ReadWriteWeb touched off a small firestorm of reaction around a report published by Forrester regarding "sponsored conversations". The intensity of the comments tells you how volatile the topic has become. The concept of sponsorship is pretty broad - organizations sponsor a wide range of events, publications, and activities that ultimately align to different objectives related to brand, community, customer, marketing, and so on. Extending the concept of "sponsorship" to social media is clearly going to have its ups-and-downs as everyone learns out in the open. After reading through the article, the comments, and some postings from Jeremish Owyang (Forrester), the following segmentation came to mind. It's not perfect - and I don't pretend to focus exclusively on social media. But the segmentation below might be helpful to people trying to decide on the pro/cons of sponsoring blogs (or other communication/content vehicles).
Models (this is just one example, perhaps incomplete) can sometimes help people be more specific on the good/bad of an approach, and help construction of other scenarios that might actually help people reach common ground. These four examples might result in four others - iteration of the models and refinement of the arguments can ultimately help identify scenarios that might actually be acceptable and build community consensus along the way... so here's my shot at it:
- The "deception model": Sponsoring blogs (or other types of communication/content vehicles) to explicitly say "nice things about you" with no transparency which allows authenticity of the source (e.g., a blogger) to be perceived as independent and objective. It may actually be an honest opinion - but we're just not sure.
- I think this model is bad under any circumstance I can think of – if you are caught! Let’s be clear – this probably happens all the time. For instance, companies setup marketing events (say, for beer/wine tasting), and then pay people to go and say nice things about the product or service to other guests who think they are "one of us". There is no disclosure that these walking-talking-testimonials are “hired” to say good things. It’s terrible when made public but the subtle benefits can be enormous. So it’s a high-risk game but it happens in many areas of interactive marketing today. I would not recommend it.
- The "fine-print model": Sponsoring blogs (or other types of communication/content vehicles) to explicitly say "nice things about you" but, with explicit identification of sponsorship and compensation to the provider of the message. It may be an honest opinion - and we may chose to trust it - but we also know the game at-hand and might continue to check with other sources.
- This provides provides the company a “fig leaf” to hide behind. The disclosure/disclaimer information may be hard to find, in fact, you might have to work really, really hard to figure it out – but the company defend its approach by saying that it is being clear and honest – if you read the fine print. I have mixed feelings about this - if it is done in "bold print" then buyer-beware comes to mind. If you know that you're being pitched to then people might be fine with this scenario. I think most companies however resort to the fine-print approach which plants the seed of its own destruction.
- The "unsaid expectation" model: Sponsoring blogs (or other types of communication/content vehicles) to say whatever they want (good, bad, or ugly), and with explicit identification of sponsorship and compensation to the provider of the message.
- I suppose this model is the tipping point to something more acceptable. You are compensated to participate in a community or some other type of platform that provides bloggers or other sponsored spokespeople with an audience and visibility. You are free to say whatever you want – you can criticize as well as praise. But – there’s still the small issue of compensation and the expectations around that compensation that creates a shadow of doubt. The fact that there is not only an outside influence from the sponsor but some level of compensation can still affect people's perception about what is communicated/published, etc. People may feel that the sponsored spokesperson is “pulling punches” in order to have that "veil of objectivity' and argue that they are not always providing testimonial. This could work perhaps – but can easily be abused and often is questioned by “watchers”, activists, etc.
- The "hands-off" model: Sponsoring blogs (or other types of communication/content vehicles) to say whatever they want (good, bad, or ugly), and with explicit identification of sponsorship with no compensation to the provider of the message.
- This model creates the context for conversation but does not involve itself (directly) to define the conversation. With transparency around what the channel/platform is about and without any compensation to participants (other than the soapbox provided) – this is perhaps the most acceptable way to think of "sponsored" social media re: blogs, communities, etc. But, given the hands-off approach - you are creating network effects that you cannot control or easily influence and retreat on. You likely need to focus more on handling the negative aspects of what is said – “be careful what you ask for” comes to mind. For all the good, you need to think about the bad. But removing compensation – not necessarily recognition (a different conversation) – can make this the best of the four examples cited here. It can balance objectivity/trust/influence expectations with the desire by sponsors to have their sponsorship effort return some value back to an identified business goal.
Forrester is Wrong About Paying Bloggers - ReadWriteWeb
Analyst firm Forrester published a report this morning telling corporations that it's a good idea to engage bloggers in "sponsored conversations," or the exchange of goods or credit in exchange for blog coverage. The report, titled "Add Sponsored Conversations to Your Toolbox", is 8 pages long, focuses on a number of high profile examples like the case of KMart and Chris Brogan, and sells for $795.
We respectfully disagree with Forrester's recommendations on this topic. In fact, we think that paying bloggers to write about your company is a dangerous and unsavory path for new media and advertisers to go down. We recognize that it's a complicated question, but we don't feel convinced by Forrester's conclusions regarding those complications.
Defenders of the tactic argue that it doesn't differ substantially from traditional advertising, that it's effective for advertisers, that bloggers want to profit from their writing and that with proper disclosure there's no loss of credibility for either party.
We disagree with these arguments. For more conversation see Jeremiah Owyang's post on the report.