Last week, the National Australia Bank “spammed” the comments sections of private blogs in an attempt to secure free promotion for the launch of its new SMS banking service. NAB is standing behind this decision.

Last Thursday, an anonymous message was posted to the comments section of an article about the recent controversies surrounding Sam Newman on the AFL Player Spectator blog. The blog’s stated mission is “to balance the undue adulation of AFL players through scrutiny of their negative off-field behaviour” and previous comments on the article had responded seriously to the issues raised by Newman’s on-air conduct.

But this message was out of context and irrelevant, promoting an event at Melbourne’s Federation Square and a ticket give-away:

Hi guys, NAB is giving away free tickets to the Collingwood v Carlton game on Saturday afternoon @ the MCG. Hop on down to Fed Square tomorrow… this is all to launch the new NAB SMS Banking! Thank you

This type of spam – automatically generated anonymous comments on blogs – “bedevils blog publishers worldwide,” the blog’s owner “Greg” told Crikey. Despite the anonymity of the comment, Greg – an experienced online business analyst and systems engineer who clearly knows his way around the web – was able to track down the source

“A couple of minutes before the spam was placed on my blog, someone from www.bwm.com.au did a Google search for the term ‘AFL blogs’ and hit my page,” he said. The domain www.bwm.com.au is that of advertising group Belgiovane Williams Mackay.

NAB media relations spokesperson Felicity Glennie-Holmes confirmed that the message was indeed from the bank. The idea to spam the comments sections of private blogs was a recommendation of PR agency Cox+Inall, part of the BWM group, and had been undertaken by Cox+Inall with the bank’s full knowledge and approval.

Cox+Inall had searched for blogs that included AFL coverage and were “well-enough read to attract readers who might be interested in our offer,” said Ms Glennie-Holmes. No-one at NAB or at Cox+Inall had considered approaching blog owners first for permission before posting their promotional messages, she said.

“Blogs are a public forum”, said Ms Glennie-Holmes. NAB and Cox+Inall felt this meant commercial interests could feel free to contribute unsolicited and irrelevant commercial material as comments, placing the onus on blog moderators to reject or delete unwanted comments.

“We identified five or six blogs where we felt we’d give it a try,” explained Ms Glennie-Holmes. “We chose blogs where we thought the moderators would review and decide whether or not to carry our message…it was up to the blogger to decide whether they would leave the comment there or delete it.”

The fact that the message posted to the blogs was “very openly promotional” and not deceptive also justified the bank’s conduct, Ms Glennie-Holmes said.

Despite this openly promotional objective and targeting blogs based on their readership and web traffic, NAB – which reported a net profit of $4.6 billion last year – at no time considered remunerating bloggers, who typically blog in their own spare time and without sponsorship.

On its website, under the heading “Key points to help protect yourself online”, NAB advises its customers to “Delete spam emails and do not open email attachments from strangers. Consider using a SPAM filter.”

However, Ms Glennie-Holmes said she didn’t see anything contradictory in the bank stressing online safety and security and warning customers about spam when it was itself adopting a communications strategy based on spamming private blogs.

So will NAB be spamming blogs in future? While Ms Glennie-Holmes was pleased to report that they had given out more than 350 showbags at the Federation Square breakfast, she admitted that NAB has no way of knowing if any of those who showed up did so because of the blog messages. The event had been promoted on radio and was open to all comers. And, no, confirmed Ms Glennie-Holmes, “we didn’t ask people where they found out about it”.

As a blogger, Greg’s view on the bank’s conduct was blunt. NAB had associated its valuable brand, he wrote, with a dubious marketing tactic “normally restricted to pushing p-rn, pills and mail-order brides”.

Dr Stephen Downes lectures in the postgraduate advertising program in the School of Applied Communication at RMIT University and is principal of market research and brand strategy firm QBrand Consulting Pty Ltd.

Peter Fray

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