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.