Category Archives: Chris Brogan

Reebok ungets the viral thing

This Reebok video is making the rounds in ad circles as an example of what not to do in the viral space. You know, create an amateur video with crazy happenings, launch it on YouTube and watch the viewers scale to millions — except in this case it is blatantly professionally produced. For complete details on the mistakes made trying to show a guy stumbling across Ralph Macchio to showcase sneakers, see the post by Angela Natividad, who filed it under heavy wincing.

The deeper question is, if this is a mistake, what is a brand to do? You can’t sit back and hope amateurs create something superbly authentic that will rise up the viral charts … yet if you leadenly produce something that almost looks real, but is fake, you get trashed by all of us who are wise to your manipulative moves. This may sound strange when the entire world of advertising is based on manipulating opinion, but it actually makes sense — because the problem here is the source of the information has been disguised. Humans make judgments based on where they think data is coming from; if your best friend tells you Toyotas still lead in quality, you may believe her, but if a salesperson says the same, you take it with a grain of salt. Advertising for decades has been put in boxes that are cleared marked as “source: someone trying to sell you,” so you can sit back during commercial breaks knowing there is an agenda. But hiding the source creates confusion — a level of cognitive dissonance, a failed ability to score the data with a key metric, the point of origination that tells you the motive of what is coming in.

Polluted ecosystems

Follow this logic, and quasi-marketing-almost-authentic material ticks people off because they don’t know how to judge it. Are the shoes really being worn by a former Karate Kid movie star? Is this knowledge something true that we can use for future reference? Um, no. This is why we vote paid posts and sponsored conversations are failures of communication, because they manipulate people without being clear, and end up polluting the entire information ecosystem. Advertising works because it’s potentially useful information with the source clearly identified. Social media works because it’s helpful references from people you trust. Blend the two, and you seed confusion and potentially irritation. This is why the usually helpful blogger Chris Brogan got spanked by his followers over a paid Kmart Christmas post.

So how does any marketer solve the viral puzzle? David Armano has suggested that to become remarkable, you must do something that people will remark upon. Rather than fake a creative encounter, do something truly creative with your business that others can’t help but talk about. It’s not easy building real authentic news that others will report on, but hey, that’s why they call the news new.

Businesses as altruists: Passing the Brogan trust test

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If you’ve followed the debates about paid blog posts and sponsored Tweets, you know that advertisers are encroaching on editorial. But one of the most intriguing trends is editorial going the other way — with real, objective reporting being provided by businesses. We noted last week that IBM has launched a new Think portal filled with Economist-type content.

Now Mint.com, the online personal finance aggregator, is offering news analysis to help consumers understand the complexities of different business sectors. Mint doesn’t have to do this — it could have a blog just promoting its own services — but the value it provides in understanding the financial world is intriguing enough that consumers may give it a shot at managing their finances, too. Uber-blogger Chris Brogan suggests in his new book Trust Agents that the formula for trust is the ratio of your authenticity to self-orientation. We agree, which is why paying bloggers to write reviews about your products fails the trust test, and why helpful, authentic resources like this from Mint pass with flying colors.

Bonus Points: The actual formula from page 79 of Brogan’s book is Trust = (Credibility x Reliability x Intimacy)/Self-orientation. On a scale of 1 to 10, plug your communications into this formula and see what the result would be.

Maybe spam filters will sponsor Izea


Networked spam is nothing new — telephones and fax machines and emails are all systems that got polluted over time, like PCBs building up in the Hudson River, until eventually people rebelled. The FTC, for instance, now allows consumers to register for phone Do Not Call lists and imposes significant fines on marketers who cross the line; DIRECTV and Comcast agreed this spring to pay a total $3.21 million to settle complaints that they called customers who asked not to be dialed again.

Why should marketers care if Twitter rings like a phone sales call over dinner? A few reasons. If you push unwanted messages into social media streams, you will be identified, and the negative backlash can harm your brand. Response rates on spammy messages tend to be low, and the few who do respond tend to be consumers of lower incomes and poorer education who, as bad as this sounds, don’t make good candidates for paying bills or repeat purchases. Leads generated from aggressive pushing — similar to telesales leads of the 1990s before DNC really kicked in — tend not to “stick” as well, meaning customers can be pressured into saying yes and then will wave off your product at the door.

