Profiting off Sponsored Conversations

If you weren’t tied to the blogosphere this weekend, you may have missed two very interesting conversations taking place on two very different and reputable blogs. Brian Solis started a sensible conversation about full disclosure for sponsored tweets on TechCrunch, while Chris Brogan looked at brand relationships in his post Quid Pro No. The issues are intrinsically tied.

There’s been a lot of talk about sponsored conversations lately as Guy Kawasaki continues to get new cars, the FTC takes on the burden of trying to regulate sponsored conversations (good luck with that, BTW), and as Izea gets ready to launch a full pay-per-tweet network. Personally, I think the minute the FTC decides they need to regulate Twitter the world has officially gone to hell in a hand basket. We’re now living in a society where the words “FTC” and “Twitter” have ended up in the same sentence.

Wrap your head around that for a moment.

Here’s the thing, the FTC is not going to be able to regulate sponsored tweets in any sort of impressive fashion. Whatever ethic stick they try to wave at it will wreak of their outdated-ness and will miss the point entirely. Brands will still need to figure out how to make sponsored conversations profitable and you won’t find that in your new leather bound FTC rule book. And that’s what you should be thinking about right now – making sponsored conversations profitable. Not worrying about the FTC.

The FTC will fail at regulating sponsored conversations the same way Google has failed at trying to do the exact same thing. There is no clear way to identify what is or is not bought and paid for, because when it comes down to it, only the payer and the payee really know the terms of the deal. I wouldn’t want to have to define what is paid, sponsored, encouraged or natural when it comes to blogging or tweeting because it’s all far too subjective. And because, frankly, everything is bought and paid for in some way. I can’t tell by looking whether or not my favorite blogger is writing a favorable post about Neutrogena because they gave her a free sample a year, six month, three months ago. Neither can Google. Neither can the FTC. There are may too many shades of grey to tackle.

But that won’t stop the FTC from creating “guidelines”. Let them. Because the guidelines they create, will have nothing to do with the “guidelines” you need to create for yourself to make these conversations profitable. Hopefully your competitors will be so focused on the first set, they’ll forget about the second.

lightbulb SHOCKING: Disclosure is not what will make the sponsored conversations you start successful or unsuccessful. The trust, relationships and social contracts you create on the Web are what will determine this.

Not too long ago I wrote that affiliate links require trust, not disclosure. If you’re on my Twitter stream or on this blog, I would hope part of that reason you’re here is because you trust I’m not going to feed you a line of crap to make $30. I think my actions are pretty transparent and the relationship that we’ve both opted into here is worth much, much more to me than that. And it should be.

If you’re a brand participating in sponsored tweets or if you’re on the other side as Twitterer with a power account, that’s what you need to remember. It doesn’t matter what the FTC says. Because you can use whatever fancy hashtag you want to disclosure your sponsored tweet, if you have a history of being a shilling douchebag or if you haven’t matched your product to the right thought leader, it doesn’t matter how disclosed it is. No one is going to care.

If you want to be successful with sponsored conversations, you’d be much wiser to ponder the question laid out in Chris Brogan’s piece than in the argument in the one by Brian Solis (though Solis is an expert in his own right). Because that’s what your success is going to be based on. Which, really, shouldn’t be too surprising. Marketing has always been centered on relationships.

How do you profit off sponsored conversations?

If you’re a brand:

  • Go after the right thought leaders. Don’t go after the same five people everyone else is using. Find the people who are the most connected to your audience and will therefore give you the most credibility and targeted exposure.
  • Be a friend. People are becoming more discriminating with the people and brands they associate themselves with online. I know I’ve personally closed down my Twitter and Facebook accounts much more so than in the past. I only want to be connected to people I have real, tangible relationships with. Your goal as a brand is to make me feel like I have this relationship with you.

If you’re a power blogger or Twitterer:

  • Don’t be a douchebag. Don’t sell people out. If you wouldn’t recommend the product naturally, don’t recommend it for cash. I don’t care what the price is. You’ll be losing more than you gain.
  • Be trustworthy. Don’t ever give one of your followers a reason to question your motives. End of story.

