“Love a Local Business” promotes such Intuit products as QuickBooks, Quicken and TurboTax to small businesses, and provides hiring grants ranging from $500 to $25,000. Businesses nominated by their fans then solicit votes on various social sites to vie for the funding.
The two-year-old campaign initially was seeded with PR, and earned social mentions and ads on Intuit's corporate website. This summer, however, the company took its social marketing efforts a step further, and paid a cadre of 70 well-followed bloggers for writing positive reviews of the program.
“We decided to elevate the conversation,” said Sherzad Rahmatian, manager-social media marketing at Intuit. Rahmatian emphasized that the campaign isn't an attempt to mislead readers of the blogs.
“I believe a campaign like this needs to be authentic,” she said. “The message is coming from the bloggers. We're guiding them, but the ultimate message is coming from them.”
This summer's campaign supported the original “Love a Local Business” program with a companion promotion called “What Dream Business Would You Love to Start?” Blog development company BlogFrog Inc. rounded up bloggers with large followings, and Intuit paid them $150 to $500 per post, depending on their popularity, to solicit input on “dream businesses” and to write about “Love a Local Business.”
“Banner advertising on a social site is not social advertising, said Rustin Banks, BlogFrog CEO. “You have to insert yourself into the reason why people are there visiting the site. You have to get into the widest column on the page, not on the side of the page.
“I propose that you can pay to get there,” Banks said.
The Intuit-compensated bloggers added a disclaimer at the end of their posts, that the blog was sponsored, and that “the opinions and text are all mine.” This appears to satisfy guidelines on compensated endorsements by the Federal Trade Commission.
“To comply with the guidelines, companies that pay their bloggers should require them to disclose this fact clearly and prominently in their blogs,” said Mary Engle, the FTC's director-division of advertising practices.
Banks said his company's approach to social media marketing not only is legitimate but also effective. The Intuit campaign produced 14 million impressions across blogs, Facebook and Twitter over two months. Banks said some of the selected bloggers have 500,000 followers or more, “which equals the reach of a popular reality TV show,” he said.
“It might be different if we were trying to tell bloggers to say they love the product,” said Banks, whose company maintains a list of 55,000 bloggers on various topics. “What we're really doing is blurring the line between paid, earned and owned media.”
While BlogFrog doesn't demand that bloggers say only positive things about clients' products or services, the invited bloggers are required to compose their comments on BlogFrog's platform. That content then is reviewed before it is pushed to the bloggers' own platform.
“Negative comments never happen,” Banks said.
BlogFrog said it has conducted similar campaigns for such companies as ABC News, AllState Corp. and Procter & Gamble.
Paying bloggers for their endorsements is a controversial issue with or without disclosures. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has criticized the the FTC's disclosure guidelines, saying they unfairly target online media for practices, like advertorials, long engaged in by offline media.
The practice is unsettling to some agencies.
“I don't like it at all,” said Kevin Kerner, managing director-Americas at b-to-b agency Mason Zimbler, Austin, Texas. Such a practice “ruins the transparency” of blogging, he said.
Martine Hunter, creative director-inbound marketing at b-to-b agency MLT Creative, Atlanta, offered a mixed view.
“I may think an advertiser who uses this tactic is manipulative and therefore not to be trusted,” Hunter said. “But as a marketer, I can understand how other marketers seek out new methods to reach new audiences in our diverse digital landscape of promo options.
“Who knows, I may present this tactic as a possible method to a client one day,” she said.