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What is Shill Marketing?

Jeff Petersen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Someone who works for a business but pretends not to in order to seem like a reliable source is a shill. Shill marketing is the act of using a shill to try and convince the public that a product is worth buying. Sometimes illegal, this practice is usually considered dishonest. If customers find out that they have been targeted with shill marketing, they often feel cheated.

The concept of shill marketing is simple. People tend to feel more comfortable with a product or service if they know someone else who has a good experience with it. If someone who isn't associated with the company tells you how good it is, the claim will probably be more convincing than if it came from the company spokesman.

A shill marketing worker is actually employed by the company, but pretends not to be. The marketer acts like a regular customer and tries to encourage people to buy the product. Oftentimes, multiple shills work together, reinforcing each other's story and engaging in a conversation about how great the product is.

The Internet has become an ideal venue for shill marketing. Since the Internet is anonymous, shilling is much easier. One person can pretend to be several different customers in the same shill marketing setup. Chat rooms, message boards, and blogs are common stages for an Internet shilling campaign.

Employees engaged in a shill marketing setup register one or more accounts on an Internet service, a message board for example. Usually one of the shill marketers will ask an innocent sounding question. "I was interested in buying product X. Has anyone heard anything about it?" This is the classic setup.

Another user, possibly the same person using a different account login, will answer the first question by praising the product. "Oh yeah, I started using product X a month ago and I love it. I use it all the time. It's the best product in the whole world!"

Shill marketers sometimes try to bring other members of the message board into the discussion, but the hook is already set. Anyone who isn't familiar with the shill setup might believe that the endorsement is real, and not just a cheap trick. Obviously, not all product endorsements are shill marketing in disguise. If the setup seems too perfect, and the answer is quick and only offers rave reviews, it's possible that you're not seeing an actual testimonial, but shilling in action.

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Jeff Petersen
By Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist based in Berkeley, California. He earned his B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Creighton University and loves putting his skills to work creating captivating content for SmartCapitalMind. Jeff's articles cover a broad range of subjects, keeping readers informed and entertained with his insightful writing style.
Discussion Comments
By chivebasil — On Sep 17, 2011

I once observed a very weird and unexpected example of shill marketing. I was in Las Vegas with my family and we went to see a magic show by a very famous performer (I will avoid mentioning his name, he is really not at fault in this).

At the end of the show my eyes happened to be wandering around the crowd and I noticed a person come out of the wings and perch at the side of a row of seats. After the magician performed his last trick, this guy jumped up and started applauding furiously. The people around him saw this guy and figured that a standing applause was taking place and joined in. Before long the whole theater was on their feet.

Clearly this guy was a plant to try and fire up the crowd at the end of the show. No matter how good or bad a show is, if everyone is applauding at the end it makes you feel like you've just seen something great. It was sneaky but clever. I bet they send that guy out into the crowd at the end of every show.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Sep 17, 2011

In addition to the internet, shill marketing is pretty rampant on radio and television. It is a pretty safe bet that any time you hear someone advocating for a product and it says that they are an "actual customer" they are in fact an actor reading from a script.

The problem is that this kind of marketing is so easy and so persuasive. You give someone who looks like your target market a few bucks to say that they loved your product and all of a sudden you have a ringing endorsement from someone who looks just like the customers you are trying to attract.

I wish that there were an easier way for consumers to cut through all the tricks but I think that the best you can do is just to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism whenever you hear someone endorse a product. Advertisers will do anything to gain an edge and you have to take all of their claims with a grain of salt.

By backdraft — On Sep 16, 2011

I think there is a fine line between being a shill and being a genuine advocate for a product. What if you like a product but have never felt compelled to mention it to someone? Then you are offered an opportunity, a forum to give feedback or an incentive for offering your thoughts. You might seem like a shill when in fact you are a satisfied customer that has just been encouraged to publicly state your opinions. I feel like a few times I have played the role of the shill without even meaning to.

By Nepal2016 — On Sep 16, 2011

Shills have been around for a very long time. The "snake oil salesmen" you see in movies about the 1800s, who sold worthless patent medicines, would often have a friend in the crowd asking loaded questions to attract attention.

Con artists running crooked card games will plant a shill who will "win" several hands to entice the gullible into playing their "easy" game.

It only makes sense this kind of thing moved to the Internet. People are generally trusting, and a certain type of person will always try to profit off that trust.

Personally, I don't mind it so much in an online forum, since anyone should know to check things out for themselves before they spend any money. I like learning about new products, even if I never buy them.

By horsebite — On Sep 15, 2011

My business does this, and it works wonders. If you make a product targeted to a small, loyal audience, it can be hard to "find" those people with traditional types of advertising.

Just making a commercial or taking out an ad in the newspaper, if you could even afford that kind of thing, would expose your product to a whole ton of people who have no idea what it is and no interest in it. Huge waste of money. You have to find your community.

It takes finesse to pull this off. I have been caught once, and it was an embarrassment because I am known in that community and I have to protect my customer base. That said, the small hit I took from being discovered does not come close to the sales I have gotten by exposing people to my product using this method, and it's free!

I would never count on shill marketing as my total plan for marketing and branding, but done right it can be very valuable.

By bigjim — On Sep 14, 2011

I belong to a message board where this kind of thing happens a lot. The board has a really big audience, and they forbid advertising or product plugs unless one becomes a "site sponsor", which is expensive.

The temptation to try and get a product mentioned there must be pretty great. It is a large community centered around a particular product, and the members often have large collections related to the hobby. It's a marketer's dream, 100% of the readers are interested in the product and they spend money.

Recently, a sloppy attempt to do this was "outed" on the site, and the message thread that was originally started as a cool story about a hunting trip turned into a thirty-page flame war as people berated the original poster and others jumped to his defense.

Done artfully, shill marketing can get you a ton of cheap exposure for your product. But a clumsy attempt can bring ridicule and even destroy a potential niche market.

Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist based in Berkeley, California. He earned his B.A....
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