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.