Thursday, December 31, 2009

Social Media is the New Super Bowl: Pepsi Refresh and What It Means to Marketers

[I just posted my second blog post since joining Forrester, this time on the Marketing Leadership Blog.  You'll find this same blog post cross-posted at]

If you track Social Media news, I'm sure you saw the eye-catching headline: "Pepsi's Big Gamble: Ditching Super Bowl for Social Media".  For the first time in 23 years--23 years!--the brand will not be purchasing a Super Bowl spot.  Instead, it is sinking $20M into a Social Media program called Pepsi Refresh. The Pepsi Refresh site will allow people to vote for worthwhile community projects, and Pepsi expects to sponsor thousands of local efforts via this program. 

What does this news mean to marketers?  Some potential ramifications (and non-ramifications) include:
  • No, this doesn't mean TV is going away, but it will be fighting for marketing dollars on an increasingly level playing field with Social and Interactive tactics.  Despite the meltdown in traditional media, TV advertising will continue to be a big line item in the marketing budget for top consumer brands, but expect it to continue to shrink as a portion of the overall marketing budget.  Shar VanBoskirk said it well:  "Advertising budgets will decline. But marketing investments won't."  Moreover, as Lisa Bradner points out in her report, Adaptive Brand Marketing, the era of annual TV budgets is ending.  Expect more iterative budget setting based on "test and learn" cycles where the best and most successful ideas can quickly command more funding regardless of channel.

  • Social Media programs don't begin and end with Social Media:  There can be a mistaken assumption that Social Media Marketing means brands being on Twitter and Facebook.  As the Pepsi program demonstrates, Social Media is the means to an end, and not the end itself. 

    It doesn't matter that you have followers, fans, or a community; those are assets, not return.  It is how you use those assets that matters.  In Pepsi's case, they've clearly found a way to gain new followers and fans, but that's not the objective of the program; instead, the brand is putting Social Media to work for a higher goal--making the world a better place and associating the brand with that vision. 

  • Social Media measurement = brand measurement:  Do you think Pepsi is going to measure the effectiveness of this program merely by how many fans or page views they get?  They may count retweets, but what are the chances the $20M investment will be evaluated based upon 140-character pass-alongs? 

    The success of this program won't be measured primarily with Social Media metrics (fans, followers, RTs, votes, etc.) but on traditional brand and marketing metrics.  How much PR does Pepsi earn from the program and the funding of thousands of community projects?  How many people hear about the program, and how does it affect their purchase intent for the brand?  How many points increase does Pepsi see when it asks questions such as, "Pepsi is a brand that cares about me and my community?" and "Pepsi is a brand I'd recommend to friends?"  Does the brand see a lift in sales?  Those are the types of metrics that matter in this (or most every other) marketing program.  My peer Nate Elliot points out that you must "choose metrics based on objectives rather than technologies."

  • Another nail in the coffin of merely likable advertising.  Super Bowl advertising has become its own kind of sport.  Shortly after the big game, the scoreboard goes up (USA Today's Ad Meter) and the winning team does an end zone victory dance (agency press releases bragging about the results).  All this hullabaloo implies that ads are entertainment and likability is all that matters, but it is just one element--and hardly the most important--in effective advertising. 

    Pepsi's actions demonstrate a commitment to something deeper than jokey ads.  Pepsi is betting the brand can win by making a deeper connection (consumer involvement versus seeing an ad) for a greater purpose (making the world a better place versus a laugh at the end of a 30-second spot.)   As my online friend Brandon Sutton recently wrote on his blog, "Instead of trying to get clever with your messaging, why not try thinking smarter by understanding how humans think and behave and how your brand fits into the bigger picture of this dynamic?"

  • Social Media changes everything.  Social Media alters the playing field for everyone within the enterprise; formerly successful strategies and tactics are being challenged, while old and tired methodologies are getting new legs.  For example, Best Buy is using Social Media to improve its customer support in new ways;  Starbucks is embracing consumers' ideas and driving innovation and loyalty; and, as we see, Pepsi is using Social Media to give new energy to cause marketing.

    Cause marketing is hardly new, but Social Media gives brands the ability to power it in new ways.  Previously, cause marketing tended to be about a company making a donation and leveraging that for PR, advertising and in-bound links. Today, cause marketing can be about embracing customers' values and ideas about how to spend charitable dollars and then energizing consumers and employees to get involved and make a difference.  Social Media offers us new ways to breathe life into this old marketing idea!
Early next year we'll find out how Pepsi's decision to trade the Super Bowl for Social Media plays out, but it's already earned the brand enormous visibility. Articles about their decision can be found on ABC, CNN, NPRReutersAP, Wall Street Journal, and others.  Of course, the first brand to dump Super Bowl advertising in place of Social Media marketing will earn headlines; the fifth brand to do so will not. 

So, how are you going to use Social Media to give old tactics and strategies new life in 2010?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2010: The Year Marketing Dies...

poor ned better off deadImage by yewenyi via Flickr
...(Subtitled) Or at Least Marketing as We Know It!

[Please note this blog article was posted simultaneously with my new Forrester blog at

It is that time of year when every blogger, reporter and analyst is publishing their 2010 Social Media and marketing predictions.  (It's a rather odd phenomenon--aren't we interested in what's happening in the next twelve months other than in December?)  Forrester's own Social Media prediction report will soon be released, but I'd like to make my own big prediction:  2010 will be the year marketing--as we know it--dies.  Let's explore the trends and what they mean to marketers.

Marketing's been under attack for some time, but in 2009 we witnessed the most profound evolution the marketing world has seen in fifty years or more.  The pace of change is not going to lessen in 2010.  Core elements that have driven marketing practices for decades--such as messaging strategy, mass media, PR, advertising, and others--will continue to change rapidly.

The latest news from the print world is unsurprising:  Average weekday circulation at 379 U.S. newspapers fell 10.6% during the six months ending in September--the steepest decline ever recorded by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.  And although a recent study found that consumer spending on subscription media increased 7% in the past year, that didn't mean subscriptions in the traditional sense--the number of households subscribing to magazines dropped two percentage points while subscriptions for home video and smartphone services were both up.

On the television front, households with DVRs tripled in just three years, more consumers are avoiding ads, and a majority feels there is "too much advertising."  One cannot help but feel sorry for networks and media companies worried about matching ad revenue to expenses, but their response is a bit hard to swallow. TiVo is showing ads to viewers as they are trying to skip other ads, and TNS Media Intelligence tells us that "marketing content represents 43 percent of a prime-time hour"--11:46 minutes per hour of in-show Brand Appearances (a 31% increase from a year ago) and 14:07 of network commercial messages.

Certainly, someone has to pay for Fringe, Glee, and The Office to be produced, but chasing down consumers and bludgeoning them with more advertising messages hardly feels like an effective strategy. (By the way, I selected those three shows for a reason: according to the latest Entertainment Weekly, almost one in five people viewing those programs is time shifting, and you can guess what that means for advertisers.)

