How To Make Sponsored Conversations Work

Although Controversial, Sponsored Conversations are Here to Stay
Sponsored conversations, although controversial, aren’t going away. In fact during recession, they will likely increase. Update: See this growing list of bloggers and brands that have participated in sponsored conversations.

Despite the demand that brands desire to reach communities, and bloggers desire to monetize and help their community, it’s important this transaction is done ethically and is sustainable for the long run. People get very emotional about this topic, so before you comment, twitter, or blog about these changes, first read my entire post, then Sean Corcoran’s to get the whole story.

How controversial is this topic? very. In fact, I previously highlighted both the opportunities and risks when I twittered and blogged about Kmart’s sponsored blogger hit the social sphere, which resulted in a flurry of discussions.

Doing it Right: How To Make Sponsored Conversations Work
Despite how sticky this topic is, our clients lean on us for the tough answers, so we’ve done just that in our latest report for clients. Sean Corcoran states the requirements are:

“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.”

First, Analyze if Sponsored Conversations are Right for You
Even with these in place, this isn’t right for every brand nor blogger. Some brands, that already have a natural conversation in the market don’t need to reach these influentials. Secondly, this isn’t right for every blogger, as to be authentic (and therefore sustainable) they should only participate in discussions that match up to their editorial agenda, are believable by their community, and don’t jeopardize the trust with readers. One challenge bloggers will grapple with is they primarily talk about topic X, then switch to a paid topic Y, some may readers may question the credibility –even if they find a different venue on a different blog.

Examples: Seaworld, Seagate, Panasonic, Symantec, Walmart
I learned from Izea that Seaworld has paid bloggers to attend their park in Florida and paid their expenses, but not cash. They were also awarded a free pass to award their readers. For a couple of years now, Seagate has sponsored Scoble’s Fast Company show, which gets mentions from his blog, in which he visited their factory in China. I learned from Crayon that they worked with Panasonic who paid travel and expenses for bloggers to attend CES, with full disclose. I met with Blogher last week and found out that Symantec worked with bloggers to offer products for paid reviews, with disclosures up front (yet not in the normal editorial stream). However, not all conversations need to pay bloggers, in fact WalMart to learn how they created a blogging network for mom and dad bloggers –without paying them, except for expenses to visit their headquarters and products were provided to review.

Update: I’ve started an ongoing list of sponsored conversations, many of the brands –and blogs– you’ll recognize.

Variations on Policy must Standardize for Long Term Sustainability
Not every brand is doing it right, I’ve seen some examples where the disclosure isn’t fully apparent, or is hidden in the language, so bloggers, and blog networks, need to do a better mandating transparency and authenticity. While ethics are certainly at play, by not disclosing, it erodes at the ecosystem, and will make the model unsustainable.

To appropriately close with disclosure and transparency, in case you’re new to this blog, I’m an employee at Forrester Research, and I stand by the report we published.

Related Resources
I’ll be updating this section as I see voices that add to the discussion –not just rehash.

  • Sean Corcoran, the author of this report, gives his summary (same link as above)
  • Colleague Josh Bernoff writes his take on the Groundswell blog
  • Steve Rubel says we’re on track, but this isn’t anything new
  • Ted Murphy, the CEO of Izea, and primary instigator of paid blogging, shares his thoughts, when he first started this, disclosure was optional, and now they’re following a code of ethics.
  • Read Write Web: Forrester Is Wrong About Sponsored Conversations. We respect RWW, and welcome Marshall’s interesting perspective, except that they prove our point as they have transparent sponsored blog posts from advertisers in their own editorial stream.
  • Matt Cutts from Google reminds all sponsored bloggers the dangers and impacts of doing sponsored blog posts. He says “My bottom-line recommendation is simple: paid posts should not pass PageRank.” In our conversations with Ted Murphy of Izea, he says he gets around this by using “no-follow” in his linking.
  • B.L. Ochman who has a Journalism Degree says Forrester: Sponsored Conversation is Here to Stay. Get Over It
  • Chris Brogan, writes in The Righteous Web in response to RWW
  • The smart folks at eConsultancy point out the dangers –and solutions– to search engine marketing with sponsored conversations. I point out in the comments that IZEA has already worked this out, although other blog networks haven’t.
  • Adweek weighs in: ‘Influencer Programs’ likely to spread.
  • Search Engine Journal chimes in with some thoughtful questions around the impacts to search.
  • Steve Groves pontificates Payola in the Blog-sphere – ReadWriteWeb’s Proclamation
  • Jim Benson suggests that we should be Voting With Our Feet – The Ethics of Sponsored Conversations
  • Joseph Jaffe, a Marketer who organizes sponsored conversations as well as participates in them gives his point of view.
  • Jason says that bloggers need an oath, beyond transparency and authenticity.
  • Broadstuff says we got it wrong, yet the ultimate test is on the bloggers and brands –we agree.
  • Ad Week: Points out that the no follow rule is key for sponsored posts, AND Google is enforcing this.
  • Ogilvy’s John Bell points out there’s a difference between word of mouth and paid media, good points.
  • Sponsored Conversations