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Social media can be a great tool but there's an ugly side. Because of the nature of social media, its commercialization has raised a number of issues around subjects like disclosure and integrity.

The reality is that paying to play is an easy and effective way for brands to get into the social media game. The downsides of this were demonstrated quite well at this year's BlogHer conference.

The first BlogHer conference was held in 2005. The mission: "to create the space where we women who blog can create our own opportunities--for education, exposure, community, economic empowerment, or all of the above". Today, BlogHer conferences are a prominent venue on the conference circuit.

And a popular one for brands. As we've seen from the rise of mommy bloggers and the commercialization of mommy blogs, brands are very interested in reaching female audiences online. So much so that, in the process of trying to reach this audience in the social media realm, they've created a monster.

That was evident at this BlogHer '09, where much of the pre-and-post-conference talk is focused on swag. Not blogging. Not online media. Swag. Yes, the stuff brands give away.

One attendee:

Everywhere at the conference swag seemed to be the attraction...The lines for the swag bags were long. Some bloggers were going from party to party to collect the swag.

And another:

When I arrived at the party a few hours later, I noticed a herd of women squeezing together so tight it looked like they were in an imaginary corral. Jill and I were standing at the outskirts when we noticed the bags of swag on a table in front of corralled women. It was hot and smelly. Women were pushing and I immediately lost Jill in the madness. I left the debauchery. On my way out I ran into some chicks by the bar and we chatted about the insanity & greed of the women in front of us.

Not an unusual experience, apparently:

Then the Eden Fantasies folks started moving their swag bags through the area where I was sitting quietly chatting with Cecily, Julia, and Kathrin, what I witnessed was disturbing. I wish I had taken video, actually. The swag bags had a gravitational pull, I kid you not; something I could literally see as women began slowly swirling closer in smaller and smaller circles.

Blog posts and tweets make it pretty clear: these are accurate depictions of BlogHer '09. And they're so disturbing that many are asking questions, even the conference organizers.

CV Harquail has a great post that asks "does swag pervert the purpose?" I suppose it depends on what that purpose is. Because if you think that this swag fiasco is the result of spur-of-the-moment mob mentality, think again. There's a swag culture at work here.

Harquail writes that "online conversation leading up to the conference was full of references on what swag would be available, where to get it, how to get it home". Another person reveals her swag story:

A few weeks before the BlogHer '09 Conference I was approached by an attendee looking for free swag to hand out at the conference to promote her blog. In exchange she offered to spread the word about my business to other bloggers - an interesting offer, which I declined... it didn't really feel right to me and her blog is written for stay-at-home moms, which is about as far from our target market as one can get.

It gets even uglier. George Smith, Social Media Specialist for Crocs, Inc., was the victim of a blackmail attempt at BlogHer:

“Ya know, if you don’t give me shoes – I could totally write something bad about you on my blog.”

“Excuse me?” I asked – hoping she would laugh or give me some indication that she was just joking around. Nope…

“It’s just a pair of shoes. It’s a lot easier to give them to me than deal with the negative press I could make.”

For those who talk about disclosure in light of the FTC's looming decision on how to regulate bloggers, it's clear that we're way beyond a discussion of disclosure.

Unfortunately, brands played a huge role in creating this monster, as Smith himself acknowledges in his post. In an effort to woo 'influencers', brands have hooked some groups of bloggers on free products and free meals and it's not even cool for those groups anymore; it's now an entitlement, the non-negotiable price of admission.

The irony is that I'm not really sure what brands are getting out of the relationship. In my opinion, product-for-promotion and sponsored posts seem of questionable efficacy for brands.

Genuine word-of-mouth promotion (read: the uncompensated kind) is so powerful because it's derived from true customer satisfaction. If your friend tells you about a great new product that he recently purchased, chances are you'll listen. On the other hand, if your friend tells you about a great new product that he was recently given by the manufacturer at no cost to him, chances are you'll be a lot more skeptical, even with that disclosure. After all, there's no way for you to know whether or not he's happier about the product itself or the fact that he got it for free.

If social media becomes one big marketing charade in which brands, instead of using athletes and celebrities, use everyday individuals as endorsers (or more appropriately shills), the power of word-of-mouth ceases to exist.  Already, we see evidence that internet users don't trust their online friends. I wonder why.

In many ways, it looks like BlogHer '09 has revealed the ugly truth about social media's commercialization. Major brands have created puppets out of bloggers and online 'influencers' but for them to retain control of the strings, they're going to have to keep the money, meals and free products coming. Once they realize that in many cases there's little to no value in it, it will already be too late.

