Cheating vs. Looking for an Advantage vs. Business

While reading Mark Schaefers‘s The business case for cheating your way to social media superstardom this morning I noticed something. When we cheat it’s “gaining an advantage”, when others do we say it’s “cheating” or “a scam” and sometimes even “scum”.

MLB 10 The ShowYesterday I read a great post by Owen Good entitled, A-Rod May Not Be in MLB’s Next Video Game, but Virtual PEDs Will. Good draws a brilliant parallel that had never occurred to me before. If you’re playing a video game (like MLB 10) and you pay real money to buy additional skills for your virtual player are you digitally juicing?

For baseball fans that abhor the “steroid era” of Bonds, Clemons and McGuire it raises an interesting conundrum.

Reading that, mixed with Schaefer’s piece on buying fans and followers for social proof, seemed to converge a few ideas about what exactly is “cheating”? Schaefer has a pull quote from a previous post.

Do you feel paying for any kind of traffic to a website or social media post is appropriate at any time or any level? Just wondering if you feel that there is something inherently wrong with that or not?

He follows that up with what many social media purists like to respond, “If you care about marketing and love social media, you are probably raising the roof with a resounding ‘NOOO!'”. The problem with that answer is that you have now said that Google AdWords is verboten!

What if you are smart enough to figure out how to leverage Facebook ads to encourage Google to view you as a more powerful and engaged site like Marty Weintraub explained recently in Easily Buy (White Hat) SEO Lift & Disrupt Google’s Vaunted Search Algorithm.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld

If you have a minute, watch the marketing mastermind Chris Rock talk with Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and fast-forward to 4:10. Jerry says, “If you were a caveman and had a lighter, you’d be king of the world. If you were in the civil war and had an AK-47, the war’s over with one guy.” Chris comes back with, “When we were young comics we were looking for advantages, cheats, steroids. Would I take a pill to be able to write and direct a film like Woody Allen? You’re goddamn right I would.”

Over at Radio Lab, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich talk about the Million Dollar Microsecond. With 50% – 70% of all stock trades now done by computers which are run by an algorithm. On Wall Street the fastest person usually wins.

It’s been that way since Julius Reuters used carrier pigeons to get stock quotes faster than a guy on horseback back in the 1850’s.

So computers closer to the big market computer get a microscopic advantage. Firms in New Jersey would lose to firms on Broad Street and firms out on the West Coast were just plain screwed.

Is that cheating? Is that a scam?

Just so you know, Wall Street has fixed this “problem”. They now have a room where any firm can place their computer and every computer has the same length of cable to keep it fair. The podcast is fascinating to listen to.

In the end, any advantage can seem like cheating, especially if you’re on the losing end or trying to keep pace.

When Rap Genius gamed the Google algorithm by tweeting out links to sites that provided him keyword rich anchor text links in return it was a brilliant business move. In the end, he lost traffic for just 10 days before Google returned his site to page one for almost all his keywords. Almost any business would make that deal with Google, but not all businesses have a financial tie to influential Silicon Valley investors.

Finally is the famous “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” saying. If you spend years building up a strong professional network and I spend those same years honing my skills, who is more likely to get the job? Is resource allocation a form of cheating?

I’d love to hear what you think and where you draw the line.


  1. I think most people know the hard line and when they step over it. The hard part is distinguishing that fine line sometimes. I think a good question to ask is, “Is this advantage that I am looking to take going to violate my principles now or in the future as a direct result of me taking this advantage.” I would say buying likes and things such as this would be clear that if your ethics play into your decision making you won’t buy them. Will buying ads through Google or Facebook violate your ethics, probably not. Its simple advertising and getting yourself out there. If you have to game the system to win, you will more than likely lose down the line. I think Google has done a fairly good job with this recently with cracking down on black hat seo.

    • It’s interesting that you feel that Facebook Likes are something you would have a moral/ethical stance on.

      If I guy 100 likes, or buy some traffic via AdWords I don’t see much difference – either way I am trying to manipulate someone into coming to my site.

      Would using a swimsuit model as a spokesperson for your new car be ethical?

      Isn’t all advertising manipulative at some level?

      • I follow Braden’s thinking because I understand where he’s coming from. I think when you’re talking “buying likes” given that is referring to a social platform in which a business/marketer is supposed to be….wait…SOCIAL, buying likes then becomes an oxymoron of that. As if – well, shoot. If the purpose of being on these platforms is to share information your audience will value, is to engage and have a conversation with them, is to build a relationship (however that’s defined) with them and all I’m doing (as a marketer) is making it look like people “like” me and what I have to offer, then I hate to say it but in my opinion that IS unethical.

