Your Friends are Marketing to You (How to Like Them Anyway)

Your friends may be marketing to you.

I know: I'm taking the internet-shocking tactic I hate seeing elsewhere, but if I didn't have evidence in my very inbox from (as I'm writing this post) three minutes ago, not to mention The New York Times and other well-regarded media, I would still have all the stuff that's not headline material. You probably know it as “keeping up with the Joneses” or “being cool”; it's the reason I carried a screen-printed canvas Esprit tote bag in high school even though I had extremely limited disposable income and the tote bag was a really uncomfortable way to lug my books, and the reason I used those over-sized butterfly clips in junior high even though they made me look more “insane human-alien love child” than “supercool Valley Girl.”

The word-of-mouth feel-good cycle
Often your friends are marketing to you by word-of-mouth marketing, every small business owner's or corporate marketer's wildest dream. “This Dove makes my skin so soft!” is what the corporate folks are hoping to coach you to say. “The service at Open Space Coffee is amazing!” is what the local folks are prompting you to say with their kind ways.

And the thing is that this is kind of an ethical trap. Great service notwithstanding (I stand firm in my endorsement for the coffee shop, they really are super nice), we're getting a high when we tell our friends about a product's positive characteristics. We're saying through our glowing reviews of a skincare product or a diaper or a brand of energy bar, “I'm informed about this topic and I am someone whose opinion people seek out and I'm willing to share my opinion with you.” We're saying when we listen to a friend or buy on a friend's recommendation, “I have smart friends and I care about their opinions and I am going to be more like the people I admire when I spend money like they do.”

The reason this is an ethical trap is that we are both buying into the belief that our consumption habits are integral to our personhood and that imitating consumption habits will transform us to someone else (even if that transformation is slight).

Marketing is about selling a new you
This is now obvious to most of us but still a pretty big deal, in my opinion: what marketing is selling is not a product but a new you the product will make out of the existing you. You know the one. It's the you whose skin is not perfectly soft and smelling of “botanicals,” whose hair does not always bounce and glow and shine, whose kids do not clap their hands gleefully every time you serve them a snack in the back seat of your clean, comfortable, dual-DVD-equipped minivan.

(Side note: A few years back, J.D. posted this guest post about “Personal Marketing”, using advertising tools to convince yourself to save. What a great way to create the new you that you really want!)

The thing is that, more and more often, the you that you want to be is not an actress on a commercial but a friend of yours — either a real-life friend, or a “friend” whose blog you read and you've come to think of as a friend. (As a long-time blogger, I have blurred the line between these two categories; I actually have lots of real-life friends who started out as people-whose-blog-I-read, so for me this is, as they say, a “meta” phenomenon.)

The new you is the author of a blog
As The New York Times pointed out last weekend and I've certainly observed myself over the past few years, corporations have really keyed in to the fact that the blogger (especially women bloggers, and especially women bloggers who are moms) is the new influencer. The mom blogger is the new you you want to be — if you're a mom, of course, and often if you're a young woman who hopes to be a mom one day. She's very seductive, as she's able to create a world populated by the best bits of her life with her kids (most of us don't take photos of the kids refusing to eat kale chips or the mess in our minivan's back seat).

And the reason even the men among the readership should take note is that this does not, by any means, occur just among females; it's just in sharpest relief with mom bloggers, who are first making their blogs into mini-businesses (or not-so-mini) and then second being recognized for their role as a highly critical and powerful market force. Even in the age of two-income families and the at-home dad revolution, it's still women who make more purchase decisions for their household.

Here's how McDonald's thinks of you and your mom blogger icons
“Bloggers, and specifically mom bloggers, talk a lot about McDonald's,” says Rick Wion, director of social media for McDonald's USA, told The New York Times. “They're customers. They're going to restaurants… We identified them and said, ‘These are our key customers. These are our influencers for our brand.' We need to make sure we're working with them.”

