Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Paid Blog Post on the Forrester Blog

My opinion of "sponsored conversations" (aka paid blog post advertising) is well established. I feel paid blog posts are wrong for brands, wrong for bloggers, and wrong for consumers. But Forrester, the respected and renowned research firm, disagrees and has unequivocally stated that paid blog posts are fine. So, I am extending a financial offer for a "sponsored conversation" on the Forrester Blog--one that thoroughly abides by Forrester's own guidelines. I trust Forrester will accept my offer and tell me where to send the check.

As I researched the topic for past blog posts, I was disappointed to find Forrester analysts--among them the author of best-selling Social Media book, Groundswell--to be supporters of paid blog posts. At first I was going to complain about Forrester's stand on this topic and perhaps write a blog post where I expressed that my opinion of Forrester has been diminished, but then I realized this wasn't a problem but an opportunity: If Forrester thinks paid blog posts are good for brands and bloggers, that means I can buy some attention and inbound links for Experience: The Blog from the widely read and trusted Forrester Blogs.

So, here's my open offer to Forrester: I'll pay $500 for a "sponsored conversation" on your Groundswell blog. My guidelines are simple: You can write whatever you want, provided your blog post is dedicated to Experience: The Blog, contains more than 200 words, includes at least one link to my blog, and you mention my name and the name of my blog.

This offer is completely sincere, but I don't really expect Forrester will even consider the financial arrangement. They are averse to any action that would convey even a hint the objectivity of their analysis or opinions has been compromised by compensation from third parties. In fact, it's right there in their Integrity Policy:
"Forrester employees may not engage in activities that will compromise -- or appear to compromise -- the integrity of our research... Our independence allows us to produce research and offer advice that express clear opinions. Forrester's research agendas, judgments, and conclusions are solely under our control. Client companies cannot purchase research coverage or favorable opinions... Forrester's internal policies create an environment where clients and vendors cannot wield undue influence on our research topics and judgments."

So, why is it wrong for Forrester bloggers to sell coverage but okay for other bloggers to do the same? Perhaps we can get some clues from Forrester's "Why Sponsored Conversation--aka Paid Blog Posts--Can Make Sense," available via link from the IZEA web site. (You'll find the link to the Forrester Report adjacent to IZEA's "Caveman’s Guide to Sponsored Conversations," because when it comes to advertising and brand integrity in Social Media, who can you trust more than a cartoon caveman?)

According to Forrester Analyst Josh Bernoff, paid blog posts are "Genuine" and bloggers can retain credibility if they disclose that they are being paid and are able to write whatever they want, positive or negative. I'm not sure I agree, but if Bernoff believes this, there is absolutely no reason Forrester blogs should not accept my paid blog post. I'm happy to have them write whatever they want and to disclose the compensation. Per Forrester's guidance, this deal works out just fine for everyone: my blog gets a boost in attention and Forrester keeps their credibility.

It should come as no surprise that Forrester's stand on paid blog posts has drawn fire. David Churbuck wrote a blog post titled, "Shooting fish: Blog Sluts" in which he says, "Payola is crossing the line. Contextual advertising or an overall sponsorship is one thing. But paid posting is a no go." Over on the CenterNetworks blog, Allen Stern wrote, "The real risk to brands is the damage they could face from having people spew amazingly positive comments about their products... Look at the damage that Walmart and Sony faced last year with their blogging efforts. I can provide many examples of brands being tarnished by making bad decisions." And Adam Singer wrote to brands on TheFutureBuzz, saying "People are going to ridicule you for your efforts, even if you are being transparent and the bloggers themselves disclose the situation. They will see that you aren't creative enough or have a good enough product to warrant coverage on your own, thus you have to pay for it."

Forrester has had to defend their opinion on this matter on their blog. Back in March they addressed Google's statement that "paid posts should not pass Page Rank." Forrester cited IZEA founder Ted Murphy's challenge that it would be "virtually impossible for Google to police this." That's an interesting assertion coming from IZEA, considering that's the same objection IZEA critics have leveled at the "sponsored conversation" marketplaces IZEA operates. IZEA has a strong "Code of Ethics," but how can consumers and brands know IZEA's bloggers are living by those rules? They can't, as evidenced by the fact one of IZEA's own high-profile Featured Bloggers was recently caught blogging and tweeting without disclosure.

