How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is a classic book. First published in 1937 for individuals, over half a century later, brands now find themselves seeking friends and influence too.

But if U.S. airline Virgin America's latest attempt to woo influencers on Twitter is any indication, a book isn't needed. What is? Free product.

Following a broader social media marketing trend I've written about before, Virgin America is giving away free tickets to influential Twitter users to celebrate the launch of the airline's presence in Toronto. Influencers will also receive free in-flight WiFi, and an invitation to its Toronto launch party.

How is Virgin determining who is an influencer? It has teamed up with a startup called Klout, which "identifies influencers on topics across the social web" by looking at a variety of metrics it gathers from users who associate their Twitter accounts with Klout.

According to Virgin and Klout, this is a no-strings-attached offer:

If you accept the offer you are not required to do anything. We do not want to "buy" your tweets. You are receiving the product because you are influential and have authority on topics related to the product. This is a more targeted form of receiving a sample while shopping at the grocery store. You are welcome to tell the world you love the product, you hate the product or say nothing at all.

The problem, of course, is obvious: even though Virgin says that it isn't requiring 'influencers' to write about the company and their experiences, and won't stop them from saying negative things, one would expect that participants who do speak up will by in large say far more positive things than negative things. After all, how many of the recipients will really look a gift horse in the mouth? Even those theoretically willing to will find a set of shiny teeth. That's because participants are invited to a "star-studded inaugural party" and Virgin is generally going out of its way to make sure recipients get the royal treatment. In doing so, Virgin is practically guaranteeing that the recipients who do post will hardly be reflecting the typical Virgin customer experience.

In my opinion, Virgin's initiative is the perfect example of a brand making a common branding mistake: paying the consumer to like you. By giving up free flights and making supposedly influential Twitterers feel like VIPs, Virgin clearly hopes that it can win some free 'viral' promotion. Certainly, Virgin will attract attention (case in point: this post), but it remains to be seen just what Virgin will really accomplish.

The big problem with paying people to like you online is that doing so minimizes the sought-after influence factor. After all, if everyone knows a particular person was basically given free product with the not-so-subtle expectation that he or she would probably say nice things, any related recommendations made to friends and followers aren't likely to carry the same weight as recommendations made by real paying customers. Sustainable, meaningful word-of-mouth is driven by products and services that are fantastic for most customers. Creating a special experience for influencers alone is unlikely to do the trick.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about initiatives like Virgin's are that they work against the sort of consumer empowerment that many believe social media has provided. Social media has brought us the mantra of 'the consumer is in control', yet companies like Virgin are showing that to be a half-truth at best. The reality is that a little free product, pampering and patronizing can go an awful long way. And thanks to social media, it has never been easier for brands to buy a large number of consumer voices.

The irony, of course, is that as more and more companies buy them, more and more consumers will learn to ignore those voices just as they have learned to ignore traditional paid advertising.

Photo credit: GlennFleishman via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 June, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2641 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (11)

Save or Cancel


How many consumers are going to know that this wooing took place and the recommendations may have been influenced? Very few I'd guess. Marketers can live in a bubble presuming that everyone else is looking in and keeps up to date with these kind of activities, they don't. Good move by Virgin I say.

about 8 years ago



I just wrote an article about this article on my blog and I'm ecstatic that I'm not the only one that thinks that Virgin America dropped the ball a little bit on this campaign. My angle is that they they are targeting to broad a group of consumers and not just the vertical of frequent flyers which are key to a sustaining a company.  By focusing on just the social media influencers (which are not synonymous to frequent flyers) it seems like they might be just spinning their wheels in the mud for this one.

about 8 years ago


Omar Alam

This is a risk that these opinions are basically or bribed, though I would be surprised to see non-balanced reviews from those 'influencers'. If the reviewed come back making Virgin look like the best thing since sliced bread, then I think people in general will see through it and begin to trash Virgin at will.

Still, I would have selected a different sample that was based on more than a particular attribute of influencers who are registered/applying Klout. Concerns such as cherry-picking your sample is valid, which could make these reviews worthless if public opinion thinks so.

Virigin is a good company, created by an amazing person, and they are doing some good things in the social media space. Bringing in Gary Vaynerchuk to select the wines on board is an interesting move.

But any kind of review of any new product or service likely has a short life span, so if if these influencers pump this thing up to the sky, it still has to be accepted by people for it mean anything.

about 8 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

I really do think you have gone off down a blind alley here Patricio. There is nothing that magical about social media it works in the same way as any other channel.

Therefore the idea of providing incentives to influencers is no different to taking a plane load of journalists to an event (and in the process looking after them). Some people will know that journalists are treated in this way, but that doesn't stop them reading the journalists column. Clearly if the event is a failure then no amount of free champagne will save the day. 

This is a totally different line of marketing to leveraging average consumer feedback and I think you have blurred the line between reading content from influencers and reading other consumers feedback and comments. 

I'm with Joe and Matt on this and think Virgin have got it absolutely right. 

about 8 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


There is nothing that magical about social media it works in the same way as any other channel.

I think that sums up just about everything wrong with marketing today: the idea that every channel is the same channel.

Social media's power and potential is driven by the fact that it was originally a medium consumers 'controlled'. You didn't have to think twice about whether a recommendation or praise was authentic or the work of a paid shill (aka 'influencer'). Brands had to do something right to be rewarded with something money can't buy: genuine word-of-mouth. It will be increasingly difficult to generate that sort of genuine word-of-mouth when every Tom, Dick and Harry is receiving kickbacks for their tweets.

