Cheating the App Store: PR firm has interns post positive reviews for clients [UPDATED]

Next Story

For Twitter, Sharing Data With Google Would Be Suicide

When it comes to winning in the App Store, one PR firm has discovered a dynamite strategy: throw ethics out the window. Reverb Communications, a PR firm that represents dozens of game publishers and developers, has managed to find astounding success on Apple’s App Store for its clients. Among its various tactics? It hires a team of interns to trawl iTunes and other community forums posing as real users, and has them write positive reviews for their client’s applications. Yeah, that 5-star iTunes app review you saw for the once top-5 paid app Enigmo? It might not be written by a real user, but rather by Pangea Software’s PR firm. Reverb isn’t the first to try and game the user review process, but they are definitely one of the most blatant cases.

cro-magReverb Communications is an extremely successful PR firm that claims to have “first party” and “personal” relationships with Apple. Aside from representing Pangea Software, one of the more successful App developers for the iPhone (they made Enigmo, which was featured during the Apple WWDC Keynote 2008), they also represent Harmonix (the Guitar Hero and Rock Band guys), MTV Games, and a host of iPhone game developers. Additionally, they’ve managed to do an impressive job at courting the press: clients have had iPhone apps featured in just about every major media outlet known to man, including Forbes, MTV, G4TV, NBC (in fact, all the examples were for one developer: Publisher X, which Reverb happens to own). Reverb claims that their clients have sold over $2 Billion of product under their watch.

Update: Reverb Communications has just sent over a statement, which we have included at the base of this article.

Unfortunately, they don’t always follow the rules, and they have been stupid enough to tell that to prospective clients. One prospective client, hereby known as “Developer Y,” (no irony intended) recently let us on to Reverb’s lack of scruples. This tipster forwarded us a document from Reverb Communications (attached below) that described what services Reverb provides to its clients. For $0.75 per paid download of your app, you get a whole host of standard PR services, and then some … not so standard ones. Here’s a quote from the doc:

Reverb employs a small team of interns who are focused on managing online message boards, writing influential game reviews, and keeping a gauge on the online communities. Reverb uses the interns as a sounding board to understand the new mediums where consumers are learning about products, hearing about hot new games and listen to the thoughts of our targeted audience. Reverb will use these interns on Developer Y products to post game reviews (written by Reverb staff members) ensuring the majority of the reviews will have the key messaging and talking points developed by the Reverb PR/marketing team.

It gets worse. They call these “internal user reviews” and outline the process for creating them here:

Internal User Reviews Process:
o Internal “User Reviews”
o Pre-written by in house writers
o Positive reviews – not over the top – but endorsing the game as a good product
o Age ranges
+ 12 – 18
+ 19 – 25
+ 26 – 34
+ 35 – 45
+ 46+
* Written from the angle of each age group including key words that resonate with each audience
* Reviews begin to go live on day of launch on the iPhone storefront
o Release reviews starting at launch as stretch over 14 days from release

Yes, the “iPhone storefront” that Reverb Communications is referring to is the one you all know as the iTunes App Store. Our source assured us this document was real, but seeing as how it was our first time with the guy, we decided to double-check. We went to the App Store page for one of their client’s apps, specifically HydroTilt XL by Publisher X, and looked at the earliest app reviews for the title. Sure enough, the first five reviews for HydroTilt XL were glowing 5-star ratings. But, of course, we weren’t satisfied. The app now has over 908 ratings, and 348 of those ratings were 5-star. Clearly, it was a popular app and users really liked it. So, a few positive ratings doesn’t prove anything.

internFortunately, iTunes allows you to see other reviews posted by the same reviewer. So, we clicked on the reviewer “Vegas Bound” (iTunes link) and started to look at his reviews. He reviewed 7 applications, and gave each one of them 5 stars. Each review was short and sweet, and extremely positive. These reviews represented 6 different developers. A quick Google search revealed an infuriating truth: every single one of these developers was a client of one PR firm: Reverb Communications. The trail of bread crumbs slowly led us to a stark conclusion: the evidence undeniably confirmed the document that Developer Y had sent us. As we continued through each of the first 5 reviewers of HydroTilt XL, we noticed that the problem had plagued as many as 15 iPhone applications (and probably more).

