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Jeremiah Owyang Defends “Sponsored Conversations”

March 2nd, 2009 · 7 Comments · General

In a post today entitled “How To Make Sponsored Conversations Work“, Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang explains how sponsored conversations–whether through blogs, Twitter, or some other online social medium–can be done right.

He excerpts the following requirements from a report prepared by his fellow Forrester analyst Sean Corcoran:

“1) sponsorship transparency and 2) blogger authenticity.

Sponsorship transparency means that both the marketer and the blogger must make it absolutely clear to the reader community that they are reading paid content – think of Google Adwords “Sponsored Links.” Blogger authenticity means that the blogger should have complete freedom to write in their own voice – even if the content they write about the brand is negative.”

He then goes on to cite Seagate, Panasonic, Symantec, and Wal-Mart as successful examples of companies sponsoring conversations according to these principles.

I have mixed reactions. I like the idea of sponsors as long-term advertisers for blogs and aggregators, e.g., the way that several companies sponsor posts on Techmeme. I’m a lot less keen on the idea of paying a blogger who normally writes unpaid content to bestow his or her reputation on commissioned posts. That crosses the line between advertising and editorial, at least for me. And I can’t imagine how any of this would work on a micro-blogging medium like Twitter.

I find that the bloggers I like reading and the tweeters I follow are people who communication their passion as text with minimal loss in translation. Maybe I’m just projecting–I know that I’d never want to find my readers questioning whether I’m writing what I really feel.

In any case, my gut reaction–much like Steve Hodson’s–to sponsored conversations is to see them as advertorials. I can see how they might play a key role in an ad-supported revenue model, and they have the potential to be much more interesting than other ads. But I don’t think that independent bloggers should be writing them. As Steve points out, you’ve got to ask yourself: how much is your integrity worth?

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel Lemire // Mar 2, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Well. What you are saying is that your are not getting paid specifically for running this blog, so this is not a sponsored blog. At some point though, you do get paid by some company, and this has an effect on what you write, whether you like it or not.

    Thankfully, in the modern world, in a modern organization, employees are not bound to the “corporation”.

    If you are a decent person, you can even “kill” your own corporation (some people did it with Enron) and survive the fall.

    So, I am much less worried about who pays you than whether you are a decent person.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 2, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    I’m paid by my employer, just like you’re paid by yours, and, like you, I’m not paid to blog–and more importantly I’m not told what to write about.

    Does being employed by Endeca constrain what I can write about? Yes, no doubt. I have an NDA, and I also try to avoid doing anything that would scandalize my employer, like putting up a picture of the Scorpions’ Virgin Killer album cover on my blog while discussing Wikipedia and internet censorship, or bad-mouthing customers or partners.

    But, beyond that, I freely speak my mind. I own my domain, and no one at Endeca tries to control how I use it. Indeed, my colleagues in marketing appreciate my independence, since my association with Endeca would be worthless if I weren’t. I pity companies that agonize about implementing a “social media strategy” but haven’t figured this out.

  • 3 Josh Young // Mar 2, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    I’m likewise pretty skeptical of sponsored posts. They don’t fit the value proposition between reader and writer because they erode the trust that grounds that value proposition.

    So even if we suppose it as fact that an author is being very honestly enthusiastic about some product or service, and even if we as a subgroup of readers *knew* that fact, we still wouldn’t blame other readers for their wariness. I doubt we would blame them even if they were wary of believing our own avowals of the author’s honesty.

    But I’m not sure Daniel Lemire gets it quite right. Sure, money influences every author’s choice of what to write. Even if I were passionate about some perversity, I wouldn’t blog about it because I wouldn’t want to be embarrassed by it later in a business context (or any other!). But certainly there’s a useful distinction of degree to be made between this kind of highly attenuated influence and the concentrated influence we worry about with sponsored posts.

    On the one hand, it’s very easy to predict what the sponsor wants and doesn’t want. The rewards are also much more salient since we know from the get-go the going rate for this and, thus, future posts. The net payoff function is pretty clear.

    On the other hand, aside from edge-case perversity examples, it’s very difficult to predict what readers want to hear and don’t want to hear over the long term. (Will they get a kick out of a purely economic argument for honesty, or will they be disgusted at the mere thought?) It would take serious time and effort to tailor my every thought to the audience’s diverse tastes–whether here at The Noisy Channel or at my own blog. And I would likely still get it wrong–or, I would worry, more wrong than I would have had I written genuinely.

    Trust is a resource authors build with readers over the long term. Any given post is but one among a pattern of them. Very simply, because the costs are higher and the returns substantially riskier, the expected return on a general strategy of dishonestly *over the long term* is much lower.

    A sponsored post could break a pattern of long-term honesty. It might give readers special cause to think I’d shifted my blogging strategy from being spread out over a series of long-term posts and decisions, in which honesty pays, to being focused on monetizing one near-term lie.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 2, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    I can see one class of exceptions. If someone offered me privileged access to X in exchange for a promise to write about it, where X was something of particular interest to me and my readers, I’d probably agree to such a commitment. Of course, the reason I see no problem with this situation is that I’d write the post regardless of the promise.

  • 5 Jeremiah Owyang // Mar 7, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Since this discussion started, I’ve created a list of sponsored conversations, it’s grown considerably:

    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2009/03/03/running-list-of-sponsored-conversations/

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 7, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Jeremiah, thanks for sharing this list, and for stopping by! Reading your list, I think we may actually be on or close the same page: it’s OK to include sponsored posts in a blog or other social medium as long as they are clearly labeled as advertorials.

    Where I do feel pretty strongly–and where we may disagree–is that bloggers whose value comes from their independence and reputation for integrity shouldn’t start *writing* the advertorials. That’s strikes me as the surest path to crossing the line.

  • 7 Jeremiah Owyang // Mar 7, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Daniel

    There’s merit to your caveat, some bloggers won’t benefit, lose trust for their audience –and then lose audience.

    See the different ranges –some are so lightly branded such as blogging on a third party site and talking about ‘lifestyle’ –not even products. (Guy Kawasaki on AMEX site)

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