TechStarters Logo
Blog Home
Keep Off The Grass! Astroturfing 101

Keep Off The Grass! Astroturfing 101

Trying to market your business online? You should know what astroturfing is and its legality.

If you are involved in a business or social progress movement, you’ve probably heard of the term “grassroots movement”. If not, it’s a group of people who felt like a cause (or a product) was so good that they promoted it without even being paid to do so. The movement grew from nothing, seemingly overnight, and became huge, all because people got together for a greater good. They organized themselves without some other entity taking control and telling them what to do.

When it comes to the business world, people tend to respect and trust grassroots campaigns more than those which are clearly corporate in origin and motivation. Companies that grew popular thanks to grassroots trending and passionate promoters are often the ones with the highest sales and most rapid expansion. This is due to the fact that people see real, legitimate value in the product, and consumers become attached the the brand organically, not because of corporate marketing. However, getting that level of favor and trust naturally is exceptionally difficult to accomplish.

In the early 2000’s, more companies began to realize the power of grassroots campaigns, indie branding, and the power they gave to marketing efforts. Jealous companies wanted a piece of the grassroots pie, but translating corporate dollars into faux-organic grassroots marketing was difficult.

Instead, clever companies came up with a solution: astroturfing. No, it has nothing to do with lawn care or football stadiums… Astroturfing occurs when companies and organizations pay people to promote their cause in a way that makes it sound like the promotion was done without the company asking the person to do it. Some methods of astroturfing might include activists who claim that they are unpaid volunteers (but actually are paid), companies paying for positive reviews on Yelp, or paying popular kids in school to wear a new brand of clothing.

If it sounds pretty manipulative or unethical, that’s because it is. The entire idea behind astroturfing is to fool consumers into thinking that a product is better or more popular than it really is. In many cases, astroturfing practices fall into legal grey areas. Since people who are paid to astroturf products often misrepresent the product or their position, they are considered to be lying to consumers. This in turn can mean a heavy fine for the company involved, or even a lawsuit for both the company and the contractors that they hire.

More commonly, astroturfing reviews for money violates the terms of use on review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List. When this happens, a number of things can occur. With Yelp, the company may actually flag you for astroturfing, make a note of it on your page, and sue you for damages. Other sites may ban your company from being misrepresented on their site. In one case, astroturfing took an extreme turn. One hotel fined guests on their bill for leaving bad reviews which made national headlines and a PR disaster.

Getting the kind of buzz that a grassroots trend can create is tempting, but in many cases, trying to astroturf your company’s popularity will backfire. If you do decide to make your popularity look natural or like an underground movement, it’s best to check with local advertising and consumer laws before you make your first move. Legality issues aside, astroturfing is very risky, and can cause more harm than good if done incorrectly. Inevitably, if your product or service is good enough, people will find a way to pass the word along and spread your brand without being paid to do so.