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When Street Teams Go Rogue

Aside Posted on Updated on

street team generic logo“A street team is a term used in marketing to describe a group of people who ‘hit the streets’ promoting an event or a product. ‘Street Teams’ are promotional tools that have been adopted industry-wide as a standard line item in marketing budgets by entertainment companies, record labels, the tech industry, corporate brand marketers, new media companies and direct marketers worldwide.” (Source: Wikipedia)  The concept has been used in non-traditional or guerrilla marketing to reach new consumers, for many years.

Many authors, especially new and/or independent authors, believe they “need” to have Street Teams in order to remain competitive.  Street Teams are fantastic when they are carefully organized and administered.  The author should select a trusted person experienced in managing online groups of volunteers to lead or supervise the Street Team.  The members may not be paid staff, but they are working on behalf of the author,   There should be clearly delineated expectations, tasks and goals, and each member should sign an agreement with a confidentiality clause, standards of behavior and causes for termination.

Yes, it does sound like a modified employment contract, because Street Teams have been “hired” to promote authors.   While most people on Street Teams behave ethically and professionally, there are a few bad apples who have turned a good idea into nightmare scenarios for some authors.    Sadly, the bad apples feel a need to bully others, on behalf of the author.  Ultimately, the author is left with the negative publicity and the bad apples move on, unscathed.

As someone who managed volunteers, for a living, I understood the thin line between asking for help, directing volunteers’ energy and harnessing this energy to accomplish the agency’s goals.   All while honoring the volunteers’ spirit of service, time commitments and expertise.   Timely firing of ineffective or disruptive volunteers was a necessary part of equation.  Street Teams should be no different.

no bullyingLast week, Joanna Wylde’s following Facebook post struck a chord with me.   As a member of many Street Teams, I have unfortunately, run across the people she described in her post.  In fact, I left a few Street Teams that became competitive, uncomfortable, and began harassing bloggers and/or reviewers that rated the authors’ book anything less than four or five-stars on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Goodreads.  I am not proud of the fact, that when the author asked, I “disliked” another person’s reviews or left snarky comments (which I deleted when I left the Street Team).  It was not my place to judge another person’s book review.

Ms. Wylde noted that Street Teams are merely one way to promote an author’s work, but not the only one.  Below are her eloquent words.  (Here is the link to her original post.)

On National Public Radio, there is a series called “This I Believe,” where people share things that are important to them as individuals and members of society. Today I want to share what’s important to me.

I believe it’s wrong to throw poo at people.

Unfortunately, that statement isn’t a joke. Recently I’ve been trying to live by the motto “Not my circus, not my monkeys” because the indie world is full of drama, and engaging in drama doesn’t help me hit my daily word count. This morning I woke up to discover so much monkey shit flying that I need an umbrella. I have to say something for the sake of my conscience, because I feel sick.

I learned today that yet another blogger has given up after significant harassment from “readers” supporting an author. She shut down her blog because she can’t take the abuse any longer, and she’s created a new identity to hide from the bullies.

How fucked up is that?

People start blogs because they love to read and feel passionate about sharing that love. They work their butts off because they believe in our writing community, and they’re being rewarded like this? It would be easy to dismiss this as one situation where a blogger was being overly sensitive if I hadn’t seen so much of it myself in the past months. I’ve been a target at times, and I’m here to tell you it sucks ass and I want it to stop.

The people flinging poo are called street teams, and they are a form of organized marketing support for a specific writer. Most writers direct their street teams personally. The goal of a street team is to promote an author’s work and the street team model has been held up as a viable and effective strategy for authors by many experts.

I disagree.

Street teams started out as a reasonable strategy for authors, but so many of these teams have degraded into organized gangs of bullies–creating an atmosphere of fear and hostility detrimental to our entire community–that I think it’s time to stop using them (as authors) or joining them (as readers).

I think it’s time even if you have the best of intentions and don’t mean harm to anyone.

Why? Because they are part and parcel of a publishing world where copying another author’s work has become routine and blatant, and authors gleefully celebrate successes built on lies. Incrementally, the boundaries of decency are eroding and street teams are ground zero for this erosion. Their tactics are horrible, including fake positive reviews for the author they’re championing and fake negative ones for those the team sees as competition for their chosen pet.

It’s gotten to the point where you can’t trust reviews unless you know the reviewer–how does this ultimately help ANY of us as authors? We’re undermining the very system that’s allowed authors to break free and reach readers directly. It’s cannibalism. None of us can sell books if the readers can’t trust what’s said about our work.

It doesn’t stop with reviews or spam, either. Sometimes street teams send hate-filled messages, and have gone so far as to make false accusations and tell lies about their targets. To the best of my knowledge, no street team has physically assaulted a blogger or reader to try and force them to buy a book, but they’ve done almost everything else.

So what does it take to become a target of these teams? Bloggers are attacked for failing to review a book, for giving a negative review, or for choosing not to participate in promotion for the author running the team. For authors, the “crimes” leading to such attacks include a shared release date, a shared subgenre or just speaking out publicly about what’s really happening behind the scenes. I fully expect a fresh attack after I hit publish on this essay.

Bring it on.

For me, silence has become complicity. I’m drawing my line right here, right now–I’m not willing to be an accomplice for one minute longer. If this was happening at my child’s school I wouldn’t stand by, and I’m not going to stand by professionally, either. This is my community and it’s worth fighting for.

That’s important, so I’m going to repeat it. Our community of readers, writers and bloggers is worth fighting for. We need each other.

I’m begging you – if you’re an author, QUESTION what you’ve been told about marketing. Do you really NEED a street team? Ultimately, if your success is built on the corpses of bloggers and other writers, you are destroying the people you need to help you in the long run. An organized gang of bullies is NOT good marketing and it’s no way to live. Can you guarantee that nobody on your team will ever bully someone? How would you even know if they did? Of course, that’s assuming that the authors are innocent, which isn’t always the case… That’s why readers have to be part of the solution, too. As a group, we have to say NO MORE.

It’s wrong to throw poo at people.

Hurting other people to make a quick buck is ALWAYS WRONG.

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint, and nobody finishes a marathon if they have to carry a hundred pounds of shit on their back the whole way.

Let’s drop the shit and start running together, because we aren’t monkeys.


About the Author:

Joanna Wylde is a freelance writer living in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She started writing fiction in 2002, then took a long hiatus to explore other writing opportunities. Ms. Wylde returned to fiction in January 2013 with Reaper’s Property, the first book in the Reapers Motorcycle Club series.  She may be reached on her website, Facebook and Twitter.  Please support her by purchasing, reading and writing reviews for her books.


Online bullying of reviewers is also being discussed on Dear Author today. Visit them and join the conversation.