Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sponsored Conversations: What is Your (Irrelevant) Justification?

05811 Trust must be earned (on the floor)Image by geekstinkbreath via Flickr

“Trust is not a request. Trust is earned. Trust is not spoken. Trust is a feeling.”

So notes Jeffrey Gitomer in his book, “Little Teal Book of Trust." He's absolutely correct--trust is not defined by the person who wants it but is intrinsically felt by the person who gives it. This means trust cannot be willed into existence through logic and justification.

I cannot tell you why you should trust me, nor can I justify that I deserve your trust; I can only earn your trust through my actions. This truism can help guide marketers as they set expectations and protect their brands when entering into commercial relationships with bloggers. Instead of arguing about what is right or wrong in "sponsored conversations," the time has come to instead start testing what consumers feel towards particular brands, different sorts of bloggers, and various types of blogger compensation.

Thoughts of trust and how it cannot be justified into existence have been top of mind for me lately because of some terrific and insightful discussions I've had on the topic of "sponsored conversations." I've traded insights with some smart and visionary people from Forrester, enjoyed a spirited discussion with Jason Falls over a Maker's Mark, and engaged in a vigorous debate with my fellow panelists for the upcoming Ethics in Blogging webinar. (The free webinar will occur Thursday, September 24th at 1 pm ET/10 am PT.)

I've observed that discussions about paid blog posts tend to focus on the logical reasons why brands and bloggers believe they can engage in sponsored conversations. This approach to the topic is fundamentally flawed; it considers only brands' and bloggers' justifications, but since trust is imparted and felt by readers, our justifications are meaningless.

We cannot create trust where it does not exist by presenting cogent and reasoned arguments. Keep this in mind while reviewing the following justifications I've heard in recent weeks:
  • From the bloggers: We work hard and have earned audiences, thus we deserve compensation: This justification speaks to bloggers' reasons for feeling it is ethical to accept compensation in return for blog mentions, but it says nothing of consumer perception of trust. Besides, if working hard and having readers was sufficient to justify compensation, there are 5,900 journalists--all laid off in the past year--who would love to hear this news.

  • From the bloggers: I loved the product already, so it's okay that I take compensation to rave about it. While this justification may help bloggers to feel okay about being compensated for their praise, it does not tell us what consumers will feel when they read a disclosure such as, "I love this product--really I do--and I've accepted a year's supply of it to tell the reasons why I love it." Will the consumer believe this, or is a seed of doubt planted? Will they read a blog post preceded with this sort of disclosure, or will they lose interest and move on? Will they see this as authentic opinion or as an ad (and we all know how much consumers love ads--just ask the 91 percent of moms who reported that they do not watch commercials when viewing recorded programming via DVRs)? Unless we secure the answers to these questions from consumers, this argument remains a mere hypothesis.

  • From the brands: We don't tell bloggers what to write--they have complete control to say anything, both positive and negative. I have no doubt marketers and agencies strive to be completely ethical when compensating bloggers for their posts, but once again this argument is from the perspective of the blogger and brand and not of readers. Isn't it possible (or likely) that blog readers will suspect a gift given to the blogger may affect his or her sentiment about the brand? And what happens if a blogger accepts compensation and then trashes the brand--will brands keep knocking on his or her door to continue paying for negative sentiment? Might consumers suspect that compensated bloggers are inclined to shade their honest opinion in order to avoid biting the hand that feeds them? We don't really know, because while many justify that sponsored conversations are authentic because brands do not exert editorial control, few have tested this theory to see if it holds water with consumers.
My point isn't that sponsored conversations are bad! There are, without any doubt, appropriate ways to compensate bloggers--ways that aren't just ethical but also earn consumer trust. That last part is fundamental, because what bloggers and brands believe about the trust they deserve simply isn't relevant. The only thing that matters is the trust consumers feel.

As I've noted in the past, there are important factors to be considered when marketers pay bloggers for attention; these include the value of compensation, the form of compensation, and the context of the blog. So how does a brand know what sort of value or form of compensation will be perceived as trustworthy by consumers? The answer to this question is vital, because the cost of a mistake can be substantial (to the brand and to an agency's client relationships); a single mishap can result in widespread embarrassment and everlasting infamy on Jeremiah Owyang's "A Chronology of Brands that Got Punk’d by Social Media."

There is an easy way to know how consumers will react to different combinations of value, form, and blog context in sponsored conversations. The solution does not rely on logic and justifications but on a key tool that has been in the marketers' toolkit for decades: testing. We test marketing messages, product enhancements, and ads to make sure our marketing dollars don't go to waste. Considering the stakes when engaging in sponsored conversations--the risk of viral ridicule, the potential to diminish trust in our brands, and the cost of PR crises--why shouldn't we apply simple and proven testing processes to find out what consumers feel before we write a check, send a case of product, or whisk a blogger away to a brand conference?

I can lead you to a pool of water and tell you all the reasons why it should be warm--the sun is beating down on the surface, the heater is operating, etc.--but you'll still test the temperature by dipping your toe into the water prior to jumping in.

Leaping into the Social Media pool via sponsored conversations will create waves. Make sure you will be generating the waves you want before you leap, because containing a problem once it is rippling through the blogosphere is like trying to calm a pool after someone has cannonballed.

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Nick said...

Agreed - trust is earned.

If I could only get the 2 hours back that I just spent perusing Jeremiah's list of brand follies!

Promotional Products said...

You make some great points here, I totally agree that you can not just request or even demand trust. Trust is something that must be earned and the best way to do that is through experience and displaying customer service.