More recently, the Forrester Blog returned to the subject when the FTC signaled it would be taking a close look at the practice of paid blog posts and hinted at tough new rules of disclosure. I sensed some defensiveness in Forrester's May blog post, as they said they felt it necessary to update and clarify (but not change) their position. Forrester reiterated its position that "marketers can compensate certain bloggers to create content for their brand in an above board fashion" (emphasis theirs).

Which brings me back to my offer to Forrester Blogs. Forrester's opinion on paid blog posts couldn't be clearer. It's been stated, restated, revisited, and confirmed multiple times: Paid blog posts are fine provided the commercial arrangement is disclosed. So again, I repeat my offer: $500 for a paid blog post, and of course, I expect nothing less than total transparency, independence, and authenticity, which will protect Forrester's interests per their own professional opinions.

Of course, Forrester will not accept this offer, and those seeking to understand the benefits and drawbacks of "sponsored conversations" would be well advised to look at Forrester's actions, not their words. Forrester won't accept paid blog posts because doing so--even with total disclosure and transparency--would reduce their credibility, damage their brand, and harm their business. The fact they feel these ramifications are right for Gawker, Huffington, or Experience: The Blog but not for themselves says more about their attitude on paid blog posts than anything found in their reports on the topic.

23 comments:

Josh Bernoff said...

Thanks for the offer, but we don't take sponsorships.

To see our rationale, go here:

http://blogs.forrester.com/groundswell/2009/08/to-augie-ray-thanks-for-the-offer-but-we-dont-take-sponsorships.html

Augie Ray said...

Josh,

I never anticipated such a quick response. Heck, I didn't anticipate any response to my somewhat cheeky blog post.

Your post is very informative and fair. I'm not sure I agree with you quite yet, but I think the dialog is very helpful.

I shared a response on the Groundswell blog. Thanks for the ongoing discussion!

Gee said...

Go, Augie, go!
I totally agree with you. Your questions posted on Grondswell's blog are right on target. ("Can bloggers be truly independent when being paid,"
"Is a blogger inclined to write honestly (and negatively) when being paid?")
I don't think they can. I've followed you on Twitter and read your blog regularly, I still have no idea who your clients are and I know you have plenty. But I can spot certain bloggers from miles away for whom they are writing, many are their clients or sponsors of their blog.
IMHO, disclosure and transparency still cannot and will not buy loyalty and trust as long as there is a conflict of interest. The customers/publics are not that gullible.

Howard Zoss said...

you have to start thinking like marketers in a genuine way ... we find bloggers who love to do home improvement projects ... to a few we hand out some paint ... the rest is up to them ... if they like it great, if they hate ... that is what the net is about
don't do payola do target marketing ... nothing wrong with this at all as long as you are genuine and absolutely transparent

Jeremiah Owyang said...

Do note that Lenovo gave free products to bloggers (Olympians) encouraging them to blog, I've listed it out here

http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2009/03/03/running-list-of-sponsored-conversations/

You'll note this list of sponsored conversastions is an industry trend, and that's why we've addressed it

Jeremiah (Forrester Analyst)

Augie Ray said...

Gee, thanks for the positive feedback. We'll certainly see a lot develop in the future. Forrester will further clarify their position, and probably within a few months the FTC will step in.

I simply don't see paid editorial on blogs ever working for brands or bloggers. It doesn't work in traditional media for a reason--because even with disclosure, the message becomes inauthentic and suspect.

I'll be interested to see how this issue develops in the next year, but my suspicion is that services like IZEA will get tripped up time and again by bloggers failing to follow rules, PR issues that develop, and brands that get stung with negative reactions to paid blog posts.

Thanks!

Augie Ray said...

Howard,

Thanks for the comments. I agree there is a lot of nuance to this issue.

Is cash for blog posts okay with disclosure? I don't think so (for reasons I've written quite a lot about on this blog).

Is free product okay? It may be, but I'd argue the free product has to be furnished with NO expectation of or agreement for blog posts if that attention is to be free of taint for the brand. That is certainly the most authentic way to generate interest from bloggers.

I am definitely anti-sponsored conversation, but I could be convinced there are appropriate ways to do this that benefit brands, bloggers, and readers. My concern is that merely disclosing doesn't go far enough; furthermore, identifying bloggers as targets based on the appropriateness of their content and their audience is FAR better than simply buying attention in a marketplace of greedy bloggers (such as IZEA).