        Social Media Marketers are constantly preaching “be authentic”. You can’t do that if you engage in the practice of buying likes…and that’s what Braden’s saying, I think. For me…and I’ve been saying this from the very beginning…it’s not the quantity of this or that, it’s the quality. It’s not how many friends, fans, followers, circles, etc. you have, it’s the kind of content is provided to them and ultimately, what they do with it themselves, which hopefully have in the end become your brand ambassadors, referrals, AND your customers. That’s the difference between buying likes and buying Google Adwords, using celeb endorsements, whatever. These are very different in my book.

        And for the record, I personally follow, friend, fan, circle, whatever the brands I like, but I ENDORSE the brands I trust as well as those that I see provide value to me as the consumer AND if I’m so lucky, have done some good in the world too – have given back. If a brand spends time giving back, they’ve already got my attention, but that’s a whole other blog post.

        I venture to guess I am not the only consumer who feels that way either. ;)

        GREAT thought-provoking post, Phil!

  2. The article makes you think…there are pros and cons to both sides and there is never going to be universal agreement on this issue…personally do what you feel you got to do and what you can live with…you alone have to live with your choices.

  3. Interesting comparison of MLB PED scandal to marketing. I guess my question would be what constitutes cheating in marketing? Spending more than the other guy is not cheating. Being smart in how you deploy on paid channels is not cheating. I think where it applies is more to a loss of credibility and most times that means a short time period of “let’s all show how much better we are than the cheater” attitude.

    For example, when I see claims that I know are false then I feel like the person/brand making the claim has little integrity. This may have no effect on their revenue or future. But I have the ability to refrain from doing business with them or promoting the brand in any way. The real shame is unless you blow a big whistle nobody knows and even then nobody cares. Integrity is slowing eroding in our culture.

    • Great question Brian… what does constitute “cheating”? Personally I don’t consider buying a bunch of followers “cheating”, but I think the effect is minimal if anything at all.

      Is having a friend at TechCrunch who will write nice articles about your start-up “cheating”? It’s a fascinating question that I would love to talk more in-depth about at the next #geniuslunch.

  4. Hunter Robert Hailey says:

    people may look down on doing whats necessary, but I think you have to do as much as you can to accomplish whatever your goal is

  5. When you buy fake fans or followers for your social media channels, the goal is, presumably, to create a huge online following, or to appear as though you have one. The point of attempting to have a large social media following is that if people are following you, presumably they’re patronizing your business. Social media then allows you to keep up with your followers, update them on various product offerings, encourage them to visit your site or store, offer coupons and other deals, and grow your customer base. But if you buy your followers, all you’re doing is creating an illusion of a social media following. Even if you pay, say, 200 people to follow your site, those people will only do what you pay them to do because chances are they have little to no genuine interest in what you have to offer. So chances are they won’t actually keep up with what you’re doing, or care at all about what you have to offer. Essentially, this leaves you with a large number of followers that looks great on paper, and absolutely no interaction with those followers, no growth, and no sustainable results for your business.

    • Well the whole idea behind buying fake followers is to offer social proof to the fence sitters that you’re worth paying attention to. So you buy 10,000 followers so the soccer mom is impressed that your bakery is so well loved and comes in to try you out. It’s a fairly simple transaction at that level.

  6. What a great article… It is funny that when an expert uses experts tools the non-experts can sometimes see it as cheating the system. At the same time if we did not know how to do what we do as experts they would find someone else and use them for the same service…

    At the end of the day I say use your talents for good and you will have nothing to loose sleep over!

  7. It’s a tough call. But sports need to go back to its roots: A test of natural human strength and ability.

  8. Fascinating read. Having been a fan of baseball my whole life, and the majority of my fandom coming during the “steroid era”, this raises an interesting question.

    As I’ve thought about our discussion last night on Twitter more and more, I begin to realize that every action the steroid users took was to gain a competitive advantage. It wasn’t against the rules (maybe the law, but not the rules of MLB). They were engulfed in a culture of watching others guys “cheat” and be successful, while essentially facing no repercussions (sounds eerily similar to grey-hat SEO, eh?)

    Is the risk/reward factor worth it? Yes. Maybe. Depends on what happens to be your ultimate goal: Fame, fortune, honor, respect, an extra 10 years of doing what you love?

    Personally, it boils down to integrity. Will my decision to take “marketing steroids” hurt or help me in the long run? I may see immediate results and have the appearance (to clients, colleagues, potential employers) of doing a fantastic job at my work, but in 10 years will what I take/do today benefit myself and others? And really, that’s the function of steroids: to mask one’s inequities.

    You asked me last night if I could take a pill and double my salary, would I do it? I can honestly say no, I would not because I take too much pride in doing things the right way and working harder than anybody else. The reward of that hard work is so much more gratifying than taking a short-cut.

