Bloggers Battle Over Sponsored Conversations
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.