I cannot obviously name my company, nor the web-marketing one that I met. But the "Internet marketing" thing they proposed me REALLY made me sad, and thinking.
This is what they suggested me (without saying it explicitly... they were good at that):
1. sending e-mails to potentially interested users, by using e-mail addresses collected from mailing lists or other publicly available sources
2. posting comments on public forums and newsgroups about our type of products, saying that our product was good and other products are bad.
Which translates into
2. paying people (kids, mostly) to post such comments, to make the word spread in an "non-official" way.
Now, I don't know about you, but I really re-considered my opinion about newsgroups. I were used to consider a product "good" if I saw a lot of different and convincing opinions from regular users. I trusted much more a newsgroup than an "official" website, full of marketing bloats.
What about now? What were you going to do, if you were in me? This is the small story what I would probably do, and what I did so far.
First, let me state that I am writing this on kuro5hin because I would like to know what other reasonable human being think about such a situation, and what would they do if they were in me. I am not playing the "poor me" drama - I want to be sure that I am considering all options in such a situation.
My first and only answer to them was clear; I said, "Ethically, I'm not interested in such services. Period." They understood and promptly changed topic of discussion (ah, marketers!). I now have to make a decision: is it ethical to accept services from such a company? It is ethical to give money to them, once I felt that they may be doing that?
Their proposal was really interesting; they hit the problem and came to me with clear and smart solutions, they look prepared, their techs have skills and know how to make a good job. If I accept their service, surely my company will have a benefit.
Tomorrow I'm going to talk with my boss about that, and explain him why I have an ethical problem with that, providing full details of what they said and what I see spam do every day. I think this is a necessary move - I don't want to hide my opinions from the people I work with, and I don't want to tell my boss that their services aren't adequate to our needs because it is not simply true.
Then I'll see. Probably my boss will agree with me, and the whole thing will just go away. I will keep searching for a company that can make our website, and this time I will check if they might do things such as faking Usenet posts and/or spamming. I'll have learned something new.
Maybe my boss will tell me to accept their services, and just forget about all the rest. And here I will have a problem. I don't want to give money to a company that has no ethics, especially in a field where a wrong move can compromise a whole company. What happens if the press know that "my company" is "paying people" to "post fake comments"? It is not true, we aren't paying anything. But it is "mostly" true - and the damage to the company itself will be great.
In such a fast-moving world as the Internet is, will I have to jump on the wagon sooner or later, not to be left alone in my ethical world? If they came to propose that to me, they or someone else will go to our competitors. What happens if our competitors will pay for this "service"? We could have been moving earlier than them, but on the long run they may win - due to "unofficial" and fake user comments that talk badly about us.
In capitalism it's the market that decides if a product is worthed buying it. What if the market is so manipulated, that in order to sell it's no longer enough how good your product is? Where is the fairness of all that? Will all of us be forced to "buy" customers?
Last, but not least, they only use Microsoft products (ASP, IIS, windows DNA and so on), so since I don't like supporting Redmond, I tend to avoid using their products where I can. And here I really *can*. But that's just another issue, and I am digressing.
After all, I think I will take the ideas they suggested me and give them to someone else that will make our website, someone I trust, someone that will require all our needs - including ethical ones. I refuse to close my eyes on all that.
Now my thoughts: since yesterday I am really sad about what happened. They told me that "some" Italian companies already do that: they pay kids to write good things about them, and to write bad things about the other products. Sorry if I cannot be more detailed, I hope you'll understand.
I might be too naive, too romantic, whatever. But that really shocked me. I mean: this could be have gone ahead for years. But they came to my company, which is pretty small. Are they running out of big companies to propose that? Are all big companies doing that? The Internet has always been seen as the place where "you can get true people opinions" (true being the opinions and the people) about almost anything. Now that seem gone.
What do you think? What would you do if you were in me?