Black Hat Marketing – How To Spot It

black hat marketing - The partial face of man wearing a black cowboy hat and dark glasses

Black hat marketing, as the name, reminiscent of the baddies in old cowboy films suggests, is the dishonest, dark side of internet marketing.  I recently fell foul of it and I feel like an idiot. Maybe though, this tale can help you avoid a similar boo boo.  

A month or so ago I wrote about my impulse, late night purchase of a drone. I described it is a fantastic example of referral marketing even though that wasn’t the intention of the video that inspired me to buy it. You can read that story here – How to do great referral marketing. Here is how it led to the dark side however….

First of all a quick frame up. I have never owned or flown a drone or even a radio controlled aeroplane. As a video maker I’ve been knocked out by the some of the drone footage I’ve seen.  Acquiring one has been in the back of my mind for a while. I bought a hand held gimbal for my iPhone made by one of the top drone manufacturers in the world and it’s great. Their drones are high end devices however with price tags to match. My reasoning then was to start with something cheaper to earn my wings on. Something that wouldn’t break the bank if I ran it into a tree – or more likely the sea. 

These Black Hat Marketing Guys Are Good

That is when I fell into the black hat marketing world – and trust me – these guys are good. As I always do when i’m looking to buy something online, I started researching. Normally I start with Amazon as I find the reviews useful. I know there is an element of black hat marketing here too in that some of those reviews are fake or paid. It’s a numbers game though and I usually glean enough info to make an informed decision. 

This time though, as I know nothing about drones I asked Google to find the best budget drones for me. The majority of results were reviews that pointed to or included in their top 5 a product called a Tactic Air Drone or sometimes Tactic Drone X. Most of the posts I read had a direct buy link  where you could get the drone for half price – £70 instead of £140.

Normally this would have set alarm bells ringing in my head but like I say, these guys are good. Black hat marketing when it is done well is very convincing. They know the right buttons to push, the ideal price to pitch at and are able to keep themselves just on the right side of being illegal. Anyway, the features, reviews, specifications and yes, price were enough for me to reach for the debit card. 

Things looked Ok. I got an order confirmation and invoice number. I also got an email warning me that delivery could take some time. Aside from the now usual Covid related delay warning it was obvious that the drone was coming from China not the US as the marketing materials suggested. No big deal – DJI and other top manufacturers are also in China. I was in no hurry.

Half Truths, Games And Lies

Black hat marketing. Picture of Tactic Air drone. The adverting used for this product contains many false and exaggerated claims

I got several more emails from Hyperstech reassuring me that the drone was on its way. At 4 weeks and counting I contacted them and again was reassured and sent a tracking link. All this told me was that the drone had left China and was on a plane. At this point I did what I should have (and normally would have) done in the first place: I started looking for reviews of the drone and its manufacturer. The results were not good. 

Both it seemed had been around for some time and had a reputation for poor customer service, non deliver and more sinister tactics. I emailed them for more specific delivery info. They did reply to me again assuring me that the product was on its way. Oddly enough it arrived the next day. 

When I opened the outside packaging I found a nicely decorated but bashed box which rattled. However that contained quite a nice zippable case in artificial carbon fibre (plastic) Opening that I found the rattle to be the zip tag itself and the included spare propellers. Drone and remote control were in foam compartments. It all looked pretty good. Like I say, these black hat marketing guys are good….

So to the nitty gritty. If you are interested in deep detail on this particular drone there are a number of very good Youtube videos on the subject. I’ll just give you the basics since we are really talking about the marketing of it. 

Flying By The Seat Of The Pants

  1. It is advertised as having a 4K front camera and a 1080p (Full HD) bottom camera which can operate simultaneously. Videos used in the advertising are fabulous quality, smooth and utterly convincing. What you actually get is a 720p camera in front and a 480p camera on the bottom. If you complain about this you are told that the the 4k/1080p is a $49 upgrade. This is mentioned nowhere in the advertising. The video you can get from these drones is practically unusable. 

2.  The ads and sponsored reviews state that this drone is stabilised. It isn’t. The cameras in drones are usually stabilised by a gimbal – a gyroscopic steady cam like the one in my DJI smartphone gimbal. Drones themselves are normally stabilised by GPS. These have neither. 

3. Range, battery duration and flying capabilities are greatly exaggerated. It operates either on a remote control or via a smartphone app and wifi. Both are very difficult to use and have limited ranges.  It’s potentially very dangerous. 

4. There are a number of features such as “follow me”, gesture control and route plotting on the app which simply don’t work on the drone. 

Some of this could be construed as grey hat marketing where things are implied rather than actually stated. Some is definitely black hat marketing though. There are outright lies in the marketing material. It also appears that this company has a great many websites all of which differ slightly. They contain fake or overly positive reviews (these also appear on Youtube videos) This helps to game the system for SEO and also to keep one step ahead of compliance. Both are black hat marketing strategies. 

It Could Have Been Worse

End of the day this thing flies and takes phot’s and videos. It does neither very well – certainly nowhere near as well as implied and stated. After firing it up in the garden and taking a few crappy videos as it flew into the bushes I went back online and discovered most of what I’ve shared above.   

I also shared it with Hyperstech when I asked for a refund. Their ever helpful “Frank” came back to me saying If I send the unused drone back to China they will happily refund me (although this would take some time) I replied that this would defeat the purpose: I’d still be out of pocket as It cost a small fortune in postage. I also mentioned that I had used the drone which is how I knew it was crap. I suggested they partially refund me – 25%. Frank came back with  15%. Predictably we settled on 20%.

End of the day its not all bad. I get to practice flying the damn thing which will be good for the DJI drone that I will buy. Also, I get to warn others about this product and company in particular and about black hat marketing in general. And – if you are thinking of dipping a toe into the world of drones – don’t buy this one!

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