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Tastemakers and reputable influencers

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(I wrote most of this a week ago, but forgot to post it.)

A while back, I was pleased and flattered to get a note from Ellen Kushner offering to let me see an advance copy of her upcoming novel The Privilege of the Sword. There was a long history behind that offer (starting with my reading Swordspoint and writing her a fan letter nearly twenty years ago, and continuing with our interactions at cons at various times; the whole story is too complicated to go into here), but one of the things she mentioned was that someone we both know had told her that I was a tastemaker, and that she hoped if I read and liked the book I might say something nice about it in my journal.

I'm finally beginning to read the book, and so far enjoying it a great deal. I'll say more about it when I'm done. [Added 10 June: I've now finished it, and enjoyed it quite a lot, and will write more about it soon.] But what I want to talk about in this particular entry is tastemaking, "astroturfing" (artificial grass-roots marketing), and the power of word-of-mouth.

I hasten to note that I don't think Ellen did anything remotely wrong in making her offer. She already knew that I like (and in some cases adore) her work, and she didn't ask me to say anything that wasn't true. She was, in essence, offering me an advance review copy of the book; that's a standard and accepted practice.

But the reason I'm writing this entry is that a couple days ago I received unrelated email from someone else that didn't go about it as well.

The email I got the other day was from someone I don't know. The subject line was "Butch Cassidy," which almost led me to delete it as spam, but for some reason I opened it.

The note turned out to be from someone who works for (as the company website puts it, though the email didn't say this) "a unique Entertainment and Lifestyle Marketing company specializing in online grassroots marketing, online publicity and promotion, [...], lifestyle and offline marketing, fanclub services," and so on. He had found a recent journal entry of mine in which I mentioned Raiders of the Lost Ark in passing, and he was asking me to promote a new Collector's Edition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

He noted that I "seem like a reputable influencer" and that I might "be a big help" to them in promoting their movie.

I was, of course, flattered. I'm a reputable influencer! Cool!

On the other hand, various things about the approach bugged me. None of these are serious problems; it's all little matters of tone, style, and approach, along with some things that the marketers couldn't have known about me. But it all adds up to rubbing me the wrong way. For example:

  • I don't actually like that movie. I like Newman and Redford and Goldman, but somehow Butch Cassidy didn't work for me. If they had approached me about a Collector's Edition of, say, The Sting, my response might've been very different. But they had no way of knowing that, of course. And they certainly didn't ask me to be dishonest, to say that I liked something I didn't. They just suggested that I could post the press release or a review of the movie; there's nothing actually wrong with that. They just happened to pick the wrong movie to approach me about.
  • The note seemed pretty generic. It didn't use my name, and the line wrapping suggests to me that they may have used a mail merge program (or even a bot) to insert the phrase "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (and the URL of my entry) into a form email. And the journal entry in question was really not about Raiders, suggesting that the marketers didn't read the entry, or at any rate not carefully.
  • I would love to be a reputable influencer, but outside of the small circle of sf and Swarthmore people who read this journal, I doubt that I am. And even inside that circle, I think it's pretty clear that a lot of y'all don't share my tastes on a lot of things. So when someone who presumably doesn't know me at all, and probably doesn't read my journal, calls me a reputable influencer, it sounds like base (and baseless) flattery to me. (But when someone who knows me, talking about a particular limited domain, refers to me as a tastemaker, I have no problem with that. I think it's still a bit of a stretch, but I'm pleased rather than put off.)
  • I have a strong negative gut reaction to anything that smells of astroturfing to me, and this does. I want to generally be upfront about who's asking me to review something, and why, and what connection (if any) I have with that person. More to the point, I don't want to give the impression that I'm part of a spontaneous upswelling of support when I'm actually part of a calculated marketing campaign. This email didn't ask me not to say any of that stuff--but I suspect that the guy who sent the mail would be happier if I didn't. (But I didn't ask, and I may well be totally misjudging the situation; it's entirely possible that he would've said, yeah, go ahead and do a meta-entry about it.)

And then I came across an article in the Times Online talking about publishers paying booksellers for prominent placement and made-up praise, and I figured the juxtaposition would make an interesting entry.

I'm not shocked or surprised by any of this stuff. I've known about astroturf marketing for years, and I think there's a fine line between the kind of fake-grassroots approach that I dislike and the kinds of reviews and favors that go on all the time between people in a given industry who know each other and like each other's work (which I have no problem with, as you can probably tell by the number of times that I recommend friends' work (which I only do when I actually like the work in question)). When someone I don't know offers to send me a work that's unfamiliar to me in hopes that I'll review it, I generally make clear to them that I can't promise I'll even read it, much less post a positive review. And like I said, if they'd contacted me about a movie I actually liked, I might've been more willing to participate (though I hope I still would've made clear that I'd been contacted by some marketing people about it).

But if I have any influence at all, I hope one of the areas in which I can be influential is to remind people to think about how recommendations get made, and the non-obvious reasons people make them.

One side note: I care a lot less about disclosure of this kind of thing in reviews than I do in blogs. As I noted to Ellen when she contacted me, I think blog readers in general have pretty good sincerity detectors, and if they think a recommendation was in any way compromised, it tends to backfire. In a review in a magazine, I guess I pretty much assume that the reviewer may've had contact with the publisher's publicity department and/or with the author, so I don't expect reviewers to say that explicitly as long as everything was aboveboard. But with blogs, I feel like part of the implicit agreement between blogger and reader is an understanding that the blogger's recommendations really are personal recommendations, not corporate shilling.

. . . But it's possible that I wouldn't normally feel this way even about blog entries; I can't guarantee that I've always made full disclosure when someone asks me to recommend something of theirs. But it doesn't come up so often; most of my recommendations are entirely unsolicited. There've been a couple of times when people have asked me to post about something, and I've done so without saying I was asked; but I think those have all been things that I was planning to post about anyway. (For example, a friend nudged me to post about the Crusie/Mayer book and website, but I had already been intending to post about it for weeks.)

I guess another way of looking at this is in terms of what comes up when people search for things. My journal has some pretty good PageRank (due mostly to my having contributed items to BoingBoing, but probably also 'cause of Technorati, and my comments in other people's journals, and the tried and true people-linking-to-me thing); I'm sometimes surprised by the kinds of search terms for which one of my entries comes up in the top ten search results. And I'm thinking of asking to be listed in the "blogs by Googlers" sidebar of the Google Blog sometime soon, which will boost my journal's PageRank further. So regardless of whether I'm actually an influencer or tastemaker per se, my journal is one of the first things people will find when they search for particular topics; and the more prominent the journal gets, the more I feel like I should be a little careful about what I say here.

And, more specifically, the more I feel like I should remind people that not all praise you may encounter online (or elsewhere) is unsolicited.

3 Comments

I enjoyed Scott Westerfeld's So Yesterday, although it's sometimes a little too cute and annoying. I wonder how many of the things he describes as fictional have already been adopted by marketers...


Thanks for the link--I hadn't heard of that one. Scott's work seems to be popping up everywhere these days.

One of the reader reviews on that Amazon page gets my award for Best Review But Most Puzzling Rating: the reader writes "This book was one of the few books i have ever read that i liked" (!) and "Hopefully i find another book like this that will allow me to like reading again," but then gives it only three stars out of five. Odd.


Clever tactic by Ellen. I notice that Elizabeth Bear is also blogging about an advance copy.


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