Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Blogs in the Marketing Mix: Four Measures of Blog Credibility

In my last blog post, we explored the recent "Social Media Ad Metrics Definitions" report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). In this report, the IAB attempts to define metrics for Social Media, including methods for establishing the credibility of blog authors; unfortunately, the report didn't go nearly far enough on this matter.

Since blogs are increasingly important to marketers and because blog credibility is so vital but difficult to establish, it seems beneficial to explore this topic further. Based on research conducted into credibility on the Web, I suggest there are four dimensions that separate the credible and worthwhile blogs from the ones marketers should avoid. These four dimensions are Independence, Affinity, Transparency, and Presentation.

It is easy to see why brands are increasingly turning attention to blogs for marketing and PR purposes. In our newly Social world, blog traffic is increasing while traffic growth to traditional media sites is slowing. In the past year, traffic to Blogger and Wordpress went up 44% and 50% respectively, while traffic to CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times went up an average of just 17%.

Brands have many ways of leveraging the growing power and reach of blogs. In addition to launching their own blogs, brands may also sponsor blogs, target blogs for outreach and PR efforts, advertise on blogs, recruit bloggers into networks with special access to new products and information, and pay for posts (sometimes called "sponsored conversations.")

But all blogs are not created equal, and brands must proceed with caution, particularly when it comes to participating in networks that promise to play matchmaker between brands eager for blog attention and bloggers interested in a share of marketers' budgets. While third-party blogger networks may give the appearance that purchasing recognition and mentions on blogs is a cinch, the wrong impression on the wrong blog can do more harm than good.

Evaluating which blogs are right for your brand requires consideration of factors that include reach, relevance, and credibility. Reach refers to the audience for a blog, including total number of readers, subscribers, and visits. Relevance concerns the extent to which a blog's content and audience is appropriate to the brand; this can be determined by evaluating the number and frequency of blog posts on a given topic, the blog's organic search results for desired terms, and the percentage of readers or visitors that match desired demographics.

Credibility, the third dimension that determines if a given blog is right for a brand's outreach or sponsorship, is perhaps the most difficult to ascertain. Reach and Relevance can be determined by quantitative measures, but Credibility is more qualitative. Blog credibility has dimensions that include:

Blog Independence

Blogs that are already sponsored--even if the sponsoring brands are not competitors of your brand--have diminished value. In addition to the number of sponsorships, the quality of the sponsors should also be assessed.

Also, marketers should be cautious of working with blogs that have a noticeable number of paid blog posts ("sponsored conversations"). The presence of sponsored conversations can create brand clutter on a blog, but more importantly a large number of paid posts undermines the author's trustworthiness to readers. An endorsement from a blogger that rarely promotes brands is far more valuable than an endorsement appearing on a blog with many posts that begin, "This is a paid, sponsored blog post."

Finally, blogs that have a lot of ads or advertising of poor quality also reduce the perceived independence. In 2002, the Stanford-Makovsky Web Credibility Study found that advertising on a web site caused a reduction in the credibility of the site, and that pops-up ads and advertising that was difficult to distinguish from content caused substantial reductions in site credibility.

Quantitative measures of Independence: Ratio of sponsored conversations to total posts; Number of ads/sponsorships evident on each page.

Qualitative measures of Independence: Types of brands that sponsor or advertise on the blog; types of ads that appear on the blog.

Blog Affinity

A blog may be independent from other brands but still have a mission or point of view that is inappropriate for a particular brand. Unlike Relevance, which measures specific content and key terms that appear on a blog, Affinity is a consideration of how the brand's values match the blog's. For instance, a sponsored conversation about a new SUV will not be considered credible if it appears on an automotive blog that supports environmental causes and frequently criticizes vehicles with poorer fuel efficiency.

Problems of affinity or context are not new in online marketing, and marketers seeking to purchase advertising or sponsored conversations should heed the occasional missteps that have occurred with contextual banner ads. For example, it might have seemed a good idea for a travel company that offers experiences with sharks to use "sharks" as a keyword, until it caused their ad to appear beside the article, "Shark Kills Man Off San Diego Coast." In this case, the lack of affinity between the article and the ad reduced the ad's effectiveness.

Qualitative measure of Affinity: Before sponsoring or attempting to establish relations with a blog, marketers must take the time to evaluate each blog and ensure the correct affinity between blog and brand values.

Blog Transparency

As paid and sponsored conversations grow in frequency, a blogger's adherence to WOMMA ethics disclosure requirements must be an absolute requirement before a reputable brand establishes any commercial arrangement with a blogger. While sponsored blog networks such as IZEA claim to monitor blogs for obedience to rules intended to promote ethical behavior, it is important advertisers understand they and not the networks have the onus to ensure ethical behavior with respect to the advertisers' brands.

There are two reasons marketers should not rely on blog networks to police the ethics and disclosures of bloggers. First, WOMMA's Marketing Ethics Code of Conduct states (emphasis mine), "We require marketers to effectively monitor disclosure of consumers involved in their word of mouth initiatives." Secondly, in the event a blogger is caught passing off sponsored blog posts as unpaid editorial content, the damage will be much greater to the brands involved than to the network.

Quantitative measure of Transparency: One hundred percent of advertising and sponsorship on a blog must be clearly identified as such.

Blog Presentation

You already know this about your own marketing materials and Web sites, but spelling errors, poor grammar, and unattractive or unusable design undermines credibility. In a study of health site credibility conducted by Eysenbach & Kohler, it was found a professional design was strongly associated with perceived credibility.

Even though the standards for grammar and design may be lower on blogs than on brand or mainstream media sites, a recent study, "The Impact of Anonymity on Weblog Credibility," found that "the writer of the well-formatted, error free blog was more credible than the writer of poorly presented blog."

(Interestingly, this same study found that the quality of writing had no influence on the credibility of the blog itself, but the author notes this may be due to the use of students rather than a broader set of study participants. I suspect students are likely to have a much higher tolerance for grammatical errors than would older consumers and professionals.)

Quantitative measures of Presentation: Grammatical and spelling errors are easy to check. You might review a number of recent blog posts manually or use tools such as WebSiteOptimization.com's free Web Site Spell Checker.

Qualitative measures of Independence: It is recommended brands evaluate whether a given blog meets minimum standards for attractiveness, usability, and professionalism before associating the brand with that blog.

These four attributes--Independence, Affinity, Transparency, and Presentation--are important determinants of a blog's credibility. These are not the only factors that enhance or diminish credibility, but they are among the most important. Other factors that may be important, depending on the blog and brand, include Blog Attribution (the more frequently sites and blogs attribute their sources, the more credible they will be perceived) and Blog Reputation (presence of awards, Diggs, etc.)

In the future, it may be possible for marketers to assess blog and blogger credibility through automated means. A group of researchers in Austria is developing a system that analyzes words in blogs and compares them to words used in mainstream news sites as a means to estimate credibility.

It remains to be seen whether or not automated systems will ever be able to accurately assess attributes such as Independence, Affinity, Transparency, and Presentation, so for now marketers are advised to approach blog advertising and sponsored conversations with caution and to retain the responsibility for evaluating each and every blog. Networks may promise easy access to a large number of blogs, but you've spent too much time and money building, nurturing and protecting your brand to leave its stewardship to others.


EH said...

Thanks for the advice on making your blog more credible. The spell checker is an excellent tool. Several blog posts I have read had several typos or spelling errors that could have been easily avoided if they had used a spell checker. You're right, small errors like these definitely affect people's opinions of the entire blog.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks EH. Glad you found the info helpful. I appreciate the feedback!