The “sponsored conversations” issue finally comes to the forefront

In the marketing industry we’ve been dealing with the idea of “sponsored conversations,” the euphemism developed by Forrester Research for when a brand in some ways directly pays for a blog post of some form, for years. It used to be cut-and-dried: Paying a blogger to write about an issue was wrong any way you looked at it. Then we began to realize that the main point of damage – the breaking of the trust between writer and reader – could be minimized if the writer was clear and frank in their disclosure of X post being paid for since it at least gave the reader the necessary information to judge the content of the post fairly.

(By the way, I refer to “sponsored conversations” as a euphemism because prior to this it was simply called “paying for coverage” and that was viewed as all sorts of wrong. But there needed to be a term created that made it something legitimate for companies to engage in. Enter “sponsored conversations.”)

I’ve written about this idea before back when the topic was first brought back up and mostly agree with what Marshall Kirkpatrick at RWW says about the issue and still feel that full, pre-emptive disclosure coupled with an effort to not pass along PageRank so that search results aren’t manipulated goes a long way to alleviate the concerns I and many others have.

But I bring it back up because the other day SlashFilm wrote a retrospective of director Sam Mendes that, it was later disclosed, was a component of an advertising package bought on the site by the studio releasing Away We Go, his latest film. In the first part of the clarification it was said that the piece was written solely by one of /Film’s writers with no editorial input from the studio but that it was the result of a deal made with the studio. Peter then updated the original clarification to say that there was no direct contact with the studio and that they were unaware of the editorial and instead it was an idea put forward by their ad network.

(Those are two drastically different things and I’m a bit shocked that anyone involved could think it was one instead of the other. Either you worked with the studio or with the ad network. I’d suggest Peter not let people who aren’t completely knowledgable about site matters speak on behalf of the site.)

In terms of what /Film did right, they did put a “This post is sponsored by…” disclaimer at the beginning of the Mendes retrospective. So disclosure was made and that’s a good thing.

What I think would have been more ideal was if there had been a post prior to that explaining what was coming up and how the deal was arrived at. Something that would have said “Here’s what we’re doing so you can take this at face value.” Before-the-fact information would have likely defused much of the negative reader feedback about how it happened.

As Kim Voynar says, this brings back up all sorts of issues, many of which I address in my post from back in March. What constitutes crossing the ethical line? Accepting free DVDs to review? Accepting a flight out and hotel accommodations in order to visit a set? Running and promoting a contest that’s tied to a new release?

It’s actually a bit funny to me that Peter’s second stab at an explanation would put the onus on the ad network. I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when ad networks were supposed to be the cure for editorial bias toward advertisers. You sign up for a network and you never know what ads are going to run and therefore can’t slant your coverage in anyone’s favor. That was supposed to be a far cry from the mainstream media model, where ad sales people mingled with editorial staff and the lines, at least in the minds of the readers, got blurred. No worrying, it was thought, about an advertiser pulling their spots in protest of negative coverage because they’re not going to really know and hey, if they do there’s always another advertiser to take their place.

Now – and I’ve seen this happen with other networks and other high-profile sites – the ad networks are apparently the ones pushing for the blurring of lines they were once meant to protect.

The easiest thing to say in these matters is that everyone should go with their gut. If you feel like it’s ethically questionable or that your audience might see it as such then spike the idea and explain yourself as you need to. If you need to, find someone you trust to call “bullshit” on you when they need to and run it by them. Barring those, though, early and constant communication on the matter is the best bet so that everyone has the information necessary to judge the matter accurately.

I’m sure this will continue to be an issue that gets hashed out. What’s interesting to me, though, is that we’re now seeing this conversation happen in a specific industry and not just in the world of marketing best practices. That means things are changing and it’s why it’s important to keep up on such matters.

2 thoughts on “The “sponsored conversations” issue finally comes to the forefront”

  1. @Jeremiah: I know it’s common practice. Here’s my previous post:

    http://www.moviemarketingmadness.com/blog/2009/03/06/what-sponsored-conversations-can-mean-for-movie-studios/

    I’m actually not condemning the process – I’m not a fan but I realize that there are enough practices, even those just in usage by the movie industry, that could fall under this banner that it can’t be dismissed outright.

    If you read my post you’ll see that and see that I’m mostly trying to give Peter some constructive feedback on making sure everything he was doing was above board. There are a couple other minor points that I take issue with but that’s the main point.

    I also push everyone to do a gut-check before agreeing to anything. We can discuss theory all day but that’s going to keep people along the straight and narrow more than anything else.

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