Disclosure: the views expressed in this post and on this blog in no way reflect my employer or my clients. They are personal observations, and I welcome your feedback in the comments below.
Sponsored promotions and integrations that fit, work. Period.
Sponsored promotions or integrations that are forced, that do not belong, that are inauthentic and insincere, don't work.
Every inauthentic sponsored promotion or integration a social marketer, a television personality or a blogger engages with lessens the credibility of the personality and the brand in question.
Influencers have earned their influence by building trust and expectations with their audience. This communications channel, when leveraged appropriately, can be an ethical marketing communications vehicle. Violating this trust or these expectations will lessen this trust. Violating this pact repeatedly or an extreme manner will destroy the influencer's influence.
Smart marketers and smart influencers will build solutions that are ethical and sensible for the target audience. They will have clear and simple statements of disclosure before or in the primary body of their work.
Now, should WOMMA, the IBNMA or the FTC be moderating this discussion? Are they needed? Is the Universal Disclosure Registry a real solution?
WOMMA is a wonderful organization, and I aspire to one day to be in a financial situation where I can join. They have brought scale, best practices, shared learning, education and standards to this business we call social marketing. Andy Sernovits is a brilliant visionary and I do not know where this industry would be without his founding vision. That being said, and with all due respect, innovation challenges the status quo. The market is asking if it's ok for influencers to influence together with a brand partner, and it looks like this may indeed be socially acceptable in the emerging societal standards we call ethical social marketing. They do it on TV. They do it at trade shows. And in the digital social world, they will do it online. Conversational purity is a utopia, but not one we will find online in the future. If people are engaging, marketers will market. The conversational dynamic is too powerful a marketing vehicle to be left screaming in silence.
The IBNMA is a wonderful organization, and I look forward to continued dialogue around these issues with the wonderful people at both the IBNMA and WOMMA. This debate is a lively, informative, inspirational and may help shape the future of this industry. There are no certainties, so let's keep the discussion going. I'm all for Paul Chaney's suggestion that we convene at a summit and hash out a central standard.
The FTC belongs in the conversation, but only as a strictly legal governing body. Big investors should not be influencing the conversation online, much as they cannot commit this fraud offline. However, if a mommy blogger chooses to write glowing reviews about Disney World after they caught her tweeting about her trip and sent her a free hotel upgrade (fictional example), she has every right to share without inserting full legal disclaimer.
Is the Universal Disclosure Registry the solution? I'm not sold. I beta tested a Sony Ericson phone with TMobile, so would it be unethical for me to write about their devices without disclosing that they once sent me a unit for 30 days 6 months ago? Will agencies sign into a controversial solution when many of their clients are either WOMMA members or are still in the education and ramp up phases in social? Unlikely. Will many bloggers sign this pact at the risk of alienation? Possibly? Will the Universal Disclosure Registry be THE future of social disclosure? Not in its present state.
I understand that there need to be ethical standards, but I think the community is already developing them. When readers were upset at Chris Brogan for participating in a social promotion on his personal blog, they voiced their opinion and he responded in a sensible, rational dialogue. I trust Chris and will continue to read and recommend his content. His engagement with his audience is still strong. He was and continues to be open and honest. Can we call no harm, no foul?
Marketers will enter the conversation. Like a good neighbor new to the block, they may even throw a barbeque. There's nothing wrong with this. There's a lot wrong with interrupting and misrepresenting. But not every marketer sponsored message is a disruption!
PayPerPost is not synonymous with sponsored conversation, it's but one example of it. Smart marketers are doing sponsored blogging extremely well, and the community loves it. However, we do need a central set of guidelines and instructions for how to execute these efforts ethically (such as altering search syntax on sponsored posts).
There's nothing wrong with some honest, open and respectful conversation. I look forward to continued discussion in the days ahead. I may be wrong, I may be crazy. Feel free to comment below, let's keep the dialogue going.