Recently I have been involved (directly or indirectly) in a number of online contests that require obtaining the most votes, or obtaining the most comments on a post to win something. And I’ve learned a few things. First, people cheat. Second, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in holding cheaters accountable. I guess when you are getting tens of thousands of hits to your website off one contest, and money to boot, ethics go out the window.
Samsung and TwitterMoms
A few weeks ago, TwitterMoms held a contest where the prize was a brand new Samsung Washer and Dryer. In order to be eligible to win, you had to write a blog post, display a badge, Tweet about the contest and get THE MOST number of comments on your blog post. Tiffany from Babes and Kids is a member of the MomDot community and we rallied around her to try and help her win by leaving comments on her post whenever we could. At one point in the contest, she noticed that a couple of the other contestants seemed to be getting comments with an unnatural speed and pattern (likely using scripts to generate comments) and pointed some of the discrepancies out to TwitterMoms. She was given reassurance that they would scrutinize the top comment getters to make sure that everything was fair.
In the end, an email was released indicating that they believed there was cheating, it all but accused Tiffany of not playing fair by accusing people of cheating (so pointing out cheaters to help ensure the integrity of a contest is apparently frowned upon) and it also said they were changing the contest rules and it would now be a random drawing. Rather than spending some time and maybe a few dollars to verify the comments on the top vote getter’s sites, for the sake of both TwitterMoms and Samsung’s reputations, they simply decided to avoid it altogether and change the rules.
And the winner they chose….had no comments on her post, she apparently did not have the required badge on her site nor did she fulfill the Twitter requirement either. How is THAT for playing fair with the contest rules?
You can read a full account of Tiffany’s story here: Twitter Moms & Samsung, Not Playing Fair. You can also read some other posts about this situation here: TwitterMoms & Samsung Fiasco, Samsung have you lost your minds?, Blogger Ethics Setback, and Another side to Samsung Twitter mom contest.
I understand that sometimes things go wrong. I understand that it is not easy to police these things. But I also believe that the person running it should have stepped up and made a statement that cheaters will not be tolerated and dealt with it swiftly and surely. This is something that is OWED to the people who did play fair, and the people who continue to drive traffic to TwitterMoms and Samsung.
NatureMade / SAM-e Blogging Gig
Personally, I have been involved in the NatureMade SAM-e Good Mood Gig contest which has as it’s prize, a 6-month blogging job with a very generous paycheck. The first phase of the contest involves accruing enough votes to be one of the top 20 vote-getters. Those top 20 then move on to phase 2 and a winner is chosen from there. The voting is via an online form that claims to allow 1 vote per IP address per day. The terms and conditions for the contest state this regarding how you may go about getting votes:
Use of any automated, script, software, macro or robotic program or any other automated or improper means to submit or gain votes or any other attempt to vote or obtain votes in any way that conflicts with these Terms or instructions or restrictions on the Web Site or from Pharmavite, may result in the disqualification of the votes at issue, the relevant application, or both, in Pharmavite’s sole discretion.
The first couple of days that I was in the competition, people seemed to be earning votes at a normal, reasonable rate. I was not winning, but I had managed, through the support of my friends to get to the top 20 but competition was tough! I would look at the vote counts frequently throughout each day to see how I was doing in comparison to everyone else. I checked out the top 20 but also the people behind me to see how fast they were gaining ground. Then one day, after about a week, within the span of a few hours, I noticed that a few people had went from nothing to over 1,000 votes where it had taken me almost a week to earn 300 or so.
I obviously cannot prove that people are using scripts to get votes, but I was concerned that the terms and conditions do not guarantee that cheaters will be disqualified. A lot of people are spending their valuable time voting for me so I wanted to make sure that the contest was going to be fair.
I emailed Ignite Social Media, the firm running the contest for Nature-Made. I politely asked them if they could assure me that using scripts to obtain votes would be cause for disqualification. I indicated that not only would I NOT cheat, even though I could easily find someone to help me, I do not want to waste my time and the time of the people supporting me if other people are being allowed to cheat. On top of that, I was not actually interested in representing a company that would not stand up and uphold an ethical contest.
I never heard back.
So as much as I feel like I might be letting people down because they took their valuable time out to vote for me day after day, I am formally withdrawing from the competition. I have emailed Ignite Social Media and indicated to them as such (although I have no idea if they will bother to pull my application down). All I wanted from them was assurance that they are running a fair contest, but instead I got ignored.
I have thought long and hard about this, and I don’t believe that the voting methods are up to the standards that I have set for myself – honesty and fairness. It is not fair to me and the other applicants who also refuse to cheat, but mostly it is not fair to all of you who have rallied behind me to help me earn votes honestly. And if the company cannot promise a fair competition, I don’t think they are a company I want to work for anyway.
Again, I have no proof that anyone has done anything wrong in the SAM-e Good Mood Gig competition, nor can I be sure they do not intend on disqualifying cheaters but I also no longer trust the system. And for me to continue day in and day out and promote voting for me when I am this cynical about the methods used is just simply stress that I do not need. And frankly, as far as good moods go, I am very far from one right now when it comes to my participation.
Companies, bloggers & contest entrants need to be held accountable
I originally intended to bow out of the contest a little more quietly, but I feel that there is an issue here that needs to be addressed. The internet, and mom blogs especially are innundated with contests. Whether you are earning votes for a title (such as ‘best food blogger’) or to win a prize, the system is severely broken. It is easy to cheat using scripts and other methods and if the companies who are holding the contests cannot find a way to run them fairly (and guarantee it to the other participants who are not breaking the rules), then the methods need to change. But more importantly, they need to uphold the integrity of these contests by making sure that if cheating occurs that it is dealt with and not ignored or brushed under the rug.
Contests are great marketing. They bring traffic and get people buzzing about the products like nothing else can. But the ramifications of negative press if there are problems are going to bring twice as much attention to the brand than any amount of free giveaways, and it’s not positive attention. I won’t be buying a Samsung product any time soon and I wonder if my conscious will cause me to find a different vitamin brand (I will miss the buy-one-get-one sales at Walgreens). I also canceled my TwitterMoms membership and unsubscribed to the newsletter.
And in the end, the bloggers are going to suffer from the backlash. Companies will no longer run contests like this and who knows, they may stop working with mom bloggers altogether. We will be left with the stereotype that we cannot be trusted – like life in general, there are some who are dishonest but the majority are not. And if there are no systems in place to hold the corrupt ones accountable it will only fester and grow until the phrase “mom blogger” elicits an attitude of disdain and disgust.
But the question is, can you enforce accountability with only your voice? I don’t know. But I’m definitely willing to try.