Header photo by Hamish Grant. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Did I Just Sell Out?

Two weeks ago, I attended a presentation about social media and search engine optimization by Rob Campbell from SMOJoe.  Rob uses a lot of different social sites and tools to create "information funnels" and "buckstops," building "keyword sandwiches" to win Google results.  Google eats them all up.  Fascinating stuff.

In his presentation, Rob encouraged the class put grass cutting in a blog post which would link to http://thegrasscutters.ca.

Key word: grass cutting.  Not grass cutters, not lawn mowing.  Grass cutting. Why?  Well, that particular company is a client of Rob's.  This link on my little blog is just one aspect of Rob's story funnel which ultimately leads to the buckstop: the Grasscutters' website. He wants his client to be number one on a Google search on the matter of "grass cutting."

So I've blogged it.  There it is, Rob.

Now what?  Has my blog become a billboard?  Has my personal brand taken a turn for the commercial?  Am I  *gasp*  ...  a"sell-out?"

I've been thinking about this for a while.  Blogging continues to grow as an important marketing and PR strategy.  It's not a secret.  Companies are realizing the strategic potential of getting well-read bloggers on board with brands, products and ideas.   It's pretty straightforward: a company gives me a snazzy new product and encourages me to blog, tweet and facebook about it.  I create some buzz and before you know it, my social media community wants one too. 

Brain Alkerton, a classmate from the highschool days, argues that "personal sponsorship is personal censorship."  Of social media sponsorship he writes,
These are the thoughts that go through the heads of the people holding the pursestrings, and it’s simple enough math. They don’t have to demand that you restrain negative opinions because you know the gravy train stops when you start criticizing too strongly. So you temper your words, and you tell yourself that because you’ve got a “blog with integrity” badge on your page you’re doing things right, as if disclosing that you’re on the take makes it okay.
Brian's point is well-taken.  If company X is paying me to blog or tweet about something, it's possible (likely?) that I will take it easy on them - even if I have an axe to grind.  But then again, maybe not.

Many bloggers are well-liked and widely-read exactly because they are outspoken and unpredictable.  If they're making a buck from a corporation that does something to piss them off, this brand of blogger had no qualms about saying it, even at the risk of losing that sponsor.

But is it "selling out?"  Is it making a compromise in integrity?

I don't think so.  It's all about how you do it.  If the corporately-sponsored blogging is annoying and alienates his or her community with relentless ads and commercial pandering, then it is possible that he or she may lose readers and the blog posts will be less valuable to the sponsoring corporation.  However, if it's done in a dynamic way that continues to add value and appeals the the audience, it can work.

Besides, isn't that the dream?  To get paid to do something you love, something that other people enjoy (hopefully) and something you would do anyway?


  1. Blogging done right takes time. Time = money. We live in a capitalist society and I see nothing wrong with being paid (in dollars, product or services) to blog. You are not a sell out, you have just clearly demonstrated an unknown use of social media in the world of marketing and PR. Or wait, maybe we just didn't know how to make a keyword sandwich before Rob's presentation. But now we do and knowing this SEO strategy is only going to benefit us budding PR practitioners. Rob's presentation was extremely insightful.

  2. Thanks Ginger! It's certainly a grey area! When we met @AlexandLuke, they struggled with the same issue, asking "How do we have an authentic experience and engage readers and viewers when companies and brands want us to include 'product placement' in our content?" Some people argued that they would be turned off by it; others argued, "Why not let someone else pay for your North American, social media-powered roadtrip? It's the same dynamic!

    "Why not let someone pay you to blog?"

  3. I think you hit on a few good points. We'd all love to get paid for doing something that we love and provide value to others.

    Maybe it's purely semantics, but I think there's a line between getting paid to do something you love, and getting paid because people respond to you as a result of you doing what you love. What you love to do has a huge impact on how blurry that line is.

    For me, it's fairly simple. About a year ago I took the time to write out my personal mission statement, and whenever personal/professional interests threaten to conflict, I look to that statement to guide me. If I can make the case that taking a job or a sponsorship opportunity is going to support my broader objectives of increasing people's awareness and appreciation of the world around them, then I go for it.

    When Disney offers a bunch of mommy-bloggers a free week in Orlando because they know it'll generate a ton of positive buzz, what objectives are being fulfilled on the parents' end? To give their kids a better life? Okay, but what if all the time they spent in front of the computer creating that reputation was spent with their kids? I have no stake in what's best for them, but when they say that's the objective, that dictates how they should live their life.

    And I don't think it's unfair to suggest that some (certainly not all) people let glittering prizes lead to endless compromises.

