It all started with a simple question from Forrester Research (FORR) analyst Jeremiah Owyang late in the afternoon on Friday, Dec. 12. A few days earlier, blogger Chris Brogan had written about his decision to accept $500 from Kmart to find out what's cool to buy at the discount retailer and then write about it. Owyang posted a question to his readers on microblogging site Twitter, asking whether it's O.K. for brands to approach bloggers in that manner.
With that began one of the most vociferous recent debates in the blogosphere. Owyang is a top analyst on social media. Brogan is one of the world's top bloggers (with more than 180,000 readers and another 27,000 followers on Twitter). Within hours, thousands of online bloggers, including some of us at media planning and Internet strategy firm Mediassociates, joined the often heated discussion.
By the end of the weekend we came to the realization that few bloggers see any conflict in being paid to write a post, even if payment comes from the same company being reviewed.
Your Mind for Sale
So, in the interest of furthering the discussion and helping to illuminate where we stand on the matter, we offer this modest proposal. Let's take this pay-per-post advertising model to its logical and most extreme conclusion. Let's sponsor real-life opinions too, far away from your computer.
Starting soon, your mind will go on sale.
Sponsored Opinions. Earn Big Cash!
Think of the potential. You can be paid to drop brand names into conversations! Traditional media is dying; newspaper circulation is down and 1 in 4 U.S. homes has a DVR that lets consumers skip commercials. So advertisers understandably need new ways to intercept people. How better to compensate for an eroding media base than by paying for real-world opinions? By inserting a brand promotion directly into a blog post, a blogger is giving the recipient no choice but to receive the message. In one swoop, we've just solved the monetization challenge of social media and prevented the global ad industry from imploding. Yes!
Before we explain how the revolution works, let's review similar models. "Advertorials," or paid ads that look like written opinions, have been around since the 1940s. Such shenanigans started in newspapers and you hear them still today on radio talk shows, when celebrities such as Howard Stern or Don Imus break into a riff about steaks or iced tea that mention a brand name. The basic rule of advertorials is that while they intend to look or sound like a real opinion, they must be clearly marked as sponsored ads.
It didn't take long for marketers to eye the Internet as well. By the mid-2000s there were more than 100 million blogs on the Web and the company PayPerPost.com, founded by Ted Murphy, offered to pay bloggers to write reviews. Unfortunately, this first business model didn't ask for clear disclosure. Bloggers could write without noting the comments were funded. A backlash ensued. In June 2006, the popular technology blog TechCrunch ran the headline "PayPerPost.com Offers to Sell Your Soul" and in fall 2007 Google (GOOG) removed the page rank of bloggers affiliated with PayPerPost.com for their posts—the kiss of death for online writers seeking fame.
Sponsored Opinion: "I'm Writing Late. Need Starbucks."
Brogan didn't think much of the first PayPerPost model. "I was one of those guys hating Ted (Murphy), thinking this will ruin blogging, right there with the crowd," he says. But Brogan knew that the ad landscape was shifting and eventually met Murphy in person at a conference, where he discovered a kindred, innovative mind.
Brogan and Murphy are now friends and Brogan sits on the advisory board of Murphy's new company Izea, which operates a revised, "full disclosure" model of PayPerPost.com.
The advertising challenge is real, Brogan says, so marketers must test new formats. "As click and banner ads don't work anymore, how do we get a closer relationship where you feel something about the product?" he asks. It's only normal that firms such as Izea or the more recent German-British startup Be-A-Magpie experiment with putting sponsored thoughts inside consumer Web communications. Be-A-Magpie, for example, lets consumers get paid for ads inserted into their 140-character Twitter text stream.
Brogan clearly disclosed that the Kmart post was paid for. The post had positive and negative remarks about shopping at Kmart. "They didn't ask me to write anything specific," Brogan says. "I'm sure Kmart didn't like that I wrote I wouldn't wear any of the clothes in their store."
We got a second opinion from Robert Scoble, another blogger. Scoble is renowned for his vast connections online (more than 44,000 people follow his remarks on Twitter). "On one level I don't mind pay per post, because as long as you're disclosing, your readers will know you're selling out your editorial like an advertorial," he says.
Seagate (STX) sponsors Scoble's "ScobleizerTV" tech-product review videocasts. At the same time, Scoble turned down an offer to write about Sears (SHLD) for a $500 gift card. "Put yourself in the readers' shoes," Scoble says. "Does talking about this seem strange or introduce them to something you wouldn't have otherwise?" The real issue for bloggers, he says, is that they may take too little cash today. That erodes their credibility, hurting real business opportunities in the future, he notes.
Sponsored Opinion: "Writer's Feet Ache. Need Zappos!"
Scoble hinted at a second problem with paid posts: They may elevate topics to positions of authority that don't reflect their true relevance. That was the likely reason Google blacklisted PayPerPost.com authors back in 2007; all those paid Web writeups were gumming up the search giant's ability to filter real results for consumers hunting at google.com.
The new paid posts continue to push topics to Web relevance, often by creating vast Web "link structures." A recent Izea promotion for Sears, the one that Scoble turned down, created three levels of Web links—a $500 paid initial post talking about a Sears shopping spree; a prize of $2,500 to attract additional bloggers to rewrite the original post; and a competition among those bloggers to attract the most comments from other readers. One influential post times 300 potential reposts times 20 potential comments each equals 6,000 potential Web reviews all pointing at Sears.
Not bad for a $3,000 ad budget. You try influencing Web opinions for 50¢ each.
We ran all this by Dirk Singer, head of the London PR agency Cow, who has been critical of paid posts in both the U.S. and Europe. Singer says marketers should question the value of any paid online writing or link schemes. "Sponsored links… [give] the advertiser the illusion of having word of mouth endorsement, but it's not as simple as that," he says.
Sponsored Opinion: "Let's Spell-Check This Column in Microsoft Word!"
At the end of our conversation, Brogan asked us whether his remarks about paid posts had changed our mind. "There is an ethical line between buying ad position and buying an opinion," we responded. "But honestly we don't know where that line is."
To help determine where it lies, let's expand this commercial experiment—to sponsored opinions in all human communications, online and offline. Tell your boss in the next board meeting that it's time to benchmark your customer service against Kmart. Tell your wife you love her dress but she should have shopped at Sears.
Sponsoring real-world opinions will unlock the real potential for advertisers to influence consumers. Consumers, in turn, earn badly needed cash. Heck, this revolutionary advertising model could lift the world out of recession, simply by monetizing chatting.
There are many technical details to work out: who tracks placing the ads; how do we monitor the "consumer chatting" inventory; what about conflicts of interest that leave you tossing out opposing brands in the same sentence? But surely Google scientists can work out these details within a week.
So let's sell, people! Embed paid promotions into the fabric of life. Tell your kids to behave if they want an iPhone! Then ask Steve Jobs to send you an Apple (AAPL) gift card! We can call it Sponsored Paid Opinions in Human Meetings, or SPOHM—not to be confused with spam.