Can social marketing be gamed? Loot wants to find out

Product placement has been around a long time, so it’s no surprise it found its way onto new social applications like Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, and Twitter. Brands pay social influencers, people on these apps with a lot of followers, to do subtle and not-so-subtle marketing.

Now, a new company called Loot is trying to harness the less influential social sharers, the plebeian masses, for similar advertising campaigns. Loot is billing itself as a “Mechanical Turk for social shares.” It pays normal people 50 cents to a dollar to post things on their social networks that double as native ads.

For example, a company like Friskies could pay for a campaign where people share pictures of their pets dressed up, along with a specific hashtag. Turbo Tax could pay for people to take pictures of what they’re going to buy with their tax returns. Gatorade could pay people to take a picture working out with their favorite Gatorade flavor.

“Could” is the operative word here. This notion hasn’t been put to the test with a real, paid brand partnership yet (Loot has done case studies with Redbox and Mark Cuban’s Cyber Dust messaging app). The app launched a few months ago and has 60,000 people signed up to do social tasks.

The post ideas Loot proposes, like dressing up your pet, are all feasible things you could see on social media so they don’t overtly feel like an ad. But will people really be willing to put their public persona on the line as a shill for companies? That seems like a fast way to get a bunch of people to unfollow you.

“There’s a group of people willing to do that,” Loot’s CEO Nick Haase insisted to me. “Others might only cater to the brands they truly care about.”

The other question is whether social shares from plebeians would actually provide a worthwhile return for companies. Paying 5,000 people with only a few hundred friends apiece isn’t quite as potent as ponying up to a star, with both cultural influence and thousands or millions of followers.

That hasn’t stopped companies like Starbucks from telling customers to post pictures of their first “Red Cup” drink during the holiday season for the chance of winning a gift card. Brands are recommended to engage with their customers in social media through this way. Can Loot become a middle man that automates the process?

Haase admitted there’s a graveyard of companies who have tried variations on this before and failed. There’s Ibotta (which gave people discounts on products for social acts like watching a video or tweeting) and social ranking company Klout (which sent “perks” like movie tickets and beauty products to influencers who post about brands). But Haase thinks that Loot has enough of a differentiator with its fun, highly specific activities and its simple, digital money reward format.

In an era when teens are spending more time on places like Vine and Snapchat than in front of a TV set, there may be value in harnessing the masses for your advertising campaign.