Understanding Izea’s Sponsored Blogging Service

My role as an analyst is to find out what types of social media are effective for Forrester’s clients, this weekend provided a unique opportunity to watch how sponsored blog posts are now emerging.

Understanding Sponsored Blog Posts
I posed some questions on Twitter when I learned of it on Sat (I embedded them below for any late-comers), and then got on the phone (yeah that old thing) with Ted Murphy the CEO of Izea to get the facts, and then talk to Chris Brogan, one of the bloggers who participated and is also on the Board of Advisors of Izea, who has since explained his actions in this lengthy and active post (over 170 comments and 17 trackbacks). Ted said “the call was balanced and open”, and Chris Brogan said “He’s a very fair and good analyst.”. Let’s stay with this theme as this is a very charged topic.

Izea (and social spark), a spin-off the heavily criticized Pay Per Post has launched a campaign offering influential bloggers gift cards to go shopping, and then share the wealth with their community via a contest. This is good, I’m all for bloggers getting paid. Update: I just discovered the inventory of bloggers, where you can purchase sponsored blog posts.

Let’s examine why Izea campaigns are likely to be successful

  • Recent research shows that corporate blogs are not trusted, but we know that consumers trust their peers, so savvy brands will want to benefit from word of mouth.
  • The economy is sinking, consumers, bloggers, well everyone, can use extra cash in the hand.
  • Pay Per Post did not require disclosure, Izea requires up front disclosure –this is ethical.
  • It’s doubly attractive as each of the bloggers can hold a contest, offering additional prizes to their readers, this spread like wildfire in Twitter –reaching a large audience.
  • I learned from Ted that the bloggers that would participate would receive traffic, as the advertising network within Izea would point to the blogs that are sponsored.
  • Click through rates will be far higher than banner ads, Ted shared me some numbers, and if he’s right, they are significantly higher. This makes sense as the source is higher trusted than an ad.
  • It’s inexpensive for the brand, while I hear of many soical media campaigns for Fortune companies being 50-100k, the payout to bloggers and community is a mere 5k, although I’m sure there’s many service fees going to the marketing team at Izea.
  • But what are the risks?
    With every benefit comes a risk to each party, and this one is no different.

    Risks to bloggers and their communities
    Bloggers will simply have to ensure that they are delivering trusted content to their audience (transparent), and it’s relevant to their current topics (authentic). If readers are going to a tech blog, and expecting tech content, they may be surprised if the content shifts to a different medium –like consumer goods. Ted explained that the bloggers will choose the content they will write about, so in theory, this will work. The good thing about the blogosphere is that it self corrects, the community members will let the blogger know what they do and don’t like –it happens every day. Update: Julio Fernandez notices that the tweets are generating spam, and takes a screenshot.

    Risks to Izea
    The other risk is the inventory may not be sustainable (long term). What’s the inventory? The bloggers. Izea will need to ensure that the blog posts are spread out so the sponsored posts. If bloggers continue to do sponsored only posts, they do run the risk of losing editorial trust from their community, and then losing audience. As Izea gains popularity, expect the demand to increase for these campaigns.

    Risks to Brands
    For brands, they should realize that this is not the only way to reach customers, many brands are reaching customers in social networks, building online communities, and using corporate blogs. Brands shouldn’t put all their resources into sponsored blog posts.

    Bottom Line: Sponsored blog posts to proliferate
    Getting bloggers paid is good, word of mouth for brands is also good, as the prizes and content spread to the readers of the blog they win too. The only risk is if the editorial becomes trusted, but we should expect bloggers to self-police themselves. Two years ago, I never imagined that I would write a positive post for anything coming out of Pay Per Post, but I think this model is getting refined.

    Twitter is in an interesting beast, information flies so quickly, that some may misunderstand or distort what really happened in the first place. For some reason, people think that I was against sponsored blog posts or specific bloggers, that’s not true, you can read from my tweets, that I was asking questions to learn and did due diligence to get on the phone with the parties involved, any of the risks I mentioned in the tweets, I’ve also outlined in this post.

    The tweets are listed in chronological order, so the first is at the top, I removed any tweets not about this topic.

