoyed. And I’m not the only one.

I’m a big fan of viral marketing, and I think it may ultimately supplant advertising as the main way we find out about new goods and services. But what twply is doing is hardly viral marketing. Rather, it is sending out spam intended to simulate endorsement. And their approach clearly even brings short-term results, perhaps even enough to offset the cost of the backlash against their spammy approach. Even Facebook learned its lesson when it had to scale back its Beacon system, that would have taken a similar approach on a larger scale.

The other day, Ben Kunz wrote a satirical piece about a business model of selling our opinions. At least in his “modest proposal”, I imagined I’d be a willing and compensated participant. Now I find that I unwittingly sold my opinion for nothing!

I hope the backlash against twply discourages other companies from pursuing this approach. Personal endorsements and recommendations are an extremely important source of information, especially in a world of information and advertising overload. Undermining their integrity undermines this oasis in a sea of untrustworthy sources, and it’s an oasis we have to protect.

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