Advertising and Trust

Izea Today was my day to be front and center of a controversy. Recently, I did a sponsored post about Kmart on my Dadomatic blog. This caught the attention of Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester (in his analyst role), and he raised a bunch of thoughtful questions, so it’s a big topic on Twitter right now. I think it merits a larger conversation, and I want you to be part of it. I want to share my take on the way advertisers and people might interact in the social space.

The Charge Put Upon Me

What seems to be at the heart of the controversy on Twitter (no finer teakettle has there ever been), is whether my involvement with a marketing campaign for Kmart somehow erodes my credibility as a social media business strategist. The logic, or that which seems to be acting as logic, goes like this: Brogan took money for writing about his experience with Kmart, so we might not trust his opinions as much.

Let’s look at the space for a moment, including my involvement, as that’s what is being called out.

Who I Am In This Space

My job, such as I have defined it, is to equip and educate businesses with strategies for business communications (and that’s anything from sales to PR to marketing to internal collaboration) via social software channels (be they internal or external). Said simply, I help businesses figure out what to do with all this social stuff.

Marketing and advertising is part of the social web. You don’t have to like it, but if you’re ignoring that businesses are trying every day to figure out their place in this world, you’re drinking a whole different kind of Kool-Aid, and I’d venture that mine’s far less dangerous. It doesn’t mean that everything on the web is geared towards advertising. In fact, that’s the beauty of it. This is the first medium in modern history to be built NOT for commercialism, but instead, for communication. And people can survive quite nicely without dealing with making money. Perfectly fine, acceptable, and part of the web.

My job isn’t to keep the Kumbaya chants going. It’s to equip businesses (and that’s on the blogger side *and* the big business side) with knowledge and actionable next steps. I’ve been at this in different forms for years. You’ve got the chance to go back and read anything in my Best Of section to decide if you think I’m working towards a clear and obvious goal.

What Businesses Are Trying to Accomplish

Marketing and advertising in the analog world are broken (or at least slowing down in their business impact). We all know this. But some companies are taking steps to really try and participate in genuine ways in the space. Want to know an early and great example?

Seagate. Robert Scoble has had Seagate as a sponsor since he was at PodTech, and the sponsorship moved over to FastCompany when Robert changed roles. They’ve been genuinely interested in seeing social media succeed since they first got involved with Robert years ago, and they are helping keep the media making Robert does alive.

Dell is doing it with Digital Nomads. Instead of pitching you hardcore through traditional marketing channels, they’ve built a very useful blog site with lots of great content, and tons of opportunity for interactions, and “oh by the way, you might want to see this laptop.”

Businesses are trying to do exactly what we asked them to do. They’re trying to master our languages. They’re trying to talk to us where we are. They’re looking for new ways to talk and to advertise.

And in the midst of this, we are still struggling with how blogging is or isn’t replacing mainstream journalism, how blogging is or isn’t a magazine or newspaper, etc.

The Whole Journalist Thing

There’s a whole stripe of people out there who argue that the sponsored post corrodes my editorial integrity, and that I’m not unbiased if I do something with sponsorships, etc. I want to address that, because it really hits to the core of the story, in my mind. Simply, they’re saying that one cannot be editorial-minded and manage a paid sponsorship. (Which, if you think about it, you’re saying that humans can’t separate their perspectives appropriately.) I have a few points with regards to this.

  1. Newspapers and magazines are dying. If you’re not reading Newspaper Death Watch and Paid Content and BuzzMachine, then you’re missing some of the most riveting and depressing news of our generation.
  2. Those models all work on advertising-to-pay-for-editorial and editorial-to-keep-eyeballs-to-support-advertising. In fact, all previous media works that way. TV, radio, etc. Lost isn’t on TV because it’s cool. It’s because people can advertise against it.
  3. Those models are dying because advertising and marketing have lost their impact in those spaces.
  4. Since the early 90s, people have hoped to figure out how the web will fix this.
  5. I have some opinions on this.

I’m not a journalist. But I am a publisher. I am a reporter. I am a media maker. And here’s the difference: as a publisher, I have all the jobs of the newspaper. I am both the editorial staff and also the business side of the house. In this piece by Barbara Gibson of IABC, Barb Gibson says in her comment to me: “One more note in answer to your points above: while magazines do indeed do advertorials, they’re usually not written and bylined by their star journalists.”

That’s the crux right there of what has people hackles raised, I venture. In larger operations, there’s a bag man to take the advertising money and leave the journalists pure. I’ll get back to that point, because there is a line still, and that line must be respected. That hasn’t changed, and won’t change. But because there are many of us who are the publisher, the writer, the researcher, the customer service department, and the public relations staff, you’re going to have to seek a slightly different way to manifest that distinction.

By the way, one irony of me being called out for my journalistic integrity is that a whole bunch of blog posts went up that aren’t especially fair or balanced, and that lack any level of research. So, as you’re crapping on me for seemingly selling out as a trusted source, you’re lobbing inaccurate reporting back at me as your proof.

