$ponsored Conversations

Talk about a hot-button topic!

Highly influential bloggers pride themselves on building a following by being truthful and objective, increasingly rare qualities in a world of “advertorials” and non-branded sites that blur the line between honest to goodness content and marketing collateral. It’s fascinating how it is so divisive. As the social world gains momentum, we’re going to see more and more of it so I’d suggest getting comfortable with the idea.

It’s fair to assume that consumers appreciate it when authoritative voices are up front and disclose potentially relevant conflicts of interest as it takes the moral high ground. When you hear financial analysts talk about companies they cover, they are required to disclose if they or their families have any stock positions in these companies. It’s not so cut and dried though, because the financial relationship is the exact opposite — analysts may own stock that they pay for themselves. But if we look at an example closer to the web world, does anyone remember search engines pre-advertising and pre-AdSense? The digerati were up in arms when Google first introduced AdSense but then we realized that it worked because they were trying to help us by delivering contextualized relevance.

Jeremiah Owyang’s recent piece on sponsored conversations has caused a bit of a stir. Essentially, it’s compensating bloggers to write about your company. He is bang-on about how they need to be done “ethically and is sustainable for the long run” and that the topic is pretty controversial. How can it work?

  • If bloggers disclose they are being compensated
  • If bloggers are free to speak their minds

These rules seem designed to protect the bloggers’ reputations which is fair. But I’d like to see something like a Hippocratic Oath for bloggers who engage in sponsored conversations so that companies can have some peace of mind too. Specifically, I’d include the following:

  • Bloggers must speak truthfully about their experience and not have a hidden agenda
  • Bloggers must disclose if they have any relationships with competitors
  • Bloggers must disclose if they own stock in the company or competitors

That’s about it. If I were a lawyer, I’d add hundreds of other conditions, but my job is to enable conversation and engagement, not put up roadblocks. I think this is a just a start, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below.


  • Paul Chaney
    March 7, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Jason, yours is one of the best assessments of this issue I’ve read to date, and I’ve read most all of them.

    I concur that some type of code of ethics be standardized, something that everyone could live with. It’s a tall order though and one that’s been tried before with limited success. You’ve got entrenched mindsets to deal with – some who feel journalistic standards should be applied (no payola) and others who feel the blogger is free to do whatever she please. How to get those who hold such divergent opinions to find common ground is a real magic trick.

    I’ve suggested to Jeremiah and others that a face-to-face summit of some kind be convened. While Forrester’s declaration via this report is a big step in the right direction, it is by no means the last. We must go the next mile of the way and that means sitting down and reasoning together.

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