Jack, John and Joe are talking about games.
Jack has played a new game. He likes it. He tells John and Joe, who, knowing Jack's reputation for giving games a fair, balanced review, and that their tastes and his are often similar, decide that it's a game they should try. So, based on Jack's recommendation, they buy the game, as do several other people who have been listening in.
These kinds of conversations are the stuff of legend in the advertising community. Getting a consumer so excited about your product that he'll tell others to buy it is essentially free advertising, and the most effective form besides. Marketers call it "buzz," and they track it as religiously as brokers follow the stock ticker. They even try to create it, by sending trained salespeople, or "shills" into places where normal people congregate in order to get those normal people talking about their product. These days, the tactic has moved online.
Jack, John and Joe are all members of an internet community forum. Their conversation is not taking place in one workplace, but several; each of them is typing his part of the conversation onto his computer and posting it on the forum. Each message is then read by more people in other workplaces, some of whom live across the globe. John and Joe visit the site during their off-hours, or from their desks, when they should be working. Jack, however, actually is working when visiting the site. His job is to post messages to internet forums frequented by people like John and Joe, and to convince them to buy products represented by his employers. Jack is an internet shill.
Jack is what is called an "Online Guerilla Marketer," or "OGM," and his name isn't Jack. He's agreed to speak to The Escapist on the condition that we not identify him. Like an undercover cop or secret agent, Jack's effectiveness at his job depends on his ability to remain anonymous. He'll often spend days, even weeks, infiltrating a community to earn the trust of its members before he strikes - inserting a recommendation in the right place, at the right time to generate interest in the products he represents.
A typical day for Jack starts with checking "to make sure I haven't been discovered," he says. "I check logs and IP pings, and I revisit forums and posts I recently made for comments. I return to the threads, chat rooms or other places and respond to posts I have already made. I then go through and talk like a normal poster would - commenting on other subjects, talking about politics, throwing in some wood into a flame war, etc. - pretty much just to fool anyone that might be suspicious of my activities to show them that I'm a 'real' person and not some corporate shill.
"I have to flow along with the community and react to the changes which will change the way I post. The point is to completely blend in with the community, whether it is a place normally visited by 15-year-old suburban males who like rap and videogames, or a stay-at-home wife community that supports each other's problems with their husbands and diapers. My personalities range from a 10-year-old girl to a 78-year-old man and across different ethnicities, stereotypes and ages."
Jack has been living the life of a corporate-sponsored internet secret-agent for "about four years, employed by two different companies," he says. In that time he's used his clandestine tactics and marketing know-how to shill "about 20 products - mostly videogames, websites, computer hardware and a few other small products." He declines to name names for fear of damaging his reputation in the industry and those of the companies he's represented. Because, in spite of how good he is at his job, in spite of how many companies employ his services - and those of people like him - OGMs are often looked upon as pariahs by the very people to whom they are trying to connect. At a time when most consumers are becoming more and more media savvy, the OGM is viewed by many advertising firms as a weapon of last resort and by the denizens of the internet forums the OGM is tasked to infiltrate as a threat to the very existence of the internet community itself.