Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to post

The subject of pay-for-post blogging has created a lot of heated discussion in the blogosphere. It was especially heated a few months ago when Kmart worked with pay-for-post vendor IZEA to give several prominent bloggers free shopping sprees in exchange for sponsored posts about their stores. Today we published a document titled “Add Sponsored Conversations To Your Toolbox” in which we advise marketers to pay bloggers to post under very specific conditions, a practice we call “sponsored conversation.” The two most important conditions that marketers must follow when using sponsored conversation are 1) sponsorship transparency and 2) blogger authenticity. Sponsorship transparency means that both the marketer and the blogger must make it absolutely clear to the reader community that they are reading paid content – think of Google Adwords “Sponsored Links.” Blogger authenticity means that the blogger should have complete freedom to write in their own voice – even if the content they write about the brand is negative.

This practice makes the most sense for marketers with low awareness and/or little buzz but do have confidence in their brand. A company like Apple doesn’t need to do this as there is plenty of awareness and buzz. Yet consider a brand that sells products like batteries or mufflers – products that may not get a lot of discussion on blogs but may be quality products. For these low buzz brands sponsored conversation is another way to increase discussion about your products. Take the Kmart example, according to Vitrue, a company that tracks buzz through a metric call SMI (social media index); Kmart’s buzz increased 59% in December alone – a key time for a retailer battling giants like Wal-Mart and Target. And according to IZEA, through December 5th the Kmart campaign had generated more than 2,000 related comments across the six participating blogs, more than 2,500 contest entries via tweets, and collective reach across the blogs, Twitter etc. to approximately 500,000 people (see more at MediaPost).

While backlash against these types of programs can certainly affect marketers (especially when done wrong like “Wal-Marting across America” with its lack of authenticity), it can have a much bigger impact on the blogger. It is the blogger who has built the relationship with his or her community and it will be the blogger’s credibility on the line. Sponsored conversation then becomes a question of self-identity for blogs. It makes sense for bloggers who rate or discuss products but makes zero sense for bloggers that consider themselves journalists. Yet many bloggers want to get paid for their time and this practice isn’t really that new, it just needs to be done the right way. As long as the conditions of transparency and authenticity are met then sponsored conversation can be a powerful tool for marketers, right alongside their advertising and public relations efforts.

Sponsored Conversations

Comments

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Hi SeanI think you miss a really important distinction between the different results you get as a result of a creative and well planned and executed blogger outreach campaign versus a pay-per-post campaign.Although you might choose to classify both as "buzz", the first can generate genuine and emotive Word of Mouth, while the second just generates advertorials.People see straight through content ‘influencers’ (or anyone else for that matter) have been paid to create, and are cynical even of editorial copy. On the other hand, various studies show is that genuine Word of Mouth is very persuasive (and perhaps counterintuitively, especially if it isn’t 100% positive).It would be good to know if you took this into account in your document.

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Hi Robin,I think you're right that blogger outreach with genuine word of mouth is more impactful than sponsored conversation. Yet a lot of the sponsored posts I saw while researching this doc were very genuine (mostly positive, but some negative) and while they were transparent sponsorships doesn't mean the reader community didn't find them influential. Plus if you're a brand with a product that's not so interesting then it's not always that easy to get bloggers to talk about you and sponsored conversation can certainly be more influential than typical advertising.Thanks,Sean

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Hey Sean - thanks for responding.I take your points on board, but no one said it was easy to get bloggers to talk about you - that's why brands need companies like We Are Social to creatively activate that conversation...;)

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Hi Sean,At BuzzParadise we have a profound international experience with blogger relations.I agree with Robin when he says that a PR post will be much more powerful, however, I also think that some companies might need paid posts.From my point of view, both solutions can be good depending on the customer’s goals, especially when you want to push a video for example or when the blogger cannot test the product/service.Paid posts can also be well managed and honestly done - what is truly important for me is that the blogger is always free to say what he/she wants, and that disclosure is compulsory .Paid posts can allow the company to be sure of the number of post and also get controlled statistics which is more objective in these tough times.And don’t forget that in the end, the blogger will be the one to decide :)

