Jan 16, 2009

Generating a Buzz Online Without Getting Stung

Brands need buzz. It's a marketing necessity, especially for brands reaching out to consumers online. Generating this buzz, however, is the hard part.  If the online community isn't interested, it can be difficult to get them talking about a brand.  To clear this hurdle, some brands have taken the somewhat controversial step of reaching out to the shapers of online conversation themselves.  By tapping influential bloggers to create content about them, these brands are generating online buzz and increasing brand awareness from the inside out. There is a history of negative backlash, however, for bloggers who engage in this sort of practice. Critics have expressed concern that this apparent shilling for a brand is a conflict of interest for a blogger. If you want to do that, some have protested, why stop there and start selling your offline opinions as well?

These misgivings, however, do not mean the online community as a whole considers this practice an unforgivable sin. In fact, provided certain rules of conduct are followed, these arrangements will damage neither the blogger nor the brand's reputation. To avoid falling into the traps and pitfalls that are present for both bloggers and brands, however, there are some important steps each must take to make sure the pay-per-blog process doesn't come with a price tag of damaged credibility for blogger and brand alike.

  • Full disclosure: Bloggers and brands need to be upfront about their relationship. Doing so adds credibility to a blogger's response and makes it clear the circumstances behind their posting.  Lack of full disclosure has a precedent of bloggers losing their page rankings as a consequence once the true motives behind a blog posting were discovered. That kind of online censure is the kiss of death to blogs and causes collateral damage to a brand as well. So make sure the readers know the opinion shared by the blogger was not inspired out of thin air but from an actual arrangement with the brand.
  • Freedom of opinion: Brands need to let bloggers have their say.  There might be commentary that the brand does not want to hear but if the blogger wants to object, let them. Otherwise the blog suffers a degenerative transformation into ad copy, not a true expression of the blogger's opinions. The blogger shouldn't be expected to parrot the brand's current marketing message. The opinions need to be genuine. Brands need to keep their distance and let the bloggers do what they do best - blog.
  • Reasonable compensation: Whatever is offered to the bloggers as an incentive to get them to write about the brand, it needs to be something whose value is at an amount that won't seem to be influencing the opinions the bloggers provide. Brands should let the bloggers test drive a product or to provide them with a gift card to use to explore their stores. Brands should not shower the bloggers with merchandise or gift cards that are so loaded they could use them to splurge on luxury items. An exorbitant pay-per-blog windfall might seem more bribery than legitimate compensation for the blogger, taint their opinions in the eyes of the blogosphere, and make the brand seem suspect in the eyes of consumers. After all, why would the brand need to buy opinions if what it has to offer was high quality in the first place?
  • Address any concerns that arise: Brands should not let the conversation end with the eventual post written by the blogger.  If the blogger or someone who posts a comment to the blog finds something he or she objects to or points out as a shortcoming, the brand needs to provide a timely response. This follow-up needs to address the concern and even explain how the brand is remedying and has already remedied it. Doing so will provide dividends to a brand's reputation as online users appreciate and respond well to sincere concern demonstrated by a brand about customer needs.

There is a thin line between honest blogging and a paid endorsement. For the pay-per-blog process to maintain credibility, bloggers must maintain autonomy of opinion, opinions must maintain sincerity and validity, and brands must maintain honesty by being open about their arrangement with the blogger and the amount exchanged to solicit the blogger's opinions. The brand can then have a chance to generate the buzz it wants and not be swept under along with the blogger by an angry blogospheric backlash.


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