App developers sometime think of themselves as entrepreneurs, or artisans, or innovators, but I doubt many of them realize that to the vendor community, they are increasingly viewed as influencers.
The recent controversy surrounding an attempt by Samsung's PR firm to enlist developers to promote an Android programming competition on the Stack Overflow forum in exchange for cash is just the beginning. Trust me, these influencer programs, as they are known, are all the rage within the burgeoning field known as content marketing. I know, because when I'm not editing FierceDeveloper I do consulting work in content marketing and have even been a participant in influencer programs where it made sense. These are distinct from developer programs, which are more about creating an ecosystem of activity around a platform or toolset. (In this case, the influencer program was probably designed to support a contest that was part of a developer program, but I digress).
The rules around such initiatives are ill-defined. There's no real policing or accountability for how influencers operate, and the entire premise of such programs is that they operate near-invisibly. Yet there are ways to go about this in a more above-board way.
Samsung's PR firm approached a few developers and asked them to pose questions and offer answers on Stack Overflow about the company's Smart App Challenge (which I assume was getting slow uptake). The developer who leaked the story said the PR firm would offer the answers to forum questions with various URLs. Is this bribery? Not really, because in its most literal sense bribery usually involves criminal activity. This was just under-handed, and unnecessarily so.
All Samsung's PR firm had to do was encourage developers to be upfront with any posts in Stack Overflow about why it was making mention of the contest and note that they were being compensated. It might have gotten them kicked out of the forum (I'm not versed in the rules of Stack Overflow) but it would have been clear that this was an influencer program and that Samsung's PR firm was leveraging the reputation of experienced developers to connect with their peers on something relevant to them.
Much like "native advertising," sponsored content and other means to get messages out more subtly than in the past, influencer programs need to be clear about patronage, rules of engagement and their real intentions. It's in their best interests, because even the whiff of subterfuge makes the target audience as turned off as they would be if they saw the backstage machinations of a reality TV show.
Developers in particular will increasingly become prime candidates for influencer programs because they live primarily online, are difficult to reach via phone or physical mail and represent a major source of talent and potential revenue. Samsung's PR firm is by no means the first to make a stumble in this area, and I can guarantee it won't be the last within the app community.
There's not much you can do about companies that behave this poorly except expose them and move on, but you can make strategic choices about how you might consider getting involved in such programs. In some cases, if it's connected to a technology, platform or movement you support, an influencer program provides a vehicle to contribute to worthwhile discussions. In other cases, developers will need to evaluate their reputation, their social media following and their membership in various online gathering places and decide whether the cost is too great. In either case, begin thinking about the ethical boundaries that make sense now. You will inevitably be invited to cross them. -Shane