For anyone with a traditional editorial or media background the idea of accepting compensation to write about a company or product is a controversial area. And if the arrangement is not disclosed, it’s down right dishonest.
So why is the game now changing? Let’s just say it’s being modified. According the Forrester Research, 50% more people are reading blogs than they were one year ago. Couple this with dwindling newspaper page counts and some marketers and PR firms have taken to approaching influential bloggers, much as they have approached reporters in the past, hoping to persuade them to say nice things. It’s a game that has been played for years. Most traditional journalists maintain a code of ethics for a well researched and unbiased presentation of facts. For this reason, readers believed that the writing was an accurate representation of the writers opinions. In the blogosphere there’s a lot of wacky self serving verbiage mixed in with good editorial. Depending on the individuals training or background, the ethics filter may or may not exist.
Sears and its Kmart subsidiary in the US have just changed the rules of the game. They hired a company called Izea Inc. to get more bloggers talking about them. Izea works with prominent bloggers in the US. The twist is that Sears, Kmart and Izea PAID the bloggers to write about them with a $500 shopping spree. Now before your conflict of interest detector goes off, you must understand two things:
1. The bloggers were required to disclose payment.
2. The bloggers were allowed and encouraged to write whatever they wanted. Several actually did note negative things.
Was the promotion effective? MediaPost, a marketing firm that monitors online conversations, found the the share of shopping buzz about Kmart increased 50% in the month of the shopping spree posts. Izea claimed over 500,000 people viewed the posts. Unlike PR, “sponsored conversations” are guaranteed to generate a blog post. And unlike advertising, the post is the bloggers own voice. In a world where we are conditioned to put an elevated value in what we read through editorial, these conversations are likely to make an impression.
Will this trend catch on? I have mixed feelings about it. But where there’s a willing host (a blogger who wants free stuff) and a paying customer (a marketer looking for a way to get their message out) and traditional vehicles where editorial is less available, it’s likely a timely match.