They're working “with” them by working through them. It's a savvy ploy, and I've been watching this for years, thanks to my aforementioned real-life blogging buddies/buddies who are bloggers. McDonald's, or another company — I just got a persuasive email from Pampers; a few months ago I went to a fancy blogger shindig for Whole Foods — does not necessarily pay bloggers to write blog posts about them. That can be illegal and it can also create bad “buzz.”

What the corporations do is to butter up the bloggers by inviting them (I feel special!) to fancy events and one-on-one chats with high-up managers and celebrities (I feel listened to!) and then send them links and offer resources “in case” they want to write about their experiences, with a request that they send links after the posts go up (I think I might even get a new audience!). As that New York Times story said of the McDonald's headquarters boondoggle, “The posts that followed — each accompanied by a disclaimer noting their sponsorship by McDonald's — were overwhelmingly positive.”

Why would the mom bloggers and your friends talk pretty about big brands?
The reason mom bloggers and the people you meet at an investment club meeting or coffee shop talk up the big brands is for a lot of reasons, but I think there are three main psychological cues at work here:

  1. After having a personal experience with a company, we don't want to let anyone down. I've been in this very situation and can say that I worry about what the marketing rep or PR agent or social media outreach person will think of me if I accept an invite or a free product and don't write positively about it. I also worry about their feelings.
  2. If we get something good, we subconsciously react in a way that will ensure we keep on getting that good stuff. Whether that “good stuff” is freebies, or fancy trips to corporate headquarters, or lunch invitations, or very positive feedback, we're going to want it to happen again and we're going to act in a way we think will keep it coming.
  3. We want to be associated with the thing we admire. Even if we started out with a somewhat critical opinion — say of McDonald's marketing to kids, or the high expense of a brand of soap — once we meet an admirable executive connected to the company or are persuaded that the soap makes our skin so soft and fragrant, we want to be thought of as possessing these admirable qualities. Presto: we talk nice about the brand, subconsciously thinking that the admirable qualities will automatically rub off on us.

Hidden Valley Ranch and Knorr and how I said to myself, “no.”
I have an MBA and just am interested in product marketing, so I am automatically skeptical about such things. I am not shy about expressing delight in things I love, with or without freebies (I'm still hoping, though, that Theo Chocolates or Icebreaker will see my gushing over them and send me some promotional goodies), but I do try to hold myself back if I am indeed still critical after a brand's full-court-press.

Two examples of packaged food (salad dressing and chicken stock, in this case) blogger outreach are, I think, a perfect case in point. At BlogHer's 2011 conference in August, I was invited to cook with a celebrity chef. We made asparagus risotto, coached by Marco Pierre White, and were sent home with coupons and cookbooks. In another occasion, several friends of mine were invited to a very fancy several-course dinner utilizing Hidden Valley ingredients. One afternoon I sat in a coffee shop (ironically, the shop is connected to the farmer-direct food buying club of which I'm a loyal member) watching two of my friends tweet and Instagram the beautifully-presented concoctions some California chef had whipped up with this rather non-gourmet ingredient.

The fact is that, in both cases, I didn't think the prepared ingredients were any better (and certainly not cheaper) than my own homemade variety. And in both cases, I said to myself, “this is just not good.” And I did not “like” the photos — even though they were gorgeous! — and I decided not to blog a word about Knorr's cooking class.

Observe and abstain
The best way to deal with this, when your friends get caught up in marketing — going on a “Twitter tour” for some brand or bringing home freebies to share or having a giveaway for something you wouldn't ever buy, is to first observe. “This is clearly an effort to influence me,” you can say to yourself, and think about where it started, probably the Midwestern office complex of some huge corporation in a conference room filled with my business school classmates. And how your friend is the unwitting passer-on and buyer-into this quest to make a new him or her.

