Monday, August 10, 2009

Paid Blog Posts: Ways to Protect and Enhance Brands

This is the second of a two-part post about the law, ethics, and risks of Paid Blog Posts and how marketers can protect their brands while participating in "sponsored conversations." Part One was "Paid Blog Posts: The Need for Total Disclosure But Only Partial Independence".

Tom Gray was right: Money Changes Everything. Start with a group of people with the desire to share experiences, observations, information, and knowledge; add a large number of subscribers; insert cash-rich brands struggling with the slow bleed of ad-supported channels; and what do you get? Bloggers extorting free product from brands; bloggers who rave about tourist destinations while failing to reveal the free trips they receive; brands offering payments for positive reviews; brands spamming blogs' comments to promote themselves; fake brand-sponsored blogs (or flogs) masquerading as legitimate consumer-generated content; and brands so desperate for attention in Social Media that they'll exploit global news and events in order to spam consumers.

How bad has it gotten already in the blogosphere? So bad that you can't even trust mom. (Next we'll be questioning the authenticity of apple pie.) has a front page headline today asking, "Can you trust 'mommy bloggers'?" The answer is apparently not. "There has been a turn of goodwill [against mommy bloggers]," says Liz Gumbinner, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Cool Mom Picks. The influx of advertiser money has "created a new generation of bloggers who blogged to get free stuff."

It's a sad sign of maturity that the once (relatively) altruistic world of blogging is now struggling with the invasion of commerce. Some bemoan this, but it's always been inevitable that some bloggers with lots of readers would want to monetize and that brands would pay to reach those readers. The problem today is that there are no rules of the road for either bloggers or brands, and as noted in the list above, mistakes are both common and embarrassing.

The next year or two is going to see substantial changes coming to the blogosphere, with firms like Forrester offering guidance that will become de facto standards and the FTC jumping into Social Media with strong new rules. Even then, with the world of Social Media continuing to evolve, brands that aren't careful can stumble, and doing so in our ever more connected world can be costly and damaging.

In my last blog post, we explored how brands can pay for posts in a way that meets important ethical and legal standards for advertising. We focused on the concepts of Disclosure and Independence, but are these enough to protect brands? No, conducting business in a legal and ethical manner are table stakes, but brands will not enhance their reputations or protect themselves from all harm merely by being legal and ethical.

What else should marketers consider when planning and executing "sponsored conversations" in the blogosphere? Before we explore this question, it's important to remind ourselves why marketers are so eager for bloggers' attention in the first place; after all, brands already have access to advertising vehicles on blogs that are far easier and less risky than paid blog posts, such as banner ads and Google's AdSense. The reason that brands want mention and acclaim within the content of blogs is, as noted by Forrester's Josh Bernoff, that "sponsored conversations" done right are genuine because they are in the blogger's voice.

Being "genuine" is important; being perceived by consumers as "genuine" is vital. Marketers must not lose focus on the goal of promoting genuine dialog on blogs or doing anything that would undermine perceived authenticity in the minds of blog readers. With this in mind, we can explore how brands can create or undermine genuine dialog with "sponsored conversations."

Form of Payment to Bloggers

As Jeremiah Owyang points out, the form of compensation matters. He's identified eight types of compensation for bloggers, ranging from blogola to access. It is very important for marketers to understand that these forms of payments are not equivalent options and that the way bloggers are paid may be more important than the amount they're paid.

Cash: If all brands want to do is buy blog awareness and links without regard for the impact on consumer perception, then paying cash to bloggers is fine. Of course, marketers do care about consumer perception, which is why writing a check for a blog post is a weak and risky option. Paying cash for a blogger to post about your product does not buy authenticity for that product; in fact, it does the opposite.

My hope is that, as disclosure and transparency become the law and expectation in the blogosphere, we'll see the disappearance of marketplaces that connect greedy bloggers wanting to sell the trust of their readers and brands looking for the easiest way to be mentioned within blog content. After all, when fully disclosed at the outset of a blog post, what blog subscriber would continue reading past the words, "This blog was paid $500 to write 300 words about Jinkies cereal...?"

Product Demonstrations: While blog readers are apt to find posts less genuine when bought and paid for with cash, they will have a different reaction when bloggers are compensated with free or demonstration products. Readers will be more inclined to engage with and believe posts that begin, "I was given the opportunity to try new and improved Jinkies cereal, and here's what I thought..."

