Gaming The Ethics Of Social Media

by · November 19, 201219 comments

You will know you’ve graduated beyond the superficiality of social media marketing when you shed the “social media” label from your thinking. Certainly, I’ve built a nice reputation by talking a lot about social media in the last few years. But social media is a small part of what will drive customers to buy or try, think or say.

In our book, No Bullshit Social Media, Erik Deckers and I playfully talk about the hippies and tree-huggers — the social media purists — who think social media success is best measured by how warm and fuzzy your warm and fuzzies are, and how many times you get to sing “Kumbaya” with your customers. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with warm and fuzzy or “Kumbaya,” but neither make social media marketing successful.

Another thing the purists are married to is an unrealistic ethical positioning. For instance, instead of embracing advertising as an integral part of a marketing plan, they tend to insult it as if ads are not effective at all. They call email marketers spammers and look down their noses at people who still spend money on Pay-Per-Click and online media campaigns.

And god forbid you actually take out an ad on Facebook?! Sacrilege.

At the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s conference in Las Vegas last week, B.J. Mendelson, author of Social Media is Bullshit, and Dave Kerpen, author of Likable Socia Media, had a debate over whether or not social media was, indeed, bullshit. In the discussion it surfaced that some authors, including Kerpen, had achieved New York Times Bestseller status by paying a public relations firm to buy the book in bulk and accordance with known data points for the list, effectively gaming the system to get their respective books featured.

The purists were aghast, I’m sure. The notion that a book made the list through means other than honest promotion, sales and public response will turn a lovely, placid social media purist into a vehement, spite-spitting monster faster than you can hit a “Like” button.

But let’s level-set here: While it may not be something people yell to their neighbors, it is generally known among authors of business books that the NYT Bestseller list is game-able. There are PR firms that openly sell the service of engineering such feats. There are concentrated, generally week-long, promotions upon launch that hopefully coincide with Amazon’s pre-orders posting to BookScan, add in some strategic bulk purchases in various markets and tah-da! Best-seller.

While not something some authors want to participate in from either a cost or ethics perspective, it’s there, it happens and while it may not be 100% fair, I dare you to find a list anywhere that is. If an algorithm goes into producing it, it can and will be gamed, particularly if someone’s income or ego depends on said lists.

The only tragedies exist in knowing the publishers themselves never invested the time or energy to figure out how to game the system to their advantage, and the New York Times doesn’t better police the practice.

Sure, there’s an ethical question at play for the author. You’d better be transparent about the activity (to my knowledge, Kerpen has been) but some will discredit you for trying it in the first place. Others will take the high road, but if someone approached you tomorrow and said, “For $12,000, I can create data points that will drive a 15% increase in sales to your business,” you’d pull out the check book if the math was right. A book on the best-seller list means higher speaking fees, more book sales, higher advances for the next book and the like.

We’re in the business of making our products look good. Gaming that list makes the product (book or author) look good. From a marketing perspective, it’s a no-brainer.

Mendelson takes advantage of this in his argument. If gaming the system gets your book on the best-seller list, then you didn’t sell it using social media like you claim. And if there are any such authors out there fooling themselves or their audiences into thinking that social media is the only way they built themselves and their business, then Mendelson is right to call them out.

But I don’t think we should get hung up on whether or not social media contributed X or Y percent to an author’s sales, a business’s profits or the growth of a brand. We are marketers, not social media marketers. If it takes a direct mail piece, an ad campaign or a public relations push to get eyeballs on our product, service or marketing; if it takes something not defined as social media to help our social media work; then it is responsible for us to pursue it.

We are not serving our brands or businesses by making our social media work. We are serving our brands and businesses by making our marketing work.

And that often takes more than one tactic or channel.

Note: I have never participated in gaming any system, that I know of, including trying to engineer either of my books to any best-seller list. Just a personal choice to date. It’s certainly something I might consider down the road, however. 

Did you enjoy this blog post? If so, then why not:Leave Comment Below | Subscribe To This Blog | Sign Up For Our Newsletter |

About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

Other posts by

Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

    My stance has always been that social media is an amp, not a guitar. Except in the cases where it’s the guitar (where the content lives), but even then, you still need an amp (traditional media). 

    And regardless of your setup, you have to make your own kind of music… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e390BV7_oQA

  • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    I’ve never really found ‘because I can’, ‘because it works’, or ‘the other guys are doing it’ to be valid reasons for ignoring ethical considerations.  I have to assume that anyone who does would have no issues with things like performance enhancers for professional athletes or knowingly running a bait and switch on a client.  I’m a realist, I know that these things happen, I know that I have to operate within a system which allows these things to happen, but the mentality that includes justifications like ‘it’s not illegal’, or ‘it’s their fault for having a system that I can take advantage of’, is one that I simply cannot respect.  Everyone has their personal lines they aren’t willing to cross, but the notion that people are ok with knowingly perpetuating a scam on their prospective clients is beyond me (i.e. buying a NYT best seller tag to imply a level of quality and popularity with readers that didn’t actually exist so as to acquire a higher rate, speaking fee, etc. on a false premise).

