Forrester published a report this morning telling corporations that it's a good idea to engage bloggers in "sponsored conversations," or the exchange of goods or credit in exchange for blog coverage. The report, titled "Add Sponsored Conversations to Your Toolbox", is 8 pages long, focuses on a number of high profile examples like the case of KMart and Chris Brogan, and sells for $795.Analyst firm
We respectfully disagree with Forrester's recommendations on this topic. In fact, we think that paying bloggers to write about your company is a dangerous and unsavory path for new media and advertisers to go down. We recognize that it's a complicated question, but we don't feel convinced by Forrester's conclusions regarding those complications.
Defenders of the tactic argue that it doesn't differ substantially from traditional advertising, that it's effective for advertisers, that bloggers want to profit from their writing and that with proper disclosure there's no loss of credibility for either party.
We disagree with these arguments. For more conversation see Jeremiah Owyang's post on the report.
How Much Marketing Would a Marketing Blogger Blog About If A Marketing Blogger Could Market Marketing?
Effectiveness for advertisers is only a consideration because the price point is so low. Chris Brogan, for example, was given a $500 gift card to KMart in exchange for writing about the store. Chris Brogan is a new media rock star who does not need $500 but presumably participated because he's a marketing guy who's willing to experiment with new tactics. He specializes in it, in fact, and we have a lot of respect for him. His new media rock star status, however, does not mean that he has an audience with numbers that are significant to KMart's. His numbers are probably worth more than $500 in large part because of the visibility that the controversy helped stir up.
Even more than Brogan, many of the other participants in the KMart program are marketing bloggers who approach blogging in the style of John Chow, who says plainly: "I make money online by telling people how much money I make online."
In other words, very very few blogs have the kind of audience numbers that would make this practice effective at any but the lowest price point. Of those blogs that do have substantial numbers, we suspect that many of those are blogs about marketing - not general interest or blogs on other specific topics.
Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?
It's hard not to juxtapose this practice with the consolidation and struggles of more traditional media outlets. As Nick Carr might argue, the companies now paying specific bloggers to write about their products used to sponsor whole newspapers - thus subsidizing the kind of investigative reporting that no one will otherwise fund.
Blogging is a beautiful thing. The prospect of this young media being overrun with "pay for play" pseudo-shilling is not an attractive one to us.
Admittedly we say this from a position of privilege, as professional bloggers. Shouldn't everyone be able to get a piece of the action? We are sympathetic to this position, but can't help but feel like it's a morally ambiguous argument. Other than marketing bloggers, it seems that much of the "Pay Per Post" crew is made up of "mommy bloggers." Who would tell a mom with a blog that she doesn't deserve to make a buck, too? It's easy to be high minded about writing as an art when you make a comfortable living doing it.
How is This Different From Any Other Advertising?
One of the other arguments that gets made in favor of "sponsored conversation" is that it's just another form of advertising. The old paradigm of maintaining a wall between advertising and editorial still has a lot of validity, though. It's easier said than done, especially when it comes to tiny operations like almost all blogs are - but the ideals that paradigm offers can't be forgotten because of convenience.
Here at ReadWriteWeb we've recently begun running "sponsored posts" that are written not by our writers but by our advertisers. The best among these have been several by API management company Mashery ("Mashery: Untold Secrets Behind Managing an API", for example). Those posts are undeniably valuable for our readers (readers have submitted and cast more than 100 votes on Digg for several of them) and they are very, very clearly identified as coming from our advertisers. They are an interlude from our regular programming; we maintain a wall between that and the original content our writers create.
That said, if anyone charged for almost anything in this Web 2.0 economy, we would probably regularly receive free software to review. That might get a little more complicated.
When I got my first job at one of the largest tech blogs on the web, I was warned by staff of another of the largest tech blogs to not let the limo rides and champagne from vendors go to my head. That was no exaggeration for that person's blog, but here at ReadWriteWeb we very rarely get offers anywhere near as extravagant! We do sometimes get travel paid for, though. We disclose that if we end up writing about the companies that paid for those expenses - but it's an admittedly complicated situation. We don't accept being "taken out to dinner" individually but we do sometimes attend events where a group meal or travel is covered by a vendor. The bigger those events are, the more interesting they tend to be; the smaller and more personalized events tend to be more nauseating - so we say no!
Except in cases where the most ham-handed PR handlers make it more appealing to do so, it's hard to really think as critically about companies that are treating you nicely and introducing you to their staff.
We think that all of the above differs substantially from a shopping spree. That's just taking things too far, debasing a young medium too much. The examples at hand may not be like Juan Cole taking a break from blogging about Iraq to post about all the cool stuff he scored from Target, or what have you, but the whole idea still strikes us as dirty. Bloggers are replacing mainstream media and we believe that the community as a whole has the same kind of obligation to inform the public at large about those topics that we're dedicated to covering. Objectivity may be something we're transcending, but that doesn't mean we have to swing so far the other direction that we become cheap tools of corporate interest.
We recognize that this is a complex situation unfolding in a changing media landscape, but we didn't find Forrester's reasoning compelling enough to change our minds.