No one objects when a movie reviewer gets to see a preview of a film for free, and we expect car makers to lend new models to "Car and Driver" magazine for the purpose of evaluating and publishing reviews to their readers. Access and product demonstrations are forms of compensation that increase the authenticity and reduce the risk consumers will punish brands or bloggers with diminished trust. (Of course, depending on the product, there is a huge difference between giving a product and loaning it to bloggers--see below for a discussion on the importance of perceived value.)

None: The only form of compensation that can be completely disclosed without any risk whatsoever to brand sentiment is none--nothing of value given to bloggers other than great brand experiences that motivate them to share.

Social Media hasn't changed the basic principles of Word of Mouth. The same is true today as ten, twenty, or fifty years ago--the best form of advertising isn't tell people things but to get people telling each other. Of course, advertising will always be a vital part of the marketing mix; brands like Disney were built and are maintained with large investments in advertising, but the company's ads are not why Disney World was mentioned on 10,000 blogs in the past week while Six Flags' 14 parks were mentioned only 4,300 times. Creating authentic buzz on blogs with no special compensation is the ultimate answer to the challenges and opportunities presented by Social Media.

Of course, getting people talking is still hard work! As noted by the Word of Mouth (WOM) Marketing Association, "Word of mouth can be encouraged and facilitated. Companies can work hard to make people happier, they can listen to consumers, they can make it easier for them to tell their friends, and they can make certain that influential individuals know about the good qualities of a product or service." In short, "sponsored conversations" may have a place in building WOM, but it must be a portion of an overall WOM plan and not a replacement for it.

In the end, smart marketers will challenge themselves to avoid the easy path of pulling out the checkbook to pay off bloggers and instead seek ways to create genuine buzz in genuine ways. A fan who raves (without compensation) about a positive brand experience is extremely authentic; a blogger given a product to review is mostly authentic; a person given cash to say something on their blog does not convey genuine sentiment and (when properly disclosed) will tend to reduce rather than enhance the brand's authenticity.

Perception of Financial Value of Offers to Bloggers

Whether or not compensation is monetary, the cash value of the offer must be carefully considered by marketers. This is because the value given to a blogger in return for a paid post will be subconsciously assessed by consumers as they weigh the credibility of the sponsored conversation, the blog, and the brand.

To illustrate this point, let's return to the example previously introduced of new car reviews in auto enthusiast magazines. Subscribers of car magazines understand the quid pro quo between automakers and the publication: Car makers lend cars to the magazine for the purpose of evaluation and review; they don't transfer ownership of the cars to the writers. If readers learned that "Car and Driver" reporters were making tens of thousands of dollars a year by reselling the "gifts" they received from car makers, this knowledge would substantially affect the perception of trust for both the magazine and the brands. (Even under the system of loaned cars, it still caught some bloggers' attention when Motor Trend editor Arthur St. Antoine admitted he didn't even own a car because he had access to "too many test cars.")

How should appropriate cost or value be determined for a paid blog post? Relying on the traditional impressions/readers/eyeballs method of pricing paid media is extremely dangerous for "sponsored conversations." Marketers need to recognize the distinction between paid advertising on blogs (which can vary by the number of impressions) and paid editorial on blogs (which should not). While this may sound counterintuitive, marketers must never lose sight that their actions in Social Media must be seen as genuine by consumers.

Blog readers will likely accept the authenticity of a blog post from a mommy blogger who received a case of free diapers for the purpose of sharing relevant perceptions with her readers. But will readers' perception of authenticity scale with the size of the blogger's audience? If a blogger with a thousand readers receives one case, should a blogger with 10,000 readers receive 10 cases and another with 100,000 readers get 100 cases?

No, consumers' perception of authenticity is based on factors other than the size of the blog's audience. While marketers will and should consider the size and composition of a blog's audience when identifying potential blogging partners, the only factor that matters when determining the value of the offer is how it will be perceived by consumers. Paying more to a blogger with a large audience is risky because it not only raises the question of the authenticity of the blogger's sentiment but does so across a wide audience.

