Consumers are more empowered than ever to research and review nearly any product they plan to purchase. As traditional advertisers lose control over the masses by dropping attention towards television, radio and print media; they ramp up their efforts to commercially drive the conversation on the Web. There’s a good way to do it as much as there is a bad way. I’ll share best practices for companies and bloggers for sponsored conversations, and how to do it right.
Disclosure: I really respect Chris Brogan and his thoughts on sponsored blog posts. I work for the best damn marketing software company, Infusionsoft. How does that affect my opinion on sponsored conversations? It doesn’t, I just thought I’d mock the purpose of a disclosure.
What is a sponsored conversation?
A sponsored conversation is one where an advertiser pays, supplies or otherwise offsets the natural review costs for a publisher. That can mean a variety of things: a free product, a payment for a review, a sponsorship deal, paid travel expenses, etc. I think you get the idea — it’s a sponsorship of some kind in exchange for the time to review (or the opinions) of a publisher. Personally, I feel sponsored conversations are bullshit, but may be valuable once a company fully exhausts their means to engage and it allows bloggers to potentially monetize their time.
Conversations allow people to form opinions on the merit of a topic. Product reviews, customer service experiences, idealogical debates all the way down to the random product placement all matter; they are all fragments of conversation that people use to develop (or validate) their views on a topic. More frequently, people Google a company and a blog may be on the top of search resuts. A pattern in how people search are, “<Company> Review” or “<Company> Complaints.” This behavior is because people want to assess the risk before they give them clearance to charge their credit cards.
Honesty and credibility are very much the foundation in blogging. Trust and authenticity are the foundations in establishing credibility and loyalty from an audience. It’s safe to say that, for now, about 90% of the conversations bloggers have are unsponsored, unpaid and their work is a labor of love.
So where does this leave companies who want to jump in the blogosphere and have bloggers discuss their products and generate buzz? In a tough spot. Companies without compelling benefits are quick to jump to the checkbook to stimulate (rather, simulate) buzz with bloggers. Several bloggers who accept and pitch these products and services to their audience find themselves risking their credibility if it isn’t related to their audience’s interests.
There’s a strategic way to engage bloggers to talk about commercialized products and a finessed way to share them with their audience in a way that’s tasteful.Likewise, I believe if a company is truly connected and wants to generate buzz, they can reach out to relevant bloggers and join the conversation. It’s really just that easy.
I wouldn’t consider services like PayPerPost, ReviewMe, etc. to be as a part of a company’s “blogger relations” program. These commoditize and encourage questionable behavior between publishers and companies, usually focused on the SEO benefits such as PageRank. If anything, these are just advertising and one-way conversations.
How to Ethically and Effectively Engage with Bloggers:
- Start the conversation. Many companies who rely on sponsored conversations are simply not starting the conversation. I suggest talking about problems and propose solutions about the industry, products, service and even shed light into the culture of a company. These are great ways to become noticed.
- Find your audience. Often the most time consuming, it will render a better return. Companies ought to first understand their customers’ needs and learn where their prospects are coming from, what they do and what they read. Use Technorati, Blogged and Google Blogsearch and search relevant industry terms to find the right audience.
- Engage in the community. Once a company has found their audience, the next step is to listen and engage. As a voice in the company, the first step is just to introduce yourself to a community and ask for their thoughts on a topic. (And don’t be afraid to have backbone and share perspective.) The community in this context refers to the world of blogs, forums, Twitter trends and even competitors’ online discussions.
- Make friends, not pitches. This is often the most overlooked aspect in commercial conversations on the Web. Marketers fail to establish a positive relationship before they go for the jugular with their pitch. Pitches are yesterday; trusted advisors are today. Position yourself to be open to criticism and be willing to address problems that people elevate to you. Take pride knowing people trust you enough to share deltas about your company.
- Don’t control the conversation. When companies try to direct the conversation between bloggers and their community, they fail. Accept that people are independent and empowered to share their views. Demonstrate some integrity and respect, and accept that your product fulfills every user’s need and take their compliments as massive strengths and accept the inferiorities of a company’s product. A simple way to be out of it is not to ask for a review of their blog post before they publish it. (Often, You’ll find that many bloggers will volunteer your thoughts on their piece, and in that case, go with the flow.)
- Respond. The biggest impact companies can have is to respond to compliments and critics. This will position them to be engaged, listening and on top of their game. The last thing a brand wants is to be slammed and not responding; making companies appear to be ignorant.
So, in these six tips, I didn’t mention anything about money. Precisely my point. A blogger is a publisher, who probably monetizes their time through display advertising or they do it for free. Many bloggers love to be the first to break news, even if it isn’t that great. No offense, Cuil.
So how does a company compensate a blogger for reviewing their product or service? Free. Free is the way to go, since it affords them the opportunity to fully test, inspect and review a product. If it’s merits are good, they’ll state that in a review that they would be willing to pay for it. Another compensation is unfettered access to the company they’re writing about. This includes time with the C-suite, vice presidents, directors and even the developers and engineers. You’d be surprised what a blogger might be interested in covering about a product.
For any sponsored conversation, the company should make it clear that the blogger discloses any concessions that they received for their time. This includes travel, freebies, etc. This raises the level of credibility and honesty in a review so anyone who reads it can familiarize themselves on how the blogger got access to such information and how the company engaged in the conversation.
The key for a publisher to be successful in a sponsored conversation is disclosure, balance and consideration of their audience. When accepting a sponsored review, make it evident early on with whatever you got in return, any special access a company has offered and offer constructive criticism.
Does every blog or company need to follow this format? No, but it’s good practice and good for everyone involved.
Sponsored conversations are a hot topic in the world of social media, PR and blogging. I’m interested in your thoughts on this and feel welcome to disagree. I think these are great topics to discuss.