My Big Point- Disclosure

If there’s one thing that I feel is the hinge of all this, it’s disclosure. Have you read my About page? I’m going to bet that I disclose more of my relationships with companies than most people receiving similar opportunities, and the reason I do this is to be clear when something has the potential to be a skewed opinion, and/or when I stand to make some money from your taking my advice.

The sponsored post about Kmart had the words “sponsored post” in the title, in the first line, and in the last line of the post, with links to the company that sponsored me (Izea). The first paragraph explained the campaign and what I was doing for the project. It was very clearly a sponsored post. Do you disagree?

To me, this can’t be much more clear.

Why I Did It

The sad (sometimes funny) part is that most people are saying, “Hey, he needed the $500.” While I sure don’t mind making money, that’s not why I wrote the post. Here are all the reasons why I wrote the post:

  • I’m on the advisory board for Izea, the company who got the deal with Kmart. How can I advise Ted Murphy if I’ve never even used his services.
  • I like the idea that Kmart was willing to give a brand interaction with bloggers a try.
  • For those of you who haven’t read The Cluetrain Manifesto lately, thesis #1: markets are conversations. Yep, a blog is a conversation. I mixed a market and a conversation. (Wasn’t that one of the 95 goals?)
  • My job, what I am paid to do, is advise companies and media makers how to play nicely together and make business happen. If I don’t explore, what will I know?
  • At every PodCamp I’ve ever attended or organized, there are at least two tracks on “how do I monetize my blog/podcast/videoblog.” If I haven’t experimented, how will I answer that question?
  • I realized really quickly that I could do two good things while satisfying the project request: I could give someone else a $500 gift card for the holidays, and I could use my shopping experience to buy toys for the Toys for Tots program. (My kids kept the jackets and my boy kept some pants.)
  • As several journalists have written me asking me what they’re going to do now that they’re out of a job, I’m experimenting with ways they can make money while continuing their trade.

How This Might Impact Trust

Some of you might worry that this should make you question my integrity. By all means, question everyone’s integrity. Julien Smith and I are writing a book called Trust Agents that deals with how businesses can be more human on the web. We think trust is a really important and interesting mechanism on the web. Pay even closer attention to the sources you consider credible.

I’ll refer once more to the disclosure portion of this post. My take is this: if I write about something where I have been obviously influenced, I will disclose this. If I’m writing about something for passion, then I’m just going to write about it. I see lots of PR people stuck in the trap of writing, “they’re not a client – I just love what they do.” Screw that. I’ll tell you who pays me and everyone else is someone I’m writing about because I like what they do.

I’ve written two sponsored posts on [], one for CEA and one for eBillMe. Long before I wrote them, over the last few years, I’ve had dialogues with my community (you) about advertising and my site. I believe that it’s important to serve my audience, and that my number one rule for the sponsorships I’m taking is that they relate in some way to my audience, and that I’m clear and disclosed on each post. Oh, and I always write my own stuff my own way. You’re not buying my words. You’re buying my attention, and renting my audience’s attention.

By the way, another point on this: I don’t ask you for money. I give you everything for free. Somewhere, I have to make money, or my kids don’t eat. Would you rather I ask you for money? Someone always pays for the meal.

How I Hope You’ll Proceed

I’m tasked with showing great companies how they can connect with you, and that will take many forms. Yes, this post is about my exploration with advertising, but that’s not all people are doing. The people I’m speaking with at these really great companies are all passionately interested in “doing it right” and connecting with people. They’re on Twitter. They’re learning to blog. They’re using listening tools. They want to know more about how you want to interact with them, and they don’t want to just sell. They want real live authentic interactions, and they want to do business.

I’m here to share insights and give you actionable strategy. I’m going to explore even more ways that bloggers and media makers can make money in 2009. Why? Because it’s going to be one of the worst years economically in the history of the US (and by extension, the world). If I can figure out ways to keep my friends from losing their house by finding ways to authentically match business opportunities tastefully with their audiences, I’m damned straight going to help.

And if you’ve read this far and have come away thinking that I’m not credible, that I’m not authentic, or anything less than what I’ve been presenting myself as for the last several years, I invite you to go elsewhere. There are millions of blogs out there. Some are even doing fine work. I’ll gladly give you a list of replacement blogs, should you find mine not valuable to your interests and insights.

For the rest of you, thanks for staying aboard. We’ve got lots to do in 2009, and I’m counting on you to keep these ships in the water. Thanks for your time and your attention.

Just One More Thing

I support what Ted Murphy is trying to explore at Izea. He took quite a public thrashing a few years back for launching PayPerPost, and I was one of those throwing stones. After spending some time with him, talking to him about his perspectives, and reviewing where I hope advertising on the web is going, I think Ted’s one of the people looking to help. I’m on his advisory board (an unpaid position, in case you want to snark about that) because I want a voice at the table for understanding what comes next with online advertising.

Updated 12/14/08 at 9:42 to correctly identify Barb Gibson as IABC, not ABC

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