I appreciate the feedback and the participation. Thanks!

Augie Ray said...

Jeremiah,

Thank you for sharing your link. Your blog is one I respect and watch carefully.

I agree Sponsored Conversations are a trend, but so was (at one point) unsolicited email, harvesting email addresses, buying email addresses, fake blogs, pop-overs, etc.

I don't think Forrester has yet gone far enough on this topic, but I understand further clarifications are coming. If I can assist as you discuss and explore this topic, please let me know.

Thanks for the comment and the link!

David Churbuck said...

Jeremiah,
Being a global Olympic sponsor with exclusive rights to the technology/IT category and offering laptops to blogger athletes with no discussion of coverage or mentions is entirely different than paying someone to shill my stuff who hasn't even used it.

Sorry, but apples and oranges. What we did is not what Izea does.
Churbuck

Jos Schuurmans said...

From: 'Forrester and the smell of "sponsored conversations"':

Augie, you wrote in a comment to Josh's piece that he saved you $500. How come? Now that Josh delivered, aren't you going to hand him the $500 you promised?

Augie Ray said...

David,

I tend to agree with you that there are nuances that demand deeper exploration. There isn't a single definition of "sponsored conversations" but many.

You and I agree that a marketplace of bloggers eager to sell their readers' trust to whomever will pay is a bad concept--bad for bloggers, for brands, and for readers.

You point out a much more appropriate way to "sponsor" a conversation. There seems a huge gap between paying cash to a mommy blogger to have them post a heavily-influenced, questionably authentic blog post and furnishing PCs to Olympic athletes (with no expectation of coverage) so they can blog.

I think IZEA is making the word "sponsored" dirty. "Sponsored" can mean paying in return for advertising, but it can also mean furnishing financial or other support to ease the burden or assist with an endeavor. Few complain of NASCAR or recording artists' tour sponsorships, but if they stopped the race or the concert so that the racer or musician could tell viewers how great the sponsor's products are, that would cross a line!

Augie Ray said...

Jos,

I think the point here is that Forrester WON'T take my cash. And, of course, this dialog on our blog has been that much more authentic and interesting because of that.

That said, if Josh has a favorite charity, I'm happy to part with some cash to put my money where my mouth is.

Nick O'Doherty said...

I am reminded unaccountably of a conversation that was said to have taken place between George Bernard Shaw (author and playwright)and a lady at a dinner party maybe a hundred years ago.

GBS to lady "Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?"

Lady "Why Mr Shaw I believe I would"

GBS "would you sleep with me for sixpence"

Lady "No, what do you think I am?"

GBS "We have established what you are. Now we are negotiating"

Jeremiah Owyang said...

David, I see your point, and I understand the difference.

Back to my list I've categorized the types:
http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2009/03/03/running-list-of-sponsored-conversations/

Lenovo/Olympians did a TYPE 4 (Product Demo). On a side note, I scoured some of the posts and disclosure was not always the case on the olympians blogs.

Kmart/Brogan did a TYPE 6 (Paid Reviews)

There's a misconception that Brogan was paid outright cash (type 7), but in reality he was given a gift card (the closest thing Kmart has to a product) and he was asked to review the experience.

I agree with you David, these are two different forms, however they are BOTH sponsored conversations:

Giving/paying/enticing influencers in exchange for hope of influencing their editorial.

On a personal note, I really want to dialog about this, thank you for responding. Thank you for particiapting as we all try make sense of this emerging trend.

Augie, thanks for triggering this topic.

Augie Ray said...

I appreciate the continued dialog on a topic I believe to be quite important to brands in Social Media.

Jeremiah, your blog post that lists the forms of sponsored conversations (http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2009/03/03/running-list-of-sponsored-conversations/) is very interesting, and I think it makes a good point that there are other more appropriate ways to generate attention from and compensate bloggers than cash.

I think the issue of Sponsored Conversations has many dimensions, and brands are NOT protected merely with disclosure and independence (the latter of which is really an illusion once compensation starts changing hands.) The dimensions that I think need to be considered (and I hope Forrester will include as it considers further clarification on this topic) are:

Disclosure: Not all disclosure is equal. Consumers must know when they are being exposed to paid advertising in a clear and conspicuous manner. A small disclaimer at the end of a long blog post isn't conspicuous--it doesn't inform consumers until after they've dedicated time and attention. I'd suggest that disclosures must be the FIRST thing in a paid blog post for them to meet the legal and ethical standards of advertising.

