Here’s a bit of deception to kick off your Monday (though the story was posted on Saturday, and it’s already evening today… so if your day is just kicking off… lay off the booze, buddy): MobileCrunch has tossed up a rather intriguing article alleging that Reverb, one of the industry’s more recognizable PR agencies, has its interns write glowing reviews for its iPhone projects on the App Store:
“Fortunately, iTunes allows you to see other reviews posted by the same reviewer. So, we clicked on the reviewer “Vegas Bound” (iTunes link) and started to look at his reviews. He reviewed 7 applications, and gave each one of them 5 stars. Each review was short and sweet, and extremely positive. These reviews represented 6 different developers. A quick Google search revealed an infuriating truth: every single one of these developers was a client of one PR firm: Reverb Communications.”
The evidence looks pretty damning, but ultimately Reverb denies any wrongdoing in a response that states its ” interns and employees write their reviews based on their own game play experience, after having purchased the game by themselves, a practice not uncommon by anyone selling games or apps and hardly unethical.” This is where things get a bit fuzzy, of course. Have I given games I’ve worked on 10-out-of-10 reviews on sites where I had the ability? Yeah, it happens. But hey, guys, I also review other games and give them high scores if they’re deserving. I’ve given games I worked on mediocre reviews if I didn’t like them (well… nothing lower than an 8, of course, or I’d give them no review at all :D). So maybe these interns just need to wisen up a bit and start reviewing other stuff. Only kidding. Of course that wouldn’t get to the root of the problem and would probably just make it a little bit worse.
MobileCrunch point out an excerpt from a pitch doc provided by a developer, alleged to be from Reverb, in which it’s stated that it “…employs a small team of interns who are focused on managing online message boards, writing influential game reviews, and keeping a gauge on the online communities.” Seems that their interns may also be going around to message boards and hyping their clients’ products. To me, that’s just as upsetting — at least if they’re doing it under some pseudonym and trying avoid being outed as PR reps.
I was in a situation a few years ago when I was working for an agency on the NVIDIA community account, as we were accused of essentially shilling, paying shills or planting shills for the video-card manufacturer. I don’t know where the NDAs and such stop, so go ahead and read the statement we (I) sent to Shacknews back in the day. I still stand by it and am sure that we weren’t acting unethically. You’ll have to trust me on that, I guess, but even so, it was already getting too close to OMG VIRAL MARKETER territory for my liking at the time. Now, though, I see that our practices of just working really, really closely with the community — talking and interacting with them on a very personal level (IM, phone and whatnot), hoping that they’ll appreciate our clients and us even more — is what we do on a wider scale now thanks to Twitter, Facebook, etc.
After all, the fans are out there. They like reviewing games. Games they like will probably earn at least a 4 rating, unless the player is holding onto his stars as if they were a rare commodity; so why even bother putting your own reviews up? For one game quoted in the MobileCrunch article, HydroTilt XL, there were over 300 5-star reviews (of 900-something total) — clearly any cover shilling tactics need not be employed here. Ah yes, the quality factor. Well, I think that any sensible person in this industry realizes that, especially these days, if you offer a quality product, people will buy it. With the rise of social networking, we have a huge connected audience that wants to share its love of games or music or movies or plywood manufacturers. Give them something they want to talk about.
I should finish off by saying that we really don’t know if Reverb has done anything wrong. It may just be unfortunate levels of zeal on the behalf of its interns, who really did love the game they were working on — and as it may have been their first experience with the iPhone App Store, their first review inevitably raising questions about the motivations. I do hope it’s not true — being accused of being greasy when you think you’re being clean sucks, and the people I do know at Reverb are good, honest people.