Below is a table so you can see what we noticed. Each developer on this chart was represented by Reverb Communications for the title that was reviewed. The left-hand column is a reviewer and blank squares indicate apps that were not reviewed. None of the reviewers wrote reviews for non-Reverb clients. None of the reviewers gave an app less than 5 stars.
reverb-2

Yeah, that pretty much says it all. These guys are running amok in the App Store. Some of Reverb Communications’ clients (*ahem* Publisher X *ahem*) had reviewers who exclusively reviewed one client’s apps. That doesn’t necessarily imply foul play, of course, as users often buy multiple apps from the same developer. Furthermore, there were many 5-star reviews written by users who didn’t write any additional reviews, but that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water either. The real compelling proof of wrongdoing was that many of their client’s titles had multiple 5 star reviews written by reviewers who exclusively covered Reverb Communications games. I understand loyalty to a specific company. I understand being lazy and just writing one review, but loyalty to a PR firm is unheard of. Especially when the name of the PR firm isn’t anywhere near the iTunes store description.

It’s important to note that the reviews mentioned above are just a subset of the reviews that we believe Reverb has published on behalf of its clients. Due to space and time considerations, we did not want to belabor the point by adding more reviewers and reviews to the list.

Ultimately, this is fraud. Plain and simple. Reverb Communications is using anonymized reviews as a way to boost sales, while lying to iTunes users. The worst part is many of these games stand by themselves. They have dozens of positive reviews from users (which we are assuming are not employees of Reverb). The developers are culprits as well. We don’t have proof of whether they know about the wrongdoing – we do not know whether the document sent to Developer Y was the same as the one sent to all of Reverb Communications’ other clients. That doesn’t exonerate the developers who are clients of Reverb; some of them have been repeat customers (Pangea Software comes to mind) for almost a year. We find it hard to believe they weren’t privy to Reverb’s actions.

bubbleheadFurthermore, this story only dives into the iTunes fraud. Frankly, this was enough for us, and it was also the best place to catch Reverb in the act. However, the document sent to us by Developer Y indicates that they don’t just mislead folks on iTunes, they also use “online message boards” and other ways to communicate with potential customers. We also only talked about their iPhone app delinquence. To me, the actions on the iPhone app store, Reverb’s willingness to talk to prospective clients about these actions and the pervasiveness of the problem across all of Reverb’s iPhone app developers, mean only one thing: they are shady people. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they had similar ethics-be-damned practices in other parts of their PR approach. But we don’t know, and don’t care. The miscreant behavior on the App Store is enough that I know I won’t ever deal with someone from Reverb again.

Another interesting side-story here is about Reverb’s relationship with Apple. Now, we don’t expect Apple to have caught the bad behavior of one PR firm on the App Store’s reviews. That would just be ridiculous. But we were surprised to know that Reverb had worked with Apple so much. As such, I can’t imagine anybody will be more furious about this news than Apple itself. They’ve done TV commercials for these guys, for pete’s sake. We don’t know a whole lot about the relationship, however. All we know is that one client of Reverb’s told us that he was referred to Reverb Communications by an Apple employee. That employee, from what we know, was part of a team that manages Apple’s relationships with 3rd party developers. The referral was likely an innocent mistake: I doubt the employee knew of Reverb’s questionable ethics. But it just makes the story that much more interesting – this isn’t your mom and pop PR shop. Reverb has a staff of 15 professionals (presumably full-time employees) and 10 interns.

Needless to say, we’re interested in your thoughts. The comments section is below and I look forward to seeing what you think. Please keep your comments rated PG, if possible.

We asked Reverb for a statement, and this is what they have sent us. (My response is below it).

Hi Gagan –

I’m sure you are speaking with one of our former employees that has been contacting media outlets about Reverb. I’m not sure what “unethical practices” you are referring to so it would be hard for me to comment, but I am hoping that you will do the proper research to ensure that the facts you are reporting are accurate and nit written based on information provided by a disgruntled former employee who is violating his confidentiality agreement.