Form: As you point out, the form matters. Getting cash to post about something does not, in my opinion, buy authenticity; I believe monetary compensation damages both bloggers and brands. (This is why I've been so strongly opposed to IZEA's approach to sponsored conversations.) On the other hand, no one objects when a movie reviewer gets to see a preview of a film for free, nor would we expect "Car and Driver" magazine to buy the cars they review. The form of compensation matters; at the very least the form must be disclosed, but I'd also argue we do brands no favor by suggesting that merely disclosing a cash exchange will protect them from potential consumer backlash in Social Media.

Amount: Clearly, the amount of compensation also matters. Being loaned a car to review is one thing; being given a car is another. If we learned that "Car and Driver" magazine reporters were given cars and making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by reselling them, that would affect their credibility and perception trust. My fear is that brands will merely engage in bidding wars with bloggers with larger readership, but for paid posts to have any authenticity, the amount of compensation must be commensurate with product and topic, not the size of the audience. Readers won't ascribe trust to a blogger taking thousands of dollars (or the brands paying it) for paid blog posts about shoes or toilet bowl cleaners merely because their audiences are larger.

Trust in Blog: This is another dimension that raises my concerns about the use of paid blog marketplaces such as IZEA. Brands have to appreciate that two blogs with equal readership may NOT be equal in the trust they impart to brands. A blog that never or rarely takes sponsored posts--and when they do it is for brands relevant to their focus and audience--is worth far more than blogs out there pimping themselves. Look at SponsoredTweets.com; one day Kendra Wilson may be taking money to tweet about cosmetics, the next about a car, and perhaps then she'll do a paid tweet for an adult service. How can her tweets be worth anything at all to a serious brand?


My point is that if we are going to advise brands on the appropriate way to approach this medium, it must be at a MUCH deeper level than just "disclose" and "give the blogger independence."

David and Jeremiah, thanks for the thoughts!

Augie Ray said...

Nick,

I meant to respond to your comment the other day. I'd heard that story before, but rereading it in this context made me laugh out loud. It's a great, relevant story on this topic! Thanks for sharing.

George F. Snell III said...

Hi Augie:
There's another side of this issue you should consider.

Journalists have been accepting free gifts, trips and products to review from companies for decades.

Do you think newspaper and magazine reviewers pay for the books, CDs, movies, plays and electronics they review for their publications? They get them for free - often before they are available to the public.

It is a standard way for publications to do business. So why can't bloggers do the same thing - especially if they are transparent about it?

Augie Ray said...

Thanks George.

If you check out my next two posts on the subject of Sponsored Conversations, you'll find I agree with your thoughts. It's all a matter of disclosure, independence, form of payment, value, and the blog's POV.

My other blog posts are:

Paid Blog Posts: The Need for Total Disclosure But Only Partial Independence
http://www.experiencetheblog.com/2009/08/paid-blog-posts-need-for-total.html

Paid Blog Posts: Ways to Protect and Enhance Brands
http://www.experiencetheblog.com/2009/08/paid-blog-posts-ways-to-protect-and.html

George F. Snell III said...

Thanks, Augie. I'll definitely be reading them!

Harry said...

I personally think that paig blog posts are one of the most harmful trends for the blogging comunity.The bigger problem is that on a long term basis if you post these kind of "sponsered conversations" your readers will stop visting your blog.

Adam Singer said...

Ace work on getting a reaction from the Groundswell people - loved your post, loved your strategy to get ink on the groundswell blog even more. Nicely done :)

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Adam, I've really appreciated the dialog on the topic, and I think the Forrester folks were very generous with their comments, time, and opinions.

julian said...

I do research on this and similar topics to do with blogging in Malaysia. Paid posts (and tweets) have become very common here - there are possibly cultural reasons for its being more accepted (as a global survey by Text100 suggests: http://julianhopkins.net/index.php?/archives/244-Blogging-and-business-cultures-comparative-survey-on-blogs.html)

I posted some results from a survey of bloggers' opinions here: http://julianhopkins.net/index.php?/archives/268-Do-Malaysian-bloggers-think-that-blog-advertorials-need-to-be-disclosed.html

if anyone is interested in a view from another part of the world, you can check out those links :)