In its favour, it can be a useful mechanism for explaining an organisation's view on a complex issue. To its detractors, it is little more than an advert posing as editorial, corporate messaging pretending to be objective reportage/analysis.
The line between paid advertising and earned media is all the more blurred on the internet, raising questions about the nature of word-of-mouth and 'online influencer' programs that seek to earn attention and kick-start conversations.
Many online marketing and PR campaigns now include popular or well connected bloggers or netizens, in the hope that their output -- be it blog posts, video, tweets etc. -- will be read and spread by their readers to as many like-minded people as possible.
It is easy to view such sponsored conversations as a quick and cost effective way to generate buzz, often in advance of other more 'traditional' marketing activities.
But they can just as easily backfire, with organisations getting caught paying bloggers to write enthusiastic product reviews or doing it themselves under a pseudonym.
The advertorial 2.0 needs to be treated with real caution, not just in the West where corporate activity is routinely analysed and questioned, but also in China and other emerging markets where paying bloggers to ramp products is common, but also where netizens are increasingly confident of their ability to effect change.
Here are some guidelines. Some are basic common sense, others a little more nuanced:
- Expect to be uncovered. The internet is a collective 'truth squad' par excellence that will proactively and mercilessly hunt down such activities and parade them for all to see.
- Don't expect coverage. Bloggers tend to prize their independence and don't work according to the same codes as conventional journalists. They don't expect to have to write about your story, let alone include your carefully scripted messages, so don't try and force them to.
- Don't buy influence. While some online influencers are only too happy to make a fast buck, others recoil at the idea of being 'bought'. Even offering to pay bloggers can be problematic -- they can, and do, talk about such overtures on their channels. Instead, invest in building a relationship with a blogger that is based on insight, trust and access. This is much more likely to pay off in the longer-term.
- Consider giveaways carefully. Most bloggers are delighted to work with companies that help them build their audiences in smart ways. But make sure that the promotion or giveaway is appropriate to the blogger and audience -- anything too large may smack of bribery, alienating both blogger and audience.
- Disclose your relationship. If you are working with bloggers, make sure you disclose your relationship with them, not least if they are being compensated to write about your products. And ensure that they do likewise.
- Disclose your identity. Posting under a fictitious name or, worse, under somebody else's identity, is asking for trouble. State clearly who you are, for whom you work, and provide a clear means for people to contact you.
- Ensure relevance. Bloggers may have large spheres of influence, but don't have the appropriate audiences. Others have little time or, indeed, inclination to talk about your brand. Spending time finding the right influencers to work with is important. And it can be more effective, and less costly, to work closely with just a few bloggers than look for immediate buzz by working with a large number.
- Make the right approach. Many bloggers state how they would like to be contacted by readers and companies. Make sure you find out how. Above all, don't spam a blogger with promotions or press releases without their agreeing to receive such materials. Getting this wrong can result in negative posts.
- Get the infrastructure right. Providing a two hour window for the delivery of a product, and then not delivering on time annoys everybody. The difference is that e-fluentials will moan about it publicly and potentially to a lot of people. Make sure the basics are done right.
- Take feedback seriously. Despite often being 'non-mainstream' players, bloggers like to feel that they can contribute suggestions and ideas, and are being taken seriously. Consider how to establish an environment that encourages and rewards (non-financially) a truly two-way conversation.
Charlie Pownall is lead digital strategist at Burson-Marsteller Asia Pacific.