O2 staff astroturf App Store to praise O2's new app

15 July 2011

Bitterwallet - O2 featuredBitterwallet - O2 PrioritiesYesterday, 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:

Bitterwallet - O2 cheerleaders

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?

Bitterwallet - O2 cheerleader 2

She's lists herself as affiliated with O2, too. And Mike Baugh?

Bitterwallet - O2 cheerleaders 3

Mike's a senior upgrades advisor at O2. Meanwhile in the iTunes App Store, Will Woad gave the app five stars:

Bitterwallet - O2 astroturfing

Looks like he's associated with O2. What about Matthew Holdcroft and Stephen Greenham?

Bitterwallet - O2 cheerleaders

They have identical names to a planning manager and administrator at O2. Andrew Teasdale claims he's already quids in after just a day:

Bitterwallet - O2 astroturfing reviews

Seems Andrew may be a sales adviser for O2. And here's yet another five star review from a Sam Hutchings - not the most common of names, so there's every chance he's a fully qualified O2 Guru:

Bitterwallet - Sam Hutchings O2

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:

Bitterwallet - o2 astroturf App Store

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.

TOPICS:   Mobile   Social Media

23 comments

  • Anonymous
    As one of the O2 Employee's mentioned in this review, I can clearly state that the opinion I gave was my own. We actually have an internal discussion thread going about wether or not we should be making comments like this on the app store, wether or not we should be stating we work at O2 when it is not the view of the company but our own. We were able to 'trial' this service and see it's full potential for 2 weeks before launch to bug-test and play around with free offers. This application has a lot of potential, and could be pretty epic if done right. But yes it's becoming clear internally that we shouldn't of been putting reviews in the app store and if there was a way to remove them I probably would. (This is all my opinion and not the opinion or views of Telefonica O2 Ltd) I had to make this comment anon because it is stated in my contract I may not talk to the media, but in this case I felt I had to.
  • Will
    Cheers BW, seems like you put a lot of effort into this. But to quote you directly, "Who Cares?" As far as I know, this is a free app, has no hidden in-app purchases, and is at least trying to save consumer's some cash. If the app is useless, all the consumer looses is 10 mins in finding this out. They can then write a relevant review to voice this. If the app is really that useless, eventually a more accurate 'star rating' will begin to average out. If O2 were charging for the app, and promoting a false quality of service to boost sales, then not only would I be pissed, but your efforts of invesitgative journalism would have been worthwhile. Cheers anyway.
  • starbucks
    They are 'promoting a false quality of service to boost sales' - O2 are doing commercial deals with their partners. They did a trial run before launching the app.... http://www.thedrum.co.uk/news/2011/07/05/23199-o2-media-marketing-campaign-makes-almost-400-000-for-fitness-first/ So encouraging punters to download the app will translate into cash for them at some point. Besides.... better ratings = more downloads = better app store chart position = more downloads etc They're gaming the app store. Sure Apple will let it slip since they're a partner but its still wrong.
  • Douglas B.
    I installed it after the great reviews and then my legs were eaten by my HTC mobile, coincidence?
  • Will
    @ starbucks Sure, they are making money by directing consumers to deals/offers, and possibly getting royalties on those purchases. But my point stands in that promoting a false quality of service to boost app downloads does not hurt the consumer when the app is free and there is no charge to use the service. You don't have to pay anything to test the service. If you do find a good offer, and then spend money where you may not have without the app, well that is up to you, and ultimately shows that the quality of service promoted was indeed not false, since has directed you into making a purchase you were willing to make. Like I said, if the app cost 69p, but was useless and you couldn't use the service, but O2 were saying it's incredible when it obviously isnt, then you have been ripped off. If the app is free, but encourages spending, then you being encouraged to spend is your problem and not O2's.
  • sausages
    Whether the app is free or not is pretty much irrelevant. If O2 profit through the actions of its staff plugging the app and pretending to be customers then it's wrong. Its desperate.
  • question e.
    I'd be very surprised if with this app, as a common 'joe public' guy, I'd get VIP access at Gatwick airport, with an opportunity to tuck into as much free scran & refreshments as possible. Wheras going by his job title, I'm sure this wasn't a problem for Stuart Maciver. Any O2 customers with the app heading to Gatwick want to test the theory?
  • JRA
    @Will Are you the Will Woad as mentioned in the article? If so it makes sense, seeing that the point you're making is pretty much, well, pointless. If this article is true, O2 are clearly and blatantly gaming the app store with false appraisals and personas that do no reflect a general, non-biased user. It makes no difference whether the app is free, or £200, or makes purple monkeys, if companies like O2 are allowed to do this, then what's the point of an app review in the first place?
  • Geoff
    Did the author of this story, or those of some of the comments, pause to think that O2 staff are perhaps also O2 customers? Just because they're employed by the company doesn't make their opinion of something any less valid. Can any of you honestly tell us that you don't use the services of your employer? And, if the quality of that service falls foul of your expectations, do you still sing its praises and rave about how good it is? Jeez.
