Brands that pay for sponsored posts and tweets risk being seen as annoying, out of touch, and disrespectful; worst of all, paid blog posts are a blinking neon sign that a brand has to pay for friends because they have not earned them. Disney World didn't need to pay for 501 tweets in the past 24 hours; the resort earned this attention (compared to 173 tweets for Busch Gardens and 227 for Sea World) by creating amazing experiences and nurturing fans.
IZEA's Sponsored Conversations present significant risks for brands, but what about bloggers and consumers? Is IZEA a sweet deal for them?
Why IZEA is Wrong for BloggersLike a sleazy used car salesman who appeals to the ego of a car shopper by telling him he deserves that shiny new sports car, IZEA seduces bloggers on PayPerPost.com by casting them as unwitting victims:
You've been writing about Web sites, products, services and companies you love for years and you have yet to benefit from all the sales and traffic you have helped generate. That's about to change. With PayPerPost advertisers are willing to pay you for your opinion on various topics.
Pay for our opinions? Is that what advertisers are doing using IZEA's marketplace? Heck, I'd be more than happy to have advertisers pay for my opinions--I have hundreds of them and I love to share my opinions with anyone who will listen! Of course, the truth is that advertisers care for bloggers' endorsements, not their opinions.
IZEA weaves a pretty seductive tale, but serious bloggers are at a crossroads; they need to decide if their blogs are going to be trusted sources of news and opinion or if their posts are going to be vehicles for advertising. They cannot have it both ways.
Bloggers can't have their cake and eat it, too. They cannot demand to be taken seriously as journalists or ask for the same legal protections afforded journalists while violating long-standing journalism codes of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists demands that they "be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know." This includes "Refusing gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment," "Resisting (advertisers') pressure to influence news coverage" and "Avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived" (emphasis mine).
These aren't old-fashioned and stuffy rules of some bygone era; they reflect the way sources of news and opinion always have and always will earn trust. If these were just "rules" and not essential truths, then news organizations struggling to find financial viability could simply sign up with IZEA, improving the bottom line by selling paid advertisements in the lead stories right below their mastheads.
Should the New York Times, which just reported a loss of $74.5 million in the first quarter, sign up for IZEA and increase their revenue? Perhaps they could change their motto to "All The News That's Fit to Print... or Fit an Advertiser's Wallet"? Of course the question is facetious--the Times won't do that in part because it violates their ethics but mostly because readers would reject this approach and abandon the organization's newspapers and Web sites in droves.
Why would bloggers think they face a different reaction when they whore themselves out to "sponsored conversation" networks like IZEA? Blogs may be a relatively new phenomenon, but they haven't changed the way writers earn (or lose) trust.
Will a single paid blog post or paid tweet cause a blogger to lose trust and readership? Perhaps not, but the cash and free gifts from paid posts will be like crack cocaine to bloggers--an addictive habit that is impossible to break. And as the ad-to-content ratio begins to rise on a blog, there is no question of the impact it will have on that blogger's reputation, influence, and readership.
Some people point to the fact IZEA has a Code of Ethics requiring mandatory disclosure as evidence that bloggers' reputations won't be harmed by "sponsored conversations." While I respect IZEA's commitment to full disclosure (they support stricter FTC disclosure requirements), the service seems unable to completely police its own members. IZEA has a history of dubious disclosure, and despite strides toward transparency, one of IZEA's high-profile Featured Bloggers was recently caught blogging and tweeting without disclosure.
But even assuming a blogger embraces full disclosure, does that really protect him or her from a loss of readers' trust? Think of the last time you paged through a newspaper and ran across one of those ads. You know the kind--it sort of looks like an article, but the headline and body font don't quite match the rest of the paper, and there's a thin border surrounding the "article" with the repeated word "Advertisement." Did you read it? Did you trust it? Your reaction to that vaguely misleading article/advertisement is exactly the way consumers will come to feel about blog posts that were bought, paid for, and influenced by advertisers' cash.
Of course, not all blogs need to maintain the same level of perceived objectivity. If you author an "I Love Ford" blog, the fact you were provided a month's free use of Ford's newest vehicle is unlikely to diminish anyone's opinion since your bias is well established and fully disclosed. But if you're the sort of blogger who prizes your objectivity and readers' trust, then history and human nature leave no doubt: Ads that are clearly ads (such as banner ads and Google AdWords) are acceptable on blogs, but advertising purposefully designed to look like content and trade on bloggers' authenticity is spam and harms blogger credibility.
Why IZEA is Wrong for ConsumersIf you've read both parts of this blog post, I hope there can be little doubt as to why paid blog posts and tweets are bad for consumers--"sponsored conversations" have questionable accuracy, sketchy disclosure, diminished integrity, and muddle the line between editorial and advertising.
Consumers may be increasingly savvy about advertising in our media-saturated world, but that doesn't mean today's consumers are any less deserving of marketing integrity or consumer protections than in the past. Whether it's product placement, guerrilla marketing, fake blogs, or "sponsored conversations" in Social Media, the FTC, the FCC, and Advertising Industry organizations have always recognized consumers should be protected from advertising that isn't disclosed as such.
In the end, it is possible consumers will be fully able to protect themselves provided bloggers follow industry practices and legal requirements to disclose paid content. It seems easy enough to unsubscribe from a blog feed if that blog's content becomes too commercial, untrustworthy, and spammy. But I wonder about the impact this may have upon consumers and their perception of marketing and media; already, most consumers find advertising bothersome (72 percent said they find advertising "annoying" or "extremely annoying" in a 2008 survey) and untrustworthy (per the latest Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey).
As marketers, are we really demonstrating care for consumers by finding yet another way to interrupt them and encourage even greater suspicion of both media and marketing? Employing "sponsored conversations" may end up being a way to win a battle or two but eventually lose the war for consumers' hearts and minds.
What matters to consumers in Social Media isn't the size of marketers' ad budgets or their need for positive ROI but the authenticity with which brands engage and create social experiences for and with consumers. That is a currency you won't find traded on any IZEA Web site or marketplace.