O2 staff astroturf App Store to praise O2's new app
Yesterday, O2 launched a new app for iPhone and Android - O2 Priority Moments. It's yet another Groupon/Foursquare clone that rewards users for visiting retailers and businesses in their area, so long as the user is an O2 customer. It's nicely designed but hardly innovative, despite what O2 may think.
However, we've seen enough app launches to know something didn't look right about this one. What caught our eye is how the iPhone app had nearly 50 ratings in the App Store within just a few hours of the official launch yesterday morning - and all but three of them were five stars, the highest rating possible.
Nearly all of the reviews used language you wouldn't expect of a customer, with sycophantic praise for the company, as well as the app. Stranger still was that over half the reviews were posted on Wednesday - the day before the app was promoted by the media or on Facebook, Twitter or even O2's own site.
How did consumers know about an app nobody had told them about?
So we started having have a poke around to see who are these O2 cheerleaders were. People like Darren Towers on Facebook, for example:
He's loving the app! Why? Because he's a manager at O2. What about Stacey Green, who is also loving the app in the same conversation?
She's lists herself as affiliated with O2, too. And Mike Baugh?
Mike's a senior upgrades advisor at O2. Meanwhile in the iTunes App Store, Will Woad gave the app five stars:
Looks like he's associated with O2. What about Matthew Holdcroft and Stephen Greenham?
We could go on; there are no doubt many more staff reviews - they're quite easy to uncover when staff post under their real names. Much harder to prove is that O2 staff are posting reviews under pseudonyms. Which they are:
Stu_4_U is also the Twitter username for Stuart Maciver, the name of the Consumer Customer Lifecyle, Revenue and Comms Lead at o2. In fact the photos on both profiles prove it's the same person. So we now have a senior member of O2's marketing team posting five star reviews in the App Store under a pseudonym.
There's nothing wrong with company staff supporting their products - but plastering reviews everywhere without offering any sort of disclosure - that's thoroughly misleading to consumers. It may not seem as underhand as paying marketing companies to astroturf review sites, but iTunes reviews are permanent - they can't be challenged or deleted - so staff piling on five star ratings is just as deceiving. By this morning, the app had over 100 ratings and the average had dropped to four and a half stars, probably because the customers themselves have now had a day to try the app and post genuine consumer reviews.
We did receive this comment from an avid reader who currently works for the RAC, which has also released mobile apps in the past:
As you can imagine when one of these apps goes live everyone who worked on it gets very excited and checks it out, and then they rate it. Then they ask their colleagues to rate it, and before you know it everyone (in the company) has been asked to provide a (positive) rating. I'm sure there are many companies that do exactly the same, it just looked a bit too obvious when O2 had nothing below a 4* rating - particularly as the app is nothing special.
A significant percentage of the App Store reviews for O2's new app were posted by its own staff; we've no doubt there are many more. Apart from misleading consumers by their actions, it begs the question whether staff spontaneously raved about the app of their own accord, or were asked to by O2's management.
UPDATE - after publishing this post, O2 were prompted to release a statement concerning the incident:
Since O2 Priority Moments launched we’ve seen it appear in the top five most downloaded free iPhone apps and pick up numerous positive reviews. Regrettably, a small number of these have been from O2 staff involved in our internal Priority Moments trial who didn’t explain they were staff. While our policies are clear that our people must identify themselves as O2 employees when posting comments about O2’s products and services, some of the more enthusiastic ones have forgotten this. We have since reminded all our people of our policies to make sure their views are given more transparently in the future.