And just say (in your own brain), “no.” I suggest not getting angry or trying to convert your friend or writing a blog post about how insidious this brand is. I suggest not taking photos of the package or using the hashtag the brand asks you to. I suggest not commenting on the blog posts or entering the contest. Just say, “no,” to yourself, and go on spending your time in a way you value. Learn a language. Study up for your investment club. Make chicken stock. Earn $20 selling your old CD collection on eBay.

Just observe, and abstain.

Have you been marketed to by your friends, either aggressively or with every well meaning in the world? How have you responded?

More about...Psychology

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Ru
Ru
8 years ago

Last year I was invited to a sleepover/party/bonding session at my cheerleading captain’s house. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but when I arrived I found her aunt trying to flog a whole range of stuff to a captive audience. Some of this I had no problem with- she was selling control underwear (you know, the knickers that start at your knees and end at your chin?)- but there was a range of herbal stuff there that made me very uncomfortable. She kept splurting pseudo-science at the girls, telling them that this ingredient was proven to prevent cancer, and that… Read more »

Frugal Portland
Frugal Portland
8 years ago

I disagree with your conclusions and think that this is the whole problem with the blogging world. It leads to nothing but positive reviews. This isn’t about your friends necessarily, it’s about what happens when someone Googles a product name and only sees positives. They don’t “see” you abstaining from the conversation.

Beth
Beth
8 years ago

Exactly!

When I worked in customer service, I was warned that you usually hear from the people who really love or really hate something. There’s a whole world of “so-so” and “I like it, but…” in the middle.

Joyce
Joyce
8 years ago

I’m also concerned by the “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” approach. Certainly silence is better than an insincere positive review, but this still tilts things in favor of the companies trying to gain influence: they may get positive press, but they won’t get negative press. Why would they change what they’re doing?

Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager
Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager
8 years ago

There is a difference between asking friends for advice (I do this on Facebook and Twitter) and having friends push their advice/products on you. Read, be encouraging, get what you need cause you need it.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

I would have liked to read this with more time, but this article got posted LATE today. Quickly though, and without analyzing the whole social network marketing mechanisms, I’ll agree with voting NO on Proposition Abstain… we’ve known for years now that SILENCE = DEATH in every front. Nothing like a good “this product is crap, for X, Y and Z reasons” review to dismantle advertising falsehoods. (Which is why nowadays companies are paying for fake reviews and promote the sort of PR prose we see in blogs all over.) But yes please, kindly DARE TO DISAGREE and call each… Read more »

Charlotte@EverythingFinance
8 years ago

As with everything you read, you have to draw your own conclusions. Take it with a grain of salt. If all we read are positive comments then we aren’t getting the whole story.

EAP
EAP
8 years ago

I sincerely hope people are smart enough to stop for a moment and realize they are being advertised to, even by those ever-so-nice mommy bloggers.

I wish more people had a forum to voice negative reviews, or really anything other than “I super duper love X-Y-Z!”

imelda
imelda
8 years ago

This is an important but scattered article! It starts off by talking (unconvincingly) about how our friends are marketing to us, and then changes completely to discuss (VERY convincingly) about how freebies influence bloggers. The three psychological cues you mention are spot-on. There’s also the very simple rush that comes from receiving something for free, which puts us in a generous mood. And, I imagine, our standards are lower when we’re evaluating products that we didn’t have to pay for. I find it extremely annoying when bloggers rave about experiences they got for free. For example, the otherwise-excellent bloggers at… Read more »

bon
bon
8 years ago
Reply to  imelda

I agree tremendously on your point regarding service organizations. I work in the hotel industry, and reviews are vital, not just for consumers to wade through all the options, but for operators to notice what needs fixing or improvement.

I also think in the service industry (as opposed to package goods or retail), there is more of a propensity for people to leave negative or critically-biased reviews rather than positive.

Heather
Heather
8 years ago
Reply to  imelda

Imelda, I agree with your points. I do take anything I read online with a grain of salt because I know there’s a high likelihood companies are either paying for good reviews or comping to create good will and that was an interesting analysis. Marketing is everywhere. On the flip side, I do want my friends opinions about products and services because knowing someone who has used the product helps me save time and money by not wasting my dollars on a dud. An example: When my son was a newborn, I was in a group of other first-time moms… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Heather

In an ideal world, we’d have endless time and information available to carefully research every product we buy.