The story on the Internet isn't much better.  Hulu is striving mightily to avoid being forced to go the way of TV and load their content with more ads.  Social Media sites like Facebook are so loaded with ads that a consumer spending ten minutes on the site might be exposed to as many as 90 easy-to-ignore ads.  To improve low attention and meager clickthrough rates, advertisers hope to enhance their targeting of consumers based on their online behavior, but the long-threatened intervention of the government may be at hand.  This year could finally be the year that the Feds change the way online advertising works; said  FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz recently, "We're at another watershed moment in privacy, and the time is right for the commission ... to take a broader look at privacy."

Marketers have, of course, taken note of the power of Social Media, but they continue to struggle with what to do and how to measure it.  In a recent study, 64% of CMOs said they plan to increase their social media budgets next year, but "at least half of respondents expressed uncertainty about ROI."  It strikes me as quite concerning that the top metrics being utilized--mentioned by more than 80% of the CMOs--aren't deep measures of influence or attitude but shallow measures of presence, such as number of fans and page views.

Meanwhile, it's possible (although not likely) that the Social Media landscape could change yet again if Facebook stumbles in 2010. (Don't think it could happen?  Remember that 13 months ago MySpace was drawing more visitors than Facebook;  today Facebook draws 150% more than MySpace.)  Facebook is facing potentially serious challenges.  Some are predicting that young people could soon stream off the site to avoid status updates from mom and dad; by one report, just 50% of the 15-24 crowd is checking Facebook regularly, compared to 55% last year.  More people are complaining (and suing) about being caught in scams from third-party developers on Facebook.  And faced with the growing privacy concerns of its users, how did Facebook react?  By implementing changes that many feel make it not just more difficult to protect their privacy, but actually remove privacy protections from some sorts of data.

Facebook seems unlikely to go the way of Friendster (if for no other reason than a serious competitor has yet to emerge), but even if Facebook finds itself being MySpaced in 2010, Social Media is here to stay.  The influence of the masses will only continue to grow as Social Media tools improve and more and older consumers climb the Social Technographics Ladder, moving from Inactives, Spectators, and Joiners to Collectors, Critics, and Creators.

Social Media has just begun to change the way marketing and business operates. The coming year will see advertising put under the microscope by a connected, savvy, and critical consumer (just ask Motrin and Unilever).  Consumers will use Social Media to exert more influence over marketing and business decisions (see Tropicana and EA).  The best practices for brands in Social Media will continue to evolve (and woe be to brands caught violating consumer trust, as demonstrated by recent missteps by individuals at Honda and Belkin).  And some multi-million-dollar marketing budgets will be challenged and undermined by simple consumer-generated videos (see the Domino's employee video--or better yet, don't!)

As we enter 2010, consumers have new partners that will help to expand the reach of Social Media dialog even further--the big three search sites.  Bing, Yahoo and Google recently made changes to the way their search engines index the real-time web, and status updates and tweets are rapidly finding their way into top search results.  This means that consumers searching for brands and campaigns are increasingly likely to see results that include blogged and tweeted criticisms as they are links to official brand sites.

The search engine changes mean that 2010 will be the year when brands can run but they cannot hide.  Gone are the days when marketers could carefully craft messaging and then broadcast that message in a few channels to huge portions of their audiences.  Oh, you can still spend money that way if you want to but in our transparent world, no marketing budget can possibly overcome the actual experience consumers have (and share with friends, followers and Google) with the product, service, or organization.  It no longer matters what you say;  in 2010, your brand will be more defined by what you do and who you are!

Of course, if marketing burns to the ground in 2010, a new and more powerful marketing will rise from the ashes.  The role of the new marketer:
  • Won't be simply to focus on outbound messaging but to consult with sales, customer service, and human resources on how the brand must be communicated in every consumer interaction, every tweet, and every touchpoint,
  • Won't be merely to imagine creative messages but to fashion programs that are seamless with the actual product and service experience,
  • Won't be to plan bursts of communication on a yearlong calendar but to respond to and be part of the ever-changing dialog with consumers, 
  • Won't be to count friends, page visits, eyeballs, readers, or viewers but to measure changes in consumer attitude and intent,
  • Won't be merely to talk at consumers but to listen and engage one to one,
  • Won't be to build campaigns but relationships,
  • Won't be to create impressions but experiences, and
  • Won't be buy media but to earn it.
To some of you, these changes sound easy, but they represent painful transitions for marketing organizations.  In 2010 and the years that follow, everything will change:  job expectations, skills, metrics, structure, budgets, agency demands and compensation, and the role of the marketing function within the organization.  While the changes will be difficult, they will also be extraordinarily exciting.  In the end, the marketing organization will be integral partners in everything the enterprise does, living up to Peter Drucker's famous quote:
"Business has only two basic functions -- marketing and innovation."

Marketing is dead.  Long live marketing!

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Passion: The Defining Success Factor in the 21st Century?

The business world is changing.  Where once people horded information in the belief (conscious or otherwise) doing so bestowed power, we are now seeing a Social Media revolution within the corporate world.  The same tools that consumers use to tweet, share, network, rate, and friend each other are becoming commonplace inside organizations.  This is more than just a change of tools and software;  it is a revolution in the way people work, collaborate, and manage their careers.

Increasingly, it no longer pays to protect and manage information--knowledge withheld is no better than a lack of knowledge in the first place.  Instead, employees are now promoting themselves and increasing their networks by sharing what they know, contributing where they can, and increasing their knowledge via interactions and experiences throughout the enterprise.

While the transparency of knowledge and information is increasing within organizations, we are also seeing transparency increase outside the organization.  Employees are not employees only between 8 and 5--their  actions on social networks are visible to peers, bosses, business leaders, competitors, and customers.  The things people say and do "personally" are no longer just personal, and we've seen instances of employees helping and hindering both their own careers and their employers' objectives as a result of tweets, status updates, and other activities on social networks.

In an age of transparency--where information is more available and your personal and work selves are more intertwined than ever--what will define success for individuals in their careers?

Education?  As the downturn and executive layoffs have demonstrated, a degree is no guarantee of success; employers want to know not just what degree you earned but how you've applied that education to deliver results.

Communication skills?  Certainly folks who can express themselves, communicate effectively, and know their way around LinkedIn and other social networks are in demand, but these are not difficult skills to find nowadays.  Within most organizations, communication skills are table stakes and not the differentiating factor for success.

I'd propose that the defining factor for success will become passion.  Passionate people are committed not because they get a paycheck but because they believe in what they do;  passionate people don't keep their skills up to date because they are told to but because standing still simply is not an option; and passionate people are driven by what they possess inside rather than what happens around them.  Passionate people see things others do not, stretch to get the job done, are more willing to embrace risks, and are their own harshest critics.

Frank Eliason is a passionate guy.  Eighteen months ago he had some free time during a weekend, and rather than watching football he instead checked his email and monitored Twitter for what was being said about his employer, Comcast.  Eliason famously intercepted tweets from tech blogger Michael Arrington, and rather than wait until Monday or pass along the problem to someone working, Eliason instead picked up the phone, called Arrington, and resolved both an individual's technical problem and a potentially damaging PR problem for Comcast.  His passion has earned him and his program, ComcastCares, wide media attention and his CEO notes that Eliason's work on Twitter has "changed the culture of our company".  The brightest and most educated dispassionate clock puncher couldn't hope to achieve a fraction of what Frank has.

