I was looking at inbound links this evening and came across one originating behind the firewall of a company called NetVocates which is a "blog intelligence and advocacy service". The website blurb says, reasonably enough:
"…blogs frequently impact an organization and its products and image in uncontrolled and often unexpected ways. In addition, the sheer volume of blogs, message boards, and other discussion forums makes it difficult for organizations to effectively monitor the activity relevant to them."
Organisations want to know what people are saying about them online – that makes perfect sense. However, I spent a bit more time on the NetVocates site and found this:
"NetVocates then recruits activists and consumers who share the client’s views in order to reinforce those key messages on targeted blogs – and rebut misinformation when appropriate."
So they hire sockpuppets to go out and pretend to be "ordinary users" when they post stuff on blogs? ANYONE THINKING OF HIRING A COMPANY TO DO THIS needs to think very seriously about the backlash that’s likely to happen if people find out. Don’t believe me? Then see this post about a company that tried it and got caught.
Other bloggers who have found themselves visited by NetVocates include:
What do each of these have in common? Well, based on a very brief visit to each, I’d say they all discuss political issues at least some of the time. On my visits, Pandora’s was discussing nuclear power plants in Australia, Cracks most recent post was about American troops in Iraq but the following post had a link to an article about energy, MakeChai describes himself as a "Pakistani American Muslim… human rights and responsibilities advocate…" and PSoTD has a "leftie blog" badge on his site and reckons the netvocate people visited this page about the Al Gore movie. I also just found this guy who posted about Net Neutrality on the day he was visited.
I’m starting to worry…
So who are they? Well, a search of the whois database on network solutions, where they registered their domain name late last year, found that the owners are Griffin Strategy Group, LLC who list an email address at eoutreach.com as their contact and a non-sense contact phone number of 999 999 9999. Searching based on the listed zipcode + "Griffin" I found this page which seamingly ties netvocate to a profile on iKarma for Chip Griffin, Chief Innovation Officer at CustomScoop, a trademark of "eOutreach Solutions, LLC". Which leads me to a biography of Chip who also has his own blog here. Customschoop has actually been featured in TechCrunch and in this post on Micro Persuasion who, I reckon, don’t have a clue that Chip is also involved in a company like NetVocates.
So returning to the whole who is Chip Griffin question, a quick google search throws up lots of stuff. He seems to write a lot of stuff of interest to Republican candidates, congressman, etc and his own blog says: "Griffin worked for a variety of politicians, think tanks, and public relations firms in the Washington, D.C. area. In addition, he headed townhall.com, a conservative internet portal."
I won’t embarrass the guy by telling you he used to be into knifemaking and castle wolfenstien…
So do people out there know that the guy behind NetVocates, a service that watches blogs and message boards then hires "activists and consumers who share the client’s views in order to reinforce those key messages on targeted blogs" is also the guy behind CustomScoop, a service that’s getting some kudos in the blogosphere? Somehow I think people haven’t noticed – what blogger would talk up a service that has a sister service that, basically, pays people to post comment spam?!
There’s still some room for a bit of sleuthing around this… have you been visited by NetVocates? What was your content about? Maybe you’ve been approached to "blog" or "comment" by them? Let’s find out more.
Update 22:52 BST: It looks like cracksinthefacade and PSoTD both posted about the Al Gore movie, as did the Pandora’s jar guy – so someone has paid to find out what people are saying about the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Did you post about the film? Did you get inbound links from NetVocates? More interestingly, did any user comments appear and what did they say? Let’s see if any feedback posted looks similar…
Update 18.22 BST 06/01/06: Chip has posted a bit of info on his blog in response to this and posts made by other bloggers. One paragraph of it, if true and I have no reason to doubt that it is, makes me feel quite a lot better about the idea of NetVocate asking people to post comments (see my other post – I’ve since changed my mind about that). Chip says: We have a few basic principles we ask all of our staff and the activists we work with to operate under. First, we ask our activists to only engage on issues they actually believe in. Second, we ask everyone not to lie about anything. Third, we ask our activists not to create multiple online personalities to engage in blogosphere conversations.
[see my other posts about netvocates]