Some Bloggers were recently taken to task when they published a sponsored Blog posting about a shopping spree they took with a major retailer. It is an amazing view into what marketing and advertising is in this new media channel (especially one where everyone can be a pundit and critic).
The idea of being paid to post is a fascinating and recurring topic (shall I trot out the dead horse now?), and one that needs to be removed from these specific incidents and looked at with a more macro perspective. The reality is that there are many great Bloggers out there who are seen as leaders. People want to connect to them and, more importantly, some companies see them as an opportunity to connect their brand to that community, or to build credibility and create awareness for their brands, products and services. Also, because there are no clear advertising and sponsorship models in many of these newer social channels (beyond buying banners), we're seeing a ton of experiments to figure out "what works." It's very interesting and somewhat confusing - but that's the amazing part of being in the Marketing, Advertising and Communications business right now.
Real interactions between real human beings.
Advertising works when it's the right brand in the right environment with the right audience. The general comments on these Blogs are all focusing on the levels of transparency and whether or not the Bloggers are entitled to take money in exchange for a Blog posting. I think this is the wrong conversation to have (all of these Bloggers were very transparent). Marketing and advertising works when there is trust between the content provider and the audience. It's not just about that relationship of trust, it is extended towards two very different sides of publishing - the content and the economy behind it. On the one hand, the audience trusts that that the content creator will stay true by providing valuable content, and on the economic side, the audience continues to play along knowing full well that all of this great content comes at a cost - advertising, sponsorships, consulting gigs, book deals, speaking opportunities, and everything else. No matter what, both sides have to live up to the audiences expectations, meaning the content must be strong and the advertising must be relevant. That's how all successful publishers across all of the media channels have won to date.
Trust in non-transferable.
We expect Bloggers who post - and are paid to do so - to be transparent. Transparency is table stakes. We expect people to disclose what is an advertisement, what is sponsorship and what - if any - affiliations are had with other things that are mentioned within these social environments. But, there is something more profound going on here. When a company pays someone to post, they are hoping that the trust people have for that Blogger will be transferred to them. No chance. Trust is non-transferable. We have companies who have little-to-no social community credibility riding the coat-tails of Bloggers who have spent a long while building up their community and, if there was no prize at the end of the rainbow (meaning the community also gets a chance to "win" something - not just the Blogger), it would probably leave everybody feeling a little icky. The only way for that not happen is when the company that is paying to post has equal or more trust within the community.
You can't buy trust.
The best advice a Digital Marketer can give a client who is asking them if they would accept money to post about them, etc... would be to help them understand that a brand can't buy trust, but they can - over time - build community and earn reputation. And, by going through with a program of this nature, it's also not very social media at all - it's just advertising (whether a Blogger yaps about it or they run a banner ad on their site). Someone is being paid to write about something. The advertorial has been around forever (well, at least, since the 1960s). There's nothing all that experimental with this format. But there's a problem if it doesn't work: the bigger brands can chalk it up to experimentation and simply move on, while the Bloggers now have to rebuild something that is incredibly frail and impossible to buy from their audience: trust. Many Bloggers react with an, "I don't ask my readers for money, I give readers all of this great content for free, so what's wrong with a little money from someone else along the way to cover some costs and put shoes on my babies' feet?" statement. There's nothing wrong with that, if it's the understanding of the community from the get-go. There might be something weird about it if it just suddenly appears out of nowhere.
Ultimately, everyone has to figure out what works best on their own spaces - be it a Blog, Podcast, Twitter or Facebook. The real challenge is in knowing your community well enough to decide if it's a good fit and, if it's not, is it worth the advertising dollars over the community trust and engagement?