PR agencies have historically resisted using techniques involving compensation. But with more companies contemplating sponsored posts as a new way to reach additional audiences, the PR industry will be faced with the decision of whether to offer this as part of their services.
Kmart, a subsidiary of Sears Holdings, gave six bloggers $500 gift cards late last year to go on shopping sprees and then blog about their experiences. Afterward, the company sponsored a contest where a community member from each of the blogs could win a gift card for the same amount.
Tom Aiello, a PR pro and division VP at Sears Holdings, says that he views paying bloggers as similar to arranging a product placement on a TV show. He describes blogger-payment programs as one of the various outreach tools at the disposal of communications professionals.
“It's a pretty simple approach – we're ma-king sure we have innovative and breakthrough tactics as part of an overall plan, combined with a stable of proven tactics where we know what type of impact we are going to have,” Aiello says, adding that brands must gain consumer trust with the content by disclosing the relationships.
Sears will try to duplicate the initiative this year in similar efforts, Aiello adds.
The original push was conducted with the help of Izea, a social media marketing company that reportedly counts about 250,000 participating bloggers in its network willing to do paid-for postings. Izea also has a code of ethics requiring payment disclosure.
The key to avoiding controversy is to ensure full disclosure of blogger payments, as well as to require that bloggers post authentic content, adds John Lusk, VP of marketing at WhitePages, which paid for travel expenses for a group of bloggers visiting his company's headquarters. He says the bloggers embraced the full disclosure policy.
“Consumers are smart. They're going to see right through that,” he says. “They were very adamant about having full disclosure and stating that WhitePages sponsored them, and so we weren't paying people to write good things about us.”
Chris Brogan, author of the Dad-o-Matic blog and president of New Marketing Labs, participated in Kmart's program and disclosed the relationship on his blog.
“I was upfront when it happened that it was a sponsored post... Kmart didn't have any opportunity to affect what I had to say about the process, and I didn't have any editorial hurdles,” he tells PRWeek. “I could say anything I wanted.”
However, the practice is far from gaining widespread industry acceptance. Even if the marketing team mandates full disclosure on blogs, PR is not warming to the approach.
Matthew Harrington, US president and CEO at Edelman, for one, says his agency does not pay bloggers for client coverage.
Paul Rand, VP of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), also says his organization is against the practice when a blogger is paid financially for recommendations, testimonials, endorsements, and reviews. However, he adds that the practice of giving a reporter or blogger a live experience or lending him or her a product specifically for coverage, and not personal use, is acceptable.
“The feeling of the WOMMA membership is that [payment] is creating a condition that is not beneficial to the consumer,” he says. “If it was, ‘Come to Kmart, we'll give you the full shopping experience, but you have to buy the products on your own,' that is totally different.”