    Kmart paid Shoemoney $500 resulting in buzz from paid blog post 300+ comments http://snipurl.com/7yi5w “Buying” social media is effective 4:37 AM Dec 13th from web

    This may not be a scalable model however, as buying placements could reduce credibility of bloggers, reducing marketing inventory. 4:38 AM Dec 13th from web

    Bottom Line: Expect more brands to ‘buy’ bloggers and tweeters as the economy dips, this truly is cost effective marketing 4:39 AM Dec 13th from web

    @moon Yes, I’m fully aware of Ted, and Izea. Paid product placements are nothing new, what are impacts to individual bloggers and tweeters? 4:49 AM Dec 13th from web in reply to moon

    @tedmurphy (Founder of Izea/PayPerPost) have you considered the brand damage this could do to your inventory (bloggers)? 5:06 AM Dec 13th from web in reply to tedmurphy

    @moon @tedmurphy is this true? @Chrisbrogan used a seperate blog for the paid Kmart post? What’s the URL? 5:21 AM Dec 13th from web in reply to moon

    Here’s @chrisbrogan ‘s paid post for Kmart http://snipurl.com/7ynb1 Transparent, Yes. Authentic? Debatable. Sustainable? No. 5:26 AM Dec 13th

    Got off the phone with @centernetworks discussing and debating IZEA paid blog posts. More news on that soon. 5:59 AM Dec 13th from web

    @RevzNexus I need to learn more, I requested meeting with Ted Murphy and also with Chris Brogan, I may try to talk to Kmart too 6:02 AM Dec 13th from web in reply to RevzNexus

    Just talked to @tedmurphy, asked him many questions, I’ll blog my analysis if brands and bloggers should to this on Monday. 6:30 AM Dec 13th from web

    Had a good call with @chrisbrogan He’s on board of advisors for Izea. They model is getting refined. More brands will certainly use Izea. 7:19 AM Dec 13th from web

    Expect more bloggers to sign up for sponsored posts as the economy takes a downturn, this is just the start. 7:22 AM Dec 13th from web

    @chrisbrogan Thanks Chris and @tedmurphy, I’m trying to understand all sides of the issue (short and long term) before advising my clients. 7:28 AM Dec 13th from web in reply to chrisbrogan

    I highly respect @chrisbrogan as usual, he gives a thoughtful and transparent post explaining Advertising and Trust http://snipurl.com/831w6 about 15 hours ago from web

    I hope this shows why Izea is going to grow, and explains my stance.

    Related Posts: (I’ll be updating this)
    I’ll be adding links to posts that add to this discussion, on both sides of the fence.

  • Lucretia M. Pruitt: What is Your Time Worth? What’s Worth Your Time? (who’s actually one of the unpaid Wal-Mart Mommy Bloggers)
  • Aaron Brazil: IZEA, Social Spark and Redemption he’s one of the bloggers in the program
  • Mashable: Do Brands Belong on Twitter? Related, as the blogging campaigns spill over to twitter.
  • CenterNetworks: Allen Stern does a deep thought piece on paid sponsorships, read my comments at the end.
  • Jennifer Leggio of Zdnet has posted her thoughts, and suggests the campaigns are sustainable, she always has a good perspective.
  • Karl Long: Brands in Social Media and Selling Influence suggests that there are different questions we should all be asking
  • Podcast: Chris Brogan was interviewed by Six Pixels of Separation, hear his opinion.
  • MediaPost: Shows actual numbers how the Kmart brand has benefited from this campaign.
  • Duncan Riley gives a reasoned perspective why sponsored posts are not that bad –and why you should not do them.
  • David Churbuck: Shooting Fish: Blog Whores, David’s heading the social media programs at Lenovo, and discusses why he’s unsubscribing from some folks
  • Stowe Boyd: Izea: Where Is That Line Again? Stowe lays a very balanced post on where the ethical points start and stop.
  • Julio Fernandez took a screenshot of “twitter spam” and gives his thoughts
  • Mistress Mia: Chris Brogan Firestorm Begs a Big Question “No one does anything for nothing.”
  • Ross of crowdSPRING compares advertising to sponsorships, and points out the differences.
  • Dave Taylor: Is Jeremiah Owyang an analyst or is Aaron Brazell right to call him out? Dave addresses some discussions that I had with Aaron.
  • Adam Singer: Paid Blogging Is A Lose-Lose Situation a very comprehensive analysis
  • Steve Spalding, a blogger who participated in the Izea program responds that he’s not a journalist. (edited)
  • Esteban Glas: Riding Every Single Wave
    • “Help me understand how Izea’s model is that different from the many, many social media bloggers who get comped conference tickets (sometimes because they are speaking, sometimes not) and then blog about how amazing the conference was?”

