Though many today would agree that the Internet now compliments traditional consumerism, there are still those businesses that are simply doing it wrong. There seems to be no end to the list of companies who fail miserably at understanding the role of Social Media and the Internet, and it’s a growing concern. It’s a problem that affects more than just their bottom-line.
It’s no new concept that media in general has seen a significant paradigm-shift in recent years, that the outcome of the battle between Old and New media has long been realized. Television and print media numbers are still high, but the amount of users who subscribe solely to alternatives is growing by leaps and bounds. More intelligent companies will adapt to absorb the changes and maintain their user-base, the key being to spread resources across the board; to reach a broader audience. New technology allows us to avoid being force-fed, while maintaining old connections to mass-media; streaming radio, podcasts, mobile devices, and social media websites allow us to pick and choose what we deem relevant. We tend to simply ignore the rest.
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
One form of old media that is struggling to stay afloat is traditional radio. Listener-numbers are plunging and stations slash their budgets drastically just to adjust. Something that isn’t changing much in traditional radio? Their business model. Those few listeners that are left quickly find themselves plagued by more ad-content than music. This invariably drives them away, and this continues ad nauseum until stations either shut down or consolidate.
Some radio stations are attempting to adapt by maintaining social media profiles and streaming content — but the amount of ad-content remains the same, or worse, rises. Many stations turn to more time-proven methods in their desperate attempts to weather the storm, and put on corporate-sponsored contests, featuring various giveaways and cash prizes. This is nothing new for radio, but the methods used to get the word out have changed.
These large-scale contests, while funded by corporate backing, act as sponsored advertising for the stations. New and often-misused buzzwords like viral and web 2.0 are quickly employed to justify the cost, because people are expected to talk. I’ll admit, it’s a smart move, if done correctly.
I was recently in one such contest, put on by local Seattle-based radio station, 107.7 The End. The concept was to become the city’s greatest “End”fluencer by competing in a series of challenges designed to prove influence.
At the end of the contest, points would be tallied, and a prize of $5,000 would be awarded by station-sponsor Miller Lite. The contest consisted of three Challenges:
- Blog — Update a station-run blog page and compete for pageviews.
- Show Us Your Logo — Compete to get the most public exposure for the station/contest logo.
- Grand Finale — Compete to attract the largest audience to a live concert.
I initially entered the contest because I was confident that I could promote the (mundane) blog-content for hits in a fair fashion, and tap into my resources for the final challenge — gathering as many free concert-goers as I could to represent me as votes. The contest challenges interested me, and seemed like a new take from Old media. Keep in mind, each challenge was point-based, and scaled differently from each other challenge.
As the results rolled in for the first challenges, I was taken aback — especially with the Blog Challenge results. Something was very wrong, so I gathered my research and proceeded to contact the station:
It’s quickly coming time to kick concert-promotions up a notch for the contest, but I am hesitant to even continue.
When the results for the blog-traffic portion of the contest were released, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’ve been working on the web for years, and in the context of this contest, the results were no less than overwhelmingly ridiculous. Anyone with a background in web promotions or even site administration would concur. I know how this may appear, as I’m a competitor, but I’d really appreciate your time and consideration on this issue. It’s a very serious matter — especially with the reputations of all parties, as well as no small amount of money on the line.
To put this in perspective: In order to get the claimed number of hits (reportedly 28,894 and 21,653) [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] would have needed to seriously push the content and links. They did not do this to any extent that could possibly account for their alleged traffic results, nor do they possess the resources or ability to do so. I work with people whose job is promoting sites, pushing links, and I know that it requires considerable online-resources to do so. Put simply, posting signs outside a building won’t translate to even a fraction of that kind of web traffic. The two contestants with these outlandish numbers, [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], both started their Twitter accounts when the contest began. They made no attempt to learn to use the service, or even to reach out and gather a following. They have 10 and 11 followers, respectively. Those followers include employees from the station. Pushing their links on Twitter would not even reach an audience. As as for Facebook; neither have accounts large enough to create any significant amount of traffic. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Anyone looking at the reported traffic numbers, alongside the online resources of the contestants, would logically deduce something just doesn’t add up. In case that’s not enough for you to get your IT people to seriously look at the pageview metrics, then I’ll explain further:
My first thoughts, since I don’t have access to the actual page metrics, was to see what Alexa’s (http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/1077theend.com) rankings had showing for 1077theend.com – I narrowed the search to the timeframe of the contest.