Let the FTC run around trying to define what a sponsored conversation is, who’s a brand, and what is or is not “ethical” on Twitter. You’re not going to gain people’s trust simply by labeling a tweet with “spon”, “$”, or “paid”. You also won’t do it by creating specialized landing pages that define the term “paid”. You do it by creating relationships before you have a need to act on them and by being someone whose motives people don’t question, even when there is money involved. Worrying about whatever guidelines the FTC will eventually create around sponsored conversations won’t make me money. Learning how to use them will.

Personally, I think the few “guidelines” above are the only ones we need in sponsored conversations. And maybe in life.

Share this post

About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

12 thoughts on “Profiting off Sponsored Conversations

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head in regard to the viability of regulating sponsored content when point out that “only the payer and the payee really know the terms of the deal.” Gone are the days of a newspaper advertisement labeled, um, “Advertisement.” Whether or not it’s a “$” labeled tweet or a “nofollow” labeled link, ultimately any indication of a payment being received is really at the discretion of the parties involved.

    (In passing, I also think that your well-made point concerning shades of gray in what constitutes “payment” is all-to-often overlooked. In passing, because the realm in which I find this most problematic is Google’s conceptual over-simplification in the “paid” vs. “natural” linking universe.)

    And, in any case, in the slight semantics of the phrase “sponsored conversation” the focus should not be on “sponsored” but on “conversation.” Unless such communication actually results in an exchange between people, then it is not a “conversation” at all, making its classification as “sponsored” a moot point.

  2. Lisa, well said…”Because the guidelines they create, will have nothing to do with the “guidelines” you need to create for yourself to make these conversations profitable.”

    Chris’ post is great and I agree with him.

    However, your assessment of the FTC’s position underestimates the scope of what’s going on in Washington. The FTC and the SEC are working independently to enforce fair disclosure for consumers and investors. Disclosure is only one part of the equation…sense and sensibility + ethics, goodwill, and reputation are critical to success, stature and loyalty (on both sides – brand, spokesperson). When done right, sponsored conversations work. But they will only work within a framework that equalizes the landscape, encouraging value, honesty, and collaboration along the way .

    As I say at the end of my post (which is 2x the length of the TechCrunch post), “Integrity is a precious and rare commodity…”

    My credibility is not for sale.
    http://bit.ly/LVu1

  3. Wow, that’s a pretty outspoken post, and not one that I agree with. Correct my understanding but what we are essentially doing here is commercially sponsoring tweets without consent?

    We’re taking Twitterers that have a “trusted” group of friends that perhaps followed them for non commercial purposes and that will now be recipients of commercial messages [which are distinct from the previous tweets], without any degree of disclosure. In fact, that’s precisely the thing that is getting people like the FTC and other agencies with a consumer focus quite upset.

    When you switch on the TV you know when it’s Advertisement time, and equally you know with the sponsorship, but that sponsorship is quite clearly made during airtime. On the web you have all this grey area which for years has been plundered at the cost of consumer confidence (see where concerns about being ripped off on any recent report on privacy and information disclosure, and you’ll see this as one of the major points of concern).

    The thing is that the lack of concern by business, or in this case, the focus of agencies on exploiting this grey area rather than try and find a solution that satisfies everyone, is pretty abysmal. The best bit is everyone knows it’s dodgy but is quite happy to big it up.

    Guess what…..People like ads, they see it as entertainment, so it should be possible to make them clickable, it’s just we’ve gone a bit sterile with an overload of software functionality and not the space to think about how to use it.

    Can we stop trying to pull the wool over the consumers eyes.

    An effective strategy WILL NOT have this as a component, as I’ve already commented on my blog. We need to help correct things.

  4. Government will always have problems keeping up with technology until they regulate it to the point that nothing can be advanced.

    1) People like ads? Really? Then they the popularity of Tivo and DVRs? People accept ads as a part of life because that is what they have known.

    2) Sponsorship is easy to spot because they mention its an ad? Really? In the shows and movies I watch, I have no idea if the Coke can is a sponsorship or the director just really likes it. Sure the spots in between are known to be ads but they don’t start out with “Warning – Ad ahead”.