Another favorite example of mine is Mary Moss, a McDonald's drive-thru employee in Chandler, AZ.  She considers working at McDonald's more than just a job, and when she takes vacation, she misses her customers-- "My children are grown and gone, and my customers have really become my family."  She says when people come through her window, "it's my mission to make them smile."  Passionate people have missions--not just jobs--and Mary's mission has made her famous (including a Facebook fan group and news reports about this lovely woman) and McDonald's "management loves the business she brings in."

The passion of people like Frank and Mary don't just result in a job well done; their contributions transcend their jobs.  These two individuals have had a disproportionately positively impact upon their customers, business, and even the brand image of their employers.  Imagine the effect an army of Frank's or Mary's could have upon your organization.

Are you a Frank or Mary?  Are you passionate about your work, industry, employer, or career?  Does it show?  When potential employers visit your Twitter stream or Facebook page, will they see more passion for drinks on Saturday night, Mafia Wars, or a favorite sports team than they will for your profession?   Or does your Social Media profile demonstrate you to be someone who can't leave his or her job at work, is always sharing links and news about their industry, and builds positive relationships with peers and friends?

Education grows stale.  Skills come and go.  Hard work is commonplace and expected.  Passion is the only consistent and differentiating factor.  And in a transparent world, one's passion (or lack thereof) cannot be hidden, faked (for very long), or manufactured.

What are you passionate about?

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Chip Conley and Authenticity vs. Transparency : Which is More Important?

Transparency and Authenticity are both important in Social Media and in our newly Social World, but what's the difference and which is more important?  The two are often used interchangeably, but authenticity is not  the same as transparency. Complete transparency may be thought of as revealing every private, confidential, or personal thought or experience; complete authenticity is more about being true to your ideals and never being fake or untruthful. Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre hotels, has provided us a lens through which we may evaluate the difference between--and the differing significance of--transparency and authenticity.

You can read about Conley's dilemma on BNET, but it boils down to this--he's a rock-and-roll CEO who lives large and believes in authenticity.  Some of his employees objected when he posted shirtless photos of himself to the Facebook profile the company PR firm created for him. He believes his employees are wrong to be concerned and asks "What, exactly, does it take to damage the image of the company?"

It's a great question, and the fact he asked it publicly in a blog post teaming with slights to his employees and justifications for his actions may furnish the answer he seeks.  I think a case may be made that Conley has damaged his company, but not because of his Facebook photos; it's his actions after his employees voiced their concerns--actions that prioritize transparency over authenticity--that may possibly prove troublesome for Joie de Vivre.

Conley's shirtless photos were clearly authentic. But so were the concerns of employees. The collision of two contrary but authentic beliefs provided Joie de Vivre with a golden opportunity for internal dialog about the brand, the organization's Social Media policies, and authenticity.  But this is not what happened, because instead of engaging employees, Conley took his concerns public in a blog post in which he admits his first reaction was, “Screw that; people who don’t like it can go work at Marriott.”

In making the concerns of his employees and his own reaction public, Conley has opted for transparency over authenticity.  Airing his grievances with employees was transparent, but it would have been more authentic to discuss the matter with his employees.   Remember that authenticity means keeping true to ideals, and it is clear Conley has an ideal that employee opinions matter. He is proud to have implemented a "cultural ambassador" program in which employees vote for their own representatives on matters of organizational culture.  In fact, it was some of these ambassadors who expressed concerns about Conley's Facebook shots!

Conley's desire for transparency ran headlong into his commitment to authenticity, and he opted to voice his opinions and seek support from outsiders rather than demonstrate care and respect for his ambassadors' feedback.  I believe he was transparent, but violated his own ideals, which was inauthentic.

This isn't the first time we've seen transparency collide with authenticity, nor is it the first reminder that authenticity always wins.  Cisco rescinded a job offer because the candidate tweeted she was weighing "a fatty paycheck against... hating the work"--transparent, but not authentic to her personal and professional goals, I suspect.  A PR firm Social Media consultant found himself in a very public embarrassment after tweeting that he "would die" if he had to live in his client's hometown--completely transparent, and also completely inauthentic in terms of his professional ideals.

I sometimes think we stress transparency too much in Social Media; after all, in the real world we are all  different people in different situations--we behave differently when interacting with our parents, our boss, and our friends.  Does that make us liars?  No, we sacrifice complete transparency in order to be authentic to our ideals in different ways within different relationships.  (I've had friends point out that I have a fairly blue sense of humor that never comes through on Twitter, but I feel my tweets are authentic to my professional passions, even though my guarded approach on Twitter may be less than fully transparent.)

So, my answer to Conley's question--What, exactly, does it take to damage the image of the company?--is that his photos didn't cause harm, but his overly transparent way of dealing with an internal issue may have hurt his relationships inside the organization.  He failed to honor his ideals that employees--particularly the ambassadors--have opinions that matter, and in doing so he made transparency more important than authenticity.

What do you think?  Was Conley authentic by venting his feelings publicly?  Do you think he'd be as accepting if one of his employees chose to post internal disagreements on a blog rather than address them directly within the organization?  And in a Social World, is it possible to be transparent but inauthentic?

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Principle of Transparency: A Tale of Two Employers

Social Media practitioners use the word “transparency” frequently, but it seems to mean different things to different people. To me, transparency isn’t something organizations bring to their Social Media efforts but instead is a fundamental change in corporate mindset being accelerated by Social Media’s growth and adoption. It isn’t a choice made on Twitter but the way an organization may choose to live. In short, transparency is a principle, not a strategy or tactic. Some recent experiences with Fullhouse and Forrester, my current and future employers, have helped me to recognize the meaning, value, and importance of transparency.

Over the past two months, I’ve had the very good fortune to be part of the intensive recruiting process of market research firm, Forrester. As readers of Experience: The Blog know, I will start with Forrester in the San Francisco Bay area in mid-November. I feel very lucky and excited to be joining a firm I hold in high regard.

There are many reasons that I respect Forrester, but one is quite personal: the smart and respectful way their analysts responded to a blog post in which I critiqued their guidance on Sponsored Conversations (AKA Paid Blog Posts). I noted that they support Sponsored Conversations on blogs, so I jokingly offered to pay Forrester for coverage on their own Groundswell blog.  Of course, I knew Forrester would never accept such an offer, but I hoped my approach might spark dialog about one of the hottest topics in Social Computing.

It certainly would have been easy enough to consider me a nuisance and opt for an opaque or translucent response, such as ignoring the post, contacting me privately, dismissing me as incorrect or uninformed, or perhaps even firing off a “cease and desist” letter to demand I discontinue quoting material from the Groundswell blog. Instead, Josh Bernoff and Sean Corcoran responded both on my blog and on the Forrester blog, and they did so in a public way, inviting response and interaction from others and engaging in open dialog.