Photo credit: smiely via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 30 July, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2380 more posts from this author

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anonymous

On average we have about 5 emails a day from people like saying they blog, Blog Her included, or make youtube videos and will review our products if we send free samples. When we were first approached we thought about how to respond. We already have hundreds of reviews collected mainly by third party payment processors from actual customers. We decided we did not want to corrupt social media, sending free product is like a bribe when people who have bought our product are posting reviews. We did not want to appear unhelpful. As an idea we offered one person that if he could demonstrate that he was at college, in education, say by ordering with a .edu or .ac.uk email account (bit naff I know but all we could think of) we would provide a sample. We never heard back. So our policy is not to reply. We delete all approaches. The reason we do this is then the person approaching us does not know if we ever received their email and there is less chance they become enemies because we would not send them free product. Crazy world.

almost 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

anonymous,

You make a really good point. Why 'pay' for reviews when real customers are already reviewing them on their own volition? Frankly, I'd bet the reviews on a popular retailer's website (say Amazon.com) influence far more purchasing decisions than a review on some blog.

almost 7 years ago

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Abigail Harrison, thebluedoor

Freebies have been an ongoing discussion point in the worlds of PR and journalism during the many years that I have been working in the PR industry.  In the 1990s The Independent took the lead in rejecting anything that could be construed as a freebie (aka bribe), however the practice was forcibly cleaned up in 1997 by the Inland Revenue. It decreed that freebies in all professions had to declared on the receiver’s P11D form, which would be smartly followed up with a tax bill.

The BlogHer issue, however, is part of a bigger debate about free content and its possible impact credibility and quality of news. Good PR practitioners know that any coverage by journalists (bloggers included) should be only forthcoming if the story is indeed a story – one that is interesting, relevant and credible.

almost 7 years ago

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CV Harquail

Hi Patricio-

You article reprises some important conversation among BlogHer participants, sponsors, and social media advisors about how and when bloggers should review products, how they should reveal their relationship to the sponsors, and how they should be compensated.

It is critical, though, to recognize that BlogHer as a conference and an organization is *not* responsible for creating the swag culture. If anything, BlogHer is facilitating the conversation about transparency AND about making sure that bloggers are being fairly compensated for the work that they do reviewing and sometimes promoting products. By and large, in the algebra of the blogger - sponsor equation, the sponsors get more than they give, and the bloggers give more than they get. I credit BlogHer for helping many bloggers take the initiative to ask for fair compensation along fair disclosure.

As an event, BlogHer was overwhelmed a bit by lots of unofficial events, sponsorships and social media ad-libbing. Lots of products (and some profit-oriented bloggers too) attached themselves to the conference events and created an imbalance of energy and a distraction from the main purposes of the conference. 

The BlogHer organizers are not only capable of redressing this imbalance in future years, but also they are listening very carefully to the feedback and gathering recommendations so that they can strengthen the program next year to focus on the shared mission. They have already listened enthusiastically to my analysis from my perspective as an managment scholar and participant, and also to the feedback and suggestions of other attendees. The future of BlogHer, and the female (and male) blogging community surrounding BlogHer, is in smart, caring, visionary hands.

And nobody's paid me or given me free dish soap to say that.

CV Harquail
http://AuthenticOrganizations.com

almost 7 years ago

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Momsdaily

Great summary and food for thought. I did not attend blogher 09 but have heard the horror stories that abound. I have to admit that I have discovered through reading these stories that I am about as naive as they come in regards to blogging- who knew that mommy bloggers had sponsors!! Where do I get one (not really...) I honestly thought that blogging was about content- connections and community. I have struggled after hearing about the events at blogher with whether or not I even need to be blogging for two reasons: 1) I suddenly questioned if I was trying to play in a league that is, well, out of my league (what the heck, these women have sponsors, stats, followers etc etc etc) and 2) if this is what it means to be a blogger, maybe I will stay in higher education.

My conclusion has been this: I don't blog for a sponsor, I blog to share my thoughts, stories, information and images. If my focus were to shift from these purposes to gaining sponsorship, free goodies and perks etc. it seems reasonable that the quality would be compromised. I don't claim to be a particularly skilled writer, so by content I mean my blogging is purely authentic, what I am thinking, feeling etc. I don't know- this does seem to be an interesting conundrum- I think I will stick with my naive thoughts and return to writing for my followers (albeit they are few;)and focus on enjoying the upside of blogging :)

almost 7 years ago

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anonymous

What these people are really doing is selling links for freebies although they never say that, they always say they have approached you to review your product. The value of the review is zero for the reasons already discussed, it is the links from YouTube and blogs that ecommerce sites may value if they do not already have quality links from genuine coverage. Blog Her, Skimlinks, Sugar Inc all provide guidelines on how to write reviews as if you are writing a genuine first hand account, and not one that suggests you are being paid either through swag or affiliate links to review. This 2 minute discussion by a PR about playing the game and a blogger saying how she includes a negative comment alongside praise as this works better for the client says it all really. The line between marketing communication, which is what this is, and editorial needs to be established by regulation in the same way it is offline. This is what the FTC is doing, and it will benefit brands and social media.

http://thesway.org/the-sway-debates/

almost 7 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Really interesting article and follow up discussion. 