    You're using yourself as an example to raise a question that's more important now than it's ever been in the past, and you're encouraging discussion. I think it's safe to say that this is no sell out.

  4. Grass cutting company is top of page two today. Hopefully it will be on page one next week. Thanks for your help!

  5. Brian - I don't think it is about self. I think it is all about adding value for others.

    Rob gave a valuable session and did it freely but he did ask folks to freely reciprocate with a link.

    Unless value is being added to the connections involved, the network weakens and eventually fragments and falls apart.

    Zack and Rob have built stronger connections between them and have done so in ways that still benefit their respective connections.

    More than 90% of the students who received Rob's valuable session did not reciprocate with a link. Their connection to Rob will be decidedly weaker. Were they adding value to their connections by abstaining? Zack's contribution makes it more difficult to make this case.

    More thoughts on that here:

  6. It's interesting territory, this.

    Brain, I see what you're saying, and I think that there's a lot of value to setting out a personal mission statement and letting that guide you. It's a fantastic strategy to stay accountable to yourself.

    I'm sure that there are many bloggers that would endlessly compromise for free goodies; whereas others won't budge when it comes to taking a stance. But when it comes down to it, isn't that just a reflection of the person? Isn't the same dynamic playing out in every decision we make in real life? Making compromises for the money, the job, the product, the brand, the ideology. It just depends on the person, I suppose.

    The conversation doesn't need to be limited to the digital. The question is where am I adding value? How am I building relationships? Am I helping those around me? Am I generating conversation and creating opportunities for engagement?

    If I know of someone in need of lawn care in Toronto, it's likely that I'll point them to the "grass cutting" company that I mentioned to Rob. Not because I know that company, but because it can be a win-win situation: Rob is happy because it helps his client, and my friend with the shoddy lawn is happy because his yard is getting a referral. I'm an agent of trust for both. It's mutually-beneficial. Perhaps where it becomes problematic when I keep blabbing on and on about "grass cutting" and how they're the best. My buddy says "yeah, I get it ... you're really into this company, but they're already helping me out. What's your deal?!?"

    I suppose it's about how you engage ...

  7. How you engage does have a lot to do with it. What's being asked, what's being given, and the number of degrees of separation all play a role in how trustworthy something's perceived as. If I see an awesome talk and the speaker asks everyone to reciprocate with a link that says they're a great speaker, I'll be fairly inclined to do that. I can vouch for them as an awesome speaker.

    If they ask me to do something like what Rob asked, that builds some social capital between me and Rob, which has plenty of value to us, but if a friend asks for a referral and I sends them to The Grass Cutters, that referral isn't because I know they're good at cutting grass, but because I heard about them from someone who isn't an authority on cutting grass either (although I have no reason not to believe they're great, and I'm sure Rob is a great speaker).

    When I make any referral, I'm putting my word on the line. But in this case, all I'd have to go on is that they're a client of someone I like, which has no bearing on the quality of the work they do. Everyone wins if they're good, but if they pooch the job, my friend still has a shoddy lawn, my word carries less weight, but Rob can point to his ability to generate buzz that leads to new business.

    Recommendations when you know the other party does good work help your friends and build social capital, but recommendations from an ill-suited source can do just the opposite (you shouldn't trust your dentist to take a look at your plumbing). It's a fine line to walk, and one I think you always have to keep in mind.

  8. Brian, you're exactly right in pointing out that glaring flaw in my grass-cutting example. If I have no personal experience with the Grass Cutters, then I'm taking a risk referring them to my friend. They could be terrible; but then again, they could be awesome. If I were giving such an endorsement, I don't think I would say "Yeah, these guys are amazing - they do great work." Instead I would probably say "If you're looking for lawn care, I've heard about this group called the Grass Cutters. I don't know if they're any good, but it might be worth giving them a call."

    My interaction with Rob fostered a weak connection between me and the Grass Cutters, but it's a connection nonetheless. I'm able to help my friend a little bit ... even if it's putting them onto an organization (whose reputation they will have to assess on their own) when before they knew about none.

  9. And we're totally in agreement there. Helping friends and strangers you hope to become friends with is a great thing, and the foundation of just about everything I tell my clients... but you always need to be wary of how far out there you're putting yourself. I typically draw the line at "clients of friends and strangers I hope to become friends with", but no one's being hurt by a link that hopefully spikes someone's PageRank.

  10. Exactly - it is important to know where "that line" is. It'll be different for different people; but also depending on the relationship - who the strangers are, who the clients are, and where you're trying to build social capital.