I have resisted so far blogging about Federated Media bloggers participating in a Microsoft "conversational marketing" ad campaign. On TechMeme, the dialog is in full flower, demonstrating the power of the blogosphere as a medium for conversation. However, the blog posts from FM's John Battelle, Neil Chase and Chas Edwards trying to justify the People Ready/FM conversational marketing blogger campaign don't address the core issue.
FM bloggers were asked for a quote, like a book blurb, about what "people ready," Microsoft's ad slogan, means to them, in the form of "When did you know your business was people ready." I created a version of the ad for the FM/Microsoft campaign, which gets to the root of the problem. FM/Microsoft would not publish the second ad, which makes this instance of conversational marketing one-sided.
This situation with the FM/Microsoft campaign is a slippery slope, but that doesn't mean conversational marketing doesn't have value. There should be dialog among all constituents, but the "people ready" campaign is a manufactured dialog.
I have this image of bloggers in the scene in Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray, as a waning film actor, shilling for Suntory whiskey. "It's 'People Ready' time."
FM CEO John Battelle addresses the criticism in his FM blog. John comes from a journalism background, and I doubt that he thinks he exercised good judgment in having his bloggers contemplate the meaning of people ready for Microsoft.
I think the main criticism of the campaign comes down to this: Never do anything where there is a perception that integrity was purchased. The question is, how to ensure that perception? I think in the case of the authors who participated in the Microsoft campaign, there are pretty much two camps. First, there are those who do not claim to be "traditional journalists" or who believe that their readers are sophisticated, and can judge for themselves whether their voice has really been purchased. They figure anything that is in the ad unit is understood to be an ad. If they participate in it, they disclose that by the fact of their name being in the ad. They honestly don't see what the fuss is about. Those in the second camp, after thinking about this episode, think they made a mistake about joining the campaign. They've stopped the ads running on their sites, and they won't do similar campaigns in the future.
I think there's room in this world for both approaches. But no matter what, I think the key, as Scoble says, is to disclose.
FM Publisher Chas Edwards lays the blame for the blogstorm with Nick Denton of gossipy Valleywag, who first wrote about the issue:
So there’s a fair amount of evidence Denton is raising a stink all by himself. Or perhaps his disdain for the advertisers that support his business (Gawker Media), our business (Federated Media), and every other ad-supported content business online or offline, is so great that he feels they don’t belong in the conversation at all. Except, of course, the conversation in which they agree to pay him, then shut up. At FM, we think that — for commercially supported sites, anyway — marketers might just have something to add to the conversation. And we’ll keep working on innovative ways for them to do just that.
Neil Chase, FM vice president, explains that the bloggers were asked to participate in a discussion around the "people ready" theme. Is it a theme worthy of discussion by bloggers who have better things to do with their brain cycles than comment on a Microsoft ad slogan?
In the case of this Microsoft campaign, the marketers asked if our writers would join a discussion around their "people ready" theme. Microsoft is an advertiser on our authors' sites, but it's paying them only based on the number of ad impressions delivered. There was no payment for joining the conversation and they were not required to do it. They're not writing about this on their blogs, and of course several of them have been known to be pretty hard on Microsoft at times as reporters. They're talking about the topic, and readers joined that conversation.