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March 02, 2009

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.

Sponsored_conversations_graphic_2

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.

  1. They must disclose that they are being paid.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Why sponsored conversation -- aka paid blog posts -- can make sense:

» Sponsored Conversations: Another IZEA Innovation from Sponsored Conversations: Another IZEA Innovation
The report, entitled "Add Sponsored Conversations to Your Toolbox: Why You Should Pay Bloggers to Talk About Your Brand" discussed pros and cons of sponsoring bloggers, and shared some key components of successful campaigns: 1) Disclosure, 2) Authent... [Read More]

Comments

Troy Janisch

These are my thoughts. Sponsored postings work in the same kinds of instances that printed advertorials or TV infomercials work. These marketing tools are very effective for some brands.

These tactics can drive sales effectively. However, many people 'suspend credibility' when viewing these formats. That seems like a high price when you're talking about social media. The risk is that a blog or brands credibility might be permenantly suspended by some viewers.

Tac Anderson

FYI, Your link "piece by my new colleague" doesn't seem to be working.

Ben McConnell

"Sponsored conversations" is another way of saying "We're so lazy, we have to pay people to talk about us."

rondostar

This strategy seems to be a win-win for everyone involved. What better way to get the word out than to spread it through the blogosphere. Everyone knows that the blogs are the search engines' favorite playgrounds. And what blogger doesn't want to make a little money (or food). :)

Josh Bernoff

@Ben Not every retailer can be Whole Foods, and not every electronics company can be Apple. That's not laziness, it's reality.

Valencio

I actually think that it is a great idea. Hiring people with credibility (like celebrities) has been a time tested marketing method, why not bring it over into the Web 2.0 realm.

Ben McConnell

Josh -- Guidelines for blogger disclosure are as trustworthy as Wall Street is to self-regulation!

Scott

@Ben - too bad Paul Harvey just passed away. He might have had a few things to say on this post. ;-)

andeas.wpv

Very good argumentation.
From a marketers perspective, wonderful tool, just watch you're... doing, because:

Condition number 2 is an illusion!

Writing negative comments is not in the interest of the marketer, and how is the marketer are going to justify this part of his budget? Write negative feedback and the blogger MUST be out, and the payment model (by post or time contract) does not matter either.

I think it is borderline and can be counted against the company under diverse circumstances. The disclosure is very important, I would add to use this only very selective on sensitivity of the product and the target group.

Andrew Wilson

I agree with the points Valencio and Scott made. This approach is really wishful thinking.

I hope that the internet retains a culture where if it is discovered that someone is not disclosing sponsorship or that a company is restricting the speech of a blogger that the community backlash is so severe that people and organizations won't entertain the idea of trying either.

st

This brings up another issue about authenticity: Do you think it goes against the true spirit of blogging for companies to have professional writers (employees or contractors) blog for their executives on a regular basis? More specifically, to blog for them on the company's own branded blog?

Perhaps we can assume, given tight executive schedules, that this is done already as blogging's "dirty little secret."

But do you think it is ethical without the disclosure you mention? Is this really different than the ghost writing that's been going on for years?

Josh Bernoff

@st A little off topic, but interesting enough that I'll address.

A CEO can get help, but if he or she doesn't have the time to write his own blog, then don't describe it as the CEO's blog.

Of course ghostwriting happens. But it will come back to bit people who find they have "said" things that didn't pay close enough attention to.

Daniel Goodall

Hiring celebrities is different to what is being proposed, I think.

The reason bloggers have become famous is because of the way they express their own, authentic opinions.

Paying will inevitably influence these opinions. You shouldn't be able to buy opinions.

ps I also think this won't even be an effective tactic, as people will tune out these messages.

club penguin

What better way to get the word out than to spread it through the blogosphere. Everyone knows that the blogs are the search engines' favorite playgrounds. And what blogger doesn't want to make a little money.

@fotoflo

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.

1. They must disclose that they are being paid.
2. They must be able to write whatever they want, positive or negative.

Only problem is that a blogger that's too genuine might get a reputation for not being a good place to advertise (aka. sponsor) - so blogger will be encouraged to kiss up to sponsors.

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