Bloggers Battle Over Sponsored Conversations

Who should throw the first stone unclear

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A Forrester report released yesterday kicked off once again the debate over paying bloggers to write about products and companies. Blogging purists, new media marketing experts, and Google’s Matt Cutts have all weighed in, indicating this is hardly a debate that will soon be put to rest.

Sean Corcoran
Sean Corcoran

Forrester’s report is eight pages and $750 worth of “Why You Should Pay Bloggers To Talk About Your Brand,” filed under a less ominous sounding phrase “sponsored conversations.” Sean Corcoran sums up his expensive treatise this way:


Kmart gave some bloggers a free shopping spree in exchange for a blog post about the experience — a practice we call sponsored conversation. With appropriate protections for disclosure and authenticity, this practice will take its place alongside public relations and advertising activities in the blogosphere. Marketers should take advantage of sponsored conversation as an entrée into the online conversation.

Chris Brogan
Chris Brogan

The Kmart example recalls a controversial post from new media marketing guru Chris Brogan, who accepted a $500 shopping spree in exchange for blogging about his experience. Brogan disclosed the sponsorship at the top of the resulting post. Charges were flung immediately about how his participation damaged his overall blogger credibility and authenticity. After a long rebuttal where he is an admitted PayPerPost convert and former stone-thrower himself, Brogan gave critics permission to read someone else.

“I’m here to share insights and give you actionable strategy,” wrote Brogan. “I’m going to explore even more ways that bloggers and media makers can make money in 2009.”

Marshall Kirkpatrick
Marshall Kirkpatrick

ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick posted a respectful disagreement with the Forrester report, saying that, “paying bloggers to write about your company is a dangerous and unsavory path for new media and advertisers to go down.” And later, “Blogging is a beautiful thing. The prospect of this young media being overrun with ‘pay for play’ pseudo-shilling is not an attractive one to us.”

Kirkpatrick splits a few hairs in his post, especially regarding whether it is acceptable to allow event sponsors to pay for travel to an event, which ReadWriteWeb has accepted in the past. Such a declaration in rebuttal to the concept of sponsored content is an interesting tack, and makes one wonder how wide the gray area really is.

Jeremiah Owyang
Jeremiah Owyang

Forrester senior analyst Jeremiah Owyang defends his company’s report, reiterating the importance of transparency and blogger authenticity. “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.”

Of course, that stubborn devotion to authenticity could mean the blogger doesn’t get another shot at sponsored conversation money, which sets up a mean Catch 22, one that has existed in media since there has been media.

Brogan returns slamming “the righteous web” and inherent hypocrisy involved in compensated blogging, via AdWords or otherwise. Meanwhile Google’s Matt Cutts draws the line in the search index sand. You might remember Google penalized itself for sponsored conversations recently, and Cutts tears down Forrester’s Kmart example:

"Google found multiple bloggers that violated our quality guidelines and we took corresponding action. Those blogs are not trusted in Google’s algorithms any more."

Cutts once again calls for sponsorship disclosure and paid links that do not pass PageRank.

The resurgence of this conversation is interesting especially because of its odd timing.


Paul Harvey 1918-2009
Paul Harvey 1918-2009

Paul Harvey died over the weekend, a radio icon said to be older than commercial radio itself. Harvey’s news commentary was always interspersed with sponsored updates so well delivered it was difficult to distinguish where the news stopped and the commercial began—something we generally considered charming, the rest of the story right after Harvey tried to sell you something for your aching joints.

This tension between advertisers and content producers has always existed. Some producers handle it well, others don’t. Some content consumers handle it well, and others don’t. It’s hard to imagine a real justification for changing a model of content delivery that has existed and thrived for at least a century—newspapers currently notwithstanding. Media and advertising depend on one another.

There are abuses on all sides. Advertisers try to exert control over content; consumers try to exert control over advertisers so that they’ll exert control over content; governments try to exert control over content; now search engines try to exert control over content.

There is so much interest in controlling content, the only moral approach to it is to let content producers control their own content at their own risk. Certainly competing content producers will be more than happy to point out their rivals aren’t on the up and up, and if producers are found to be inauthentic or labeled as a marketing channel for a specific brands, consumers can turn the dial, load another webpage, flip the channel in response if they wish. The purists will form their righteous, purism clubs and search engines will go about their usual tasks of sorting it all out.

