From 'Payola' to 'Pay for Say': Will Metrics Aid Honesty or Abet Dishonesty in Online Conversation?

Every medium or twist on a medium seems to spawn its own version of hiding the agenda.For decades, radio has had – and apparently continues to have – its payola problems.
Written by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld, Contributor

Every medium or twist on a medium seems to spawn its own version of hiding the agenda.

For decades, radio has had – and apparently continues to have – its payola problems. One way or another, music jockeys get paid off to play particular songs.

In TV, it’s a bit more honest. If you see someone drinking a can of a particular brand of soda or talking about it, you pretty much figure it’s been paid for. The practice is called product placement. There’s a reason a Cisco Systems logo appears on teleconferencing screen on “24” and Jack Bauer doesn’t headbutt anyone. It’s just part of the scenery and almost expected, now.

With trade show panels or some Webcasts, it’s often more hidden. A vendor covers the cost of the event, for the right to have one of its executives participate on the panel or be involved in the online conversation. If it’s disclosed upfront, it’s not that big a deal. The audience can use its own ears to filter out self-promotional comments. But it’s still a form of “pay to play” marketing.

Now come the social media. And it’s going to get increasingly hard to figure out when there is “pay to say” commenting going on.

With the splintering of media into ever finer pieces of output and interaction, where 140 characters becomes a commonplace cap on a comment, it will become increasingly difficult to discern “organic” comment from a paid or sponsored equivalent.

If, all of a sudden, there’s a storm of tweets about a particular product, say Beer Zero, the alert among us is going to assume that there’s some commercial incentive involved. Maybe it’s a requirement to enter some kind of giveaway contest. Maybe it’s the term of getting some kind of discount coupon. You won’t know or have the inclination to figure it out. You’ll just have to filter it out.

The (potential) problem is that marketers are marketers. They naturally want to be top of mind when people are engaging each other in thinking or talking about a particular product. That is, the one they happen to make and distribute.

Marketers are automatically inclined to figure out how to make hay of any kind of online discussion of the products they make. And, they want to buy into the twitter storm, the Facebook stream, the blog banter. Good or bad. Good if it is good. To make it good, if it is bad.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau this week, along these lines, issued its first take on a set of definitions for metrics that advertisers trying to use the social media, from blogs to Facebook and MySpace interchange to twittering, could use.

The interesting part, to these eyes, was the attempt to put some kind of benchmarking on “conversation size” and “site relevance.”

Media planners will be trying to figure out where in all these social media certain “conversation phrases” are appearing. These phrases will be built into their requests for proposals or insertion orders, for campaigns they want to execute to reach those engaged in these digital conversations.

And they will be judging these conversations on:

Number of Conversations: Relevant Sites o The count of sites in the conversation whose content contains conversation phrases from the client’s Request for Proposal (RFP) or Insertion Order (IO).

Number of Conversations: Relevant Links o The count of links to (in-links) and from (out-links) content that contains conversation phrases from the client’s RFP or IO across all sites identified for and/or supporting the campaign plan. Conversation Reach o The number of unique visitors (monthly) across sites in the conversation.

Density of Conversation: Relevant Posts o The percentage for which conversation phrases from the client’s RFP or IO match Post content on the sites identified in the campaign media plan.

These online conversations will inevitably lead to new forms of what advertisers call ‘contextual advertising.’ Putting a message in where it’s relevant to the conversation.

So far there’s a lot of experimentation going on. “Everything is basically new,’’ as Jeremy Fain, Vice President of Industry Services of the IAB, puts it. And the best result comes when an advertiser “earns” attention, because of the natural strength of a product or service. That is to say: People talk about it because they like it, have paid for it and believe others should.

But inevitably there are going to be product manufacturers and service providers who try to shorten the process by paying conversationalists to talk up their product. To increase “conversation density” about what they deliver.

One site that has made peace with this is BlogHer, which aggregates and promotes the views of female bloggers, mostly in the United States.

BlogHer doesn’t preclude its bloggers from accepting freebies from manufacturers or payments of various sorts (like gift certificates) for commenting on their products. Those comments though are set off as “reviews” and the fact that compensation was involved clearly identified. And BlogHer insists on making any kind of sponsorship of commentary clear (and separate) to the visitor.

It's really quite simple, says Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder and chief operating officer of BlogHer. Give the site visitor or the conversation participant (1) context, for the comments, (2) disclosure, of any sponsorship, giveaway or payment, and (3) separation of content that involves any giveaway or payment, from content that does not.

When its "Pinch My Salt" food blogger discusses a Greek yogurt where some kind of compensation is involved, that becomes a "review" that is clearly labeled as "a compensated review from BlogHer and Fage."

No ads appear on that review page, so you can just evaluate the words there. But there's a link back to the 'conventional' Pinch My Salt blog, that is supported by 'conventional' advertising. The author says what she wants, the advertiser chooses (separately) whether to put its sponsorship dollars behind the blog. The author does not tap out any comment as a result of any specific payment, freebie or inducement.

So should it be with any tweet, Facebook status update or other element of social conversation where someone has taken some form of compensation from a manufacturer or service provider.

Sure, this would consume a lot of space in a comment that is capped at 140 characters.

But what is the worth of a tweet or an update or a post if the viewer can’t honestly assess its independence?

Not much.

If “pay for say” were to become the social media equivalent of payola, every brand suffers.

Because honest praise of a product would become indistinguishable from paid praise.

IMAGE SOURCE: Experientia.com

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