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.