The question of how consumers will perceive value is a tricky one, because it is subjective and not objective. The perception of value will vary based on a variety of factors such as:
  • Actual dollar value of compensation

  • Form of compensation

  • Type of product or service

  • Type of blog

  • Contractual obligation of the blogger
Consider your own reaction to the following similar situation:
  • A blogger is paid $1,500 for a blog post of 500 words.

  • A blogger's trip to a brand tradeshow (worth $1,500) is paid by the brand with the expectation of a three blog posts about the brand.

  • A blogger's trip to a blog conference (worth $1,500) is paid by a brand with no expectation of coverage for the brand.

  • Ninety-five boxes of disposable pull-up training pants (3800 diapers worth $1,500) are sent to a mommy blogger, enough diapers for 12 to 18 months for one child.

  • A car maker loans a car to an auto blogger for a month, and since it can no longer be sold new, the loss of value of that car is in excess of $1,500.

  • A blogger is given the opportunity to give away a $1,500 prize as part of a brand-sponsored contest on the blog. No direct compensation is paid to the blogger, but this promotion allows him or her to increase the blog's readership and earn more money from the paid advertising on the site.

  • A blogger is paid $1,500 cash for 15 hours of consulting and research conducted by the brand into the needs and wants of consumers (with no anticipation of coverage on the blog).

  • A blogger is given the opportunity to interview the CEO of the company in order to furnish content for the blog. The executive's time plus the time required to arrange the interview costs the organization $1,500.

Each of these situations has an actual, objective value of $1,500, but the perception of consumers will vary widely. Brands should proceed with caution, deal only with reputable bloggers, generally avoid cash compensation, and above all research and test the way different forms and amounts of compensation will be perceived by consumers. Compensating bloggers for posts may be a form of paid media, but treating it as if it's just another option in your media mix--a simple question of reach and impressions--can be very harmful to brands in Social Media.

Blog POV

The final dimension that should concern marketers as they evaluate options for sponsored conversations is the Point of View (POV) of the blog. This includes several factors such as:
  • What is the blog's POV with respect to Paid Blog Posts? How often does the blog participate in sponsored conversations? What brands has it promoted in the past? Under what circumstances has it taken paid blog posts? Has it furnished readers with appropriate disclosures? These are questions that should influence a brand's willingness to work with one blog or another.

  • What is the blog's POV with respect to the brand? A blog may have never mentioned the brand in the past, may have criticized it, or may have praised it. If the blog has been critical of the brand in past, that doesn't necessarily mean it should be avoided; in this case, marketers should consider if the criticism was reasonably fair, dispassionate, and professional. A toilet paper company would be well advised to avoid attempting a "sponsored conversation" with a blogger who rails against the destruction of forests, but finding someone who has complained about the texture of the toilet paper may make sense when rolling out a new, softer version of the product.

    Of course, sometimes a brand may find bloggers that have praised the brand or perhaps even find blogs dedicated to promoting the brand. It is not uncommon to find blogs such as Only WDWorld and Harley Davidson Sportster--blogs dedicated to a brand. The rules of the road in terms of maintaining credibility are different on these sorts of blogs since there is no allusion to objectivity. If your brand has fan blogs, this opens up additional opportunities for "sponsored conversations" or other forms of relationships with reduced risk.

  • What is the blog's POV on brands, marketing, the category, or the world at large? Making sure a blog is aligned with and appropriate for a brand is vital when marketers create partnerships with bloggers. There are many ways a brand could be embarrassed by an association with a blogger, and since the rules for bloggers are far less defined and rigid than for traditional media, brands must proceed with caution. Thorough vetting is necessary to make sure the blog and blogger demonstrate the sort of professionalism, consistency, attitude, and beliefs that enhance and support the brand.
Clearly, blogs are here to stay and will only grow in importance to readers and marketers. And there is no stopping the flow of money to bloggers from brands eager for more Social PR. This is recipe both for success and mistakes. Some marketers will succeed in building their brands authentically using Social Media and blogs, but others will get caught in embarrassing situations involving inappropriate disclosure, unethical influence, excessive payments, or improper control of bloggers' content.

Social Media may provide an opportunity for your brand to go viral, but it does the same for your mistakes. A single embarrassment can undo a great deal of brand building in Social Media, so the burden is on marketers to proceed cautiously and with a full understanding of the risks.

If you have additional thoughts on the factors that enhance the opportunities and minimize the risks, please comment!

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