I think this is a big dilemma for companies who a) want to leverage the opportunities that social media offers to extend brand reach b) want to do so in a transparent and honest way that does not betray the netiquette of social networks.

I believe there is an opportunity to engage with bloggers via the exchange of your products and services provided that the review is objective and they do not simply write a positive review for a reward. That will only encourage cynicism and damage your online brand reputation - these things have a habit of coming out in the ash eventually.

We were discussing this for a Client, why reviews of the product are essential. Enabling customer reviews via the website is a no-brainer but how can you engage 'influencers' and build an organic relationship to benefit your brand, your influencers and your customers?

Is there anything innately wrong with speaking to would be influencers and asking them to write a review if you provide them with product? If the reviewer has free will to write what they genuinely think, then isn't that adding value to their audience? Provided the target audience of the communication is relevant to the product/service you offer, then surely that can add value?

I agree it is a tricksy subject but if brands and bloggers have integrity I believe there is a model that would work and add value to social networks. As for those who try the blackmail approach, give them a wide berth - they will attract trouble.

Thanks

james

almost 7 years ago

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Molly

Just wanted to point out to Patricio that the Suburban Turmoil swag post was totally a satire. Like, she wasn't serious. Did you read the comments?

almost 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

James,

I think the question for brands is whether they can really identify 'influencers'. The true scientific data on network theory demonstrates that this is a far more complex subject than brands have been led to believe and than brands want to believe.

Molly,

Honestly, I didn't stick around long enough to read the comments. And the point of mentioning Suburban Turmoil was primarily a statistical one.

almost 7 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Elisa,

Thanks for your comment.

You are correct that a lot of the behavior discussed here is a result of human nature. The problem with what's taking place in the social media, however, is that social media has largely been promoted as being 'authentic', 'honest' and largely free from overt commercial influence.

Now we see that this isn't exactly the case. A good number of bloggers will gladly accept free product in exchange for reviews; some will even seek out free product. Some travel and eat on a corporation's dole.

This runs counter to the popular portrayal of social media as a medium in which a diverse range of individuals are acting independently of the type of strong commercial influence that has taken over other mediums. I think that the FTC's interest in regulating social media has a lot to do with this.

Distrust of what comes out of traditional media is exactly due to the sorts of things you probably witnessed at that cable TV industry trade show. The gifts, the back scratching, the special arrangements made behind closed doors.

If social media goes the same route, it loses a lot of what it has to offer. Already, the study showing that internet users don't trust their online friends hints at the possibility that consumers are already cynical about the authenticity of social media. And if that's really the case, social media loses a lot of its unique characteristics and potential; it simply becomes another medium that is bought and sold pork barrel style.

almost 7 years ago

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Elisa Camahort Page

So I was intrigued by the reference to lack of trust of online "friends" in the Razorfish study. From what I'm reading in the report, they define those "online friends" as people on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. That makes the conclusion about lack of trust much less surprising to me.

When we did our Women and Social Media study [PDF] in Q1, there was a distinct difference between what people turned to blogs for vs. social network apps like FB, MS and even Twitter. Advice, recommendations and opinion are still the domain of blogs. While keeping in touch with your circle is more the domain of the other apps.

I'm intrigued that Razorfish doesn't cite blogs at al in the trust table and wonder why.

Our findings were that trust was very high between blog readers and the blogs they frequent. Do people trust *every* blog? I don't think so. But they trust their own micro-community of blogs...the ones they read every day, every week.

almost 7 years ago

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cagey (Kelli Oliver George)

As a BlogHer attendee myself, I would like to reiterate Elisa's statement that the vast majority of the misbehaviour surrounding the swag drama happened at OUTSIDE events, not at BlogHer official events.  The conference itself was actually very professional.  Furthermore, the expo itself, where vendors hawked their wares,  was not any different than any other expo I have attended for other professional conferences.  It saddens me that BlogHer is getting smeared unfairly based upon the immature, greedy actions of others.

Also, regarding the comment "Do people trust *every* blog? I don't think so. But they trust their own micro-community of blogs...the ones they read every day, every week.", that has been my own experience as well.  I have blogged for 5 years now and have consistently gauged my reader's opinions on my doing reviews.  Based on their comments, I have decided I am comfortable with reviewing a limited amount of "freebies" and only in the context of my blog.  I do not see myself doing a sponsored post anytime soon.

I think we do not give readers of blogs enough credit.  If something is truly stinky and "not quite right", it will emanate throughout the atmosphere of one's blog rapidly.  As a reader, it is quickly obvious if someone has chosen to "sell out" their blog's integrity.

almost 7 years ago

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