Target Corp. is learning the hard way that life in the blogosphere can put you right in the bullseye.
The Minneapolis-based discount retailer is being outed in online blogs and discussed in college ethics classes after students allied with the company were told to "keep it like a secret" while singing the company's praises on the social network site Facebook.com.
"Keep it a secret? That sounds unethical," said Rosie Siman, 21, a senior at the University of Georgia and a member of the Target Rounders. The group of mostly college students gets discounts, CDs and other prizes for marketing Target products to their friends and providing the company with feedback.
"You're essentially asking people to lie for you," Siman said. "People will be seeing all these posts saying, 'Target's awesome' and they don't realize they're coming from people who essentially are being paid to promote Target."
The hubbub began in early October after Siman received a Rounders newsletter as Target was launching a new Facebook page. Like many companies now setting up sites on Facebook and MySpace, Target hoped to get people talking about new products, get feedback and continue to find ways to promote its hip image.
"Your Mission: Try not to let on in the Facebook group that you are a Rounder," the newsletter read.
"We love your enthusiasm for the Rounders, and I know it can be hard not to want to sing it from the mountaintops [and in the shower, and on the bus]. However, we want to get other members of the Facebook group excited about Target, too! And we don't want the Rounders program to steal the show from the real star here: Target and Target's rockin' Facebook group. So keep it like a secret!"
Siman didn't keep her own concerns a secret, however. She posted them on Facebook.com. And the damage control -- which she said included deleting or archiving her posts -- began.
Representatives from the New York company that runs the Rounders program and Target's Facebook site, drillTEAM, called Siman within 10 minutes to apologize for the miscommunication.
An e-mail from a company employee, identifying herself only as Laura, told Siman that her concerns "were completely founded" and that the newsletter urging Rounder members to stay anonymous "was not endorsed by Target."
The Target Facebook page was reworded to remove any mention of keeping secrets.
"Clearly it was a mistake from this vendor, and that's why they did the follow-up," said Target spokeswoman Amy vonWalter. Target's intent, VonWalter said, was not to ask Rounder members to hide their affiliation, but to discourage them from dominating the Facebook site and making it feel like an exclusive, members-only club.
Matt Wishnow, president of drillTEAM, declined to comment on what happened and did not provide an explanation for why Siman's postings were removed from the website.
"Target is not interested in feeding guest feedback or public opinion," Von Walter said. "Negative feedback is as valuable as positive."
Target is not the only company taking an active role in what's called social marketing -- or to get burned by it.
The term, coined in the 1970s, refers to selling ideas, attitudes and behaviors. And it is increasingly being used online to try to reach younger consumers who use Facebook, MySpace, and text messaging to talk to each other. Companies form ambassador programs and affiliation circles, as they're known, to reach student groups, sororities and fraternities, and sports teams.
Marketers see it as a rich opportunity to generate buzz, get feedback and identify trends.
Wal-Mart encourages its employees to post reviews of products as well, with a policy to have them clearly identify themselves as such.
Sony has been railed for its clumsy attempts to set up online pages purporting to be teenage boys who wax eloquently about the latest gaming system. The real kids see through it, and go off and blog about how lame the company is to think of them as so gullible.
Bob Brin, director of creative and interactive services at Padilla Speer Beardsley in Minneapolis said that when he gives talks to marketers or signs up a new client, he always warns them of the "good and bad" of social marketing. He said the No. 1 ethical component is being up front with people about who you are.
"We usually tell people that the conversation about you will go on with or without you," he said. "If you choose to control your blog or keep things gated, it'll come out one way or another. People will blog about your unwillingness to honestly take part in the conversation."
Target's VonWalter didn't have many details about the Rounders, whose website is registered in Target's name. She said the company launched its own Facebook page within the past three to six months.
A posting about Rounders on Facebook.com says there have about 1,800 members. Some tell of accumulating enough points to get $100 worth of discounts or a free ticket to the Coldplay concert in Atlanta.
For the record, Siman does think Target is awesome. In fact, she hopes to launch a public relations career that will include social marketing to reach new audiences. But she's adamant about transparency.
She wrote a research paper on the ethics of social marketing tools in a public relations class at the University of Georgia. When her teacher, Kaye Sweetser, heard Siman's story, she posted it on her blog.
And as happens, one blogger told another. And so on, and so on.
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335