Blogger Chris Brogan and Izea founder Ted Murphy may say sponsoring human opinions is OK as long as participants disclose, but what their myopia fails to see is the damage to the very network they rely on for their paychecks. Izea is plowing full-speed ahead with a planned launch of Sponsored Tweets, in which you can get paid pennies to annoy all your online friends. When the stream of social media is darkened with brand mentions that have no authenticity, consumers will seek fresh communication elsewhere.

At least Google says no

Google, one of the biggest information networks in the world, has already recognized this threat and polices spam, requiring blog shillers to tag their silliness with no-follow tags to keep the posts out of Google search results. Bloggers who fail to do so will be punished by Google by having their own PageRank reduced. Matt Cutts, Google’s spam czar, has said “Those blogs are not trusted in Google’s algorithms any more.” The biggest search engine in the world seems worried that a wave of shilling posts could gunk up its findings, turning off Google users and draining its revenue from real advertising.

The pendulum will swing until consumers rebel, then defenses will arise, and we’ll all end up blocking each other again with a medium that is a bit more cumbersome … like your email In box that protects you with spam filters but occasionally ditches vital messages. Oh well. It’s human nature. Maybe if you’re lucky you can wrangle a few gift cards out of it.

(Twitter is polices unwanted messages in its stream. You can alert them by sending a message to @spam. Be careful not to retweet the entire spam message if you report one, however, since Twitter warns it may mistake you for a spammer too and suspend your account.)

Maybe spam filters will sponsor Izea


Networked spam is nothing new — telephones and fax machines and emails are all systems that got polluted over time, like PCBs building up in the Hudson River, until eventually people rebelled. The FTC, for instance, now allows consumers to register for phone Do Not Call lists and imposes significant fines on marketers who cross the line; DIRECTV and Comcast agreed this spring to pay a total $3.21 million to settle complaints that they called customers who asked not to be dialed again.

Why should marketers care if Twitter rings like a phone sales call over dinner? A few reasons. If you push unwanted messages into social media streams, you will be identified, and the negative backlash can harm your brand. Response rates on spammy messages tend to be low, and the few who do respond tend to be consumers of lower incomes and poorer education who, as bad as this sounds, don’t make good candidates for paying bills or repeat purchases. Leads generated from aggressive pushing — similar to telesales leads of the 1990s before DNC really kicked in — tend not to “stick” as well, meaning customers can be pressured into saying yes and then will wave off your product at the door.

Blogger Chris Brogan and Izea founder Ted Murphy may say sponsoring human opinions is OK as long as participants disclose, but what their myopia fails to see is the damage to the very network they rely on for their paychecks. Izea is plowing full-speed ahead with a planned launch of Sponsored Tweets, in which you can get paid pennies to annoy all your online friends. When the stream of social media is darkened with brand mentions that have no authenticity, consumers will seek fresh communication elsewhere.

At least Google says no

Google, one of the biggest information networks in the world, has already recognized this threat and polices spam, requiring blog shillers to tag their silliness with no-follow tags to keep the posts out of Google search results. The biggest search engine in the world seems worried pollution will choke its revenue model if users bail.

The pendulum will swing until consumers rebel, then defenses will arise, and we’ll all end up blocking each other again with a medium that is slightly less effective and a bit more cumbersome … like your email In box that protects you with spam filters but occasionally ditches vital messages. Oh well. It’s human nature. Maybe if you’re lucky you can wrangle a few gift cards out of it. At least one surefire way to monetize social media is to sell spam filters.

(Twitter is trying to police unwanted messages in its stream. You can alert them by sending a message to @spam.)

Next in paid posts, Intel sponsors your life


If I pay you to insert a brand into your conversation with your friends and it makes you feel good, is that OK?

