Sponsored Conversations Are For The Uninspired

In 2008, I wrote the fact that paid blogging is a lose-lose situation.  I stick with everything written in that post.  Upon noticing a slew of new services – including those which allow companies to pay for Tweets (it’s laughable in-and-of itself that anyone is gullible enough to pay for that) I’ve been reflecting further on the idea of sponsored conversations.

If you read no further in this post, just consider this point:  you can’t commoditize something as organic as a conversation. The second you do, the people having those conversations cease to be people and transform into shills.  You might trick some users but it’s not authentic and there is zero trust involved.  It’s manipulation, not conversation.

Companies, individuals and marketers with a grasp on how digital influence really works know better than to engage in such tactics.  Those on both sides of sponsored conversations operate on a parallel web to the rest of us who know better and tune them out.  They have no real influence, authority or trust.

Just to sum up my previous post (linked in graph one) on why sponsored conversations are a situation where nearly everyone loses:

Content producers – of any length or variety – lose credibility and are seen by others as shills.  All those years of hard work to build up trust are not worth throwing away for a few bucks.  Also, they risk their search engine authority – potentially a site’s most valuable (and hard earned) asset.

Businesses take a risk by engaging in sponsored conversations as it shows an almost total misunderstanding of the social web, opening themselves up to ridicule.  Sponsored conversations are inherently anti-social.  Additionally, these companies succeed in training social web users to expect money every time they are mentioned and potentially destroy organic relationships.

Readers lose because they are consuming content that is influenced by cash, not passion.  I actively encourage you to unsubscribe from sites which take cash to write about products or brands within regular editorial content.  Reading these posts is as painful as listening to most hold music.  (As an aside, there is a difference with providing a product, sans-cash, to review.  It is when cash becomes involved that you’ve crossed editorial-advertising lines and create an awkward result that serves no one.)

Marketing and PR professionals who must pay individuals directly to talk about a product or service have failed at their job of organically spreading ideas.  “Sponsored conversations” is an oxymoron anyway, it is a malignant advertisement.

Companies brokering the conversations win, they insert themselves as middleman between people and marketers for profit.  As marketers you should be upset – these companies cheapen what you do by sending the message “conversations can be commoditized.”  As untrue as we all know this is, they are interested in propagating this idea, it’s how they profit.  The entire marketing community – at least those with respect for quality marketing – should be vocally against these companies.  They’re trying to eat a free lunch off what our industry has built.

But I was pondering this idea today and I think it actually goes a step deeper:  sponsored conversations are for the uninspired.

Sponsored conversations are for uninspired marketers.  If you’re a marketer and the only way you can  get people to talk about a client or your own brand is to pay others cash for conversation, it shows a total lack of creativity.  In fact, if you just want people to write about your brand but don’t care about actually influencing anyone – go right over to companies such as Izea, pay them and skip having a marketer altogether.  I’ll go ahead and say it like it is:  their product is for uninspired marketers.

Also, I don’t trust the fact that Forrester studies and executives are quoted all over the Izea site.  They are (trying to) leverage the trust of Forrester for their own product.  I agree with Mitch Joel:  trust is non-transferable and see through this play, it’s less subtle than Izea thinks.

Michael Arrington’s quote from 2007 still holds up nicely to describe Izea in-particular but actually describes any company which attempts to translate cash for conversations:

They (IZEA) are the blogging world’s pariah and are fairly routinely trashed for, as I put it, polluting the blogosphere.

Do you want to be a marketer or company known for polluting the blogosphere?  Exactly.

Sponsored conversations are for uninspired bloggers: If you are posting sponsored conversations on your blog, you immediately place yourself in the bucket of those to be taken less seriously.  Getting paid cash to write up content about a product or company on your personal channel is just unartful.  Plus it cheapens all of your other content.  Wonder why writers like Seth Godin and Mike Masnick are concurrently interesting and trusted?  Exactly – you can’t fathom them taking cash to write up a product.

Sponsored conversations are for uninspired companies:  No doubt, some companies can and do pay people money to stand on street corners and yell to those passing by about their product.  Paying web users cash to talk about your product is no different, and those people and companies both look just as ridiculous.

Quick conclusion:

Digital content creators – if you want to sell-out for cash, go for it:  but it speaks volumes about your character and cheapens your own brand on the web.

Companies or marketers, if you want to go for an easy, feel good marketing tactic (look, metrics!) go for it, engage companies which broker sponsored conversations, but realize you’re not building a brand in a way which is scalable or authentic.  It is accountable, and most services stress this – because it has to be, that’s all it has, however accountability is not necessarily effectiveness.  Social media is influence (an intangible) not ROI.

Marketers send a very different message to the world by engaging in these type of shill-tactics than they do by leveraging permission marketing.  Sponsored conversations are not even close to a permission-based tactic.  But I guess not all companies want to market authenticity/build relationships, and not all bloggers care to be trusted.