Should retailers rent fans to create buzz for their businesses?

Photo: Surkus
Sep 07, 2017

Rick Ferguson

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from The Wise Marketer, a website and newsletter serving the global loyalty industry.

A startup, Surkus, claims to remove the friction from attracting buzz around a new store opening, special event, concert or other situation in which drawing crowd is necessary to success. The disruptive model: rent customers to show up.

Via a mobile app, Surkus facilitates “crowdcasting.” Tapping members’ profiles of demographic and social media information, an advanced algorithm finds the “perfect curated crowd” to draw buzz to any event.

“Surkus enables and empowers its clients to target their ideal potential customers and delivering measurable results,” said Stephen George, CEO of Surkus and a former Groupon executive, in a statement announcing a recent round of funding. “This is done by the Surkus platform matching members profiles with events they’ll love to attend and then simply incentivize them to engage. Our goal is to create an unforgettable experience for everyone involved, every time and everywhere.”

Paid Surkus members who show up must do more than just stand around. To rate highly enough to continue to be “cast” to attend new events, members must display the requisite enthusiasm in order to earn a high reputation score, and geolocation features in the mobile app assure that they stick around long enough to be noticed. Members earn between $5 and $200 per event attended, with most events falling in the $40 range.

In two years, Surkus has grown to 150,000 members and sourced over 4,000 crowds to events, venues, castings and businesses across the country.

Some see crowdcasting as similar to how scores of influencers are earning money by branding themselves on social media. But ethical questions and transparency concerns are raised with the hiring of fake fans as well as ultimately the effectiveness of driving buzz through paid hipsters.

Kerry O’Grady, a New York University PR studies professor, told The Washington Post, “Okay, you have a bunch of pretty faces at a party, but what does that do? It’s not going to do anything if they just want to get paid to party and have no attachment to the brand itself.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of Surkus and its paid crowdcasting model? Is crowdcasting be an acceptable tactic for building buzz or does it go too far?

"Is it acceptable? Sure. Is it ethical? You decide."
"Does the staffing/attendance platform have any way to screen for authenticity? I’m betting no. "
"Paying people to attend events has been acceptable for years. Surkus has refined the process and made it easier..."

Join the Discussion!

15 Comments on "Should retailers rent fans to create buzz for their businesses?"

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Max Goldberg

Paying people to attend events has been acceptable for years. Surkus has refined the process and made it easier by harnessing the power of the Internet. Great effort goes into organizing an event or store opening. Why leave attendance to chance?

Art Suriano

Crowdcasting is just another way of creating hype which is something marketers and promoters always try to do for an event. However, when it’s not genuine, it doesn’t work well because the hype is short-lived. The immediate attraction is there drawing in customers because of the energy and excitement taking place but once the paid folks leave, if there isn’t enough benefit for the “real” customers to come back and share with friends it will soon fall on deaf ears.

So if a business is going to invest in crowdcasting, they must make sure they have strong reasons for the customers that do come in to enjoy the experience and eagerly come back on their own. As with all advertising; you can bring people in, but once they’re there, if you can’t “wow” them they won’t come back.

Neil Saunders

I guess if this is just advertising to folks who are genuinely interested in the concept or event then there is nothing wrong with it. However, the danger is that people turn up simply because they are paid to turn up. That’s little better than buying retweets on Twitter or likes on Facebook. It looks good on the surface, but it does nothing to create a sustainable business or lasting success.

Winning in retail is the product of hard work and deep customer understanding — not of buying fake crowds or followers.

Mark Ryski

Ultimately, truly successful brands build loyalty through authenticity — paid crowdcasting is the antithesis of authenticity. While there may be a market for such superficiality (e.g. booze and entertainment), I doubt serious brands would take this seriously.

Ralph Jacobson

“Fake audiences” have been used for years in TV and other media. This is now taking the “free extras” model and monetizing it for the participants in an organized fashion. Is it acceptable? Sure. Is it ethical? You decide.

Phil Chang
Phil Chang
Retail Influencer, Speaker and Consultant
8 months 16 days ago

Having a filler crowd has been done for years. Having said that, we’re in the era where finding real fans and getting them to attend your event is easier than ever. The ability to build a viral event is not easy, but the effort is well worth the result.

The pressure to generate authentic experiences is really high. Consumers are not going to settle for a generated experience when they have a lot of options to go to authentic events and meet other (real) fans.

This seems like something you save for award ceremonies and things where the number of attendees matters more than authentic experiences.

Anne Howe

Does the staffing/attendance platform have any way to screen for authenticity? I’m betting no. That means the crowd is just faces and offers little value to either the retail brand or the shoppers it wants to align with for its ultimate success.

Ian Percy

There is a real danger in declaring this phoniness and deceit as “acceptable” because we’ve gotten use to laugh tracks on TV and the largest inauguration crowds since the beginning of life. Closer to home, I’ve lost count of how many fellow speakers and authors have written “best sellers.” Just so much BS. The whole world seems to be one facade don’t you think? Calling it “marketing” does not atonement make.

Mohamed Amer

I’ve been accused of making lengthy posts. This will not be one of them.

First of all, I always admire anyone that brings new ideas to the business landscape — and I think Surkus will gain traction in unexpected ways.

However, what Surkus delivers here is glitter with a dose of fake excitement. In an age where authenticity and transparency are sought-after qualities for companies, paying fans to create buzz is extremely short-sighted and ill-advised. This service may require a “black box warning” label; it can become addicting and you quickly begin to lose the ability to differentiate real from fake.

Michael La Kier

While this is similar to paying influencers to endorse a product, the real issue is that overly incentivizing people to participate in any activity is not a sustainable model. What retail business can really afford to pay customers (at least) $5 to show up on an ongoing basis? Retail must find quality customers to survive.

Mel Kleiman

You may create the buzz but if you don’t deliver you just wasted money.

Naomi K. Shapiro

It’s not nice (or ethical?) to create fake or dishonest news or publicity, and it seems that crowdcasting should be included in this category.

Ricardo Belmar

While a service like Surkus may help create buzz around an opening or other special event, it’s short lived at best and only temporary as it’s not authentic. Many of your desired customers are going to see through that and not come back. While this may give the impression of immediate success, as a brand you still have to deliver on whatever value you’re bringing to your customer if you expect a repeat visit and/or lifetime customer.

Craig Sundstrom

Despite the tone of the WM article — which seems to be loaded with so many “in quotes” buzzwords that I wonder if it wasn’t written by AI — I’m not sure how new this is. Certainly political rallies, movie premiers and other PR sensitive events have used such tactics for years, so presumably the value, if any, lies in the data base more than the concept.

And what value is there? I’m inclined to agree with Ms. O’Grady … show me some proof.

Bob Phibbs

Sorry, this goes beyond the “everyone’s doing it so what’s wrong with it?” In a world we hear over and over is supposed to only resonate with Millennials, I find this disingenuous. Would you hire a call girl escort to attend a business function? If appearance is all you want — this is the trick. However, at a time we see training and labor budgets are being slashed, how do you possibly reconcile this fake news labor generator?

"Is it acceptable? Sure. Is it ethical? You decide."
"Does the staffing/attendance platform have any way to screen for authenticity? I’m betting no. "
"Paying people to attend events has been acceptable for years. Surkus has refined the process and made it easier..."

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