An Android developer claims a Korean PR agency representing Samsung offered him $500 to mention the company's upcoming developer competition on the community Stack Overflow. In a blog post, Delyan Kratunov details a back-and-forth between himself and marketer John Yoon, the CCO for viral marketing company Fllu. First contact was apparently made by Yoon through a comment inviting Kratunov to email him on the developer's blog:
"I was wondering if you would be interested in doing a small partnership to promote the upcoming Samsung Smart App Challenge. We need guys that know about Android Apps on Stack Overflow. So if you are interested please email me."
"The questions should be casual and organic..."
Intrigued, Kratunov emailed Yoon asking for more details. Yoon responded claiming Fllu is managing "getting the word out about SSAC (Samsung Smart App Challenge) for Stack Overflow." He then details that, for a $500 payment, Kratunov would need to ask a series of four "casual and organic" questions about Samsung's upcoming app challenge over the period of a month, in addition to responding to other questions that the company highlights. Examples of acceptable questions provided include: "Anyone know anything about SSAC?" and "Need some feedback on the app I am about to enter for the Samsung Smart App Challenge." It's worth noting that Yoon specifically says he does not want Kratunov to spam the community, but this is clearly a case of astroturfing — the practice of masking paid content under the guise of internet comments, blog posts, tweets, and other "grassroots" communications.
James Yoo, Director of Operations for Fllu, categorically denies that Samsung is a client of the firm, and claims Kratunov's allegations are incorrect. "The accusations that Stack Overflow users were bought are false," Yoo tells us. There's a small problem, though: Yoo is, at the very least, being frugal with the truth.
We spoke again with Kratunov, who provided a further email from Yoo that attempts to bury and dismiss the initial offer. It notes that "our request to promote [Samsung via Stack Overflow] is a breach against their Terms of Service and could result in your account being terminated. We do not condone such actions that contradict the respective forum policies and would like to redact any correspondences made." After analyzing the email headers from our communication with Yoo and comparing them with Kratunov's, we've verified they originate from the same address. So it appears Fllu did represent itself as a firm acting on behalf of Samsung, and also offered money for faux-natural content, although that offer was retracted after Kratunov made it public.
"These guys need to understand this will not be tolerated."
Samsung isn't the only company indirectly engaging in astroturfing through "viral marketing" firms, but it's unusual for a company to be caught red-handed. This is the second such case in a matter of months — back in April, Samsung Taiwan confessed that an external PR firm paid people to post anonymous comments bad-mouthing its smartphone rival HTC. We reached out to Samsung to clarify the company's relationship with Fllu, but have yet to receive a response. For his part, Kratunov says he's "not doing this for the two minutes of fame," but rather to send Samsung a message about astroturfing. "These guys need to understand this will not be tolerated.
Update: Both Samsung and Fllu have responded to our request for comment. Samsung condemned Fllu's actions, claiming it was unaware, while Fllu accepted it acted unethically, and admitted that its statements regarding its relationship with Samsung "may have been misleading."