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

The irony is that many leaders/marketers think that blogging is a chore that they must lead or direct. The opposite is true, though. Customers or prospects don't want to hear from leaders/marketers - they want to hear from the front-line. They want to know how your company is going to impact their work and success - and the only people prepared and doing that on a daily basis are the employees.If you're going to employ ghost bloggers, then utilize them in a capacity to tell the CUSTOMER's story - testimonials and successes! Have the ghost blogger interview and write up how your company has impacted the customer. This way, it's not the voice of the ghost blogger, it's the voice of the company.

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Sean,I am disappointed that Forrester would condone paid posts as a legitimate marketing model. Bloggers lose out as they erode their *authenticity* and brands lose consumers' *trust* -- two important aspects that make this type of program a failure.Paying someone to blog about a product is a disturbing low point in human ethics, because it manipulates a system to artificially elevate a topic where it does not belong, inside human opinions. It is damaging because the readers cannot judge where the message is coming from, or whether it is true or false.Sean, let's imagine Gartner gives you a $500 gift card if only you say in your next upper management meeting, "Hey guys, speaking of our research, have you seen what Gartner is doing lately?" You might be free to voice your own opinion, and say with transparency that the mention was paid, but you are still inserting a brand into a conversation where it has no bearing. People in the meeting would wonder if your opinion were real. Your authenticity would be eroded and Gartner would look a bit the fool. Do this enough and no one will listen to you in meetings.And that's the real point. These gimmicks will eventually erode the value of bloggers' individual voices and the brands they shill.I'm certain this trend will continue, crest, and then fade as the pollution among real social media conversations creates the inevitable backlash. See telemarketing and email spam for two recent examples of other networks where overly aggressive intrusions failed due to consumer discontent.As for the bloggers who consider it: If you don't see the ethical problem of selling your own opinion, then perhaps you don't place much value on your own voice. Keep it up, and your readers will agree.

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Hi Sean,Since I work for IZEA, I am thrilled that there is thoughtful, insightful conversation being generated about paid posting (or sponsored posting, or sponsored conversations, or *insert favorite buzzword here*) and that the industry is starting to realize the efficacy and practicality of these programs.Sure, some still shout from the rooftops that it is "unethical", but I think that this does a great disservice to the good bloggers who put thought into the content that they provide and their readers who should be allowed to make up their own minds whether or not to trust their opinions.People endorse products and companies for many reasons, sometimes because they are paid to do so and sometimes because they just want to get the word out. Advertisements are in airports, newspapers, television programs, radio shows, and even on the side of buses. In short, they are anywhere that people can see them.I honestly don't see why it's such a travesty to see bloggers write sponsored content on their blogs. I would much rather see a few paid posts on a blog with interesting, articulate content than an abundance of ad units and flash widgets advertising online pharmaceuticals, which, while completely "ethical" and "acceptable," are also annoying and intrusive.And now we get to the part, where the naysayers will argue, "Yes, Carri, but these are ads and therefore are EXPECTED to shill for a product." To which I reply, again, give the bloggers and their audience a little credit. As long as a sponsored post is transparent, everyone should know where everyone stands.In addition, it's ridiculous to assume that all opinions for which compensation has been or may be obtained are invalid. If that were the case, the opinions that Robin expressed above should be suspect because her goal is promoting her business where she and her company are PAID to "advise" brands. (No offense, Robin, I'm sure you're great at what you do :)Of course, just like any other system or program, there should be standards which is where transparency and disclosure come in and there are always going to be be people who will cheat and Spam.However, it is counterproductive to wish 'sponsored conversations' away because they are already here and they've been here too long already to be considered a gimmick or a stunt.So, that's my two cents. Take it for what it's worth since the salary I receive is compensating me as I write it. :)All the Best,Carri BrightCommunications LeadIZEA Customer Love

