Social media and money. Playmates or sworn enemies? The general belief in the blogosphere is that they’re as incompatible as a Jimmy Johnson fan and a Tony Stewart fan (any NASCAR fans in the tech world?). I’ll show you that they’re rather compatible and can create some great opportunities.
Social media is all about passion.
Not that kind of passion. The kind of passion that fuels your hobby and (hopefully) your career. The kind of clean family-friendly passion that you write blog posts about and share with your friends. The kind of passion that you read about in the motivational posters plastered all over the break room (who hangs those things?).
Money’s all about commercialization, homogenization and corporate control. It’s the root of all evil. Yes indeed… it’s bad, this money stuff. It makes people do crazy, unethical things.
Ok, so the argument against mixing money and social media isn’t that simple. On the surface it’s got some chops: if you introduce money to the mix, the argument goes, then you introduce bias. And bias means that bloggers are apt to write about things that they wouldn’t normally write about. Which makes it hard for you to trust them. And trust in social media is everything.
So it seems like a good argument.
But it doesn’t hold much water. For the argument against money to work you have to conclude that the money itself creates the trust issues. It doesn’t.
A little disclosure of my own: I run a company that’s in a similar-but-different pay-to-blog space as PayPerPost. I watch what PayPerPost does to understand the pay-to-blog dynamic even though what we do is quite different.
PayPerPost was part of the second generation of experiments in paying bloggers to do stuff. And they got thrashed by blogging pundits like Jason Calacanis. The overly-simplified and oft-repeated view of the thrashing was that these pundits didn’t like money mixing with the blogosphere. But if you actually, you know, read their articles and watch their blogs, you get a clear sense that the money isn’t the issue at all. In fact, Jason took some heat in the early days of Weblogs, Inc. for his model that included paying bloggers.
The problem people had/have with PayPerPost is that the way they implement their blog-for-pay program it breaks down trust and credibility in the blogosphere:
1) When they launched they allowed people to earn money for blog posts without disclosing that they were being paid.
2) When the bad press they got forced them to enact a disclaimer program it was initially weak, allowing people to disclose their sponsored status in their footer.
3) To this day they allow companies to force bloggers to say only good things about products.
Each of these things seems pretty bad. But it’s important to understand why they’re bad. Note that they all have to do with disclosure. With making sure that the reader of a blog can evaluate the trustworthiness and credibility of the blog post.
Blog Reading 101
When you read blogs you are the editor of your own personal New York Times. You get to decide who writes articles for your virtual paper. The ones you choose are the blogs that you read and subscribe to with RSS. With millions of possible authors all clamoring for your attention (myself included), how do you decide who’s credible? The answer is different for each person. Some rely on friends to tell them who they trust (blogrolls.) Some rely on aggregators (Technorati, Alltop) to tell them who’s writing good stuff. Some read a blog for a while and judge content for themselves.
The problem with what PayPerPost does is this: they make it very difficult for a person to evaluate the credibility of the blog they’re reading. Let’s look at the ramifications of 1), 2) and 3):
1) If you don’t know that somebody’s being paid for a blog post then you may wrongly trust that somebody’s glowing review of a product and buy it for yourself.
2) If disclosure is weak and not “in your face” then you’re still in boat 1), even if disclosure is technically present.
3) If a blogger you’re reading is forced to say good things then money is clearly going to tip the ethical scales and get people to, at times, say things they wouldn’t otherwise say.
All of these things are terrifying because they break down the fabric of the blogosphere. Without the ability to make credibility decisions in the blogosphere the whole thing breaks down into 50 million disjointed and questionably-credible news sources. Nobody rises to the top of your editorial calendar.
Don’t believe me? Do this experiment. Go to Expedia.com or some other travel site that has user-generated reviews. Pick a hotel and read the reviews. Pretty useless, eh? But why? I mean, there’s all that personal review action, right? You should have a clear perspective on the hotel after 20 reviews, shouldn’t you? No, you shouldn’t. Because you don’t know any of those people. Bob67 from Des Moines, Iowa? Who’s that guy? And how does his negative review compare to SuperSally32’s positive review? Simply counting positive and negative reviews doesn’t work either because nobody believes that their needs are the same as the crowd’s. Social media is about personal answers and without credibility cues it’s difficult to do this.
