The rapid growth of online drug vendors has transformed the way illegal narcotics are sold and marketed. How do dealers compete in a virtual world where violence and intimidation are no longer options? As with any other product, through customer service, promotional campaigns and pledges of social responsibility.
Indeed, ten months after the FBI shut down Silk Road (left)—the world's largest online illegal drug market—newly released figures reveal that business is again booming on the "dark net." In October 2013, there were 18,174 drugs listings across four main markets. An investigation of the dark net by BBC News revealed there are now 43,175 listings across 23 markets, where dealers use encryption to communicate with clients.
For today's tech-savvy drug dealer, the Internet offers immediate access to a growing consumer base. And, by eliminating the need for face-to-face, physical meetings, online anonymity means there is less risk of arrest by undercover police and reduced threats of violence at the hands of rival drug dealers.
These developments have led law enforcement officials to wonder, How do drug dealers increase their market share when beating your competitor to death is no longer a viable option?
According to James Martin, a senior lecturer in criminology at Macquarie University, the "dark net" is now embracing the same strategies as big name online retailers:
Customer feedback plays a crucial role in regulating online drug markets. As is the case with legitimate trading websites such as eBay or Amazon Market, all customers who purchase drugs via a cryptomarket are encouraged to leave feedback about the quality of goods received and the level of service provided by particular dealers.
The importance of maintaining a blemish-free reputation means that online dealers are often highly conscientious in cultivating positive relationships with their customers. Top-ranked dealers (those who have attracted the greatest levels of positive customer feedback) regularly communicate with their clients using rhetoric more familiar in the world of conventional corporate retailing.
Online drug vendors typically employ a range of corporate retailing techniques. This includes providing mission statements, "oaths to customers" and detailed "terms and conditions" advising international shipping times and purchasing procedures. In a further stark contrast to the conventional drug trade, many even offer full or partial refunds for drugs that are found to be sub-standard or are intercepted by customs.
They must also create innovative marketing strategies to attract new customers.
Commonly used methods are bulk purchasing discounts, loyalty programs and periodic promotional campaigns on holidays such as New Year's Eve and "International Pot Day". Other gimmicks include "two-for-one" specials, lottery giveaways and free drug samples.
Even more intriguing is the use of marketing strategies that mimic corporate social responsibility initiatives. These may take the form of financial sponsorship of organizations likely to be viewed favorably by online drug consumers. For example, one Australian drug vendor recently advertised their enterprise as a: "Proud financial supporter of WikiLeaks and Bluelight."
At the more extreme end of socially progressive marketing strategies used by online dealers are those that involve the promotion of drugs on the basis of supposedly "ethical", "fair trade", "organic" or "conflict-free" sources of supply:
"We are a team of libertarian cocaine dealers. We never buy coke from cartels! We never buy coke from police! We help farmers from Peru, Bolivia and some chemistry students in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. We do fair trade!"
Naturally, it is impossible to verify these claims. It seems unlikely that such descriptions are accurate given the myriad problems that exist certifying similar schemes in the conventional economy. However, the fact that online dealers are employing these strategies points to the creation of an increasingly gentrified online drug trade.
Although Martin doesn't celebrate the growing Internet market for narcotics, he argues that it does offer at least some wider benefits for society—by ending the cycle of "violence and exploitation associated with the conventional drug trade."