It wasn't until 2011 that the Guidelines for productive online discussion were codified and 2013 when the Vendor participation in the forums guidelines were posted. There's been minor clarifications of the site participation rules since then, but they are fundamentally unchanged for the last six years. That said, in recent offline discussions with Team HB and other members, it's apparent that these guidelines are inadequate for an online community that is very often one of the the first stops for those making buying decisions.
If this site is to remain a trusted source for exchanging opinions, it's important that participants are aware of potential poster bias -- especially if a poster has an unstated relationship with a vendor. To help ground the discussion, I'll cite several types of "advice givers" I use as my own shorthand designation, based on their proximity to the vendor:
- Researcher - this advisor doesn't necessarily even own the piece of kit sold by the vendor, but from their own purchases and reading of reports from others, shares their informed opinion that applies to the vendor's offering.
- Well-wisher - this advisor may or may not have direct experience with the vendor's offering. They're familiar with and approve of the vendor's interactions/support of members of the HB community. While they don't seek opportunities to promote the vendor's offerings, they're predisposed to speak favorably of them, should the topic come up in conversation.
- Customer - this advisor has firsthand experience with the vendor's offering as a customer. Beyond the purchase itself, they have no contact with the vendor.
- Fan - a customer and enthusiastic supporter of the vendor who wants to share their experience and tips with other fans. They may have limited "insider access" at a community level (e.g., a fan sharing offline impromptu exchanges with the vendor). The fan has no financial incentive from the vendor beyond those available to the general public (e.g., a newsletter discount code).
- Insider - the advisor is someone who has regular contact with the vendor. They may relay information, updates, or testing results in the forums that are not available to the general public. They may have an agreement to obtain equipment on loan or steeply discounted in exchange for sharing their feedback in the forums. Or, they may have no such agreement and simply view their "insider access" as motivation to share it with others.
- Promoter - the advisor participates online as a vendor "fan" in exchange for something of value, e.g., free or steeply discounted equipment or financial compensation. Promoters usually have a long online history that lends credibility to their posts.
- Influencer - this advisor is a Promoter with significant online presence. For example, consultants, popular bloggers, or publishers (e.g., reviews). Given their ability to reach a large audience, they are paid for their time and effort.
- Friend - this advisor is a friend of the vendor and acts as a conduit for sharing insider information. If asked, they don't deny their relationship with the vendor. Some will actively try to omit mentioning their relationship to avoid the appearance of bias. This category doesn't include casual acquaintances, i.e., someone who has met the vendor in person, perhaps talked a bit, but has no social ties.
- Shill - this advisor typically works for the vendor, but they conceal their relationship so their opinions aren't tainted. In some cases, the vendor pretends to be a fan. They may even disparage their competition by posting "horror stories" about product or service shortcomings.
With the strawman definitions out of the way, I finally arrive at my question to the membership: Do you believe there needs to be guidelines that explain what's expected from forum participants in the latter categories (Insider, Promoter, Influencer, Friend)? If so, what?