But are sponsored conversations, paid posts, ad columns, breaks before the rest of the story all wrong? Good luck making that argument stick, and good luck funding good content. 


Bloggers Battle Over Sponsored Conversations
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  • http://inchoo.net Toni Anicic

    My opinion is that bloggers should accept payments for their opinion, however a true blogger should use nofollow in all links inside the sponsored blog post and make a note that post is sponsored so he doesn’t ruin his reputation and credibility with community. If I see a blog post is sponsord I will not trash a blogger for it, a man has to live from something, right? :)

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Before pressing its battle against paid posts and paid links any further, Matt Cutts and Google need to start disclosing their conflicts of interest in this matter.

    They stand to reap significant financial gain by winning the war on paid links and paid posting. These practices predate Google and are accepted, normal Web promotion methodologies.

    Google is demanding disclosure not through language on the page but through HTML code that only benefits Google’s search service so that it can strip links of their ability to pass value (PageRank and anchor text).

    Google’s link analysis system is based on a faulty methodology. Citation-based rankings are unreliable, according to a study published by the Math Union last year. Google’s argument that paid links and paid posts hurt the quality of its search results is therefore specious and unacceptable.

    In fact, Google has already stripped billions of Web documents of their ability to pass PageRank and anchor text by putting them in the now-invisible Supplemental Results Index. Google used to disclose which listings were Supplemental but it no longer does that.

    Webmasters are being called upon to help make Google more profitable at the expense of their own revenues. There is no legal basis for this action — it’s just Google’s over-aggressive marketing tactics.

    Google’s Web guidelines do not set the standard for acceptable behavior by Web sites. Google is often accused of violating its own guidelines, and Google does not apply its penalties equally. If you have a major brand Web site you can expect to see a penalty for a few days, maybe a month, but Google will restore your site to good standing regardless of whether you “fix” your problem. If, however, you’re just a “little” guy your penalty could last for years, long after you remove whatever Google objected to in the first place.

    It’s time for people to start calling upon Google to disclose its conflicts of interest in the war on paid links and paid posts.

    It’s time for people to call on Google to stop bullying and threatening Web sites with meaningless “loss of ability to pass value”.

    Google is not the only search engine. Hundreds of millions of people use other search engines that drive traffic to Web sites every month. The Web can live without Google but Google cannot live without the Web.

    Google needs to start acting more responsibly and stop coercing people into helping it make a profit.

    How long will it be before people start accusing Google of running a protection racket?

  • http://fashiontribes.com Lesley from Fashiontribes.com

    Ever acted on an “editorial” recommendation from a mainstream print magazine and bought an item? Or perhaps you’ve spent time perusing those lovely editorial layouts in your fave mag, and had something catch your eye (and wallet)? Congratulations, you’ve already paid for their play.

    Well so what.

    Everyone knows and widely accepts that the content in major magazines is funded by advertisers…the same ones who discovered the blogosphere long ago. Independent professional bloggers get most – if not all – of their pay from, yes, advertising, so this mythical “blogger purity” grail simply doesn’t exist. And I doubt there’s a hobby blogger in existence who has NEVER accepted swag or freebies, so what’s with the casting of stones?

    In my case as a professional blogger supported by advertising and affiliate sales, I’ve built up a regular readership and had success – which I guess means my voice could be considered to be the much bandied-about “authentic” – by doing this: if I don’t like something, I don’t waste valuable space posting about it, and I blog only about the stuff I like or I think will interest my readers. While I’ve occasionally done advertorials, it was clearly stated in the post but more importantly, the topic had to be about something worthwhile. (Which has me wondering if the kerfluffle over the $500 shopping sprees has more to do with the fact they were sponsored by Kmart. If Barneys or Bergdorf had ponied up for $2500 or even $5000 sprees, would the response have been less snobby?)

    It’s not the fact that advertisers pay for the party that interests or concerns readers; rather, it’s the quality of content that keeps ‘em coming back day after day. I say we thank advertisers for putting us in a position that gives us the time and freedom to create juicy, provocative content.

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