How not to be a shill

The internet makes shilling very easy, and it’s a perfectly normal and even accepted marketing and PR technique. But if you do it stupidly, you end up looking stupid.

Being a “shill” means promoting someone or something while trying to present yourself as an impartial, unbiased consumer or observer. When a company that sells Widgety Dingbats creates a blog under a different name, reviews a handful of different products, and just happens to post up a review of Widgety Dingbats that is very positive… that blog is called a “shill”.  If you are a politician giving a speech in a small town, and you have a bussed in a bunch of your friends to stand scattered in with the rest of the crowd so that they can applaud and cheer wildly at the appropriate moments, then those people are shills.

It’s generally seen as a deceptive form of marketing or publicity, but everyone knows that it’s done. The biggest problem with using shills as a marketing or PR technique is that it is only effective as long as people don’t realize that the shills are shills. The moment your audience knows that the positive review (or applause in the audience) is paid for, the effectiveness of it disappears. (It can even backfire, if your audience feels manipulated and resents it.)


The internet makes it even easier for shilling to happen. You don’t need a big budget or a huge group of followers to have shills. You can create multiple twitter accounts, and periodically tweet from them about how completely awesome Brand XYZ is.  Of course, if you are stupid about it, and (for example) the only thing you tweet is compliments about Brand XYZ, then people will quickly learn to ignore you. People will know the account is a shill account. So in order for shilling to be effective, you have to be at least a little bit smart.

Some of the tips for being a good shill are obvious. For example, if you are promoting (for example) Video Editing software, you might open up a website call “Reviews of Top Video Editing Software”. To do this well, you have to review several brands other than the one you are trying to promote, and you have to give praise to brands other than the one you are promoting. If you only say good things about one of the brand that the website is “reviewing”, people will instinctively know it’s a shill site. So you have to spread the love.

But there is one mistake that I see online shills make again and again. These are usually shills for relatively unknown people or brands or products. They get a little bit over-eager about their own product, and so they want to naturally lump their own product in with the most famous thing out there. This is the biggest way that shills end up looking stupid.

Let’s say you want to promote a particular model who you consider to be a “rising star” but who has barely started his career and is basically unknown.  What you absolutely do not, do not, DO NOT do is put him on a page called “Hottest Male Celebrities of the Year” and put him right next to Justin Bieber and Channing Tatum.

I mean, I understand the temptation. I can actually imagine what is going on in the mind of the publicist who does this:  People will be searching heavily on Google for “Justin Bieber”, “Channing Tatum” and “Hot Celebrities”, so if I get my guy on a page with all of those things, then lots of people will see the page, and lots of people will see the model I’m promoting, and they will say “Who is that guy!” and want to read more about him!

The problem is that for most people, they will also have a secondary reaction to that website. No matter how hot or up-and-coming the guy you are promoting is, people will instinctively think: “Why the hell is this unknown guy listed with all of these famous people?”  That will lead them to question: “Who the heck created this list, anyway?” You are outed as a shill.

Hilary Clinton and Rand PaulA similar thing happened in politics recently. A CNN writer pushed out the headline: “Rand Paul vs. Hilary Clinton, Clash of the Titans!”

Now, I don’t mind if this guy is a fan of Rand Paul. Doing even just a small amount of research on the author of the piece reveals that he is strongly conservative and Republican. But if he thinks he is doing Rand Paul any favors by sitting him on the same level as Hilary Clinton, he is dead wrong.

Even the conservatives whom I know (and I know plenty) understand instinctively that it makes no sense to view 2-year Junior Senator Rand Paul as being some kind of “equal and opposite” force on parity with 8-year Senator, 8-year First Lady, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

An effective pro-Rand Paul title could have been “Political Titan Hilary Clinton brought down by promising new Senator Rand Paul!”  People could argue about whether that claim is true, of course, but it at least accurately represents the relative positions of each of the players.

But “Clash of the Titans”? Oh, please.

You might as well put up a BlogSpot article declaring that the two best albums of the year were by Justin Bieber and Joe Schmoe from Iowa. It’s face-value ridiculous, and it doesn’t help poor Joe Schmoe at all (no matter how good his album was).


The key to being a good shill is that you have to have a convincing appearance of being unbiased, even if ultimately your goal is to promote one particular person, brand or product. If you are representing a small-time, up-and-coming brand, then feel free to “aim high” but don’t start writing reviews that act as though you are already in the Big Leagues. It only makes you–and the person or brand you are promoting–look ridiculous.