A few weeks ago I interviewed Rob Fuggetta, CEO of brand advocacy platform Zuberance, who stated matter-of-factly: “If a brand is paying people to recommend, they are not true advocates.”
Turns out Mr. Fuggetta was wrong (well, sort of). Brand advocates CAN be bought. According to a New York Times article, that’s what some major retailers believe so much so they are willing to pony up anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars to purchase such loyalty.
“Favorable mentions on blogs have been for sale for years…Now social media sites are taking citizen marketing to a new extreme, turning anyone’s Twitter message, Facebook post, Pinterest image or e-mail into a possible paid promotion,” says the Times.
This tactic certainly isn’t new. As the Times suggests, bloggers have been paid for years, going as far back as 2006 when Ted Murphy started a company called Pay Per Post (now Izea) that paid bloggers to say good things about brands, products and services. In 2009, Murphy even co-opted A-listers like Chris Brogan and Joseph Jaffe to shop at K-Mart - they got a free shopping spree - then post about their experience.
Forrester came along and gave its blessing to the practice by anointing it with a fancy title, Sponsored Conversations, and recommended that marketers “take advantage of sponsored conversation as an entrée into the online conversation,” adding that with the appropriate protections for disclosure and authenticity, this practice would “take its place alongside public relations and advertising activities in the blogosphere.”
I raised a small ruckus by suggesting that this practice was a load of crap, but with a view toward pragmatism proposed the idea of a Sponsored Conversations Summit. (It got the attention of Ted Murphy who was in favor of the idea and said he would be at the table.) No such summit ever took place, however.
Honestly, I can’t believe that, after all these years we’re still dealing with what I believe is a nefarious practice, only on a much larger scale. This time around, instead of high profile bloggers, it’s the every man and every woman.
How can I trust anything anyone says if there is a chance they are being incentivized by brands to speak on their behalf?
In 2009, the FTC issued guidelines for bloggers stating that full disclosure was mandated, and later revised them to include social media. But, according to the Times, social media companies and their users seem to be “largely unaware on how the guidelines apply to them.”
Don’t think for one minute that incentivized sharing doesn’t achieve its intended effect. According to the Times, one blogger stated that switching to the paid model for Pose images (Pose is a social shopping site) had made her “more likely to post Pose links.”
Call me a purist if you care to, but I believe that editorial and advertorial should never be mixed. If I’m going to recommend a company, product or service it will be because I believe in its merits, not because I’ve been incentivized to do so. For me, it’s a matter of trust.
So, Mr. Fuggetta, though you and I share very similar views, it appears as if ours is an unpopular position. For all the benefits that social commerce provides as a means for building genuine advocacy, there is a shady side. It’s sponsored conversations all over again, just this time version 2.0.