As Virgin and other brands turn to social media as a source of cheap earned media, they will find that they do to social media what they've done to other channels: make it increasingly irrelevant. There's a reason that so many consumers ignore 'advertising' and distrust what they read in the traditional media: they know advertising often exaggerates to such an extreme that it is meaningless, and they know that in many cases, the traditional media is nothing but a mouthpiece for commercial interests.

You are absolutely right: social media isn't magical. But arguing that it should be treated like any other channel only makes sense if you conveniently ignore the irony that marketers are interested in social media precisely because it's harder and harder to reach consumers effectively in other channels. Why is that? One big reason is that they have 'maxed them out' and diminished their ability to deliver returns. Doing something over and over and expecting results is the epitomy of foolishness, and brands who think they can simply buy returns through social media will achieve the same unspectacular results they've fleeing from in other channels.

about 8 years ago



I'm going to have to disagree with our view on this Patrico.

I'm one of the Toronto people that received this promotion. While I'm very happy and grateful for receiving a free plane ticket, I'm not really going to let it affect my opinion. I tweet about my real opinions on things. That may be one of the reasons they selected me. If I have a bad experience on the flight, I'l say that. I have pride in being myself and staying true to myself, not just falling for a company because they gave me something for free. If that happened I would fall in love with every food company who's product I sampled while walking down the isle at Costco.

To that, I also see no difference in how this is any different than that technique companies have been using for years; giving people a sample in hopes that they like it and tell others. The key there is "hope" and the only difference is that this sample promotion is taking place online where reach of opinions can travel further.

On top of all this, both companies, Virgin and Klout, are receiving press about it. Even you wrote about it. Any press is good press, right? Especially I don't see how most people who didn't recieve the sample are going to say, "Oh, that company gave something away for free? They must not be a good comany."

Anyways, this is just my opinion on the whole matter.


Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

about 8 years ago


Eric Weaver

Hi, Patricio, Sorry, I disagree. This is a common engagement tactic that can work fantastically in a brand's favor. It can also backfire, and most agencies advocating blogger engagement get that that is a risk. When done correctly (and VA has given every impression that they get social media), it's a huge earned media and trust generator. The real issue, in my mind, is the end product: Virgin America has one of the best flying experiences on the planet. On every VA flight I've been on, the majority of passengers seem to come away with a very positive experience. VA also has a strong social following, and has demonstrated no signs of inauthenticity - so it's unlikely people will start questioning their intent, particularly if all the "incented" comments are allowed to stand. - eric weaver @weave

about 8 years ago

Bryan Dibben

Bryan Dibben, Relaxing at the beach

I think Virgin have this one right.

I am not sure I agree with the original analysis that Virgin are paying the consumer to like them. To me at least Virgin are giving some incentives to 'influential' (as well as free thinking) individuals in the hope they will raise awareness of their new service. This is no different to a launch party to raise awareness of a particular service or product. In this case it's primarily an awareness tactic.

Is it a risky tactic? Ummm maybe. However not in this case.

Virgin can do this because of the strength of their brand, and as Joe stated it "shows immense confidence by Virgin in their service". I hesitate to say this but Virgin know other people like them and therefore have confidence in what others might say.

Could this tactic work for all companies? No.  It is probably fair to say that this tactic would be a bit risky for some other guitar breaking airlines.

What is the ROI of this tactic?

It remains to be seen. I am guessing it would achieve quite a high ROI. in terms of awareness of Virgin's new service.

In sum, Virgin have this one right..


Bryan. UK

about 8 years ago


Aleksandra S

Hey Patricio, Pains me to say this but I also disagree with you. As mentioned a number of times, this free promotion is like any - giving you free product in hopes you like it. If it were that easy to win loyalty I would be a sucker to every promo I get while entering the subway each day, every sample I taste at the grocery store, and every free music download I get from some band's website. Maybe some people can be bought - sure it happens. But the bulk of us aren't sheep and can't be swayed that easily. :) And to be fair, the old PR saying is "Any press is good press" and perhaps this is the case here. Sure people are emailing/tweeting Klout upset that they weren't selected as an influencer and wondering why so-and-so got a ticket but they didn't (etc) but at the end of the day Virgin and Klout have partnered up and their brand awareness has easily doubled in the last few days alone. That's a step in the right direction - be known. Now they need to be known for SOMETHING (ideally something positive). I get what you're saying but I can't agree with you on this one. Can't wait to hear what others think! Aleksandra P.S. And before you ask, no I wasn't lucky enough to get a ticket from Klout...even though my score is damned good ;) HA!

about 8 years ago



The ROI is already starting to trickle in (and my TO-SF flight is in August): I convinced my friend to pay for a ticket on the same flight. And this happened within 12 hours of me receiving the flight. I'm hoping to convert more people to Virgin as well as fly with them myself. I've yet to experience the full range of Virgin America services, as my flight is on July 31. Whereas skeptics may think that my interest was "bought", I think I was given the opportunity to try a service in which VA is confident (as was mentioned above) and spread the word. I appreciate the gesture and will personally reward them with an honest opinion.

about 8 years ago


Andrew Marshall, SEM Manager at s1

I agree with the majority here that Virgin are right on the money with this campaign. They are using social media like a traditional PR/marketing campaign as they have spotted that 1) they will get good coverage of their new route via re tweeting etc and 2) people might be more influenced by what bloggers have to say as they don't have a boss/corporation telling editing their words. Bloggers are still much more independent that newspaper journalists.

about 8 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.