    My .02 cents

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Matt. Your overview is generally why I’ve never done it to date. I don’t know that I ever would actually do it, but if the goal is to sell more books and the system is unfair unless you skirt the ethics a bit, well, I’d have to ponder. Generally, I never do anything I feel dirty about, and this falls into that category. But I know plenty of people, who’s ethics I wouldn’t question, who wouldn’t bat an eye at doing this. Strange gray area.

      • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

        I don’t know ‘plenty’ of people, but I have a friend who did it and as you say never batted an eye.  He and I have discussed our views on it.  His perspective was pretty straightforward, to him it was just a financial choice that you make when you write a book. “Will it be worth the money to front the cost of being on a NYT Best Seller list”. Never crossed his mind to view it as I do in regards to taking advantage of people.  Does it color my view of his ethics? Yes.  Does it make him no longer my friend? No. There’s this sense in business that those who feel as I do are simply ‘naive’, don’t understand the business world, or don’t have what it takes to succeed.  Obviously I categorically disagree with that assessment and I feel have disproved it many times over.  As I stated on Facebook one day however, I do feel as if much of my life has been spent circling the question of ‘What are you willing *not* to do to *not* get ahead’.  It’s a bitch of a question for everyone, particularly when there are mouths to feed.

        • http://twitter.com/rainbowclaire Claire Dunford

           I have to say I agree with you up to a point Matt.  Just because other people are doing it doesn’t mean we should, or even would, jump in with both feet.

          There are best practice, rules of engagement if you like, that I believe we should try to stick to.  I might start like sounding like one of Jason’s “Fuzzywuzzys” now but, I believe we should all respect the agreed way of doing things.  How many times have I seen a large company or brand openly flouting Ts&Cs on Facebook?  I then get clients coming to me asking why they too can’t put their contact details on a cover photo and run a competition on their wall…  Well, it’s not something I want to be associated with for one thing…

          Sometimes the “other guys are doing it” arguement just doesn’t wash.

  • http://www.bjmendelson.com Brandon Mendelson

    The only thing I want to add to all this is that my issue isn’t with the bulk purchasing of books by marketing authors. I’ve been informed by many this is a routine practice. I’m not crazy about it, but that seems to be an industry norm and not an exception.

    That said, the reason for all this controversy is due to the fact that Dave Kerpen informed WOMMA staff, the moderator John Moore, and myself not to mention that he bulk purchased his books because he “didn’t want people to know about it”. He is only now, after outing himself on stage, saying that he’s been transparent about this since the beginning; however, previous claims by him suggesting social media is what made him a New York Times Best Selling Author (that I’ve seen anyway) do not mention the bulk purchasing anywhere.

    Here’s the full story: http://bjmendelson.com/2012/11/14/ever-wonder-why-people-hate-social-media-marketers-let-me-tell-you-a-story/

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Fair and thanks for the perspective, B.J. I’d never discussed the practice with Dave before but seem to recall the news he’d done this surfacing before with no real reaction from anyone. It would certainly be interesting to see if he’d publicly acknowledged the practice before last week.

  • http://twitter.com/cksyme Chris Syme

    We can always rely on you to write about something that gets people thinking. Personally, I question whether social media actually has any ethics. Marketing has always been about workarounds. Some call it differentiation. Oh well. The only unfortunate thing about a situation like this is that the buyer has been duped. So like everything else, buyer beware. I always wonder if people that do such things have a nagging thought somewhere deep down that the plaque on the wall is just a sham. I couldn’t live with that–I’m too competitive. Every trophy has to be real.

  • professional copywriting

    The ultimate object of marketing is to sell
    products and regardless of what your ethical stance is on using social media,
    if your efforts aren’t producing tangible results, like revenue, then they are
    a waste of time. Warm and fuzzy is great but it doesn’t pay the bills. It is
    also clear that marketing on social media is only a part of a larger strategy,
    probably a small part at that, and that the real focus of marketing is to make
    a connection with your customers by whatever means is open to you. If that is
    gaming the system then so be it.

  • Pingback: Gaming The Ethics Of Social Media « National-Express2011

  • http://www.callboxinc.com.au/ Maegan Anderson

    There are a lot of the, around, that is true, but it needs to be one whose work ethics and values of social media are usually in harmony with your personal company and employee. It is really an investment.

  • Pingback: The Pursuit of Writing | OnliGence™

  • Pingback: The Ethics War Over Sponsored Content: Marketers Know Better Than Journalists How This Battle Will End | MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog

  • Pingback: The Ethics War Over Sponsored Content: Marketers Know Better Than Journalists How This Battle Will End | Greatwhitemarketing

  • Pingback: The Ethics War Over Sponsored Content: Marketers Know Better Than Journalists How This Battle Will End

  • Pingback: Gaming The Ethics Of Social Media « MindCorp | Newsfeed

  • Pingback: DEBATE: Facebook Is Blackmailing Brands « MindCorp | Newsfeed

  • Pingback: DEBATE: Facebook is Not Blackmailing Brands « MindCorp | Newsfeed

  • Pingback: The Pursuit of Writing « MindCorp | Newsfeed