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Neville on Astroturfing, Me on Project Astroturfing (Mk II)

Neville Hobson (of the excellent For Immediate Release podcast) has a nice piece on his blog about Astroturfing.

Neville quotes from Wikipedia’s definition:

…astroturfing describes formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behaviour. The goal is the appearance of independent public reaction to a politician, political group, product, service, event, or similar entities by centrally orchestrating the behaviour of many diverse and geographically distributed individuals.

I never realised this was called ‘astroturfing’ but I’m definitely aware of what it’s describing (although I don’t really get why it is has been called this. I thought an astroturf was a fancy all-weather football playing surface???).

In fact what I’m particularly interested in is ‘new forms’ of astroturfing… Unlike the original idea of covertly posting messages and creating spin, I can see a whole new era of astroturfing whereby corporations and other similar institutions and entities create false communities and campaigns that pretend to be 100% from the grassroots.

SanDisk’s iDon’, which I blogged about last month, is an example of this. It’s an anti-iPod campaign that’s totally driven by SanDisk despite appearing to be ‘grassroots’.

Now, through projects like and (and others) I’ve tried to foster a grassroots community on behalf an institution. I’ll also be doing this kind of work with the Citizen Agency.

But I’ve always wanted to ensure that everyone involved is clear this is a facilitated experience – ie it’s coordinated by the company but in such away that involvement in the project is mutually beneficial for the individual too.

Astroturfing is a marketing term that has been derived from politics, but don’t forget that more often than not, developer networks and other similar platforms are created just as much for their marketing benefits as they are for pure innovation and R&D.

As practioners and leaders of these concepts, I think it’s important that we maintain integrity and ensure that astroturfing doesn’t occur – for the sake of the most vital part of this equation, the users themselves.

It’s especially true in a consultative environment where corporate clients might be standing firm on their strategy and it’s a matter of taking the cheque or walking away.

Now, I want to come onto something that happened with the BBC’s project to support a further iteration of this idea (BTW, I’m not saying, and will not be saying, that is an example of astroturfing!)

Reboot logo

The idea of, in a nutshell, was that the BBC asked it’s users (albeit ‘expert users’ who understood Web2.0 stuff and could build or design websites) to submit ideas for what they would like the homepage to look like. It was a project I helped set up, although I left the BBC before the competition finished.

Since the BBC’s announcement of the winner there have been a lot of mixed reaction. Some supporting the winner and others not (I really am not going to comment either way, it’s not appropriate).

However one of the reasons people have been interested, it appears, is that there has been a miss-assumption that the winner of the competition will become the next design.

This is not true, but clearly it’s another example of the potential for misrepresenting the true reason for running these kinds of projects.

Just as bad: Project Astroturfing

Like astroturfing (miss-representing who the community really is) there is also the risk of miss-representing the purpose of the project in the first place.

Now in the case of I know it’s been a case of genuine miss-communication and miss-understanding. But I also know of a number of (non-BBC) ‘developer competitions’ and other similar projects that have not just been “awareness + goodwill campaigns” but have actually been used to create the foundations of company product roadmaps, boost account signups to meet VC demands, and sometimes blatantly steal ideas and IP.

Hey, if you want to do that then that’s cool (er, I guess… although it’s not for me thanks). But at least be clear – both in your T’s&C’s and also in the plain English.

BTW: if any of my former colleagues are reading this, I urge you to check out this amusing quote from a post by George Nimeh:

You’ve got to hand it to the BBC (and Ashley Highfield, in particular) for having the insight/guts to do this.

Made me chuckle. Yes, you’ve got to hand it to Ashley for the insight! 🙂

Published in Citizen Agency News


  1. ‘Astroturfing’ a pun on ‘grass roots’ and being artificial…??

  2. and being incredibly quick to lay, with bright greeness to it. of course the analogy also works in that it burns like hell if you happen to fall on it. 🙂

  3. Astroturfing is, as Frankie suggests, artificial grass roots marketing designed to give the appearance of pubic-driven/generated/funded action.

    In the States, the practice was started by and is very popular with politicians. It started as a vehicle to spread primarily positive messages but increasingly has been used for negative messages and political/personal attacks. The “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign, used to smear John Kerry in the last election, is one example.

    Sadly, jimmyb, the only people getting burned by it in the States so far are the voters.

    But I digress …

    Ben, given that Ashley Highfield’s name is all over the site/project, it is not hard to see how a BBC outsider like myself could think that he was personally resposible for Don’t cha think?

    Not that I – and especially Tom Coats – are big fans of his:


  4. Ok I get it now – grass roots + artificial +polititions = astroturfing.

    Although the only thing about artificial grass or ‘astroturfing’ is that it doesn’t need to be constantly fed ‘cow manure’.

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