Stealth Marketing

A cautionary tale
By Diane Baedeker Petit

Recently there was a dustup on an online forum that I belong to for people learning to play the violin. A new member started a discussion thread, giving it a benign subject, but the body of the post was a blatant advertisement for a violin workshop that he sponsors and teaches. The tone of the post was quite self-aggrandizing and read like ad copy. To make matters worse, he repeated the post in a second section of the forum.

Forum members immediately jumped on him, saying that he shouldn't be spamming the forum and promoting something that could be seen as competing with the site's owner, a professional violinist and instructor. There was quite a bit of back and forth among members; some defended the poster and his right to free speech, but most were in support of the site owner, who has cultivated a very loyal following.

Eventually, the original poster weighed in again and apologized for creating such a stir. He said that the post was actually made by one of his staff members without his knowledge. The site owner attempted to smooth things over too, saying that he had no hard feelings and the two had spoken and discussed ways that they could collaborate.

As I watched all this unfold, I realized that it was an interesting case study on using social media for stealth marketing. Stealth marketing entails communicating your marketing message in such a way that your target audience doesn't realize they are being marketed to. Some marketers have used tactics like paying people to go to public venues and engage people in conversations about their product.

They might go into a bar and strike up a conversation with someone about a particular brand of liquor or cigarette. They might pose as tourists on a busy street corner and ask a passerby to take their picture, managing to mention the brand of camera and how much they like it.

Social media offers great potential for stealth marketing. Online discussion forums for people with like interests - interests that relate to your business - are perfect venues. A farmer might consider using discussion forums for foodies, gardeners, parents or frequent travelers to engage people in conversations that would ultimately turn them into customers.

As the example demonstrates, there are potential pitfalls to stealth marketing. The mistake that the violinist's staffer made was that he wasn't stealthy at all. There was no attempt to make it look like a legitimate post by a member.

How can you avoid the mistakes the violinist made if you want to use discussion forums in your marketing plan?

First, do your own posting if you possibly can. If you absolutely can't, then be sure that the person posting for you is savvy about using social media, knows your tone of voice, and knows what you would, and wouldn't, say in any situation.

Take the time to learn the culture of the forum first. Read through threads to see the topics discussed and the nature of the responses to get a sense of how people communicate with each other there. For example, is the tone light and friendly, or serious and businesslike? Do people always stay on topic, or are banter, humor and tangential comments well-tolerated?

Introduce yourself early on, and then let folks get to know you by contributing to various conversations. In the process, you'll talk about what you do. Eventually you'll establish credibility and trust.

Once members trust you, they'll be more receptive if you happen to mention your website, your products or an event. Even if you don't proactively mention your business, some folks might be curious and seek out information about you outside of the social media venue you're using. However, when you do mention something relating to your business, don't make it sound like an ad. Match the tone of typical posts.

The moral of the story is that if you're going to successfully use social media for marketing, stealth or otherwise, you have to actually be social.

The author, a freelance writer, is a public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Massachusetts Department of Food & Agriculture. Read past marketing columns by this author online at