Jason Calacanis has written a very tough piece about an operation called PayPerPost, a company that has gotten serious venture-capital backing for a “service” in which bloggers are paid to write about products — but are not required to disclose their financial interest.
We should generally abhor this kind of marketing. It encourages us to think the worst, not the best, about bloggers.
But is PayPerPost a cancer on the blogosphere, as Jason suggests? I’m less certain, largely because the company is doing in a public way what others are surely doing without bragging about it. If this outfit is cancer, it’s like a basal cell carcionoma, a less virulent form of skin cancer, easily handled and not normally dangerous; the really slippery operators are like colon cancer, which often has few symptoms until it’s too late. (We could take this metaphor further, but let’s not.)
The overall practice demands scrutiny, from other bloggers and from marketing/PR people who understand the value many people place on honorable dealings. We need to be exposing the people who take pay for play but don’t say they’re doing it. It’s not clear how we can find out who they are, but we all need to try.
Clearly this will require some of the “distributed journalism” or “networked journalism” or whatever we want to call it. I’d be interested in trying to pull together a project to do something like this, if other folks are interested.
Back to PayPerView and its methods. I wrote in PR Week a few months ago about a similarly deceptive operation, and what I said there applies here:
When I was in my 20s, I rented an upstairs apartment from a middle-aged couple. Not long after I moved in, they invited me down for a beer.
After a brief chat, they launched into a pitch to a) sell me home products; b) make me a salesman of the same products; and c) become a wholesaler myself.
It was creepy. So were they. I moved out quickly.
What bothered me, apart from the somewhat unsavory industry they represented, was their initial deception. They weren’t trying to be my friends. They were trying to sell me stuff.
This came back to mind as I read a recent story in BusinessWeek. It told of the campaign by Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s great consumer-goods companies, to recruit “buzz moms” as word-of-mouth marketers to their friends and acquaintances by engaging them in supposedly personal conversations. Why? Because surveys are clear that people trust personal recommendations more than advertising.
It was more evidence of a shift that is gaining velocity. Those who sell goods, services, ideas, and candidates must recognize that the world of TiVo, pop-up blockers, and increasing skepticism about traditional selling techniques requires a different way of seeing the marketplace. Which means, ultimately, that PR is the new advertising because conversation is the new PR.
But there is an honest way to have a conversation. As the magazine story noted, P&G didn’t insist that the moms disclose that they’re being rewarded for their efforts. In fact, the company said that it was somehow more in keeping with today’s style to let the moms make up their own minds about whether to disclose.
Reading this story made me less likely to buy P&G’s products, hard as they are to avoid. I don’t trust companies that try to fool people.
Buzz is great. Genuine buzz comes from those who truly care about something, not from corner offices.
I have news for the buzz moms and those who choose to be the corporate or political foot soldiers: If you are being compensated for this activity, tell me. A supposed friend who tries to sell me without such disclosure won’t remain a friend if I discover the deception.
Transparency is vital, not optional, in this new marketing relationship – and this is not simply about what’s ethical. Transparency is also smarter. You may never get caught pulling a fast one, but if you do, you will be punished.
I’m not saying advertising is dead, by the way. There will remain plenty of opportunities to sell things in the traditional ways for some time to come. Some buyers actually prefer to be passive consumers as opposed to active ones. And in highly targeted niche media, the ads can be as interesting as the journalism.
Meanwhile, the conversational aspect of marketing and image-making will continue to grow. PR folks will be helping their clients’ various constituencies in this way, and we’ll be relating somewhat differently to each other as time proceeds. It’s a messy process, true, yet also a valuable one.
It won’t work in the end, though, if the conversations aren’t open and honorable.
Will marketers listen? I wonder.