In what is easily the most contentious issue I've dealt with recently, the question of whether it's ever OK to pay a blogger has reared its ungainly head. The recent stir started last holiday season when Sears/Kmart paid start-up Izea to send bloggers on shopping sprees. More recently, Ford loaned Fiestas to bloggers to get coverage. The FTC weighed in with guidelines. Andy Sernovitz, author of "Word of Mouth Marketing," is having fits. BusinessWeek stirred the pot by labeling it "Blogola."
When my colleague Sean Corcoran and I researched this topic, we realized that this practice, which we call "sponsored conversation," is here to stay. Some bloggers are journalists and some others act like journalists -- those will adhere to tight ethical standards on gifts. Other bloggers will take money to write anything and have no credibility -- you don't want to pay them, since no one believes them.
But there's a whole class of people now with a following: bloggers who just write what they believe. Mommy bloggers like Jessica Smith, for example. These bloggers are already reviewing products in exchange for loans or donations of sample products. Bloggers gotta eat, too. Should they take cash to write about products? Should you pay them?
If you don't want to lose your job -- and if you want to retain any credibility -- you should move forward very carefully here. We strongly recommend that you heed these key elements of the FTC rules:
- Advertisers must disclose "material connections" between themselves and their endorsers that might "affect the weight of credibility of the endorsement" (i.e., if you compensate or pay in any way, you must disclose that).
- Endorsements by bloggers must "reflect honest opinions, findings, beliefs or experience" of the endorser.
- Both the marketer and the blogger can be held liable for misleading or false statements made by the blogger about the brand.
But do it right, and you can get people with a following writing about you in their own voice -- a powerful persuasive force. As Sean noted in his recent post, the key here is transparency and authenticity. Here's an excerpt of our recommendations:
Know the rules and educate everyone involved. Before you even think of dipping your toe in the water you will need to familiarize yourself with all of the necessary rules, including the existing FTC guidelines, the proposed updates to those guidelines and Google's policy on the use of no-follow links. Also take note that other countries such as the U.K. have have stringent policies on this subject as well. Get legal involved upfront and make sure anyone working on it is educated on the subject.
Mandate absolute disclosure and transparency. We have preached this from the beginning as it is by far the most important rule. The FTC's guidelines are clearly about deterring deceptive advertising, a practice you shouldn't be involved in anyway. Make sure any and all bloggers you work with make it VERY clear to their audience that your brand is involved in the development of the content. If you fail to do this you will put yourself at risk for not only a bad PR mess but legal trouble as well.
Ensure authenticity. You must allow bloggers to speak freely and authentically -- not just because the FTC requires it but because credible reviews are better for your business. Just as consumers find product reviews on e-commerce sites more credible when negative reviews are included, consumers will find reviews about your products more credible when the reviewer is allowed to speak about it in their own voice. This is the real power of working with bloggers -- to get them to talk freely about your brand with their community, not to use them as a megaphone to spin your message. If you're not comfortable letting go of your brand then sponsored conversations aren't for you (and you may want to revisit your overall social media strategy).
I don't expect all you gentle readers to agree with this -- it's too controversial a topic. But paying bloggers is here to say. So if you do it, do it right.
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Josh Bernoff is the co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies such as blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at blogs.forrester.com/groundswell.
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