    I’d like to think that the ball players who did steroids,McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens, Braun, Palmeiro (who this year didn’t get enough percentage of the HOF vote to stay on next year’s ballot) regret their decisions…as the pinnacle of baseball is to be enshrined in Cooperstown. They sure didn’t think that the injection they took in 1998 wouldn’t play into them NOT being mentioned among the greatest of all time.

    Maybe I’m not ruthless enough to take a short-cut, no matter the cost and what/who happens to fall by the wayside. But I go to sleep every night, and wake up every day, knowing that my work ethic is second to none.

    • I get where you’re coming from, but think of it from a perspective of someone like Barry Bonds. His dad taught him to basically hate the press, because the press was certainly no friend of Bobby Bonds.

      Then, Barry plays like the superstar he was. He is so far ahead of his peers that he helps the the Pirates make a run at a championship. He is at the top of his game. He’s working as hard as he can. He’s doing everything the right way. He was not gratified.

      He’s not winning championships and not getting the adulation of the fans like Mark McGuire is. So he changes the way he prepares. Now when he hits 73 home runs, people notice.

      I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, my argument is that we all do things that if they were really scrutinized the way Barry Bonds performance was, we would be called out as well.

      When Rockefeller decided the way to freeze out his competitors in the oil refinery business by buying up all the barrels so they had no way to ship their product to market… that was a competitive advantage right? Well, until it became illegal.

      Reciprocal linking was fine, until it wasn’t. Same with footer links, directories and keyword-rich anchor text. Saying that 4 out of 5 doctors say smoke Camels was good, until it was apparent cigarettes was causing lung cancer.

  9. Hi, Phil. Nice post. I haven’t read the Schaffer piece but have seen so many references to it, I feel I know the gist.

    My focus is the social media part of your post.

    There are abusive ways to bump up social standing and I’m aware of some very well known and well respected people who buy followers, likes, etc. When you go to Twitter Counter you can see when “purchases” have been made because of crazy, unsustainable spikes in follower numbers.

    But as for using a tool like EA for amplification or driving eyeballs to something one cares about, I have to question why there is such a negative appraisal? Is it the game currency that is the problem?

    Well-known bloggers and social media personalities send messages to their friends, asking for RTs. It works like a private Triberr. The traffic that results (amplification, blog visits, etc.) isn’t at all organic. It’s quite the opposite. But when you ask 2 dozen highly ranked and followed people to amplify content, it’s an unfair advantage when compared to someone who doesn’t have connections of that caliber.

    In my view, that’s where EA levels the playing field. People can drive attention to their content or issues in a way that hadn’t before been possible.

    The bad thing is the abuse. Empire Avenue began as a game. Games are competitive, and as with all gaming platforms, there are going to be people who want to take shortcuts, or exploit it in unexpected ways.

    Two and a half years ago when I began playing EA, it was a much different animal. There were no missions—Only stock market investing in people on social media. The advent of missions opened the door for abuse.

    The recent controversy makes me feel sad about superficial judgements made by well-respected people in social media and blogging. For the most part, most don’t know the history of EA, nor do they care. But they perceive something dishonest because of criticism waged by a neophyte. At the same time, I have to believe they are aware of beloved people within their ranks who have achieved their popularity dishonestly, but they elect to look the other way.

    And BTW, I have discovered some really fantastic blogs and bloggers through EA missions. I know there is almost no chance I would have stumbled upon them any other way.

    • I agree Terri. I was once a social media purist, but over the years have come to realize that there’s no place for purists in social media for business. Business requires people to use available platforms to put their best foot forward. If that means you buy a billboard on the side of the road, that’s accepted method of putting your message in front of people that may not know you. Google’s AdWords is also accepted as a way of injecting your brand in front of someone doing a search. But for some reason, using Empire Avenue to do the same thing as AdWords is not?!?

  10. So in the gaming world there are two ways to implement pay features.
    The first is kind of what you are talking about, “Pay to Win”, is very popular for a short burst. It is where, in a multiplayer environment, they release “real money” bought gear/enhancements to be better than typical gear.
    The other school of thought is to do, “simple aesthetics”, which refers to the use of non-functional little gizmos in the game. Examples include like hats or weapon skins to make your character appear unique. The issue with this is that they don’t generally DO anything (or have a non-impactful ability).
    The second is more popular and I think they are making ANOTHER mistake with this game. Just not a smart idea with the state of the console industry.

  11. Some great thoughts to ponder here. How are we cheating in our everyday lives?


  1. […] did players willingly choose to use PEDs? To gain a competitive advantage that would lead to HUGE contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars and end with the hope of […]

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