Josh and Sean lived the transparency they recommend to their clients; they treated all voices in the debate as equal and informative, discussed rather than defended, listened, and considered. Not only did my deliberately cheeky blog post not earn their animosity, it was among the reasons they included me as a candidate for the analyst opening.

Meanwhile, as the recruiting process with Forrester grew more serious, I made the decision to be transparent with my current employer, Fullhouse. I felt I could be open about my career opportunity because the agency is a caring and transparent place. Of course, my bosses were not excited about the possibility of losing an agency leader, but they opted for support and transparency over alternatives such as showing me the door or making it difficult to take the time I needed to meet with Forrester. In the words of my boss, “Had you told me you were interviewing with the agency across the street, I’d kick your ass, but I recognize why Forrester would be such a great fit for you.”

By making transparency a part of the culture at Fullhouse, its leaders gained quite a lot: They were aware of and could plan for my departure rather than finding it a surprise; they fostered an environment of trust and respect; they reinforced why Fullhouse is such an excellent place to work; and they made my decision more difficult. Fullhouse may have lost an employee, but they continue to have a raving fan.

For Forrester and Fullhouse, transparency is a part of the culture and is represented by their care for those inside and outside the organization, their willingness to meet stakeholders halfway, the respect they demonstrate for individuals and ideas, and a commitment to live by principles that consider others’ interests, not just their own.

Tim Williams of Ignition Consulting once shared his definition of a principle, and it is one that stuck with me: “A principle isn’t a principle unless it could potentially cost you money.” Transparency can certainly cost an organization money in the short run, but a commitment to transparency will bear benefits in the end.

In an increasingly social world, brands and companies cannot build networks, earn trust, create fans, or foster influence through defensiveness, self-interest, close-mindedness, or other opaque attitudes and actions. Transparency isn’t easy, but as demonstrated by Fullhouse and Forrester, transparency is a principle that is increasingly vital in a world of frictionless communication.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Marketing is NOT Changing; Just Ask Paul Revere

BostonImage via Wikipedia

We Social Marketers love to tell others how marketing is fundamentally changing, but what if that is not only counterproductive but also inaccurate? This was the provocative hypothesis explored tonight during a 20-minute car ride I enjoyed with Jeremy Epstein of Never Stop Marketing. (Apparently, I should have driven slower in order to enjoy our fascinating conversation for longer.)

Clearly, something is happening in the marketing realm--traditional media is stagnating, media consumption habits are changing, individuals have access to tools that furnish mass-media-like power and reach, technology is permitting consumers to filter and limit marketing messages, trust in advertising is low, and peer-to-peer influence and communication is increasing. But what if all this isn't so much a change as a return to the norm?

Before studying the validity of that question, let's first explore why the words we use matter. Those of us who were early adopters of Social Computing platforms clearly love and embrace change--not only are we comfortable with it, we want and demand it--but there are those who don't welcome change as easily. (To be fair, even early adopters are famous for welcoming certain sorts of change and not others--just look at the "Big Blogger" hubbub that has erupted because of tiny changes in the FTC's guidance pertaining to sponsorship and disclosure).

In addition to the fact change is scary, takes time and effort, and involves risk, there's another problem with telling people they need to change--whether intended or not, a whiff of criticism is conveyed. People who are doing things right don't need to change; conversely, someone who needs to be told change is necessary is--by definition--doing something wrong. So, it should come as no surprise that marketing decision makers may not respond to the "world is changing" message that is often conveyed by bloggers, speakers, and social media professionals.

Of course, if the world really is changing, we shouldn't hesitate to say so simply because some don't appreciate the message. But what if the evolution occurring today isn't an advance to a bold new marketing future but instead is a correction that returns the marketing profession to something known and familiar? What if Social Computing isn't pushing marketing into the unknown but is merely giving a new twist to something very old? Might decision makers be more open to Social Media if it were packaged not as the latest fad but instead as a return to the fundamentals of relationship-based marketing?

During our discussion, Jeremy mentioned Paul Revere as an example of a successful Social Businessperson, albeit one who died 190 years before Twitter and Facebook became household words. As noted in the article, "Paul Revere the Businessman," there is far more to Revere than we learned (or perhaps remember) from history books. We remember him for a single urgent horse ride on one evening, but he lived 83 years and was a successful business owner, growing his silversmithing trade into a small empire encompassing engraving, a hardware store, a foundry, and a copper mill.

What was the secret to his success? The article notes that Revere became a Mason, actively participating as an officer and helping to open new lodges throughout Massachusetts. "His involvement in Freemasonry affected his business pursuits and livelihood" and "many of Revere’s customers during the late 1700s were Masons." Records indicate that Revere's involvement in freemasonry led to regular and ongoing business over a period of almost 40 years.

Joining a group, building a network, fostering relationships, contributing to the community, and receiving a return on that time and effort? How innovative, untested, and utterly radical!

Obviously, the point being made is that, while the tools may be different today, relationship-based marketing isn't new but as old as human commerce. In fact, if marketers want to identify the upstart medium in their field, that wouldn't be Social Media but Mass Media!

The term "Mass Media" is only 80 years old. Its growth into our popular language recognized that technology was putting brand new tools of communication scale into the hands only of those few who could afford it. In the past century, Mass Media had a profound change on the way products were developed, companies formed, brands marketed, and people lived.

Today, technology is again on the march, only now it is putting the tools of scale into the hands of Twitterers, bloggers, and Facebook fans. And, we again face profound changes in the way products are developed, companies formed, brands marketed, and people live.

Clearly, a substantial and profound metamorphosis is underway, but rather than framing this to marketing executives as a risk-filled journey of experimentation into the unknown, we Social Marketing practitioners may be well advised to take a different tact. Relationship-based, one-to-one marketing that creates influence and intimacy isn't the stuff of the future but of the past. The tools may be George Jetson, but the strategy was ancient by the time Paul Revere was networking with Mason lodge members.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reach, Sentiment, and "Balloon Boy"

Attaining reach in traditional media is easy--buy an ad. Attaining reach in Social Media can be more challenging--marketers can buy ads to guarantee impressions on Social Networks, but those impressions are far less impactful than the ones that occur when consumers praise, recommend, or share their enthusiasm for a product with others.

All impressions are not equal, so it is important that metrics-obsessed marketers take care to consider subjective sentiment along with objective measures of scale. The difference between reach and sentiment can be demonstrated by assessing the impressions and attitudes generated by two recent newsmakers--Balloon Boy and Jaycee Dugard.

There isn't much that connects the stories of Falcon Heene and Jaycee Dugard, other than the way their stories captivated the hearts and attention of the nation. Heene, known as "Balloon Boy," was thought to be trapped inside an experimental balloon that became untethered, resulting in a chase watched live on cable news nets by almost 5 million people--double the usual number of viewers. Dugard reentered the national consciousness for the miraculous story of her safe return, eighteen years after she was kidnapped at the age of eleven.

These two news stories received terrific attention in the media, generating high awareness via sustained and repeated impressions. They have been featured prominently on national TV news, hit the front page of newspapers, and set the blogosphere and Twitterverse on fire. As a result, Falcon and Jaycee both became household names.