      Because money was involved. You are exactly right, there’s no difference in being comped a $2,000 pass for a Forrester conf (for example) vs getting a $500 shopping spree. But when you add actual MONEY to the equation, people freak.

      Great comment Drew and I was thinking about this as well.

    • BTW I am going to disagree with my friend CK on her assertion that we should call these ‘Pay Per Post’ instead of ‘Sponsored’. I think the former is a model for paying bloggers, the latter is a type of post.

      If we have a blogger that writes a post that they are compensated for, calling it ‘Sponsored’ implies that they received compensation for the post, that someone else sponsored the message. Which is exactly what happened.

      But if we call an individual post ‘Pay Per Post’, we are implying that this blogger routinely writes paid posts (Because PPP is a model), which may or may not be true. So I think the PPP label carries an additional negative stigma, which we should try to avoid applying to one post.

      I think saying it’s ‘Sponsored’ is an accurate description, and let’s the average reader know exactly what has happened.

    • So lets look at it this way. Would your perception of the content change if you found out that every single post was a ppp? or Would your perception of the content be different if you never knew?

      People are “bought” all the time and we never know. Chris provides “full disclosure” and gets skewered.

      I will admit that I tend to stay away from reading “sponsored posts”.

      With that being said,I have been approached a lot to write sponsored reviews and I have decided to not do them. Why? Part of it was that I thought that I might come across as disingenuous, and the other? They wern’t offering enough cash. Which makes me wonder how many of the pundits and critics would have turned down the K-mart offer?

    • @CK – to continue our debate from Amber’s Altitude Branding: I think it’s very important to distinguish between blogs like yours, where trust is a real issue because of the nature of the content and the mass of blogs out there where the content isn’t king or even the ten of spades 😉
      Seriously- a PPP (and that is the correct term) on FluffyPuppies.com, a blog dedicated to pictures of fluffy puppies may even come as a welcome relief.
      On your blog it’s a real problem.

      To further this discussion overall, we need to stop lumping “blogs” all together. The only thing an online magazine like HuffPo has in common with this blog is that they’re both online. Yet people still refer to them both as blogs.

      Content is a great differentiator and we have to look at that as a basis for deciding when and where PPP works. (NB: I suspect that half the moaning on Twitter was due to the misunderstanding that Brogan had run the PPP on his marketing blog rather than his Daddy blog)

      @drew/@mack – I hear you, re: conferences, but there’s a big difference there: bloggers promoting conferences do so to also promote themselves. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s fairly blatant. Nothing symbiotic about PPP

      Re: “Sponsored” vs “PPP” – I’m with CK here. “Sponsored” only works when the post resembles a broadcast media sponsorship where the content is within the realm of something the show normally covers.

      @jeremiah – we kind of travel in the same circles, but have never formally met, so “Hi.” – I thought your point about scalability is well-taken: if lots of blogs start getting sponsored posts, I think they become (a) less noticeable and (b) far more annoying. Which will result in people seeking out blogs that don’t engage in that sort of behavior. Not every blog can become “monetized” and it’s likely that most can’t. The audience is just too splintered.

    • CK

      @Alan: thanks for coming over here. I too have landed on Jeremiah’s blog for the first time, at least you properly introduced yourself (Hurricane CK am I 😉

      I do agree that we need to stop lumping all blogs together–might be a good thing for you to write on at some point. Thank you for the broadcast sponsorship analogy, I was thinking that same example this morning. A commercial or show sponsor is to the side–not the FOCUS of the content. The show would happen anyway, no matter the “sponsor,” but these posts? They would never happen without the paying company and the content is 100% about them.

      @Mack: no problem on disagreeing, I see it as clearly paid–as the writer would never have written about it and the writer actually writes about the company (see above comment to Alan). In any case, we do agree better monetization models are needed and I thank you for going several rounds (on several blogs) with me on this great discussion 😉

      @Jeremiah: sorry I never formally said “hi” either but, well, here I am and it’s nice to meet you. We know a lot of the same people (ask Mario Sundar about me 😉

      @VC Dan: Hey, any blogger is free to monetize their space. I might not like the PPP model but I just want to ensure we’re not “flowering” any messaging to make it sound better… because marketers (and, um, politicians) have a tendency to do that in order to sell ideas–and I like to keep us honest and accountable. Thank you for chiming in, I mean that and I’ll check out the link.

