Customer Engagement

US: Forget marketing – just rent your customers

Every time we think that digital startups have disrupted the last industry they’re capable of disrupting, along comes another startup to disrupt an industry that no one has yet thought of disrupting. This time it’s public relations agencies in the crosshairs: A new startup claims to remove the friction from attracting buzz around your new store opening, special event, concert, or other situations in which attracting a crowd is necessary to success. The disruptive business model: rent customers to show up.

By Rick Ferguson

The Washington Post has the story of a young startup called Surkus that facilitates “crowdcasting” – sourcing, via a mobile app that allows would-be paid hipsters to create searchable profiles full of demographic and social media information, a crowd to line up outside your restaurant, attend your new store opening, or even serve as a bespoke audience for an up-and-coming band or comedian hoping to attract buzz. Paid Surkus members who show up must do more than just stand around – to rate highly enough to continue to be “cast” to attend new events, members must display the requisite enthusiasm in order to earn a high reputation score, and geolocation features in the mobile app assure that they stick around long enough to be noticed.

You may anticipate the ethical questions raised by hiring fake customers to create the illusion of success.

Money quote from the Post:

“Surkus raises new questions about the future of advertising and promotion. At a time when it has become commonplace for individuals to broadcast polished versions of their lives on social media, does Surkus give businesses a formidable tool to do the same, renting beautiful people and blending them with advertising in a way that makes reality nearly indiscernible? Or have marketers found a new tool that offers them a far more efficient way to link brands with potential customers, allowing individuals to turn themselves into living extensions of the share economy using a structured, mutually beneficial transaction? The answer depends on whom you ask.”

Not surprisingly, Surkus CEO Stephen George, a former Groupon executive, accentuates the positive, and positions his company as a disruptor to the fields of PR and promotion. Why pay an expensive PR agency to blast out messages hoping to attract a crowd, when you can reach the exact potential customers you want, and cut out the middleman by simply paying them to show up? The counterpoint comes, also unsurprisingly, from New York University PR studies professor, who says: “Okay, you have a bunch of pretty faces at a party, but what does that do? It’s not going to do anything if they just want to get paid to party and have no attachment to the brand itself.”

Surkus’s 150,000 or so members earn between $5 and $200 per event attended, with most events falling in the $40 range – no one should expect to become a full-time paid customer, but it’s a decent side-hustle with active members earning around $4,000 per year. It’s easy to be cynical about such a notion – we’re entering an age in which digital interactions make the very idea of “objective reality” a relatively quaint notion, and one could argue that paying for buzz renders untenable the joy of discovering something cool – a restaurant, a retail store, a new band – before the mainstream co-opts it. If you’re being paid to be a “hipster,” then the true hipster, the young who prides himself on setting trends rather than following them, will soon cease to exist, or at least to be noticed.

And then there’s the transparency issue, as this money quote from eConsultancy illustrates:

“According to The Washington Post, ‘During events, participants are asked to remain discreet about the origin of their invitations.’ In other words, those being paid to show up at a business through Surkus aren’t supposed to disclose that they’re being paid to show up. If the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires influencers to disclose when they’re being paid to post on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, why shouldn’t the same transparency be required here?”

On the other hand, if Surkus reaches critical mass, it will have built a substantial database of consumers containing details of their demographics, likes, and enthusiasm for brands. That database may be Surkus’s real end game – and that’s a much more familiar and successful game to marketers.

Rick Ferguson is Editor in Chief of the Wise Marketer Group.

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