What Prompted this Post?
A tool brand affiliate left brand and product-promoting comments – as well as earlier comments about competing products – without disclosing their corporate affiliation.
Basically, I caught a higher-level tool brand associate leaving shill comments here on ToolGuyd.
The first time they did this a few years ago, I caught them and added a bold red disclosure to their posts. It seems that they’re doing it again, and it’s time to have a discussion about comment professionalism.
Aside from a refresher on commenting do’s and don’ts for tool brands, this post is also a way for me to cool down. I am always incredibly infuriated by corporate shills doing their thing in ToolGuyd’s comment sections, but there are contexts that make these new incidents much worse and even more personal.
I’ve emailed someone at the company, and if I’m not satisfied with their response, a follow-up post will call them out on their offenses.
Brand and Retailer Comments on ToolGuyd
Brand managers, engineers, and product managers will sometimes answer reader questions in a comment. They won’t always identify themselves, but I will usually know when there’s a professional connection.
I don’t really have a problem with this – if they’re conveying information or answering a reader question in a neutral manner.
A product manager (or PR contact) will usually email me with information if they prefer not to address a particular reader question or concern directly, or they will use their real name and brand-affiliated email address when they do wish to answer a reader directly.
Engineers tend to share information anonymously, as social media policies prevent them from officially representing the brand in public comments. If their goal is to help and inform readers, I will usually allow it.
Oh no, is he talking about me and my comments? No, I would have emailed you, deleted your comment, or brought it up if there was a problem.
If you’re affiliated with a tool brand or retailer, here’s a good test to see if your comment is appropriate or not. Would adding your real name and brand affiliation to a comment change how your comment will be viewed or interpreted by others? If yes, maybe think twice before proceeding.
Also, here’s a good rule of thumb: never post or comment about competing products, period, unless maybe you want to share something positive or ask an honest question – I will usually allow this too.
Shill Comments and Fake Reviews
I have never seen or heard of a good reason for someone to hide who they are in order to promote a company or its products.
Over the years, I’ve caught all kinds of bad behavior.
At the time of this posting, there are 147,190 reader comments here on ToolGuyd, not including my own 16,780 comments that I subtracted from the total. I have read every single one of those reader comments, even the giveaway entries, and I try to respond to as many questions as possible.
I can’t say I’m sure I’ve caught all shill comments over the years, but I have definitely caught plenty. Here are the most common practices:
Brand affiliates have pretended to be users. This is the shill behavior I have caught the most.
In one early instance, a tool brand affiliate left multiple comments replying to each other under different names, doctoring an entire positive brand and product-boosting conversation.
Brand affiliates have also copy-pasted users’ testimonials in order to advertise and promote their brand’s products. This isn’t any better because the intent is the same – brand promotion without proper affiliation disclosures.
If it’s not your honest and impartial testimony as a user, and you’re affiliated with the brand or seller, it’s a FAKE REVIEW.
Brand affiliates have criticized other brands’ products. This is a much rarer occurrence, but it happens from time to time, and it’s always a very serious incident when it does.
In one occurrence, a sales rep from a company strongly criticized their primary competitor’s products, and the situation ended up attracting the attention of a brand manager and CEO.
Why it Matters so Much
Around 27 years ago, I was sitting on a bench at the back of my grandfather’s bakery when he walked through with one or maybe two visitors.
One of them must have quickly lit a cigarette, or was about to, and my grandfather very firmly told the visitor something to the effect of “my bakery, my rules, you can NOT do that here.”
That’s not exactly what he said – and I do remember exactly what he said, as I was an impressionable kid and I had never heard my grandfather use that tone or choice of words before or after that incident. But, that’s the point he was making.
The bakery was a part of my grandfather, and from the various stories I’ve been told, customers were treated like friends and family. I’d guess that he was looking out for us, customers, and maybe respect for the bakery.
I’ve been running ToolGuyd for 12-1/2 years now, and I have seen a lot of things and worked with a lot of people. There are a LOT of marketing behaviors and trends I find disagreeable, and for a lot of these things, I try to block them out as not being my problem.
But, some bad behaviors do become my problem.
You don’t mess with ToolGuyd’s readers – almost nothing will make me angrier than this.
I Take Shill Comments Very Personally
I’m not quite sure why I take shill and fake review comments here so personally, but I think it has to do with their intent. When a brand rep pretends to be a user, they’re attempting to deceive YOU. They’re lying to YOU. And they’re using what I built to do it.
I am usually more offended if I discover a shill comment that then allows me to identify other comments of a similar nature that I had previously missed.
I have heard all kinds of excuses over the years. This is always the question to ask – but then why not use your real name or publicly disclose your brand affiliation? It’s covering one’s tracks and hiding their affiliations that makes someone a shill.
I wouldn’t mind it if a shill said “I work for Brand X and…”
What always bothers me is that they try to HIDE this, and when they do that, there’s zero credibility to anything they say. Many people will say anything if they believe they won’t be held accountable, especially if it benefits them or their organization in some way.
I don’t mind helpful or informative comments by engineers and others who can’t “out” themselves because of company policy, but it still really comes down to intent.
Is a brand affiliate trying to help you with their comment, or are they trying to help themselves and their brand? That’s the difference between being an anonymous source and a shill.
I have also learned over the years that there are TWO types of deceptions that shills try to pull off. Some try to promote their products to end users, and others seek to promote their products to retailers and distributors.
If you recall, a tool brand recently asked if I would write a story with the goal of getting the attention of Home Depot and their tool buyers.
A few years ago, there was a Kickstarter campaign where the numbers weren’t adding up right, and I ultimately came to believe that it was all a sham attempt for the inventor to sell their idea to Home Depot or Lowe’s.
So, there’s always the question as to whether shill comments are targeting end users or retail buyers.
I don’t like being lied to or misled. Do you?
Whether you’re a regular commentor or a corporate buyer that reads but doesn’t chime in, you don’t expect there to be undercover agents in the comments section, right?
And, as owner/editor of ToolGuyd, I simply cannot ignore when marketers try to use my platform to mislead readers and users. I’m the gatekeeper, and if a shill comment makes it past me, it means I failed you, and that’s also unacceptable.
My Typical Response
Whenever I discover a shill comment, my initial response is to add a “this person is affiliated with…” badge to the offending comments. For minor issues, this is usually as far as things need to go. Obvious spam is usually simply deleted.
But for more serious offenses, I’ll usually bring it up to the responsible brand or contact.
When it’s a high-level manager leaving shill comments, I will bring it to their or their brand’s attention. This usually results in a swift apology and promise to not leave such comments, and that’s the end of it.
The brand involved in the most recent incident has not yet responded to my email, and so the next step will be to call them out on it. It has been a while since I’ve had to do this, and I hope I don’t have to do it again.
Comments are Closed for This Post
If need be, we can talk about specifics in a separate post later or tomorrow, although I hope it doesn’t come to that.