  • Hows a.
    Hows this for an idea - and BitterWallet needs to plug this. We take the following premise as exceptable: It is ok for O2 staff to plug an O2 app and not state that they work for the company and may or may not have an vested interest in its success. As that is acceptable, the surely Joe and Joanne Public can download "FOR FREE" the app and post crap reviews pretending to work for o2 and stating how it doesnt work properly and results in o2 making money out of the poor saps - we can even use fake names if we want. Who cares if its true or not - it might just be funny. Only need a couple of hundred 1 star reviews and its a flop.
  • Paul S.
    Geoff - nobody has a problem with staff saying how great something is, but when they rejoicing about a product made by the same company that employs them, they need to disclose that fact. Otherwise it's misleading. There's a bigger point to all of this, and that is how large companies like O2 can potentially game the App Store - if staff are posting five star reviews by the dozen (which it appears they have been) - they improve both the rating and profile of the app. If O2 stand to profit by the deals it's made (as one commenter has suggested) then they're gaming the system for profit and misleading consumers to do it. That's pretty much the bottom line here.
  • stu
    paul that'sa little ridiculous in reality! so if they work in an o2 store they should state that, presumably then so should any competitors posting a review, eg a vodafone staff member. where would it end? ***** I like this game but its made by chillingo who are now owned by EA who my uncle works for. anyway on to a point. IF O2 have sent an Email saying - Our app is live go try it out and if you like it leave a review, Thanks if they have said - all staff go review our app and give it a 5 star rating immediately. one is fine one isn't.
  • Paul S.
    Stuart - competitors leaving negative reviews is no excuse for not admitting you've got a dog in the fight. It's an app for consumers - let the consumers review it, instead of staff pushing reviews through to increase exposure and potentially increase profits. That's lousy marketing ethics.
  • would i.
    If an employee stands to gain a bonus if the app is downloaded X times and he writes a review with the sole intention of gaining that - would that not be fraud? Just wondering if any of them stand to benefit directly from increased downloads - dont know if that is the case or not.
  • J
    I think this case is exceptional because the comments are overly-hyped about the app. I would not expect it to have been perfect while it was being tested out yet we see nothing constructive, no suggestions for improvement ...just ass kissing! Most people would not go so far as to do as much research as BW has and so would take the reviews at face value. However, seems like BW did not need to dig particularly deeply to find this evidence so 02 did very little to hide it. Maybe they feel it's not a problem for their staff to review it like that. I guess it depends on your own personal opinion though. I personally feel like it would be useful to know that the comments are coming from affiliates of the company, rather than somone completely unassociated such as myself. That way I could take into account the fact that some reviews may be biased. The clause you may read in many competitions that s'Employees, family members of employees and affiliates may not participate' comes to mind. Although, I doubt an equivalent for comments would ever be enforced I feel that would help prevent any skepticism in situations like this. But who knows.
  • Anonymous
    Guys go back and read comment #1 O2 did not send out any internal mail asking for staff to review this at all. The staff in question did this completely off their own backs because they actually like O2 as a company, enjoy working for them, and enjoyed the product during testing. No-one in O2 stands to benefit from this being downloaded as much as possible. That must be clear by looking at the vast array of different job descriptions the reviewers have. There were of course reviews from marketing people, but also from customer service advisors, people working in store, and a UNIX Administrator. I don't see how they would reward individuals accross random parts of the organisation for plugging this? It makes no logical sense. Internally people are actually being encouraged to drop any rating to 4 starts and edit their review to state that they are an employee of O2 and it is their personal opinion, that is how much they care about the one news article on the whole of the internet being negative. Cut them some slack.
  • Brandon
    Comment 1... Hardly anonymous are you. It's not going to take very long for O2 to work out who you are is it! You're 1 of 8 possibilities. Good job on not talking to the media.
  • This B.
    [...] comments and 5 star reviews were coming from – yes you guessed it – O2 employees. Good work Bitter Wallett for bringing such shady abuses to light. Detention for you O2 – retweet after me: “We promise [...]
  • crap
    @Paul why bring dogs into the fight
  • Wonky
    @crap to bum them
  • O d.
    The app is lame. The idea is a year out of date. The main offer is 10% off at the O2 shop - wow, can hardly contain my excitement. The staff reviews were obvious, no one would really give this app 5 stars. Say what you like about O2 and the staff. Still better than Three!
  • Brian's U.
    According to O2's own statement the reviewers should have declared themselves as O2 employees. That's what O2 requires their employees to do when in this situation. If you are not aware of how to deal with the media in regards to O2 products don't review it or ask someone in your press department. It's not so hard is it?
  • Galaxystars
    I'm going to go give this a 1 out of 5 star just to counter the fake 5 stars.

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