Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sponsored Opinion: When Blog Comments Are Paid

Would you imagine that people could earn money by posting a blog comment about a product? Let's imagine Nike gives you 20$ whenever you say you love the new Air Force 1 on a related blog article? This is actually one of the issue this article of Business Week is raising.

Famous Blogger Chris Brogan has been approached by Kmart to write an article about cool articles he could find in the retailer's store for $500. This is a new way to see Internet advertising.

But also this issue raise some free speech concerns. Blogging has thrived on free speech and the fact it is not related to any big companies nor any money concerns. But with time, blogs have become one of the key information medium. Some of them have great audience, and can make a living out of this activity. Also, some advertisers have expressed great interest in it, and have looked for ways to use this tool to get exposure.

Hence, sponsored blog posts have appeared, and a lot of companies provide free products, premium information to bloggers. This Business Week article is going further: it is not about sponsored posts, but sponsored comments.

"Sponsored Opinion: "Writer's Feet Ache. Need Zappos!"

Scoble hinted at a second problem with paid posts: They may elevate topics to positions of authority that don't reflect their true relevance. That was the likely reason Google blacklisted authors back in 2007; all those paid Web writeups were gumming up the search giant's ability to filter real results for consumers hunting at

The new paid posts continue to push topics to Web relevance, often by creating vast Web "link structures." A recent Izea promotion for Sears, the one that Scoble turned down, created three levels of Web links—a $500 paid initial post talking about a Sears shopping spree; a prize of $2,500 to attract additional bloggers to rewrite the original post; and a competition among those bloggers to attract the most comments from other readers. One influential post times 300 potential reposts times 20 potential comments each equals 6,000 potential Web reviews all pointing at Sears.

Not bad for a $3,000 ad budget. You try influencing Web opinions for 50¢ each.

We ran all this by Dirk Singer, head of the London PR agency Cow, who has been critical of paid posts in both the U.S. and Europe. Singer says marketers should question the value of any paid online writing or link schemes. "Sponsored links… [give] the advertiser the illusion of having word of mouth endorsement, but it's not as simple as that," he says.

Sponsored Opinion: "Let's Spell-Check This Column in Microsoft Word!"

At the end of our conversation, Brogan asked us whether his remarks about paid posts had changed our mind. "There is an ethical line between buying ad position and buying an opinion," we responded. "But honestly we don't know where that line is."

To help determine where it lies, let's expand this commercial experiment—to sponsored opinions in all human communications, online and offline. Tell your boss in the next board meeting that it's time to benchmark your customer service against Kmart. Tell your wife you love her dress but she should have shopped at Sears.

Sponsoring real-world opinions will unlock the real potential for advertisers to influence consumers. Consumers, in turn, earn badly needed cash. Heck, this revolutionary advertising model could lift the world out of recession, simply by monetizing chatting.

There are many technical details to work out: who tracks placing the ads; how do we monitor the "consumer chatting" inventory; what about conflicts of interest that leave you tossing out opposing brands in the same sentence? But surely Google scientists can work out these details within a week.

So let's sell, people! Embed paid promotions into the fabric of life. Tell your kids to behave if they want an iPhone! Then ask Steve Jobs to send you an Apple (AAPL) gift card! We can call it Sponsored Paid Opinions in Human Meetings, or SPOHM—not to be confused with spam."

Indeed, commenting is a key part of a blog. The most exposed blogs receive thousands of comments a day, and it is part of the blogging concept to leave comments opened. So why companies would not leverage it to sponsor some comments and to get new ways to advertise? Actually, a lot of advertisers are still struggling to use web 2.0 to get advertising spaces, so this is an innovative way advertisers should think of for their web 2.0 media plans.

Web 2.0 dilema
Also, web 2.0 is powerful for brands as long as the communities are free to express themselves as they want about these brands. If tomorrow brands faken the conversation, will web 2.0 still be interesting? Will community members be so active? I think there is a high risk if this kind of sponsored "web 2.0 activities" wether it is commenting, or blogging is actually spreads out.

What do you think about it? As a emarketer, or as a web 2.0 users? Would you be interested in such a marketing campaign? I think the question is worth to be discussed, but should be handled with care.