What I saw did not surprise me. The small amount of data available to me is enough to strongly suggest that these obscenely high numbers are the result of bots. The much more extensive results available to your own site-administrator or IT team would only prove this suspicion beyond any reasonable doubt. While I’m confident that any business would quickly look with harsh scrutiny upon any contestant that showed numbers these high, while having no previous disposition toward web-based promotions, I realize that two of such contestants having these results can throw off the passive observer. This seems to be the case.
At this point, I’d like to draw your attention to the screenshots attached. They represent the freely available Alexa data. First, I’d like you to note in the image named “spike in traffic.jpg” that there is a sizable burst in traffic to the site in the second half of September, during the blog-promotions portion of the contest. Next, in “time on site.jpg,” you’ll note that at the precise same time that traffic spiked, time spent on site dropped to the lowest point in 1077theend.com’s history, at at just three seconds per visit. That, in and of itself, is a dead-ringer for bot activity — but it’s not all the data available.
Also from the afore mentioned data: Almost 68% of 1077theend.com’s recent web traffic came from China. I tracked down the Chinese sites that were clicked-through to 1077theend.com — two of them leading to the site and four of them leaving the site were automated Chinese systems, with each group having the exact same traffic percentages. These numbers and sites can be viewed in “gameman users.jpg” and “gameman clickthrus.jpg.” Just for a quick background, many bot-nets originate in China. When sites like gameman.cn — which doesn’t actually exist — have identical percentages clustered the way this one does, it means they’re automated and likely part of a bot-net. These sort of perfect mathematical patterns simply don’t happen in human-driven metrics.
Sixty-eight percent of the site’s traffic is NOT a number to be taken lightly, especially connected with this contest. These numbers aren’t biased, they’re simply numbers, and they tell a story. I find it impossible to ignore these key facts.
I’d also like to point out that while the rules did not specifically state that a contestant could not simply employ friends to revisit his blog in the old “human sweatshop clicking” ad nauseum fashion, that it is obviously against the spirit of the rules. Your third place contestant, [REDACTED], while attaining nowhere near the purported traffic numbers of [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], has almost surely done exactly that. If that is indeed the case, then the metrics for his blog page will show it. As I stated before, while it may not be written in the rules, his actions will become evident when he fails to show the same success in providing the concert with any remarkable exposure.
With that, I leave you to your own research, and I hope and urge all of you to look further into this. I do have wide resources in Seattle (and beyond) when it comes to online reach and PR; I was very much hoping to go forth full steam with the last challenge in this contest. The portion of the contest in question, to put it bluntly, simply didn’t offer web-viewers with anything interesting to the point that heavy pushing would pay off. The concert portion does. If the station chooses to ignore this issue, I will NOT continue. I will NOT waste my time, resources, or my good name with my contacts to promote this contest and radio station. You will lose great exposure as well as a long-time listener.
You and your station should also consider the very same repercussions should you choose to move forward with these unsavory characters as your public face. People don’t like hearing about money being given to cheaters simply because it was easier to pay them than to police them. I personally will not allow the cheating to go unnoticed, I assure you.
You understand my frustration, I’m sure. I had gathered research and sent the e-mail about two weeks after the results were released, just to be absolutely positive that I had valid proof. Surely the station would have their IT guys take just a small amount of time out of their busy day to rectify the situation, and reprimand (ahem, throw out) the dishonest parties.