But even though the reach of these two hot stories are similar, the popular sentiment about the two couldn't be more different. Richard Heene, Falcon's dad, reportedly staged the balloon stunt in an attempt to land a reality TV show deal; instead he faces jail time and the loss of his children, and his reputation has been vilified everywhere from Twitter to editorial pages. Meanwhile, an outpouring of interest and goodwill continue to shower Jaycee Dugard; her story has been called "an inspiration" and her recent People magazine cover story is expected to be one of the year's best-selling magazines.

The backlash against Heene is so great that it may impact the use of children in reality television programs; conversely, Dugard's recent People cover story has resulted in an increase in news stories about and interest in horse therapy. Public sentiment about Heene and his stunt is so bad that many are blaming the media for covering the story in the first place; public sentiment for Dugard is so positive that Oprah for the first time ever asked her producer to get on the story and arrange an interview.

This certainly is an extreme example, but it effectively demonstrates how scale, in and of itself, is a pretty ineffective way to evaluate results in Social Media (or any marketing, for that matter). Tallying blog mentions of a brand or counting the tweets of a branded hashtag is nowhere near the same thing as measuring the impact of Social Marketing programs on consumer perception or purchase intent.

Marketers must be careful not to become Richard Heenes, attempting to spark buzz in any way possible in the mistaken belief that impressions matter and the end justifies the means. As Mr. Heene found, any Social PR is not good Social PR.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My New Adventure with Forrester

As some of you who follow my Tweet stream may know, I am leaving Fullhouse (a place I love full of bright people I respect) for an exciting new opportunity; I'll be joining Forrester's Foster City (Bay area) office as a Sr. Analyst of Social Computing.

You may have noticed that my blog production has been down a bit recently; that's because Forrester's recruiting process is thorough and time consuming, but also very fun and exciting. I got the chance to write my first Forrester report and then present it in their Cambridge, MA home office. (I hope to share more about this report--exploring the relationship between trust, influence, and scale in Social Media--in the future.)

I found the experience of researching and writing a report to be very similar to the process I've used on this blog, only with Forrester there are some tight (and very helpful) guidelines. Also, while blogging has been a solitary endeavour, the Forrester process is collaborative. I've always been conscious of the challenges and limitations of being a one-person research, writing, editing, and proofing team, so working on the Forrester report with another person's input was different and enjoyable.

I intend to continue to maintain this blog in the future, but the coming couple of weeks will be challenging ones as I finish up with Fullhouse, move 2,189 miles, and begin my new and exciting career at Forrester. Please continue to monitor this blog, where I hope to share observations about my transition to Forrester, explore report ideas, convey Social Media news and insights, and ask for input and guidance from my readers.

If any of you have thoughts on what you expect from a good analyst, topics that I should explore, contacts I ought to make, or even tips on the Bay Area (I'll be settling in San Mateo, 20 miles south of San Francisco), please feel free to email me (augie --at-- or comment here. While may not get my full attention for a few weeks, I am committed to keeping it an exciting, informative, helpful, and interesting spot for Social Media, Social Marketing, and Social Computing commentary.


Monday, October 5, 2009

10 Simple Things to Know About the FTC's New Guidelines for Blogs & Brands

Seal of the United States Federal Trade Commis...Image via Wikipedia

The long-awaited new guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) were published today, and they aren't much of a surprise. While addressing blogs, message boards, and other forms of new media, the FTC didn't stray from its traditional commitment to ensure that consumers know when they are seeing paid advertising.

What does today's FTC update mean to Social Marketers and bloggers? You may find it interesting what the FTC did--and didn't--say:

1. Sponsorship = Advertising:

Given marketers' and bloggers' use of the term "Sponsored Conversations" to refer to paid blog posts, it is probably no coincidence that the FTC uses the term "sponsorship" in the following statement: “The fundamental question is whether, viewed objectively, the relationship between the advertiser and the speaker is such that the speaker’s statement can be considered ‘sponsored’ by the advertiser and therefore an ‘advertising message.’”

A blogger who posts a product-based statement independently and without commercial arrangements with the brand is not making an endorsement by the FTC's definition and thus needs not be concerned about the rules governing advertising. But as we'll see, a blogger's post that is sponsored can become an advertising endorsement and may trigger legal requirements with respect to factual information and disclosure of commercial arrangements, under certain conditions.

2. The FTC is furnishing guidelines, not rules:

The FTC has the power of Federal law to enforce legal advertising standards, but today's document defines guidelines and not rules. The Commission recognizes that the marketing and communications world is changing and is too complex for hard and fast rules. The FTC notes that it will have to “consider each use of these new media on a case-by-case basis for purposes of law enforcement, as it does with all advertising.”

So, what factors will the FTC weigh in determining if a given relationship between brand and blogger meets the standard for an "endorsement"? Today's FTC document lists the following:
  • Whether the speaker is compensated by the advertiser or its agent;
  • Whether the product or service in question was provided for free by the advertiser;
  • The terms of any agreement;
  • The length of the relationship;
  • The previous receipt of products or services from the same or similar advertisers, or the likelihood of future receipt of such products or services; and
  • The value of the items or services received.

In other words, the FTC is not tightly defining the legal standards for bloggers and brands, but it is telling us enough to advise caution with respect to paid blog posts, endorsements, and disclosure.

3. Independent consumers are still free to share their praise of brands:

Some more histrionic observers felt the FTC's guidelines would limit consumers' ability to compliment and recommend products via ratings, on blogs, and in Social Networks. This is nowhere near the case; the FTC notes that “a consumer who purchases a product with his or her own money and praises it on a personal blog or on an electronic message board will not be deemed to be providing an endorsement.”

4. It is not necessarily an exchange of value between brand and blogger that triggers an endorsement but the existence of a material relationship.

The FTC furnishes three similar examples of a blogger writing about a brand to draw distinctions between what is and is not an endorsement.

The first example is a simple and obvious one--the consumer buys the product and then praises it; this is clearly a legitimate, unsponsored communication.

The second example involves a blogger who posts praise after receiving free product. The key in this example is that the blogger who praises the brand is not targeted by that brand but instead receives a coupon for free product generated by a store computer based upon the consumer's past purchase patterns. In this case, the FTC notes "given the absence of a relationship between the speaker and the manufacturer or other factors supporting the conclusion that she is acting on behalf of the manufacturer (i.e., that her statement is 'sponsored'), her review would not be deemed to be an endorsement."

The last example should be considered carefully by marketers who have established networks of consumers to whom product is regularly distributed. The example involves a consumer who joins "a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so." Says the FTC, "If she receives a free bag of the new dog food through this program, her positive review would be considered an endorsement." As we'll explore later, the Commission suggests that endorsements made via blog posts require disclosure and adherence to the legal requirements of paid advertising.

5. Giving product to bloggers for the purpose of posting reviews may or may not make the bloggers' recommendations an "endorsement" (but it probably does):

The FTC takes great pains to try to address the issue of brands that disseminate free product for the purpose of garnering positive product reviews in Social Media. The Commission states that a blogger who "receive(s) merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself" may be considered "endorsed" by the brand depending upon "among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests."