      @Drew: Glad to see you here. Just FYI — David Berkowitz (http://www.marketersstudio.com) has a conference sponsorship policy. He posted it earlier in the year and ask us several times to comment on it–he really wanted our feedback in forming the policy and he was sure to ask me about it ;-). The conferences that he goes to:

      1. Are marketing conferences (he’s a marketer, he covers marketing/tech). Actually it’s incredible the amount of conferences he attends, even before his sponsorship.

      2. He then relays the findings to us both at his blog and at twitter. I don’t need to “win” anything or go to a store, I can get thought goodness by virtue of him covering a marketing conference that I wouldn’t be able to. His blog is there to share knowledge and the program does just that–and for free (and everyone gets the knowledge, not only the winner of some coupon or gift certificate)

      3. He also asks the conference for discounts on tickets for readers and, sometimes, is able to get free tickets to give to others.

      So he’s not making money off the conferences, he’s attending a conference and getting more knowledge on a subject that he then shares (and sometimes copiously!) with his marketing audience to further their expertise and his own. And he offers good and bad feedback as he usually would–he doesn’t worry since he’s not being “paid”. You may see this as the “same”, I don’t at all.

      Here is David’s full policy that he’s had on his blog for months: http://www.marketersstudio.com/media-sponsorship-policy.html

    • Alan, CK

      Glad that you’ve landed here, I hope you continue to be an active commenter going forward. Really, really great insights.

    • Ah, I missed that part. I didn’t notice at all that it was on a different blog as I was reading.

    • The discussion’s fascinating here – so glad I had a few minutes to read all of this. Like Jeremiah, I had some big issues with PayPerPost but after speaking with Ted earlier this year, I’m much more open to Izea as a concept that works. That’s largely because even though it still made me squirm a bit, I couldn’t come up with one good reason why this was flat out a bad idea – even if it’s better for some blogs than others.

      Meanwhile, thanks CK for sharing the media sponsorship policy. As an epilogue, I couldn’t get to the events that I was promoting so when a renewal option came up I passed on it. It didn’t feel authentic. Yet if related opportunities come up the sponsorship policy will still stand, and I still do keep it prominent in the upper-right of the blog.

    • The PayPerPost idea has been around forever. I have been asked countless times by companies if I would post something up for some cash. Izea merely has packaged this idea and made it public, good on them.

      It all depends what kind of blog you have. If you run a professional blog and you are not blogging for dollars, you would never use something like this. If you’re running a “cat blog” as Seth Godin names it, or merely blogging for dollars via AdSense, then this is a great offering.

      Good PR remains vital, campaigns like this will never get you “digital ink” on Technorati Top 100 blogs, for example.

      This is the online equivalent of advertorials, and should be treated as such…its paying for placement. Readers don’t take such posts as seriously as they do posts that were written purely as editorial content. They also may jeopardize a blogs reputation. It all depends on WHY you blog whether this is attractive to you. I think it is fine and up to the blogger to decide, I don’t see why people get so bent out of shape.

      If you don’t like it, don’t read their site – simple.

    • Great Job Jeremiah – I give you a lot of credit for this post.

      I love your “Risks to Brands” argument and how companies should learn about all resources available rather than putting all their eggs in one basket.

      Conversely, I think it’s vital that everyone understand that there are going to be outlets that go against “traditional” social media thought. Yes, I actually said “traditional” 😉

      Ultimately, I would argue the that “sponsored” blog post model is a natural next step in the groundswell evolution.

      As long as we talk about it and people like Ted listen, life (and business) will be good.

    • Hi Jeremiah,

      You mentioned “we know that consumers trust their peers.” That is the problem I have with IZEA’s campaign for K-Mart and Sears.

      I have no problem with sponsored articles. It was clear that the client gave the blogger $500 gift card.

      A few weeks ago I saw the video that Loren Feldman did about his K-mart experience. I clicked the tracking URL Loren had on his site and visited K-mart’s Web site. (I saw that the link had DoubleClick tags) I even added the image of the bloggers working with K-mart to my Facebook page as it was a clever campaign.

      My problem with this campaign is the instructions for people to spam their friends with the Twitter reTweets.

