So yesterday I saw some brilliant talks at the APG Battle of Big Thinking (highlights included Justin Basini’s Escaping the Matrix – some brilliant thoughts about conservation economics, fantastic turns from John, Jeremy & Amelia, plus a thoroughly worthy winner in my category in the fantastic James Mitchell). For anyone interested, my deck is up on slideshare, (although the eagle eyed will notice more than a little crossover with my Social Media 09 presentation).
The winner in the ‘Big Thinking in the Free Space’ was Claus Moseholm, the founder of GoViral, a “branded content distribution company”, who argued that nothing is truly free, but that the value of earned media was huge in comparison to bought media.
I wouldn’t disagree with any of this. At Naked we’ve spent many years working with clients to understand how to get the most out of their owned spaces (every brand touchpoint, from product to packaging, not just their owned ‘media’) as well as their bought media, to gain valuable advantage in the earned space. If you’re not familiar with the Bought / Owned / Earned model, I’d strongly recommend this excellent post by Daniel Goodall for a clear and succinct overview. Earned ‘media’ (I think media is a slightly misleading term as it suggests it’s just another media channel, but it’s a well-understood term and I haven’t yet come up with anything better…) is arguably the most valuable as it demonstrates trust in your brand, and that people are truly engaged with you (on their terms). So when you do something that gets positively talked about, discussed, shared and passed on, you know you’ve done something pretty good.
Or have you?
Now, we all know that the best thing for brands is not to have a social media strategy, but just to make really good stuff. Make really fantastic stuff and people will want to talk about it. Amelia and I have both talked about the importance of social ideas. Meg Pickard wrote a fantastic post about means, motive and opportunity in the earned space:
The echo-chamber of social media marketeers spends a lot of time thinking about the Means (ability, access, tools) and Opportunity (social graph, stimulus, habits, behaviours) for people to get involved in or pay attention to social activity online, but not nearly enough time thinking about Motive.
Why do people get excited and talk about stuff?
Because they care about it.
Because it’s good.
Because it’s worth talking about.
I wish product makers and media owners would spend a little less time thinking about manipulating audiences, and a little more time thinking about making good things to begin with.
But we also know that brands are frequently reluctant to rely on the ‘make great stuff and keep their fingers crossed people start talking’ approach. They usually want to try and help things along, and make sure that enough people know about it in the first place, to give them the best shot of generating earned media. And we know that brands have long courted bloggers (and now Twitterers) with ‘social media outreach’ programmes to try and generate valuable earned media. PR is nothing new, and money’s always changed hands in some form, although usually through the exchange of goods and services rather than hard cash, When it’s done openly and honestly with full disclosure, I think it’s all above board – as long as the blogger is under no obligation, as long as they’re free to write what they choose (and not what the brand chooses) and crucially when they admit any involvement. Iain Tait’s completely open about wanting free T-shirts, and those brands who send him a T-shirt know what the score is – and most importantly, so do Iain’s readers.
But what about when the relationship isn’t one of courting and persuasion, of attempting to ‘earn’ through bringing genuine value? What about when the exchange isn’t one of value for mutual benefit? What if the earned media is really no different to bought media?
The CAP code, which regulates all UK non-broadcast marketing communication (excluding online), says that all paid-for editorial content must be strictly labelled as such:
23.1 Advertisement features, announcements or promotions, sometimes referred to as “advertorials”, that are disseminated in exchange for a payment or other reciprocal arrangement should comply with the Code if their content is controlled by the marketers rather than the publishers.
23.2 Marketers and publishers should make clear that advertisement features are advertisements, for example by heading them “advertisement feature”.
L’Oreal got themselves in hot water with the ASA for misleading the public when they failed to disclose that Penelope Cruz’s fantastic-looking lashes weren’t in fact exclusively the result of the mascara they were peddling, but were in fact falsies. L’Oreal now have to disclose to the public that Cheryl Cole’s lustrous locks are actually full and glossy due to the hair extensions she wears, and not just the shampoo she’s advertising – though the type is so minute that although the ad was cleared by the ASA, L’Oreal are still being criticised for misleading the public.
We don’t like being misled. We know that brands want to sell to us. We know that we live in a world of advertising. But we want to know when we’re being sold to.
So I find it utterly disingenuous for Claus Moseholm to extol the virtues of earned media over bought media, when his company misleads people by trying to disguise bought media under the guise of earned.
I got the below email from GoViral earlier this week, offering to pay me cold hard cash in return for posting a video for one of their clients on my blog – with the possibility to earn more cash for additional blogging, tweeting etc:
[ click to see full-size image ]
Like many bloggers, I get lots of emails from PR and agency people trying to get me to plug their product or service. Most aren’t personalised in any way, and don’t indicate any reason why they think I’d be interested in their brand, or why it would be something I’d want to write about – they’re normally just very generic mass mailouts. And this was no exception – except that I’d never before received such a blatant attempt to buy my endorsement.
Curious, I emailed back to ask how the whole bought-masquerading-as-earned thing worked. How much did they you pay bloggers? How did they work out how much to pay individuals – did they have a ratecard for an individual post or tweet, or did the amount vary depending on the level of influence of the blogger or site traffic? Did they insist on approving blog posts or tweets first?
And got this response:
[ click to see full-size image ]
So they have a cost per view budget for the campaign, and will pay me a stonking £300 for 10,000 UK views, and they have extra budget available for pretty much anything I’m willing to do to promote the brand:
We’re considering social media spread, branded twitter pages, anything like that will allow us to grant extra budget to you
According to the GoViral publisher guidelines, if you take their cash, you should “suggest [the video content] to the user using links, suggestions and featuring” and cannot “subject [GoViral content] to hateful or similar brand-damaging metadata, tags or similar” – although you can “feel free to do creative and funny things with the material, show spoofs of it etc”.
Nowhere in the FAQ or T&Cs does it say that you should disclose that you’ve been paid to recommend the content in question. It doesn’t say that publishers can’t disclose this information, and I’d be interested to understand how GoViral would (or do) deal with that.
When bloggers decide to feature advertising on their blogs, the banners or text ads are clearly marked as ads. What GoViral proposed is plain and simple bought media, pretending to be earned.
I don’t have a huge problem with the business model – I personally wouldn’t do it, and I don’t like the idea of blogging or tweeting to order, but I know it happens. If bloggers want to make money by writing about brands in return for money, fair enough I guess, as long as they disclose that they’re being paid (although as my good friend Tom writes, this is not a brothel: there are no prostitutes here). What I object to is how dishonest it is. There’s no way of distinguishing genuine earned conversations from paid-for ones. It’s totally deceitful. It’s exactly why people think marketers are a bunch of immoral cocks.
So I’m sorry Claus, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t sing the praises of earned media over bought, whilst at the same time making profit out of bought media pretending to be earned. There’s a distinct smell of burning underwear, and frankly, it stinks.
[ PS: if this negativity is all too much, check out the inspirational (and awesomely-naked Duke Stump on Bonfire Brands ]