In the real world, who has time? If I’m considering a product or service, I ask around. If a good friend likes an author, chances are I will too. If a friend’s contractor does an excellent job, I would certainly short list them in my search.

People market things to each other all the time — especially political and religious views. I think we have an innate desire to share things we feel strongly about.

Michael
Michael
8 years ago

Don’t we want to be marketed to? I read some local gardening blogs because I want to know what the best products, plants and practices are in my area. I have a thing I want to accomplish (gardening) and if there are improvements in how I’m working I want to know about them. When I get to the store I’ll have 3 or 4 tools that do the same job in front of me. A recommendation (even a paid one) will help me avoid a dud. It might not get me the best tool, but no blogger worth reading will… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  Michael

IMO, “marketing” is saying whatever it takes to get a product sold. So no, I don’t want products marketed to me.

Do I want recommendations? Yeah! Definitely! But only from people who aren’t trying to make money off of me, or off of the recommendation.

Marsha
Marsha
8 years ago

One thing I’ve seen increasing in recent years: to enter an online sweepstakes, you have to “like” the sponsor on facebook. Yes, there’s usually other ways to enter, but they are much more time-consuming. So a sponsor offers a modest prize, and gets to say they’ve got a ton of people that like them. Very cheap marketing. I’m also seeing an increase in invitations to tweet/facebook about the products I’ve just bought online. Maybe there’s a segment of the population that over shares, but I’m not one of them. Several years ago when I had small children, I was on… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago

Companies have marketing strategies! Wow! Who knew?

KWu
KWu
8 years ago

Just wanted to say that I thought this article was really well done, so nice job Sarah! It was really even-handed and could have veered into “all corporations are always evil” but didn’t at all.

jim
jim
8 years ago

I generally think friends will recommend products or companies because they genuinely think that they are good. I don’ think your friends are simply mindlessly parroting marketing hype. yes bloggers are plyed by companies and people have to understand that recommendations from bloggers (or anyone on the internet) are subject to bias. Its really no different than traditional media in that sense, companies marketing departments constantly try to influence the media in their favor. Thats not to say that bloggers are just paid to do everything or influenced by marketing people, but it can certainly happen and you shouldn’t assume… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
8 years ago

I thought this article was going to be about people constantly inviting you to “tupperware”-like parties. I know that some people really believe in the product they invite you to but it’s caused my family to have a closet full of partylite they’ll never burn. I don’t think they ever thought about the fact that scents will fade away if you don’t burn them in x amount of time.

I am careful about things I mention, even if I love them, especially with friends that don’t have much money.

csdx
csdx
8 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

I guess I have it backwards then. If I find that I really believe in a product, I don’t try to sell it to my friends, I buy it for them as a gift. I guess that’s why I always find the idea of parties to sell things to your friends disingenous.

Eileen
Eileen
8 years ago
Reply to  csdx

About 15 years ago, I finally just told everyone I worked with that I “gave up” those parties. I call them “peer pressure parties”. I realize some people really enjoy them and the social side of it, but I guess I always figured they liked to buy expensive things more than I did too. I was pleasant and self-deprecating about it, but it was much better to just say no from the get-go, every time. About 5 years ago, a good friend hosted a skin care product party. I was so stunned that she would (not the type at all)… Read more »

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

“I know that some people really believe in the product they invite you to”

You know, if someone invited me to a party to buy something that THEY had created – a piece of artwork, or jewelry, or cookies, or whatever – I would be OK with that. I would be happy to support my friends.

But I can’t swallow the idea that the hosts “really believe in” the tupperware. Of course they believe in it, it’s making them money! And since money is their only connection to the product, I find the whole thing totally disingenuous.

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