The ethical quandaries of pay-per-post continue this month with Intel’s feel-good outreach to Federated Media bloggers. Maggie Mason, author of the blog Mighty Girl, attracts more than 20,000 unique visitors each month, not a shabby audience. So when she developed a life list of 100 things she wants to do before she dies (hopefully many decades from now), Intel agreed to pick up the tab for 10 of them. Maggie is now delighted, headed for Puerto Rico to swim with bioluminescent plankton. Intel has woven the blogger gifts into its broader Sponsors of Tomorrow campaign, a rebranding effort by agency Venables Bell & Partners of San Francisco to move the chip maker beyond commodity status.

We love the repositioning but still pause over the paid posts. A value exchange is occurring but it is not labeled advertising, and instead has become embedded in the author’s content — a gray area of confusion. As we’ve noted before, Google has declared paid posts off limits for its search engines, requiring bloggers who write such stuff to include “no follow tags” so that such links won’t gum up search engine results, or risk having their page rank removed. For bloggers who seek fame, losing page rank is a big eraser. For those who ponder the ethics of accepting payment to write opinions, it is interesting that Google — the world’s largest search engine and one of its biggest ad channels — has deemed paid posts as worthless content.

Tragedy of the commons

Some in the blogging world, such as Chris Brogan whom we’ve debated here and here, wonder why ad industry types take issue with paid posts at all. “We disclose,” these bloggers say, “isn’t that enough?” The answer is no: advertising, like any communication, requires a healthy ecosystem for it to function, and the rising quantities of paid mentions are beginning to pollute social networks. We’ve seen this before. Telesales almost killed the telephone as a marketing tool due to overuse, spurring the Do Not Call rebellion. Email spam has become so prevalent that filters now block it out, depressing legitimate email ad efforts, with an added benefit that your important work email may get blocked from a recipient by accident. The radio network Clear Channel once ran so many ads per hour that it was forced to retrench, after some in the industry worried the clutter would depress ratings and harm advertiser results. Advertising is like any green commons: put too many cows in the field, and you end up with a dust bowl tragedy.

Going too far in commerce is nothing new; admire your local strip mall for evidence of that. What’s different with today’s paid posts is they are buying opinions, not ad space. When the voice of a blogger talks highly of a brand, you now must filter the message carefully to decide whether to believe the thought. Is the opinion an authentic 10 or a shilling 0? Or is it somewhere on the sliding scale in-between? Perhaps paid posts are lovely if you’re the one taking a trip; we wonder if they will be as much fun when the entire voyage of life becomes one series of cleverly inserted brand mentions.

Image: MTLB

Paid posts and the psychology of deception


Yesterday we dropped into a debate with Chris Brogan about the ethics of paid blog posts. Chris is on the advisory board of IZEA, a company that enlists bloggers to write about brands in exchange for payment. Some feel this is OK. Others, like us, think buying online opinions is an ethically challenged gray area of marketing communications.

The real problem, of course, is deception — we can argue as to what degree, but there is no question that paid posts deceive by elevating a topic artificially and by inserting opinions more favorable because they have been bought. (This is one reason why Google seeks to ban paid posts from search results.) Even with disclosure saying a blog post is “a sponsored conversation,” the conflicts of interest and levels of confusion are high.

Does Joseph Jaffe really like his Panasonic TV enough to write about it?

Or is Joseph tweeting because Panasonic is his client, for whom he organizes blogger junkets to build online reviews of Panasonic gadgets? And does Keith Burtis realize, in the exchange above, that he just stumbled into a paid conversation?

Degrees of deception are nothing new. Back in 1996 Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, asked 147 people to keep a journal of all the lies they told in one week — with surprising results. Lies are extremely common in human communications; in any seven days, we tend to deceive about one-third of the people we talk to one on one. Men and women lie differently (men tend to be more egotistical, lying to inflate their personas, while women are more likely to deceive to appease hurt feelings). The wildest finding was that the intent of most lies was to be helpful. We use falsehoods to make others feel better. We even may need lies to boost our own self-esteem.

So what’s wrong with a good lie?

