Over the weekend Chris Brogan published a sponsored post on the Dad-O-Matic blog. The sponsor was Kmart and the sponsorship was arranged through Izea's PayPerPost offering. The ruckus erupted after Jeremiah Owyang asked on Twitter about the ethical ramifications of sponsored blog posts.
Sadly, it appeared that many respondents were so distracted by the inclusion of Brogan's name in Owyang's question that they missed the depth and breadth of the question itself. What should've been a conversation about the long-term affects of sponsored blogs turned into a massive cat fight via microblogging.
Owyang had a fair inquiry. I firmly believe that he did not intend his inquiry to be an affront to Brogan, either. And Owyang himself took a bit of a beating for asking those questions, but it's my opinion that those questions must be asked. If not by Owyang, then by the brands who are considering sponsoring blog posts and the bloggers who are trying to weigh the pros and cons of taking cash.
- Is sponsored blogging authentic?
- Is it transparent?
- Is it sustainable?
Authenticity: Why not? A person can do a sponsored blog post without selling his or her soul just as a product reviewer can be unbiased when he or she gets a free gadget to try out for a while (or keep, depending on the reviewer, and that's a whole other debate). This is not an issue of integrity. People need to stop making it one. Nowhere in any of the PayPerPost marketing info do I read "if you sponsor a blogger you guarantee that blogger will sing your praises."
Transparency: Again, I say, why not? In the case of blogger transparency, using Brogan as an example, he's one of the most transparent guys on the Internet even before he did this post. That did not change with his sponsored post. You still saw the true author. In the case of brand transparency, Kmart took a risk sponsoring Brogan to do this post. I'm sure, behind the scenes, management had tough conversations over what piece of their business might be exposed by giving someone more intimate access. It's the same thought process that an enterprise tech company goes through before determining whether or not it should send one of its products out for review.
Sustainability: Wait for it... YES. This is absolutely sustainable, and I think this is the most important question to answer. And before anyone balks, let me say a few things:
- Print news outlets have been publishing advertorials for years, often packaged with traditional editorial. Granted, the journalist writing the story and the person writing the advertorial are different, but the credibility of the overall publication is not diminished.
- Influence does not only come in the form of money. It can come through relationships, product placement /reviews, public relations and marketing people, life experience, right place at the right time, desired page views, etc.
- The authority of mainstream news has been questioned for years. The authority of bloggers have been questioned a lot recently, too. Citizen journalists further muddy the waters. Therefore, the whole "advertising versus journalism" argument, while still in tact, is not as black and white as it used to be. Black and white thinking is indicative of an old media era. We are not in that era anymore. The ethical balance that each blogger strikes is for the most part up to him or her, and it's up to the readers to discern what is written with integrity and what is not.
OK, back to sustainability. Sponsored blog posts through companies like Izea present an opportunity for brands to get in front of consumers in a more trusted way (note I say "more" and not "unquestionably"). Forrester reported last week that only 16 percent of consumers actually trust corporate blogs. Meaning, as hard as companies may try for authenticity and transparency via their blogs, the buyers ain't buyin' it. While I wouldn't say that brands should close up blog shop and go about other means, it might be beneficial to consider sponsored blog posts as a way to reach into the audience versus trying to get the few trusted readers to come to them.
It's the difference between what I call "passive blogging" and "active blogging." Passive blogging is the act of creating content on a corporate blog and trying to bring readers to you. Active blogging is going out to where your audience is and finding creative ways to promote content, whether it be as a guest blog or a sponsored post.
Some might say, "Well, I wouldn't trust that either," but if you trust the blogger in question, and you know he had the right to say yes or no to the sponsorship based on his own experiences, might you give the sponsored post just a tad more credibility? Of course, the blogger would need to ensure a good balance of content. From my perspective, there should be a 10:1 ratio of independent posts to sponsored posts in order to achieve the right balance. No one wants his or her blog to be a revolving advertisement.
I do agree with Aaron Brazell that we do, to some degree, need to put the ethics argument to rest. That is not the issue anymore. Sponsored blogging is upon us and it's up to the bloggers and the readers to decide what we are going to do with it. We can fight with each other and scream "lack of integrity" to anyone who does it. Or, we can accept it as a viable business model for bloggers and a potentially decent branding vehicle for companies. I vote for the latter.
Other posts on the topic:
What do you think? Let me know in the TalkBacks.