Why sponsored conversation -- aka paid blog posts -- can make sense
by Josh Bernoff
I'm ready to weigh in one a very controversial topic: is it ethical and appropriate to pay bloggers to post about your products?
A couple of months ago an uproar arose because, by working with a company called Izea, Kmart had paid some prominent bloggers including Chris Brogan to post about their stores in the run-up to the holidays. It wasn't just them; Panasonic also paid some bloggers to make videos at the January consumer electronics show.
Some thinkers including David Churbuck savaged the idea. But here at Forrester we've been thinking about it, and we're ready to tell marketers to go ahead -- if they obey some very clear rules about the right way to do it.
In a piece by my new colleague Sean Corcoran, we call this practice "sponsored conversation." (Full report available to Forrester clients; others will see an abstract.) When you look at sponsored conversation in context, you can see it fits into a nice spot in the groundswell between PR and advertising. In PR, you try to get a blogger to talk about you, but your chances of success are hit or miss. In advertising, you can be sure to get a placement, but it's not in the blogger's voice. Sponsored conversation -- paying a blogger to write about your product -- fits in the middle -- it guarantees a post, and it's in the blogger's voice.
The challenge, of course, is can bloggers do this and retain any credibility?
We believe they can, if -- and only if -- they obey two rules.
- They must disclose that they are being paid.
- They must be able to write whatever they want, positive or negative.
These are requirements, since any blogger or marketer who violates them will not be credible. But for marketers to succeed, we have two other suggestions:
- Pick blogs that match your products. This is why it makes sense for Ford to work with Jessica Smith, a mommy blogger, to talk about its new minivan.
- Build a relationship with these bloggers, so you can extend this connection.
The conversation up to this point in the blogosphere has ranged from rational to polemical (words like sluts and whores are being slung about) but you know, bloggers gotta eat, and marketers gotta market. The forces leading to this spot were inevitable. The highest value in the groundswell was supposed to be authenticity, and acknowledging who paid you and then telling the truth is sufficiently authentic, in my opinion. If you are a blogger in the journalistic mode, it's fine for you to take the pledge and not take this money. But there are lots of ways to blog, and many of them will allows for this type of paid but authentic posting. Bloggers who do this too much, or sound too much like company shills, will lose their credibility, but there is room to accept payment and retain your soul.