Based on your research on these page metrics it’s clear you put a lot of time and effort into finding why those blog numbers were unusually high. However we anticipated that such a tool might be used to a contestants advantage and it was properly addressed in the contest rules. Under “Other Rules” number 21, you’ll find “…use of robotic, mechanical, or other forms of pre-programmed internet visit methods is NOT prohibited in this contest. Station does not intend to monitor or disqualify any web hits in The Blog portion of this contest on the basis of the use of such manipulation tools.”
I’m sorry you missed this portion of the Endfluencer rules. If you have any other questions regarding the contest please let me know, email or by cell. And I hope to see you at Deck the Hall Ball in December.
Are you kidding me? So, they’d rather not double-check the metrics of the website and do what’s right, much less what’s legal? Take a look at the complete rule that was cited:
21. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Station’s general contest rules, use of robotic, mechanical or other forms of pre-programmed internet visit methods are NOT prohibited in this contest. Station does not intend to monitor or disqualify any web hits in The Blog portion of this contest on the basis of the use of such manipulation tools.
That’s right, NOT prohibited. It’s about to make even less sense, too — lets take a look at a rule earlier in the document:
b. v. Any finalist who Station determines has or may have broken any Federal, State, and/or Local law as part of participating in this contest (including, without limitation, tresspassing, destruction of private or public property) or exhibits any nudity or engages in any indecent or lewd conduct, or harms or endangers themselves or any other person or property or may have created a public hazard, cause interference with or destruction of property or utilizes public safety resources in connection with this content will be disqualified by Station, in its sole and absolute discretion. Station is not responsible in any way for the acts of contestants.
So they’re attempting to circumvent their own rules, brush aside CLICK FRAUD, and the solicitation and/or use of bot-nets — both very illegal activities. The word felony comes to mind. Let’s not forget to note that the act of simply stating a disclaimer doesn’t make it true. Printing that the station is not responsible for actions of the contestants doesn’t magically remove culpability; a scorned wife who hires a hit-man to murder her husband is still brought up on charges alongside her hired gun.
After several minutes of staring blankly at my screen, reeling from the passive-aggressive nature of the station manager’s response, I quickly responded with a final retort:
I’m sorry you don’t seem to have taken my last email seriously. I did notice the clause you cited from the contest rules, but I had mistakenly thought that your station could not possibly have meant that it cover illicit activity. I cannot allow my good name to be attached to this contest or your station any longer; please remove my name and likeness from your website immediately. You’d do well to have whoever was initially responsible for writing that clause look up click fraud, because it’s likely what you are implicitly allowing by your inaction.
I regret that it’s come to this.
I’ll be contacting Entercom‘s Board of Directors about the matter, as well as the contest’s sponsor, MillerCoors. Due to the size of the MillerCoors Corp., it’s sure to be a little difficult to reach out to them, so if anyone has the sort of connections that could expedite this process, it would be greatly appreciated. I’m sure they wouldn’t want to be connected with an incident like this, especially since it’s a financial involvement.
I’ve also filed complaints with the Washington State Attorney General and the Internet Crime Complaint Center. I’ll take comfort in the fact that the state of Washington is one of the top in the country to pursue cyber-crime.
Now, if some strange, bizarro-universe turn of events leads to the discovery that fraud is not the case, the fact still remains that the station openly and officially promoted not just cheating, but illicit acts. And I retain that it’s all because of ignorance on how to properly handle these new-fangled Internet things.
Don’t get me wrong — these aren’t sour grapes. I couldn’t care less about the outcome of the contest itself at this point, I’ve walked away with my dignity and respect. What I DO care about at this point is justice. They shouldn’t get away with this kind of behavior, there’s just nothing more to it. As for Entercom, none of this looks good. Especially not after they were just found negligent in the death of a woman who was participating in one of their stations’ contests.
I haven’t completely lost faith in Old Media to step it up and keep pace in the ever-changing realm of communications and social media, but after seeing this sort of behavior up close and personal, I’m not holding my breath, either. Add this to your list of things not to do.