Quite a firestorm (or teapot tempest) yesterday over this. I’m not going to bludgeon the issue, because There have been so many posts already…point, counterpoint…and I doubt I can add anything original to that discussion. And I’ll let Chris’ own outstanding response speak for itself, since I’d gather you’re all reading him anyway.
But the underlying issue to me is this idea that social media mechanisms like blogs are somehow sacrosanct, hallowed ground. That there is no room for commercialism within the walls of the Almighty Conversation. That the only use for these tools in within the confines of personal expression, removed from a capitalistic context. That simply isn’t the case. Blogs are tools, and not those that only serve a singular purpose.
Social Media in Business
If we’re continue to argue that social media is viable within a business framework, there’s no way to keep the peas from touching the mashed potatoes.You’re in business to make money. Ultimately, your use of social media channels is intended to forge stronger relationships with customers in support of the long term goal of driving business success (read: money). It’s that simple. Just because the line between the two is dotted doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It would be a patent waste of time otherwise.
Social media and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. Social media is an idea, a culture. It’s about transparency of business relationships, and a willingness to allow and encourage the ensuing conversation. (Incidentally, no one mentioned the huge risk that Izea and KMart took here…Chris could have written a scathing review just as easily. If he had, would we then be criticizing him for using his influence to damage a company’s reputation?). The communication is the foundation. The rest (including the monetization) is built upon that, first.
Truth and Trust
The difference between promotion of the craptastic kind and a sponsored blog post is immense. Craptastic promotion reeks of subterfuge and manipulation. It’s an opinion that’s paid for, like a paid endorsement of life insurance by a has-been game show host. It’s not credible, it’s not real, and it’s insulting to the audience. And a blog post in this same vein would equate.
But someone sponsors a post for a review of a product or service. The conclusion is undrawn – that’s up to the blogger. The blogger discloses the relationship, checks stuff out, writes up an opinion, the community decides how to respond. The WalMart Moms do this. There are any number of paid review sites where bloggers receive products or compensation for simply writing their conclusions. Companies like K-Mart are doing their best to reach out to the community to render their open and honest opinions to raise visibility for their company, and I for one think their promotion was savvy and well played to the right audience. Why isn’t this the same as hiring someone for an hour of consulting and asking for their conclusions?
The root of evil in social media is not that money changes hands. It’s when money changes hands for the purposes of “buying” an opinion. The inauthentic line is not that someone is compensated for using their medium or influence to transmit a message – we’ve been doing that since the dawn of business (there’s a reason charities use celebrity spokespeople). It’s not inauthentic to compensate someone to render an opinion. Inauthentic is only achieved when there is a lack of transparency about the existence of the arrangement, and/or a definitive move to purchase the ensuing conclusions.
Why are we so predisposed to believe that a positive review is bought or unduly influenced? It’s insulting to the general population to assume that individuals are incapable of drawing an independent conclusion in the face of compensation. And are we seriously trying to say that influence can only be used for altruistic versus capitalistic purposes, even if that business relationship is front and center for all to see? Is there no room for leadership, for stronger voices here? If not, doesn’t that miss the point of the power of dialogue in the first place?
We talk a lot about ROI. About proving the worth of social media in business and demonstrating that it can move the needle. In this particular case, success was visible. People talked about the promotion, they participated. The sponsor was happy. They didn’t buy an opinion, they bought the spotlight (and the risk that went along with it), and the community did the rest. And they opened up their brand to an open-ended conversation and hoped to reach new audiences, which I’d argue they did. You want ROI? There you go.
Social media’s beauty is not in stifling the growth of business, removing monetary elements, or even the individual success (or compensation) of those behind blogs. It is in changing the visibility around and within those dialogues so that everyone knows where they stand and can make their own educated, individual choices about how to further that business relationship.
Blogs are opt-in. Something not for you? Prefer a blog that’s the result of someone’s free time instead of their livelihood? You can find one. Personally, I will always support the ability for bloggers to occasionally focus their compensated attention on one company or product if it means that their outstanding unpaid content will be there for me to digest for some time to come. Not your thing? Use the voice that social media gave you to say so and opt out. It’s pretty darn easy to skip over a post.
Not all social media endeavors will survive without some kind of underwriting, and there’s credit due to those who are putting their own influence to the test to see how and when that works for those without the resources to test such. The “rules”, if you will, are still being written, and they will forever be evolving. Let’s put some of our collective trust in the community we so believe in, and contribute to finding positive and constructive ways for social media and business to combine (with a little tolerance thrown in for good measure, please).