Could Your Customers be Sock Puppets?

I recently read articles published by The Guardian (UK), The Huffington Post, and Wikipedia,  that have had me thinking for a while.  Even though these articles focus on the creation of fake ‘net’ personalities to disrupt anti-American political discussions on social media, I think that the very same approach could be used by your competition in the business world aka “The Art of War“.

Being an ever vigilant risk manager, I keep asking myself…  If I were leading social media customer experience initiatives for a company that could be or was infiltrated with spy or competitor – now called sock puppet –  customers:

1 – How would I know this was occurring?

2 – What would I do about it, if anything?

3 – How would this impact my strategy?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers to these questions, but they do merit exploration seeing as social media is valuable and here to stay.

#1 – How would I know this was occurring?  We all know certain ‘customers’ who are nutballs and we take those customer interactions with humor and grace (mostly) or we prepare for bomb threats or legal threats accordingly.

However, I wouldn’t know about sock puppets unless patterns of communications linked to specific people or IP addresses could be tracked and analyzed.  Jeff Russakow, Chief Customer Officer at Yahoo, told listeners recently that he has the ability to determine if certain comments or complaints are relevant or from chronic nothing-is-ever-right complainers with their technology.  The idea  being that relevant is good and should be listened to and that the chronic negative Nellies should be taken in context – if at all.

Would this sort of technology work?  Yes, if the generating IP address or customer log on name (or Avatar, Gravatar, or Blavatar) could be clearly identified and if all comments were attributed back to that singular entity.  The problem you ask?  According to Centcom commander, James N. Mathis, in the Huffington Post article, “The users controlling the personas would be hidden in a variety of ways, including randomizing the IP addresses they accessed the software with, and “traffic mixing,” or blending web traffic with that outside of Centcom to provide “excellent cover and powerful deniability”.”

Let me repeat for emphasis what commander Mathis is quoted as saying…  “Excellent cover and powerful deniability”  Oh boy – this is bad.

It appears that now, even if you actually have the technology to find, store, track, and analyze social media comments, it could be difficult to determine which of your commentors are legit and which are sock puppets who are trying to discredit your company or its message.  And, if the comments are all along the lines of “X about your service or product sucks”, how do you incorporate that feedback into your process improvement plans, where customer feedback is the basis for the recommendations, budget allocations, and go forward plans?

#2 – If you know that sock puppetry is in your leadership lap, what could you do about it?  Some companies may take the tact of ignoring it for operational issues (we know who they are so we’ll simply ignore them, take them out of our feedback metrics, or even better, block them from our sites), others may find that legal options such as identity theft, fraud, or other brand defense tactics may be appropriate.  But again, let’s read what commander Mathis said…  “excellent cover and powerful deniability.”  What evidence would your legal team have to pursue egregious social media behavior?

But, if you know or suspect that you have sock puppets, but can’t identify them or their feedback because they change addresses, change names, or engage in traffic mixing, what do you do?  Certainly, you can no longer simply assume that all feedback is good and fair feedback, you can no longer rely on lower level management teams to provide you with meaningful data, and you can no longer sit in your office without regular contact with customers, line staff, sales, accounting, etc.

To combat this relatively new phenomena, you are now going to roll up your sleeves and you will:

1 – Personally analyze feedback reports.

2 – Get much more intimate with your operations, your products/services, and customer experience touch points.

3 – Provide your professional analysis on your reports to the C-Suite incorporating perspective and context to the feedback offered.

4 – Involve your CxO(s) in strategic decision-making at a more detailed level – particularly if you are a public company and need to incorporate an overview of these threats into your SEC filings.

#3 – How will all of this impact your strategy?  I think this is important.  If you do not pay attention to this, your competition could eat you alive FAST.

How?  By denigrating your brand very publicly, by creating doubt in the minds of even your most loyal customers (let alone potential buyers), by clogging up your feedback mechanisms with loads of irrelevant communications (costing you $$ to respond to), and by potentially skewing your feedback reports which will in turn drive you to spend money and time and other valuable resources fixing something that doesn’t need fixing!  The opportunity cost implications alone could be significant, seeing as a misstep in this area could lead your company to not staying competitive in our very fast markets – which means your competitors win.

If I were you, I’d roll up my sleeves NOW to stay as far in front of Sock Puppet Syndrome as possible.  I’m not an attorney and I don’t give legal advice, but I doubt there are laws on the books with precedents that will protect your company from horrible social media competitive behaviors.  It’ll be up to you – personally and professionally – to raise the red flags based on your knowledge, skills, and insights.

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One thought on “Could Your Customers be Sock Puppets?

  1. Serious food for serious thought. Given the rise and growing influence of social networking, corporate risk managers face the daunting challenge of verifying the authenticity of often-anonymous commentators whose interests have to be suspect and whose focus may be concentrated on sabotage and the undermining of organizational credibility. Thanks for raising the visibility of this threat and for sounding the alarm!

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