Spotting planted product plugs on discussion forums

My last online research project on an alternative health product reminded me that even in the best-run, most closely moderated discussion group, you can find promo copy disguised as user experience. In this case, the manufacturer has been in business for 40 years, has very little competition, and is pretty much the expert on the subject. Why they felt the need to resort to these “fake-dotal” tactics, I don’t know. Maybe I’m so paranoid about the subject that I just misinterpreted an enthusiastic supporter with poor social skills. I ended up buying one of their products anyway, since there were bona fide reviews on enough different sites to convince me it was worth trying.

Many forums now forbid links and product names in posts, but marketing hacks still get around them. Here’s what I look for when trying to determine if a comment, post, or review reflects the actual experience of the person writing it.

  • A comment mentioning a particular product that goes unacknowledged by everyone else. The other members might know something you don’t.
  • A commenter who mentions a particular product but doesn’t reply to further questions about it.
  • A comment that doesn’t match the tone of the current conversation — too somber, too happy, etc.
  • Lots of exclamation points. But then again, I went to high school with girls who wrote like that.
  • Specific and repeated references to the make and model number.
  • Marketing phrases: “will change your life, fantastic, amazing, don’t know how I lived without it, make it part of your routine, can’t recommend it highly enough,” etc. But then again, some people just talk like that, perhaps because they’ve been sitting in front of a TV for the past decade.
  • Long sentences. Most people write as if they’re speaking aloud. Engineers are a notable exception, but they’re easy to spot: they’ll mention it five times and tell you where they work, their job title, how many degrees they have, and where they got them.
  • A user name that appears all over the internet commenting on a wide range of products.
  • A comment that appears word for word, or close to it, on other forums.
  • A comment that criticizes a product or treatment and sings the praises of a competing one.

And finally, don’t automatically trust a product mention that includes a minor criticism of it.

And then there are the trolls. Not just the sad, small people who write inflammatory comments because they’ve never gotten enough of anything, anywhere, anytime, but people paid by organizations to further an agenda. I had one on this blog from a group that has it in for a popular supplement review company. The commenter did not identify herself as a representative, but I found very similar copy on that group’s website.

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