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

@Carri,You write an excellent and provoking response. Yes, since most people work, and support their organizations, perhaps all thoughts can be thought paid. And yes, I agree much of intrusive advertising is ugly (and I do work in that industry).I still believe paid posts go beyond advertising to trying to buy into the "opinion" of a person, which is the ethical line I drew. Perhaps this is OK. If so, I suggested another model in a recent BusinessWeek column -- paying for offline opinions as well. (Google "A Modest Blogging Proposal" to find it.) Think of the power if we could monetize everyday chat -- $50 gift cards if you drop brand names into conversations with your spouse, children, or coworkers. And if they repeat your brand observation, they could be entered into a sweepstakes for their own gift card!"Kids, behave, and I'll get you an Apple iPhone.""Boss, I really think we should benchmark Kmart's customer service!""Honey, you look beautiful. Let me take your photo with this new Nikon camera on loan!"After all, if paid written opinions are OK, why don't we extend the model to the vast universe of offline people speaking their opinions as well? IZEA, it's a lucrative model ... feel free to run with it ;)

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Very interesting discussion.Currently I know many companies that pay their PR agencies to write their posts for them. The execs review what was written, then post under their own names. These types of posts aren't disclosed. Wouldn't this fall under the category of "sponsored conversations?" Actually, it's "paid conversation." I'd be interested to know what people think of this practice.The power behind blogs is that it gave the consumer a voice, it put the consumer in the driver's seat and there are many who don't want to lose that power by diluting blogging with sponsored posts.I tend to agree that if the blogger clearly discloses the sponsorship, the reader won't be duped. Personally, if I followed a blogger who always said great things in sponsored posts, I'd start discounting his/her opinions. However, if some were positive, some negative, etc. I would feel that he's being true to his readers.Some bloggers will remain "pure" others will head down the "sponsored" road, and still others will get paid and not disclose their relationships. We can rant about it (discussion is good), but we can't control it. Each blogger will have to make up their own minds about where they want to fall.Ultimately the reader will decide who's helpful, who's not, and who's "selling out." It's likely that bloggers who are sponsored and don't disclose will be outed by their readers anyway.

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

Well, i believe there is nothing wrong with paid blogging, even though the strength of the message would be affected immediately. Moreover, i believe that from the consumer's perspective there is a big difference between the monetary and non-monetary reward as well and marketers should really look in to it as sponsorships might be perceived as "a good deed for a good deed".

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

What exactly is the problem here? Google has established the rules and has said here's the guidelines that must be followed. It is not saying that there can be no sponsored posts.Sean, you have even said yourself that there has to be transparency. Declaring a post a sponsored post and using the "no follow" attribute should not be a problem. If Google and/or Cutts stated that there would be penalties for any sponsored posts, it would be something totally different.People who read blogs are able to make a judgement and forumulate their own opinions. If a marketer is soliciting truly legitimate responses from bloggers, then they should have no concerns about following clearly established guidelines. However, if a "sponsored post" is being used to manipulate and/or influence search engine ranking, I have a problem with it. It's up to marketers to determine where they will get the best bang for their buck when soliciting sponsored posts. It's no different than paying for traditional advertising in both print and television.If a blogger sees the need to somehow act covert and provide a "review" that falls outside the guidelines, they not only risk the wrath of Google, but they also risk losing credibility. Honesty and reputation is the core of what makes the blogging community successful.Besides, how difficult is it to declare a post as a sponsored post and have a policy that states "All links will contain the “NoFollow” attribute as outlined in the guidelines."Barry WheelerMarketing, Business and Technology News

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

How about disclosure regarding sponsored speaker fees at thought leadership events too? There are so many events, such as the Forrester Marketing Conference upcoming in Orlando, where one might expect that the Analyst's have brought out some rising stars to talk about important new technologies. But the reality is that all of the special tracks are actually paid sponsorships. Hmm. I suspect this is why they condone pay for post by bloggers.

re: Sponsored Conversations: When it’s ok to pay bloggers to po

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