The FTC clarifies that last portion of their statement in this way: "If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be 'endorsements.'" In the view of the FTC, "Although the monetary value of any particular product might not be exorbitant, knowledge of the blogger’s receipt of a stream of free merchandise could affect the weight or credibility of his or her endorsement."

In other words, someone who maintains a review blog and regularly receives free product for the purpose of authoring and posting reviews is more likely to be considered an "endorser" than a blogger who only occasionally receives products to review. Some find this curious, because it seems contrary to established practices in traditional media. There are, of course, journalists--such as movie reviewers or food critics--who frequently receive free product, but their articles in newspapers and magazines are not considered "endorsements" per the FTC.

To those who want to make the case that bloggers are being treated differently than journalists in traditional media, the FTC has a response: "The Commission acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media." In other words, get over it!

Regardless of whether you find this guidance puzzling or not, this much is clear: The FTC is putting brands on notice. Giving free products to popular bloggers or recruiting networks of consumers into "word of mouth marketing programs" for the purpose of distributing free products for review will likely be considered and regulated as paid media.

6. The fact that compensated bloggers are free to say whatever they want does not prevent their posts from being considered legal endorsements:

It doesn't matter that a brand pays a blogger and then permits him or her to express anything s/he wants, without editorial control or rules. And it also doesn't matter that bloggers compensated by a brand feel they are expressing their true and honest opinions, unbiased by the commercial arrangement. The FTC notes that “an advertiser’s lack of control over the specific statement made via these new forms of consumer-generated media would not automatically disqualify that statement from being deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides.’”

7. The fact that compensated bloggers are free to say whatever they want does not protect the brand from the legal responsibilities that come with paid advertising:

The FTC understands that marketers may not have control over what bloggers say, but "if the advertiser initiated the process that led to endorsements being made – e.g., by providing products to well-known bloggers or to endorsers enrolled in word of mouth marketing programs – it potentially is liable for misleading statements made by those consumers."

The risks to brands also include the risk that a compensated blogger fails to disclose the material relationship. Notes the FTC, "In employing this means of marketing, the advertiser has assumed the risk that an endorser may fail to disclose a material connection or misrepresent a product, and the potential liability that accompanies that risk." The Commission promises, should legal action result from a blogger's failure to disclose, that it will "exercise its prosecutorial discretion" and "consider the advertiser’s efforts to advise these endorsers of their responsibilities and to monitor their online behavior."

In short, marketers must understand they are accepting certain legal risks by entering into Sponsored Conversations. These risks can be mitigated by carefully apprising bloggers of rules for disclosure and accuracy and then monitoring them for compliance, but this does not completely eliminate all risk.

8. Because Social Media is a vehicle for authentic peer-to-peer dialog, the presence of sponsored speech (i.e., advertising) is suggesting a greater need for disclosure than may be required in other media.

The FTC recognizes that the medium matters; consumers are more likely to recognize advertising as advertising in some media more than others. A TV ad is clearly "sponsored" and thus does not require any special disclosure on the part of advertisers or networks. But in Social Media, the distinction between earned and paid media is far less evident to consumers.

The nature of Social Media and the FTC's greater expectation for disclosure is evident in their revised example pertaining to a video game blogger who is sent a free game system by a manufacturer, along with a request that the blogger write about the system. Notes the Commission, "Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement" (emphasis mine).

9. If your organization doesn't have Social Media guidelines in place, create and communicate them ASAP!

The FTC notes that employers are liable for the actions of their employees in Social Media. For example, if an employee participates in a Facebook forum or bulletin board by praising his or her employer's brands but fails to disclose his or her relationship to the brands, that could trigger prosecution.

The FTC notes that legitimate efforts to create and enforce rules that protect consumers from injury "would warrant consideration in its decision as to whether law enforcement action would be appropriate." Moreover, the FTC notes that "although the Commission has brought law enforcement actions against companies whose failure to establish or maintain appropriate internal procedures resulted in consumer injury, it is not aware of any instance in which an enforcement action was brought against a company for the actions of a single 'rogue' employee who violated established company policy."

So, get your Social Media policies in place and actively enforce them. Not only is this a good, common sense practice, it also helps to establish a defense in the event one of your employees strays into a legal minefield.

10. The FTC has outlined when material relationships must be disclosed, but it still hasn't said what constitutes "clear and conspicuous" disclosure on blogs, microblogs, or elsewhere in Social Media.

The FTC's approach to disclosure requirements is based on three primary questions:

  • Does a material relationship exist between endorser (i.e., blogger, consumer posting in Social Media, etc.) and brand?
  • If so, would the presence of this material relationship affect the weight or credibility given to the endorsement by consumers?
  • If so, is the endorsement likely to be recognized as paid advertising by consumers based on the circumstances, communications vehicle, and medium?

The FTC outlines a slew of diverse and subtle examples of when material arrangements relating to endorsements must be disclosed, both in Social and traditional media. For example:

  • A film star appears in a commercial endorsing a food product in exchange for a $1M fee or royalties on sales; no disclosure is required because such payments likely are ordinarily expected by viewers.
  • A well-known professional tennis player appears on a talk show and raves about the laser vision correction surgery at a clinic that she identifies by name. The athlete does not disclose that she has a contractual relationship to speak publicly about the clinic. Consumers might not realize that a celebrity discussing a medical procedure in a television interview has been paid for doing so, and knowledge of such payments would likely affect the weight or credibility consumers give to the endorsement. Thus, disclosure is legally required.
  • The same tennis player under the same contract endorses the clinic via a real-time Social Media site, and the same rules apply; consumers might not realize that she is a paid endorser and knowing this might affect the weight consumers give to her endorsement, so the relationship with the clinic should be disclosed.
  • A physician endorses an anti-snoring product. Consumers would expect the physician to be reasonably compensated for his appearance in the ad, so no special disclosure is required to alert consumers the physician was paid.
  • But the same physician in the same ad may require disclosure if he receives a percentage of gross product sales or he owns part of the company; either of these facts would likely materially affect the credibility that consumers attach to the endorsement. Accordingly, the advertisement should clearly and conspicuously disclose such a connection between the company and the physician.

So, assuming a brand does have a commercial arrangement with a blogger, the blogger endorses the brand's product, and this relationship requires disclosure in the blog post, what meets the legal definition of "Clear and Conspicuous" disclosure? The FTC doesn't attempt to address this question at all. In other FTC documents, it establishes standards as to how proximal and evident disclosures must be, but the new guidelines do not attempt to address acceptable disclosure in Social Media. It is left to brands to discern if its disclosure policies are sufficient under the laws and guidelines established by the Commission.

Marketers are advised to ensure sponsored bloggers write and construct their blog posts in a way that make the disclosure immediately apparent to even the most casual of readers. This means disclosure in the headline or in the first part of the blog post and not a brief mention at the end!

