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Sponsored Posts – Measure The Risk Carefully

By TopRank Online Marketing     Blogging, Online Marketing, Social Media, Social Media Advertising

Sponsored posts have been a hot topic in the blogosphere and among marketers the last few years.

What exactly is a sponsored post?  The simple answer is:  a company pays a blogger cash to blog about their product or service.  This is different than an advertorial since the blogger is paid cash to write the content as opposed to the sponsor creating the message.

An entire cottage industry of companies such as IZEA, Smorty and a slew of others have sprung up to offer a variety of methods to pay for sponsored posts.  Some require bloggers to say good things.  Others tell bloggers they are free to write what they wish.  But in either case, there are potential risks involved marketers should be aware of.

Many digital audiences appear to have an  issue with sponsored posts because they see it as a breach of unwritten editorial rules of the web.  It is for that core reason sponsored posts remain controversial.

For the purposes of this post, I am just talking about cash for blog posts.  This a different animal than offering sampling, trials or demos of products.

Let’s dig into why sponsored – aka cash for blog posts – are something you should measure the risk of carefully:

Sponsored posts may draw the eyes of the engines

Cash for blog posts could be risky behavior if the sponsored links are follow links.  Matt Cutts at Google has publicly stated that paid posts should not affect search engines.   A simple solution for companies brokering sponsored posts is to require the no-follow attribute added to links within the content.  Some pay-per-post companies offering this service state they require it.  Some bloggers may adhere.  But many bloggers have no idea what a no-follow attribute is and may not follow this guideline.  Additionally, bloggers and marketers engaging in outright cash-for-play are involved in risky behavior even with no-follow links.  This is due to halo effect of linking in the social web, and may walk a thin line with the engines who are paying attention to these campaigns.

Before engaging in sponsored posts, consider organic outreach

More than 80% of bloggers are already writing on products and brands.  In other words: be remarkable, have great marketing/PR and you’ll be talked about.  Learn the intersection of social media and PR, begin content marketing and engage in strategies that inspire natural coverage, conversation and influence.  The organic approach yields the highest results: since sponsored posts must have no-follow links, the SEO and PR intersection does not exist.

Sponsored posts may train audiences to expect cash to write about you

By engaging in sponsored posts, you may succeed in training audiences to expect a return every time they mention your brand or product.  Instead of growing in an organic fashion, sponsored posts may keep your brand out of the natural conversations and put you on a treadmill of having to pay cash for coverage.  And that’s not a sustainable way to grow a web community.

May be seen as inauthentic

Due to FCC rules, all sponsored content must be disclosed.  With this disclosure and transparency, readers see the content was influenced by cash, not the author’s true perception of the product or brand.  This potentially destroys the true power of word of mouth.  It affects the blogger as well:  they may lose the trust of a carefully built audience.  Audiences may not believe a blogger thought a product was great because that blogger was paid to talk about it.

Sponsored posts are advertising – not social media

Companies who pay bloggers cash to write about them are engaging in advertising, not social media.  Would you pay someone cash to talk about your company or product at a party?  What would everyone else at the party think?  That’s exactly what happens on the social web when users see bloggers taking cash to write up products.  So if you think it’s a risky play to pay people cash to talk about your brand or product in person, it’s equally so online (perhaps even more so since the web is referential).

Organic push methods do exist

Newswires, article submissions, advertorials, syndication products, and other paid methods of gaining exposure amongst web audiences exist.  The social web as a whole has less issues with these services because they are not paying individuals directly to talk about them.  Rather, they are paying to have their messages added to areas they will be found – and then reacted to – without cash going directly to users or leveraging a personal brand for influence.  Communications professionals can use paid tools to cross the editorial line with less risk than directly paying cash to individuals.

Conclusion

Forrester research has been touting the positives of sponsored conversations.  Jeremiah Owyang says they are here to stay.  There are companies engaging in this tactic and doing fine.  I’m not ruling the tactic out entirely, but I do wish to caution marketing and PR professionals to weigh the risk carefully.  Sponsored posts may run counter to a social media marketing strategy focused on inspiring organic attention and building a community based on trust.  They do not provide the SEO benefits of organic outreach.  Consider your larger objectives and strategies carefully and ask yourself  if sponsored posts are the tactic for you.


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