    3) If I start tweeting, linking or sending updates that have nothing to do with the reason they started following me, I lose people. I lose their trust and I lose any chance to influence them again.

    4) The people that trust me ask if I have an affiliate link to services they know I use. The cost to them is the same and they know I won’t send them to something that I don’t personally use.

    5) If you don’t trust a person enough to not be concerned about a link being a paid link.. don’t take any of their advice.

    6) Is it a perfect system? no. Nothing like that exists. But getting more government involved won’t solve anything and will make things much worse.

    Build trust, build a relationship, be honest, be reliable and have integrity. Common sense solves a lot of these issues.

  5. Aaron: Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I think the FTC is going to have a really hard time defining what is and what is not “paid for”, because they’re not as cut and dry as they used to be. The FTC is going to face the same impossible battle as Google’s been facing the past few years.

    Yawn:

    We’re taking Twitterers that have a “trusted” group of friends that perhaps followed them for non commercial purposes and that will now be recipients of commercial messages [which are distinct from the previous tweets], without any degree of disclosure.

    Let’s not talk about vague “Twitterers”. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s say you follow me on Twitter (my guess is that you don’t, but go with it :) ), You follow me because you trust me. If I drop something commercial into my Twitter stream, it’s there because I liked it and I wanted to share it with people who follow me and who may think “like me”. It’s the virtual equivalent of your friend going off about the digital camera she just bought even though you never asked about it. Maybe I’m getting some cash back on that rec and maybe I’m not, but my recommendation (at least those I make perosnally) are genuine. And if I’m NOT someone who makes genuine recommendations and am just trying to make a buck, well then people are going to catch on to that pretty quickly. And they’re going to leave. Along with my credibility.

    When you switch on the TV you know when it’s Advertisement time, and equally you know with the sponsorship, but that sponsorship is quite clearly made during airtime.

    What about when you watch a movie and the dorky kid drinks a bottle of Gatorade and suddenly has Michael Jordan-esque basketball skills? Does the average person know that’s an advertisement? There’s no mention of it being an ad before or after the movie. No one has to paint a big red bow around it.

    I think where online ads via Twitter streams differ from TV or print ads is that they’re so much based on trust, that brands and those who promote them really have to be acting ethically. It’s in my best interest to only tweet or blog about products that I really do like and endorse. Otherwise, I lose any perceived value I had. It’s not about pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. I’d never advocate consumer deception. I don’t think that’s what this is. And I don’t think any regulations set out by the FTC are going to prevent shady online marketers from being shady.

  6. Scott, I have to say that I think you need to read a bit of research about people and advertising (because the evidence is that people like it!) and in terms of placement in films, yes that’s a good point and no it’s not clear. BUT IT IS WIDELY ACCEPTED by the masses that it’s paid for. And that is a BIG difference, when we compare to some forms of advertising online. Take fake reviews as a starter for 10.

    Lisa, it’s not the you and me I worry about – and I’m surprised that you wouldn’t think I’d follow you, you’re muddling the points I make with my actual personality! – We appreciate the value of targeted advertising and the net effects of being spammy, so it’s pretty pointless to start with us as an example, as we’re not the problem.

    I am thinking more in terms of big celebrities or other big networks of people where the decision to include the product is less about linkedness with the wants of the group, and more with the potential earnings from a conversion. Or where accounts are not managed by people but by agencies looking just to increase revenue. Call it the “untargetted supertwitterers”.

    Yes, it’s a very grey area but I do find the statement that “Government will always have problems keeping up with technology until they regulate it to the point that nothing can be advanced.” a good indication of how far we need to go to bring the relevant bodies up to speed on things. I think you do touch on something that we as a group need to get our head around more clearly and that would be an online ethics policy. Can we create one please?

    If you get ripped off online, it’s the law that protects you, so you’ll be thankful.

  7. Lisa, I’d love a world where your exhortation to “be trustworthy” would be enough. I don’t think it is. I believe that anyone with followers, whether on Twitter or on a blog or anywhere else has a moral obligation to disclose to reason behind a recommendation. I think this is something Chris Brogan, as an example, does pretty well although he never mentions in his book reviews whether or not he received the book for free.