The FTC guidelines are purposely vague, but their direction is clear. The FTC is taking a conservative approach to whether compensation to bloggers and others in Social Media--be it cash or free product--must be disclosed to consumers. The Commission's guidance suggests that the sorts of arrangements that involve remunerating others to promote products via WOM make their blog posts and other comments in Social Media legal endorsements. Since these endorsements are not expected or recognized by consumers as paid media, the FTC believes that disclosure is most likely required.

Marketers and bloggers who engage in these sorts of commercial arrangements must understand their legal obligations and the risks of failing to adhere to FTC laws pertaining to advertising. Marketers must be prepared to ensure that bloggers disclose material relationships and do not make false or unsubstantiated claims; bloggers who are compensated are also potentially legally liable for their failure to disclose commercial arrangements or for incorrect claims communicated via their blog posts.

As noted, the FTC believes each situation is unique and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. As enforcement actions occur in the future, we will be provided with further clarifications to how the Commission and courts interpret the legal issues of sponsorship, endorsement, and disclosure in our new and evolving Social Media channels.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Social Media Is and Will Be Ever More Placeless

Mobile Facebook in SeroweImage by jamesbt via Flickr

I am on vacation this week, so I hope you'll enjoy one of my favorite blog posts from last year--one which I believe is even more relevant today.

ReadWriteWeb shares an interesting report about how cell phone users are interacting with Social Media via their phones. The study, conducted by ABI Research, found that "nearly half (46%) of those who use social networks have also visited a social network through a mobile phone. Of these, nearly 70% have visited MySpace and another 67% had visited Facebook. No other social networking site reached 15% adoption mobile adoption."

The study concludes that, "consumers do not want to recreate entirely new and separate social networks for mobile, but rather want to tap into their existing social network and have it go with them via the mobile phone." This would seem intuitively obvious--why would consumers want to create duplicate lists of friends, manage duplicate profiles, and update multiple social sites based on whether they are sitting at a PC or using their mobile device?

Of course, there are reasons that consumers may desire different profiles and friends on different sites or services, but they have nothing to do with the device used or the manner in which the data is maintained. Instead, much like we all do in the real world, consumers may want to be different people to different audiences. You might be, for example, buttoned down at work (LinkedIn), loose and casual with friends (Facebook), and downright nerdy and enthusiastic when hanging with hobbyists who share your passion (at, for example, Disney Boards, Star Wars Forums, or a Scrapbooking network).

It really should come as no surprise that consumers aren't interested in separate mobile-only networks. Their need to connect with friends doesn't end when consumers shut down their PCs; if anything, the need to stay connected is greater when people are away from their computers and out in the world. These are the times people wish to report where they are (Brightkite andLoopt), learn about others' ratings and perceptions of restaurants (Yelp), share photos of funny and unique occurrences with their mobile cameras (Twitpic and Yahoo Flickr Mobile), and broadcast updates about their experiences (Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace).

The study's finding reinforces an important attribute of successful Social Media: It is placeless. As the power and features on mobile devices continue to improve and as more consumers adopt mobile services such as the wireless Web, Internet-connected mobile applications, GPS, SMS, and broadband speeds, we will see consumers begin to erase the lines between their real and virtual networks.

If you're planning Social Media tactics, ask yourself where consumers may be most interested in sharing, listening, or collaborating with other consumers. If you're a CPG company and your Social Media campaign extends only as far as a computer keyboard, what will this do for consumers when they're at the supermarket? If you're an alcoholic beverage brand and your Social Media plan requires a PC, how will this enhance the consumer's experience at a club late on Saturday night?

If you think it's farfetched consumers will whip out their cell phones in the soft drink aisle or while ordering a beer, you may be limiting your thinking in one or both of two ways. First of all, it may be that you underestimate the rapid advances that are occurring in cell phone technology or their adoption by consumers; for example, in the past year the number of U.S. subscribers with 3G devices has grown 80 percent.

The second and more important reason a marketer may not see a compelling need for a mobile Social Media program is that they just haven't hit upon the right idea. Too many marketers hear the word "mobile" and immediately think advertising. Instead, as Adam Brown, director of digital communications for Coca-Cola recently pointed out in a MediaPost article, "the proliferation of mobile devices will 'change the whole chemistry' of social media by providing Coke and other marketers with a 'brand in the hand' to reach consumers at the right time with the right message."

With a focus on value-added marketing to consumers (listening to and engaging versus talking to customers) and consideration for where and when consumers will want to engage (on both the second and third screens), Social Media can become placeless and very, very powerful for marketers.
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sponsored Conversations: What is Your (Irrelevant) Justification?

05811 Trust must be earned (on the floor)Image by geekstinkbreath via Flickr

“Trust is not a request. Trust is earned. Trust is not spoken. Trust is a feeling.”

So notes Jeffrey Gitomer in his book, “Little Teal Book of Trust." He's absolutely correct--trust is not defined by the person who wants it but is intrinsically felt by the person who gives it. This means trust cannot be willed into existence through logic and justification.

I cannot tell you why you should trust me, nor can I justify that I deserve your trust; I can only earn your trust through my actions. This truism can help guide marketers as they set expectations and protect their brands when entering into commercial relationships with bloggers. Instead of arguing about what is right or wrong in "sponsored conversations," the time has come to instead start testing what consumers feel towards particular brands, different sorts of bloggers, and various types of blogger compensation.

Thoughts of trust and how it cannot be justified into existence have been top of mind for me lately because of some terrific and insightful discussions I've had on the topic of "sponsored conversations." I've traded insights with some smart and visionary people from Forrester, enjoyed a spirited discussion with Jason Falls over a Maker's Mark, and engaged in a vigorous debate with my fellow panelists for the upcoming Ethics in Blogging webinar. (The free webinar will occur Thursday, September 24th at 1 pm ET/10 am PT.)

I've observed that discussions about paid blog posts tend to focus on the logical reasons why brands and bloggers believe they can engage in sponsored conversations. This approach to the topic is fundamentally flawed; it considers only brands' and bloggers' justifications, but since trust is imparted and felt by readers, our justifications are meaningless.

We cannot create trust where it does not exist by presenting cogent and reasoned arguments. Keep this in mind while reviewing the following justifications I've heard in recent weeks:
  • From the bloggers: We work hard and have earned audiences, thus we deserve compensation: This justification speaks to bloggers' reasons for feeling it is ethical to accept compensation in return for blog mentions, but it says nothing of consumer perception of trust. Besides, if working hard and having readers was sufficient to justify compensation, there are 5,900 journalists--all laid off in the past year--who would love to hear this news.

  • From the bloggers: I loved the product already, so it's okay that I take compensation to rave about it. While this justification may help bloggers to feel okay about being compensated for their praise, it does not tell us what consumers will feel when they read a disclosure such as, "I love this product--really I do--and I've accepted a year's supply of it to tell the reasons why I love it." Will the consumer believe this, or is a seed of doubt planted? Will they read a blog post preceded with this sort of disclosure, or will they lose interest and move on? Will they see this as authentic opinion or as an ad (and we all know how much consumers love ads--just ask the 91 percent of moms who reported that they do not watch commercials when viewing recorded programming via DVRs)? Unless we secure the answers to these questions from consumers, this argument remains a mere hypothesis.