My office did mention that you had issues with our staff and interns writing reviews for some of our clients games, I’m sure you are aware that in order to write a review on iTunes an individual needs to purchase the game or app and can only write one review. Our interns and employees write their reviews based on their own game play experience, after having purchased the game by themselves, a practice not uncommon by anyone selling games or apps and hardly unethical.

I am in Europe until Tuesday, I’ll keep my eyes out for the story, once again I do hope you do some homework before posting erroneous or incorrect information about Reverb communications.

Doug Kennedy

No, we didn’t speak with a former employee, and no such former employee is mentioned in this story. I did in fact inform Reverb via phone (I spoke with their VP of Public Relations, Tracie Snitker) last night that the story was about writing reviews on behalf of clients. I don’t buy the argument that the interns and employees write reviews based on their own experiences: it’s a nice story, but at the end of the day, probably not true. Flipping through the reviews on iTunes and examining the text and messaging will give you a clear indication that it corroborates the story Developer Y told us. Furthermore, taking just one of many examples, the reviews for Publisher X’s HydroTilt XL came out within 2 days of the game’s release. I find it hard to believe that 5 positive reviews from Reverb (which owns Publisher X) were not planned or coordinated. Not to mention the fact that we’ve got a document from Reverb explicitly laying out their policy on this matter.

Here is the document provided to us by Developer Y. We’ve taken out irrelevant parts of the doc and replaced them with “…”

Reverb Communications Proposal:

Top-line: Reverb Communications team will develop a full public relations and marketing campaign for the launch of … [Developer Y's] iPhone products.

Public Relations Strategy:

Reverb will instill a public relations strategy that will focus on product reviews and “earned” media. Our programs will be designed uniquely and specifically for each title with the intention of driving industry and consumer awareness through press interviews, product reviews and previews, and out-of-the-box programs. Aspects on the PR program include:

o Traditional plan used to launch gaming software
o Messaging and Positioning
o Press Releases
o Media Outreach
o Preview Code (if applicable)
o Review Code (if applicable)
o Focus on Online and Print Publications
o Media Tours (if applicable)

Apple Marketing Support:

Reverb will work directly with Apple on each and every iPhone title. While Reverb cannot guarantee full marketing support for every iPhone game, we are confident with the proper PR and marketing presentation to Apple they will support each individual title.

Reverb has secured the following types of Apple marketing support for our iPhone clients including:

* On-stage appearance with Steve Jobs at WWDC
* National iPhone television commercials
* Apple retail programs, Apple direct e-mail pieces
* iTunes App placement on the App Store
* Placement on the “What Hot,” “Staff Favorite,” and “What’s New”
* Premier placement on the Apple iPhone store.

Intern Program:

Reverb employs a small team of interns who are focused on managing online message boards, writing influential game reviews, and keeping a gauge on the online communities. Reverb uses the interns as a sounding board to understand the new mediums where consumers are learning about products, hearing about hot new games and listen to the thoughts of our targeted audience. Reverb will use these interns on Developer Y products to post game reviews (written by Reverb staff members) ensuring the majority of the reviews will have the key messaging and talking points developed by the Reverb PR/marketing team.

Internal User Reviews Process:

o Internal “User Reviews”
o Pre-written by in house writers
o Positive reviews – not over the top – but endorsing the game as a good product
o Age ranges
+ 12 – 18
+ 19 – 25
+ 26 – 34
+ 35 – 45
+ 46+

* Written from the angle of each age group including key words that resonate with each audience
* Reviews begin to go live on day of launch on the iPhone storefront
o Release reviews starting at launch as stretch over 14 days from release

* Message boards
o Blogs
o Online Sites
o GameStats and GameRankings (if applicable)
* Ongoing public relations outreach will continue through the launch of the title with various key elements

o Final code being sent to review sites (if applicable)
o Inbound and outbound media inquiries being immediately addressed

* Press release writing, interviews and product articles – The iPhone storefront provides the unique aspect of allowing games to remain for sale, for and extended period of time, it will be important for Developer Y to maintain a sustainable public relations campaign supporting the title. Reverb Communications recommends a program which maintains continuous press coverage. Reverb has developed several proprietary video game media lists including, but not limited to, press list specifically for the iPhone. Reverb’s recommendation is to begin with the iPhone specific press but quickly take Developer Y titles to mainstream media.

