The Insidious Ethics of Bev: the Incredible Sampling Robot

The Insidious Ethics of Bev: the Incredible Sampling Robot

Originally posted on WOMMA’s All Things WOMM blog.

As more and more marketing people learn the power and value of word-of-mouth, more and more examples of “tweet for products” are springing up. Now we even have a vending machine, or “sampling robot,” that will fork over a few, precious products for the effort of a Tweet or a Facebook share.

What a clever way to scale up the effect of sampling. If each of us only had to expend the energy to broadcast a short message to our average 130 friends on Facebook, or 126 on Twitter, to receive a free portion of an appealing product, how many would do it?

A couple of years ago, an ex-agency duo started, essentially built on the model of rewarding people’s advocacy with product. To receive a free song, all you have to do is broadcast a message to your followers on Twitter, this potentially raising what we call “relevant awareness.” Because the tweet comes from you, some of your followers will pay attention and, presumably, trust that you are clueing them in to something worth their attention.

What’s so Insidious?

If I tell you about a song before I have heard it, or if I say something positive about a new soft drink before I have tasted it, I may be misleading you. I certainly wouldn’t rave about a great new book before I have read it. How would I know it’s “great?” That is a simple matter of ethics in my book. I do not want opinion on a product or service to be “ bought” whatever the compensation or incentive.

“Paying” to receive a product or service with your advocacy may be unethical. And then again, it may not be. Judging from the case video, “Bev” simply asks you to tweet out a hashtag to earn a free beverage. The implicit endorsement is vague. So vague, in fact that I have to wonder if it’s the best use of Twitter. But simply based upon this, Bev is not extorting an explicit endorsement before the product is delivered.

Marketers who set up the paradigm that drives people to share and implicitly or explicitly endorse a product before they experience it may be unethical. In the pursuit of short-term word-of-mouth, that practice will undermine the value of the social graph for people and marketers alike. If I say positive things about products (before I have experienced them) that turn out to be disappointing for most people, my friends and followers will stop following me or, at least, start to tune me out. Marketers who promote this activity will earn resentment, rather than a following.

The trust that is such a key part of the value in word-of-mouth will erode. We could all turn into walking billboards, mindlessly spewing promotional messages.

One of the Cannes Gold Winners in the PR Category uses a variation of this model, but in a way that seems to work. ONE COPY SONG from Adam Tensta is a neat concept of using scarcity to trigger word-of- mouth. Imagine a musical artist you enjoyed releasing only one copy of a new song to a single fan, and that must be passed along within the hour. Fans might line up, as I did to meet Nick Cave so many years ago, when he and the Bad Seeds appeared at Tower Records in NYC. In this case, people did line up via a virtual wait list.

All you had to do to jump up 15 places in the list was Tweet or post on Facebook. Where’s the harm in that?

The Devil is in the Details

Right now, marketers are getting away with the “pay for tweets” model because it’s new. If this is ever going to last as a tactic, then the devil is in the details of the message that is sent out.

In Adam Tensta’s case, the tweets described what the tweet was actually doing – it told followers that by tweeting, the user was jumping up in the wait list for the One Copy Song (actually called Pass It On). The message did suggest the person doing the tweeting had heard the song, and it revealed the benefit of the tweet within the message. In US consumer protection agency (FTC) parlance, that’s called the “material connection.” That covers any quid pro quo offered by a marketer to drive any type of advocacy action. And the FTC is pretty clear that marketers must disclose that material connection in, or adjacent to, the actual advocacy.

Too many marketers don’t think about the nuance of the message (or they think too much and try to split hairs). One problem is that most marketers who even think about the FTC (or consumer protection) see the guidelines as referring to popular bloggers and celebrities. But when each of us now has the power to influence our friends, families and social connections, it ought to be applied to anyone and everyone.

The devil truly may be in the details. Think of these two fictional tweets and tell me if they change how you see the ethics of the situation:

“I just got a taste of the great new energy drink from Red Bull. You can get your own damn taste here (short link).”

Vs.  “For the price of this tweet, Red Bull is going to let me try a new flavor. I hope it’s truly great. You can try it here (short link).”

The first message may be arguably accurate, but it absolutely implies that you have tasted the product before sharing about it, and that you deem it “great.” The second message calls it as it is.

Is Bev, the vending machine, unethical? It really all comes down to the message. Bev seems to ask for an unqualified “blurt” that may raise awareness, but doesn’t imply customer satisfaction with something they haven’t experienced yet. I certainly understand why asking people to share word-of-mouth after experiencing the product in this context undermines the incentive behind the sampling. On the other hand, behavioral economics would suggest that being  given a free drink and then asked to share about it leverages “reciprocity” and would lead to many people agreeing to post a post-sip tweet. How much stronger would it be to inspire a flurry of pro-BOS Iced Tea tweets immediately after the first sip vs. a cryptic hashtag to unlock a dispensing machine?

Get the message and the strategy right. And push participants to stick to the same code of conduct. Remind them that their friends will remain their friends if that shares their own authentic POV.

For all the cool creativity of a tweet-generating vending machine or a sampling service, it has the potential for abuse. Deliver a remarkable product in a remarkable way and make it easy to talk about.

If you want to get creative and learn how the pros do word-of-mouth, join the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). We are governing members. Or just come to the Summit in November.