Without credibility fabric all the content becomes junk, even if it’s actually well-formed, thoughtful stuff. Which is why everybody who’d actually been in the blogosphere for any period of time freaked when PayPerPost did their thing. We saw that the blogosphere, which had been steadily improving the quality of its fabric, could become un-navigable junk.
PayPerPost’s sins have little to do with money. They have to do with the fact that their model doesn’t grant the readers of their paid posts all the relevant information required to make a credibility judgment of their own. Even when you see their latest-and-greatest strong disclosure on a blog post you don’t have all that you need to make a credibility decision. You know that the blogger’s being paid, which is a step in the right direction. But you don’t know what guidance the company paying for the blog post gave them. You don’t know if the sponsor is requiring a positive review, for example. To get that information you have to go to PayPerPost.com, log in, check your opportunities and in most cases be of a high enough ranking in their system to see the opportunity details. Most of the times I go through this hassle I can’t gain access to such details. (Maybe they’ve changed recently… I gave up on this approach a while back.)
Many of us wave the words transparency and disclosure about when it comes to social media. But it’s also important that in each case we evaluate what information needs to be transparent and disclosed. Telling people half the story is dangerous.
PayPerPost may argue that the lack of disclosure doesn’t break down credibility. For example, if you’ve been reading Ted’s Super Blog for three years then you already trust him and you trust that he’ll provide you with posts of the quality to which you’re accustomed, even if they’re sponsored. I’m not convinced by this argument but I’m willing to let this point go. Because it doesn’t matter. You used the credibility fabric that existed three years ago when you chose to trust Ted and maybe his recent sponsored post doesn’t ruin your relationship. But what about finding new bloggers? What about Googling reviews, finding PayPerPost sponsored posts and asking “is this person trustworthy?” What about clicking a friend’s blogroll and finding a PayPerPost sponsored review of something? As the fabric breaks down you’re, what, left with only your current set of friends and that’s it? That’s not a vibrant blogosphere. That’s a static blogosphere. We need the fabric of credibility underlying social media.
Social Media and Money: A First Date
So, what did we do at our company? We made sure that whenever a person reads a sponsored blog post they have immediately available all of the pertinent information required to make a credibility decision:
1) We pay bloggers for their time...but they are fully empowered by the platform to say and ask whatever they want...no editing or accepting of only positive opinions.
2) “In your face” disclosure that this is a sponsored blog post
3) We use a widget that has a distinct graphical presence so that once you’ve seen one you understand the rest… in the same way that when you see a YouTube video in a blog post you immediately know what to do (i.e. click play.)
4) We have easy-to-use links to the complete opportunity
5) Our model is based on questions and answers, like a survey. Both the question and the answer are included in the widget that’s posted to the blog post. If a company tries to exert bias with their questions, they’re immediately visible to all readers. And readers are good at sniffing out fakeness… as long as they have the information available.
6) We never allow companies to require bloggers to post positive opinions. They’ve got to trust the bloggers to share their true opinion.
7) We allow a blogger to give all of their earnings to charity with a single click if they’re worried about the monetization element.
Collectively, these things protect and defend the blog post reader’s ability to evaluate the credibility of a post that they’re reading. Yes, this is somewhat self-promotional. But we’re proud that we’re giving bloggers a way to earn some cash while making sure that the blogosphere remains a fruitful resource for all. I’m trying to illustrate how you can use money without breaking the credibility fabric.
You’ve seen through this article that money is not nearly as important as credibility in the blogosphere. Money has no intrinsic value. We all get paid in our jobs and we’re able to do a credible job because being paid to work is a standard, known and already baked into personal evaluations. Credibility does have intrinsic value. Having people trust you is part of who you are and stays with you for years, if not generations.
Your Own Campaigns
As you step out into the social plane, don’t be afraid of thinking about money. Often you’re asking your customers to evangelize, which takes time and energy. Paying them for their time and effort is actually quite natural. Just make sure that you work hard to defend the credibility fabric of the blogosphere as you do so. Ask yourself “if I was reading this post, what would I need to know to decide whether to trust the author?”
And the final thing you need to do: be open to people telling you that you’re breaking the rules. We’re open to it. Call us on it. And call PayPerPost on it. They seem to be good people with a slightly off-kilter view of the blogosphere.
Maybe money isn’t the root of all evil. But breaking the credibility fabric is certainly a source of much evil (even though it doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic.)