Vendor participation in the forums. What about their friends, insiders, promoters, and influencers?

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HB
Admin

Postby HB » Apr 30, 2019, 9:36 pm

It's hard to believe, but yes, yesterday marks the 14th year since the forums officially began. :shock:

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.
                  For sake of completeness, I'll include one last category, though I believe we'll all agree such behavior is unwanted and will end with such "advisors" being banned:

                  • 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.
                  Whew! I've never taken the time to write it down... it's a longer list than I thought! :lol:

                  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?
                  Dan Kehn

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                  yakster

                  Postby yakster » Apr 30, 2019, 10:18 pm

                  I think disclosure is a good place to start, if you have any financial interest in the product or service your discussing.
                  -Chris

                  LMWDP # 272

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                  Chert

                  Postby Chert » Apr 30, 2019, 10:56 pm

                  I think a piece about being appropriately skeptical about bias when reading reviews and encouraging those who describe their experience to disclose would suffice.

                  A formal statement like you just made is helpful in seeing how bias enters into descriptions of new equipment.

                  I chose one grinder in part based on this and to discussions here and I wasn't blind to the idea that the reviewer might not want to disappoint the developer of the equipment. Even with full disclosure we have to be aware that objectivity is an issue. But honestly when the Pharos and Lido and Vario were reviewed here, I don't recall even considering that bias, especially not financial gain, in any way influenced those who wrote their praise of the products. I have become a bit more enlightened a consumer of home-barista.com, perhaps.

                  How common is shilling on HB, anyway?

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                  another_jim
                  Team HB

                  Postby another_jim » Apr 30, 2019, 11:55 pm

                  I guess we at HB (and most long time on-line coffee people) should have disclosed that by Dan's classification, we are all fans of the Andersons and Garrotts for their long time support and interaction with the community. Although to be really accurate, I'm not sure fan is quite right for me; perhaps "well-wisher" would be a more accurate description of how I feel about quite a few people in the business.
                  Jim Schulman

                  baldheadracing

                  Postby baldheadracing » May 01, 2019, 12:21 pm

                  I think that it is important to disclose any relationship involving gain, financial or otherwise. It is also important to continue to disclose that relationship in future posts where appropriate.

                  For example, I beta-test a few racing parts for Honda's. I post about my experiences. A couple years later I may still be answering questions about those parts, and I add a disclaimer to those posts as well.

                  yakster wrote:I think disclosure is a good place to start, if you have any financial interest in the product or service your discussing.

                  I know that this is a pipe dream, but besides financial disclosure, I would love to see "researcher" disclosure. It isn't much of an issue here, but I was reminded of the potential pitfalls recently: Splicing Thermocouple to PID and Phidget
                  What I'm interested in is my worst espresso being fantastic - James Hoffmann

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                  yakster

                  Postby yakster » May 01, 2019, 2:02 pm

                  I wonder if it would be worth implementing a system for this when you post a message. You could have a check box or radio button asking if the post is a review or recommendation and if it is have the poster select one of the roles that you already listed and then the post could be appended with that role with a link to an explanation of what the roles mean. Does that sound heavy-handed? Maybe a reminder when posting to disclose would suffice?
                  -Chris

                  LMWDP # 272

                  ira

                  Postby ira » May 01, 2019, 4:50 pm

                  Personally I think the forum has gotten popular enough it's beyond the point where you have a chance of controlling it. You'll catch the ones that a blatant shills and those of us that have been here long enough know not to trust those with unproven records. But any attempt will backfire in unforeseen ways. I point at the closing of the original Decent thread as an example of that. For me that was about the most interesting thread on HB ever and it got closed. For me, that was a sad day on HB.

                  Ira

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                  HB
                  Admin

                  Postby HB » May 01, 2019, 5:35 pm

                  Chert wrote:How common is shilling on HB, anyway?

                  The more common case is outright spamming. Shilling is hard to detect, so we can't say for certain. We've discovered some shilling long after the fact.

                  another_jim wrote:Although to be really accurate, I'm not sure fan is quite right for me; perhaps "well-wisher" would be a more accurate description of how I feel about quite a few people in the business.

                  Fair enough, I've added "Well-wisher" to the list. :D
                  Dan Kehn

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                  HB
                  Admin

                  Postby HB » May 01, 2019, 5:49 pm

                  yakster wrote:I think disclosure is a good place to start, if you have any financial interest in the product or service your discussing.

                  baldheadracing wrote:I think that it is important to disclose any relationship involving gain, financial or otherwise. It is also important to continue to disclose that relationship in future posts where appropriate.

                  yakster wrote:I wonder if it would be worth implementing a system for this when you post a message.

                  Let's consider two real world cases:

                  1). A vendor contacts a member offline and offers them free product in exchange for starting a "user experience" thread in the forums. The member doesn't disclose this arrangement. Should we be willing to look the other way if it was a long-time member with an extensive site history? What if it's a member who joined today solely to start the thread?

                  2). A vendor is busy, but recognizes that online forums can be leveraged to their business advantage. They hire a coffee enthusiast who blogs occasionally and asks them to respond to questions about the vendor's products in the forums. The enthusiast is supplied with equipment and a small payment for their trouble. Their posts may mention they received "loaner" equipment, but omits the fact they're receiving regular payment for their ongoing efforts.

                  In the two cases above, it's fair to argue the vendor is circumventing this site's "no commercial posts" rule by proxy. Would it matter if the forum member declared "I'm a paid reviewer" or "I'm compensated for my time spent answering EspressoBiz's product-related questions"?
                  Dan Kehn

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                  HB
                  Admin

                  Postby HB » May 01, 2019, 6:04 pm

                  ira wrote:Personally I think the forum has gotten popular enough it's beyond the point where you have a chance of controlling it.

                  You're right that the number of posts per day is pretty high by the site's historical standards, but given 10 moderators in multiple time zones, a well-designed reporting system thanks to phpBB, and handy moderator tools like the "thread cooldown", I'm unconvinced we're approaching the end of civilization. :lol:

                  I point at the closing of the original Decent thread as an example of that. For me that was about the most interesting thread on HB ever and it got closed. For me, that was a sad day on HB.

                  That was a complicated story. Those who are interested, see decent_espresso's first and second thread. I closed the thread after numerous complaints from members both publicly and privately about delayed delivery. Those types of repeated, customer-service related discussions are tiresome to moderate. At some point, I have to stop it out of respect for the moderators who volunteer to help run this site. I understand that will sometimes curtail discussions that have the potential to be enlightening.
                  Dan Kehn