Questioning the value of “sponsored conversations”

March 3, 2009

Just read an interesting post (3/3/09) from Patricio Robles on the topic of “sponsored conversations.” This post, coupled with Forrester’s report on the topic, got me thinking about the inherent value and intent of blogs and 140 character posts. Weren’t these social media tools originally designed to be personal, conversational and…well social? Doesn’t paying someone to blog or tweet about your brand undermine the authenticity of your post – regardless if the person getting paid explicitly states s/he’s posting on X company’s behalf?

Obviously, if a brand wants to be included in the PageRank algorithm (the topic of the Robles post), they need to subscribe to the no follow guidelines. Google is totally in the right in enforcing those seemingly universally accepted rules. What struck me most about the post weren’t Google’s efforts to ensure quality, rather the underlying notion that companies (i.e. Kmart) are paying – incentivizing – people to talk about their brand.

My gut reaction is that these “sponsored conversations” go against the grain of social media. To me, the value of Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, and the like is transparent conversations between people talking about their passions, frustrations and successes. Sure “sponsored conversations” can be transparent (indeed, Forrester recommends mandating that transparency if using bloggers to talk about your brand), but by sponsoring them I believe you lose some elements of the personal nature of social tools.

I’m not suggesting that brands should not look for inventive ways to establish a presence in social media realms. Indeed, they should! I am proposing that companies should take it upon themselves to build their own brands in the digital world. They should dedicate internal resources to talk about their brand. They should encourage these brand discussions at both the individual and corporate/group level. Ford’s Scott Monty has done a masterful job of integrating his personal “brand” with his company’s.

If I want Robert Scoble or Peter Kim or Guy Kawasaki to talk about my brand/products in their posts and tweets, then it’s my responsibility to make the story compelling enough for them to take my message viral. Whether I’m selling lawn mowers, rubber tubing or clothes, I’m not sold on the value of paying someone to go shopping or to drive my vehicle in return for a post or a tweet. It just seems trite.

I feel that sponsoring conversations has the potential to undermine the inherent value of social media outlets. These conversations, if they merit scale across social media outlets, happen organically. Witty, conversational, controversial, and smart conversations bubble up to the top. I’m just not convinced that the potential to undermine the social value that is inherent in these new conversation/marketing mediums should be eclipsed by a brand impression. I’m 100% open to the possibility…just not convinced yet. I’d love to hear your opinion on this topic.