  • From the brands: We don't tell bloggers what to write--they have complete control to say anything, both positive and negative. I have no doubt marketers and agencies strive to be completely ethical when compensating bloggers for their posts, but once again this argument is from the perspective of the blogger and brand and not of readers. Isn't it possible (or likely) that blog readers will suspect a gift given to the blogger may affect his or her sentiment about the brand? And what happens if a blogger accepts compensation and then trashes the brand--will brands keep knocking on his or her door to continue paying for negative sentiment? Might consumers suspect that compensated bloggers are inclined to shade their honest opinion in order to avoid biting the hand that feeds them? We don't really know, because while many justify that sponsored conversations are authentic because brands do not exert editorial control, few have tested this theory to see if it holds water with consumers.
My point isn't that sponsored conversations are bad! There are, without any doubt, appropriate ways to compensate bloggers--ways that aren't just ethical but also earn consumer trust. That last part is fundamental, because what bloggers and brands believe about the trust they deserve simply isn't relevant. The only thing that matters is the trust consumers feel.

As I've noted in the past, there are important factors to be considered when marketers pay bloggers for attention; these include the value of compensation, the form of compensation, and the context of the blog. So how does a brand know what sort of value or form of compensation will be perceived as trustworthy by consumers? The answer to this question is vital, because the cost of a mistake can be substantial (to the brand and to an agency's client relationships); a single mishap can result in widespread embarrassment and everlasting infamy on Jeremiah Owyang's "A Chronology of Brands that Got Punk’d by Social Media."

There is an easy way to know how consumers will react to different combinations of value, form, and blog context in sponsored conversations. The solution does not rely on logic and justifications but on a key tool that has been in the marketers' toolkit for decades: testing. We test marketing messages, product enhancements, and ads to make sure our marketing dollars don't go to waste. Considering the stakes when engaging in sponsored conversations--the risk of viral ridicule, the potential to diminish trust in our brands, and the cost of PR crises--why shouldn't we apply simple and proven testing processes to find out what consumers feel before we write a check, send a case of product, or whisk a blogger away to a brand conference?

I can lead you to a pool of water and tell you all the reasons why it should be warm--the sun is beating down on the surface, the heater is operating, etc.--but you'll still test the temperature by dipping your toe into the water prior to jumping in.

Leaping into the Social Media pool via sponsored conversations will create waves. Make sure you will be generating the waves you want before you leap, because containing a problem once it is rippling through the blogosphere is like trying to calm a pool after someone has cannonballed.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Join a Discussion on Ethics (and Even More Vital Topics) in Blogging

I've been invited to participate in a webinar about Ethics in Blogging, sponsored by and The Social Media Group. The event will occur Thursday, September 24th at 1 pm ET/10 am PT. You can register to listen and participate for free, and the event is a steal at that price!

If you're webinared out, perhaps this will entice you to listen in: I don't care that much about ethics in blogging.

Don't get me wrong, I believe ethics are vital on a personal and professional level, but a dialog about ethics interests me far less than a discussion about how brands and blogs combine to impact (either positively or negatively) brand perception and consumer actions. Ethics are merely the table stakes--just like in traditional media, ethics are essential but the real magic in delivering results via blogs depends far more on blogger reputation, consumer attitudes toward the brand and category, the offer, demographics, and psychographics.

The operative issue for brands isn't that a blog is run ethically but that the blog, the blogger, the content, the context, the form of compensation, the value of compensation, and the type of disclosure work in concert to enhance the brand as desired. In some respects, I believe all the attention given to "ethics"--which is actually a relatively black-and-white issue--is obscuring the more complex, subtle, and important questions of how marketers can best use Social PR, blogger outreach, blog advertising, and "sponsored conversations" (a/k/a "paid blog posts").

One reason why Ethics in Blogging doesn't excite me is that (according to Wikipedia), Ethics is "a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality." I'm not a philosopher and I wouldn't presume to lecture anyone on moral right and wrong--but legal and marketing strategy right and wrong are horses of a different color.

The legal implications of paying or bartering with a blogger in exchange for blog posts are a little in flux because the FTC has issued proposed changes to advertising practices but has yet to publish the final code. But even without the final rules change, smart and experienced observers have a strong sense of how the FTC will use its enforcement power to set standards for brands in Social Media.

There are two reasons why few people expect any surprises when the FTC publishes its final guidance. The first is that the agency has already signaled its direction with their preliminary document, furnishing three specific examples of advertiser liability and disclosure on blogs and message boards. (During the Ethics in Blogging webinar, we hope to touch on a few specifics contained in the FTC's proposed rule changes.)

The second reason is that the FTC has always governed advertising with a fairly simple golden rule: Consumers must know when they are being advertised to. In forms of media where advertising is clearly delineated and well recognized--such as TV ads and billboards--no special disclosures are necessary. But when any level of confusion may exist in the mind of consumers--such as an advertorial in print or a paid blog post--then the advertising disclosure must be clear and conspicuous.

The FTC doesn't explicitly define "clear and conspicuous," but one FTC publication challenges advertisers to ask four questions about their paid media:
  • Prominence: Is the fine print big enough for people to notice and read?
  • Presentation: Is the wording and format easy for people to understand?
  • Placement: Is the fine print where people will look?
  • Proximity: Is the fine print near the claim it qualifies?
On blogs, it isn't that hard to interpret these standards. The reader must know from the start (and not tucked into language at the end of a 1000-word blog post) that a commercial arrangement exists between a brand mentioned in a blog post and the blogger. About the only real issue of any disagreement with respect to blogging ethics and the law is what sort of disclosure meets the FTC's "clear and conspicuous" standard. Is it acceptable for the entire blog to have a single disclosure? Must the blog post headline contain an alert such as "Ad" or "Paid Post"? And what of paid tweets--how can adequate disclosure be given in 140-character tweets?

Total disclosure--clear and conspicuous--of commercial arrangements (be they cash, product, travel, or other forms of remuneration) is both ethical and legal, but this is just the tip of the iceberg for marketers wishing to gain attention in the blogosphere. For example, if a blog post begins "I was paid $1,000 to write about Jinkie's brand cereal," will consumers read the article, if so will they trust it, and if so how will the article alter their opinions or actions? What if the paid blog post appears on a blog that is nothing but paid blog posts--will this affect consumer trust and the impact of the sponsored conversation?

These are just a few of the questions marketers need to answer, which is why disclosure is child's play compared to discerning the attributes that separate a blog strategy that helps from one that hurts or does nothing for the brand.

So as a member of this webinar panel, I hope to share some insights and spark dialog not about what is right or wrong for the souls of bloggers but what is right or wrong for brands participating in the blogosphere. If you have specific questions, topics, or opinions you'd like to see addressed, please comment below so we can consider your input!

I hope you'll consider joining us for the free webinar, Ethics in Blogging. In addition to myself, webinar panelists include Maggie Fox, founder and CEO of Social Media Group; Daniel Tunkelang, Chief Scientist and co-founder of Endeca; and John Jantsch, author of Duct Tape Marketing: The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide.

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