Sample Media List

The media outlets below have been identified because they currently, or have previously covered, iPhone products. This list does not represent the entire list Reverb is recommending and is only intended as a sample list of media Reverb has worked with previously.
1up
4theGamers
AOL Games
Cheat Code Central
CHEATCODES.COM

Wireless Gaming Review and More!

Recommended Marketing Asset List:

* Trailers (prep days from release)

* Game One Sheet (ready to go 45 days from release)
o (5) Screen shots that showcase title

Online Marketing Opportunities
* Video Uploading
o Reverb interns will upload trailers to UGC sites (internal list of over 100 sites)
o If there is an exclusive release with a certain site, uploading will begin following exclusive
o Links to uploads kept in a spreadsheet for views tracking
o Tagging and keywords to be developed for each video
+ Words that describe the product
+ Words that our market commonly use
+ “Hot” words and current web searches
* Cross Links
o Digg, Facebook, MySpace any positive press relating to a title (when applicable)
+ Timing is immediate
* Web 2.0 Applications
o Twitter, Facebook, MySpace all content relating to title (when applicable)
+ Video uploads
+ Positive press
+ User reviews
* Social Networks
o Link content to places where consumers are social (when applicable)
+ Facebook, MySpace, StumbleUpon
+ Blogs
+ Podcasts

By working with Reverb Communications, Developer Y can be confident each of their iPhone titles will receive the proper press coverage each title deserves. Reverb will manage all aspects of media from aggressively seeking out product reviews and write-ups, scheduling interviews for Developer Y executives to fielding inbound media requests, Reverb will manage all aspects of consumer and corporate PR and Marketing allowing Developer Y to focus on upcoming projects.

UNIQUE ELEMENTS OF EACH GAME:

Reverb will develop a unique program for Developer Y App focusing on “earned media” or placed stories designed to garnish mainstream media attention.

APP STORE PLACEMENT EXAMPLES:

For iPhone games, we recommend that the launch of public relations be timed with the Apple marketing programs. When each game is submitted, we let it get posted/go live on the App Store, and then within a 2 week window the press release announcing the game goes out day-in date with the Apple marketing programs.

Included in the Program:

* Product positioning plan
* Management of Apple marketing programs
* Product messaging
* Press release writing
* Press release distribution through Reverb Games News (if requested, professional wire service costs are additional)
* Press outreach and follow-up (associated OOP costs not included)
* All Intern related programs
* Press coverage reports
* 1 Press associates assigned to the account
* 1 Team Marketing member to manager interns

</div

Update: Reverb Communications has issued a statement about this story, as follows in full:

Reverb Statement:

Reverb would like to clarify a few items regarding the MobileCrunch story about our agency that ran this weekend. The article “Cheating the App Store” is unfortunately full of emotion, logical holes and for the most part untrue. Here are the facts:

1. The writer forgot that Reverb Communications is not just a public relations agency, but is also a sales and marketing agency. Reverb’s marketing department has interns that do social viral marketing.

2. Our interns do not post reviews on iTunes. Our employees don’t post fake reviews. It’s common for Reverb team members to purchase the games and write a review in iTunes using their personal accounts AFTER they have played the game. In many cases Reverb has provided technical feedback and gameplay guidance to the app developer, long before these games hit the App Store, so we know these games extremely well. We also like these games or we wouldn’t take them on as clients. The entire list of iTunes accounts in your story are from staff members who have played the games.

3. 1 person=1 iTunes account=1 credit card. We do not have hundreds of accounts to “trawl” through iTunes – it’s simply untrue. We have 10 staff members who choose to post on the games when and if they have played the game. We have to buy and play the game in order to have an opinion.

4. This same writer contacted several of our app store developers wanting negative comments from them regarding Reverb. They all gave positive feedback, but the writer left this aspect out of the story.

blog comments powered by Disqus