Forrester and the smell of “sponsored conversations”

Anyone can smell this rat from a distance. It stinks. Unless Kmart gave you free nose plugs on top of the $500 gift card to "review" their shopping experience…

Chris Brogan is one of those names that keep popping up in the marketing-oriented corners of the blogosphere. So I've been kind of interested in reading what insights he's bringing to the party. But with this stunt, he's basically saying:

"Hello! Over here! Yes, me. I'm pimping myself, what can I do you for?"

Dan Gillmor teaches us to be sceptical about the credibility of what we read online:

"(…) We all have an internal “trust meter” of sorts, largely based on
education and experience. (…) A news article in New York Times or Wall Street Journal
starts out in strongly positive territory on that trust meter. An
anonymous comment on a random blog, by contrast, starts with negative
credibility. (…)"

As a blogger, if you allow yourself to be paid to write about a commercial item by the company who markets that item, no matter how transparent you are, no matter how well you disclose that you are paid and that the opinions you write are your own, you will have negative credibility.

The problem is two-fold:

  1. Even if you think you are not influenced by your sponsor, you probably are. Do you think the sponsor is going to make a little extra effort to give you an unusually good customer experience? Yes, me too.
  2. Even if you really were not influenced by your sponsor, how are we, your audience, to know? You tell us you were free to write whatever you wanted. If you mean that nobody censored your text, I'll buy that. But I think we all know that if you wrote a favorable piece, you'd probably be in a better position to receive another treat sometime in the future. If it was negative, you might not get invited again. Did that influence you in any way? And how could we tell?

    If you're weak enough to pimp yourself for "sponsored conversations", no way you're gonna be strong enough to resist such temptations. You're bought and that's it.

The odorous term "sponsored conversation" is bon ton (and possibly coined) at Forrester, the research firm. Why I feel drawn into this rant is because I read Forrester-blogger Josh Bernoff's piece about how Forrester wasn't going to accept sponsorship from Augie Ray. Augie had offered Josh $500 to write about his blog, hoping to increase traffic.

In Bernoff's view it's alright for marketers to approach bloggers this way, and it's up to bloggers whether they want to take the bait or not.

I think Forrester is making a mistake by taking such a laissez-fair stance on the issue. As Augie implies, the firm does somewhat appear to apply double standards by, on one hand, not objecting against bloggers taking money for "sponsored conversation", while on the other hand ostensibly refusing to take money themselves.

If Forrester thinks it would be bad for their credibility to be paid for "sponsored conversation", then why don't they point out this credibility problem to bloggers in general? Why not advise bloggers against it?

For that matter, doesn't this practice tarnish the brand of the sponsor as well? I mean, how credible is Kmart after this stunt? So, shouldn't Forrester advise brands against this practice, too?

Anyway, Augie got his coverage by Josh Bernoff, as requested:

"(…) I'll pay $500 for a "sponsored conversation" on your Groundswell blog. My guidelines are simple: You can write whatever you want, provided your blog post is dedicated to Experience: The Blog, contains more than 200 words, includes at least one link to my blog, and you mention my name and the name of my blog. (…)"

Augie, you wrote in a comment to Josh's piece that he saved you $500. How come? Now that Josh delivered, aren't you going to hand him the $500 you promised?