    Please note that I said “moral” obligation as I don’t believe that legislation by the FTC or anyone else is practical or even desirable.

    If your tweet about something because you were paid to do so and you fail to disclose that payment, you instantly forfeit any trust you think you may have earned for all your unpaid tweets. It’s not enough to say “I liked the product so much, I would have tweeted about it anyway.” It’s simply dishonest.

    I have no problem with sponsored tweets or blogs. Sponsorship has long been a important source of income for writers. But, if your reputation is important to your business, you had better let your readers know which posts are sponsored and which are not.

    Earning trust is not like bank savings. You can’t build up a stack and then smudge the lines a little. If you break the trust, you can go from super-wealthy to morally bankrupt faster than you’d imagine.

  8. If I get ripped off online, I don’t need to know if it was a sponsored post/tweet etc for the law to protect me. Contract law goes beyond how the message arrived at me.

    I do like some advertisements. I will never tire of Billy May’s infomercials. My son used to set up late at night and watch them. On TV is is accepted that paid advertisements support the media. Only on the blogosphere and Twitland do we suddenly lose our minds and think that Information is free.

    Yes some organizations will focus only on the dollars that those campaigns will bring in. Let the Buyer beware has been a common phrase for a long time.. for one very simple reason. There will always be conmen and crooks.

    Amway makes great products but once your friend joins you go from being a friend to being a prospect. We are in a dynamic situation with the web and how people perceive it. It is changing as we speak. More government regulation is not the answer but people’s education that not everything you read is sincere, real, done for charitable reasons, etc. People are people online and off.

    The practice of common sense solves the great majority of these problems.

    And Matt- Thanx for the compliment on my name though I didn’t really have much choice in it. :)

  9. Brian: Just caught your comment in the spam folder. Apologies for the delay in posting it.

    I’m really curious to see how the FTC and SEC are going to try to define what is and what is not paid, mostly because the bloggers and companies involved have a hard enough time figuring that out themselves. These groups can try and create rules regarding disclosure, but unless they can figure out what is, is not, and what is only “kind of” paid for, they’re going to run into the same issues Google has.

    And I agree with you that integrity is a precious and rare commodity. That’s why in order for these conversations to ever be successful, brands and bloggers need to be true to their audience. Regardless of any disclosure laws that are created.

    I did read the longer post on your own site. I think you created a great discussion for everyone.

    Daniel: I see your point. To this:

    If your tweet about something because you were paid to do so and you fail to disclose that payment, you instantly forfeit any trust you think you may have earned for all your unpaid tweets.

    I guess I just don’t see that as dishonest. If it’s an honest recommendation, it’s an honest recommendation. I understand your argument, though. I just don’t agree with it. :)

  10. Lisa, great post. I found myself nodding with approval and I never do that.

    “What about when you watch a movie and the dorky kid drinks a bottle of Gatorade and suddenly has Michael Jordan-esque basketball skills? Does the average person know that’s an advertisement?”

    The important parallel to draw is that of the age old celebrity endorsement. A public figure becomes a spokesperson because he/she resonates with a target audience. These are people… you know; that eat, live, breath, and hopefully wash themselves everyday like the rest of us. There is no difference between paying Michael Jordan to be the face of Nike, Gatorade, Hanes, etc. or paying Shoemoney to wear your funny t-shirt. Audience targeting is the simple name of the game. Sponsored blogging and tweeting are predecessors of this ‘oldest trick
    in the marketing book’. If sponsored content is scrutinized then this slope becomes a very slippery one. (the collective) We marketers can avoid this entirely if we get out of this crazy Internet-snobbery that we are currently experiencing. Marketing is marketing, friends, join the ranks of the masses and I assure you there will be a greater good. If you attack sponsored content than you are denouncing celebrity endorsement via all mediums. In addition, it’s been long realized that on the net if you provide some sort of value, people (outside of those jerks that use ad-blockers) aren’t too adverse to receiving blatant advertising. If you are consistently offering value to your readership, you have earned the right to advertise to them. Nothing in life is free.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Comments links could be nofollow free.