      IZEA should measure traffic to the different blog posts as well as the traffic to K-mart and Sears. But this campaign should not encourage people to spam and violate the trust of their peers.

      I guest my problem is that the campaign is working. If I saw 5 messages about Kmart, it would not bother me… but when a bunch of people post the same message, it became spam.

      My message to @TedMurphy: http://twitter.com/SocialJulio/status/1059044739
      Images: http://cli.gs/KmartSpam
      and http://cli.gs/SearsSpam

      One good thing that should come out of this is a new tool to block specific terms from our Twitter stream. I don’t want remove people that I follow, but I do want to block the “RT Sears $500”

      Happy Holidays! @SocialJulio

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    • I agree with Julio above about the twitter spam. That’s pretty much the only thing I don’t like about the campaigns. As long as there is disclosure and the product or service is a good fit for the community that the blogger represents, I don’t see a problem with it. I think it’s very much like a celebrity endorsement but with much more credibility if it’s disclosed. I spoke with Ted Murphy at Affiliate Summit East in Boston, and I think he gets it.

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    • I’ve thought about this some more and I have a quick conclusion:

      The whole paid blogging idea is an attempt at cheap, uncreative PR…there, I said it.

      No one comes off looking good.

      It is advertorial 2.0 – you can not count it nearly the same as you can a true PR campaign.

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    • I agree with #67; it’s little more than a watered down PR trick, and not very creative. Worse, paid for posts destroys the illusion that bloggers are on the same level as unbiased (yes, tricky description) journalists as far as reporting honest content. Rules at most traditional publications won’t even let their reporters accept gifts–and there’s a reason for this, and checks and balances. It builds trust, which is fleeting at best. Once you start down this (“paid for”, “sponsored,” etc) slope, it can only lead to damaging brands, and leading to even less consumer confidence. I admire Chris for all he’s done and all he will do in this field, so I wish him the best; we all have to make a living. But this is a trend I’d like to see go away.

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    • Jeremiah, overall a very good piece (which is how I managed to get this far into it). I take exception to the “IZEA blogger” thing, I know you probably didn’t have an opportunity to dig deep into the posts that you linked to but if I am an “IZEA blogger” I am a very, very bad one because other than this little experiment (which went fairly well, if you look at metrics that bloggers tend to ignore) I have taken exactly zero paid posting opportunities from IZEA.

      Like Chris, Loren, Tamar, Liz, etc . . . I participated in this for a set of reasons entirely my own which I’d be glad to share with you if you send me an email. It might be enlightening.

      Again, not a dig against the article but in times such as these when people’s knee jerk reactions can cause people lots of damage, I prefer to keep that top of mind.

      Change or don’t change that portion as you see bit, but those are my ten pesos.

    • Jeremiah

      As I see it this is just another useful marketing/social media tool. Nothing more (it’s not suddenly going to solve the overall goals of bloggers / brands) or nothing less (as long as bloggers remain authentic).

      Bloggers / brands who abuse this tool might enjoy short-term gain but, in the long-term, it will affect their reputation.

      So keep it authentic, and it’s just another useful marketing / social media tool.

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    • John

      Many of the sites/blogs in their directory don’t seem to be very quality. Has anyone else noticed that? But then again, with a sponsored post costing just a handful of dollars, I guess you get what you pay for.

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    • I just wanted to say I always get a kick out of conversations that involve Ted.

      Jonathan Mac
      Social Focus VP
      Social Networking Software

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    • CK

      Hey there,
      Whatever anyone's opinion on monetizing blogs, can we as marketers start calling these models by the right name? (It's the responsible thing to do as professionals).

      They aren’t “sponsored posts” because a sponsor makes an already existing initiative possible. Like a conference, charity event or a newsletter. But that conference, charity event or newsletter could exist with OTHER sponsors and they are NOT part of the core content (or, in this case, 100% of the content).

      These are pay-for-posts because the entire post is about the company that pays for it, instead of an ad that’s separated in a newsletter or a logo of a sponsor at an event. I just want to be clear so that we don’t start using marketing messaging that’s not true. Maybe when IZEA renamed from Pay Per Post it also started calling them ’sponsored posts’. I’m honestly not sure; I just know that this is the first time I’ve started hearing the words “sponsored post” and it doesn’t ring true to me since the “sponsor” is actually the entirety of the core content–and the only reason the post happens is because it is paid for… as every time I see one it's the first time I've seen the blogger write about the company.

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