All communication contains a spectrum of truth vs. fiction, but the closer we get to untruths the more cognitive dissonance we encounter. Since humans need to sort their way through life by making judgments based on outside information, we often rely on others to tell us what is going on in the world. Dishonesty can make us feel better; it can also be dangerous by skewing the facts in ways that lead to wrong assumptions. We may have an evolutionary bias toward the truth; cave men who lied about sabre-toothed tigers may have gotten their friends eaten, and only the skeptical survived to pass down genes.

Advertising, of course, is often filled with stretched truths; this may be why media have demanded for a century that advertising be clearly labeled, so that consumers can judge the communication with a grain of salt.

Lies and half-truths surround us. This probably explains why people fight so much over politics, since there may be no right answer. It also hints at why paid posts are so controversial. In a world of imperfect information, it strains our mental data intake to learn that supposedly authentic opinions online may, or may not, be skewed by cash changing hands.

Photo: Riot Jane

Google to sponsored blog posts: Your links are trash


Dear Bloggers: Behave. Because if you write a lot of paid posts, your blog could get demoted by Google in search results.

This is the latest wrinkle in the story about how many bloggers are now willing to sell their “posts,” or written opinions, to marketers trying to buy their way into social media. A few years ago a guy named Ted Murphy thought to encourage legions of bloggers to shill, er, write about products for payment. Google got wind, and pretty much shut it down by removing the “page rank” of all such bloggers — turning them invisible on the web.

Murphy recast his company to IZEA, and now has launched massive efforts to make paid blogging placement more respectable with new rules such as full disclosure — bloggers who shill must declare it a “sponsored post” — and telling advertisers the bloggers can write whatever they want. The new model is now being seeded across the internet by engaging top bloggers (Chris Brogan, Joseph Jaffe) to write, show it’s cool, and encourage other bloggers to do the same.

This week, Google moved again to shut it all down. Matt Cutts, an enforcer at Google’s web-spam team, has re-announced that any bloggers who write paid posts must include a “no-follow tag” — a snippet of code that tells Google’s magic machine to ignore this post and any links from it, because it is worthless. This is a harsh judgment against paid posts because any marketer who hopes to generate 10,000 links into her brand’s web site from paying bloggers will now get exactly *zero* links (or more accurately, the scoring from those links will not drive up the brand in Google search results). Not exactly a good return on investment. Google went further by also warning bloggers if they don’t comply, they’ll face corresponding action. Cutts wrote, “Google — and other search engines — do take action which can include demoting sites that sell links that pass PageRank, for example.”

We covered the entire ethical debate in our recent BusinessWeek column and can only say, well, Google has voted. If bloggers continue to let their opinions be sold — even while disclosing the brands who pay them for their supposedly unbiased thoughts — they now risk having all their links back into the web go up in smoke.

Photo: PSD

The problem with Chris Brogan’s Kmart promotion


If you read blogs regularly you know that certain minds carry authority. Chris Brogan is one, attracting about 185,000 readers to his main site each month, and he provides wonderful advice on how to set up and manage social media programs. He’s an upcoming guru akin to Don Peppers in the 1990s and Seth Godin in the early 2000s.

So why are we, an ad agency, disturbed that he is pitching Kmart on a blog?

Call it the gray area of o-pay-nion, where an advertiser offers an online blogger money to write about a product. Advertorial copy has been around in newspapers since the 1940s and the intent is often to deceive — trick the reader into thinking the opinion is a valid autonomous endorsement, when really it’s all staged. IZEA is the agency behind the recent Kmart campaign, where six influential bloggers were given $500 gift cards to “experience” shopping at Kmart and then blog about it. Chris Brogan’s write-up was clearly labeled a sponsored post. In between glowing endorsements of Kmart’s vast product selection he included a few faint critiques, such as dismay that Kmart has a limited CD selection.

So what’s wrong?

This pay-per-post gambit dilutes the power of both pure editorial and paid advertising. Let’s start with the pure editorial — it’s an opinion or news report that is influenced by no one but the writer, and readers love strong minds with pure intent because they believe the information provided will be 100% useful. You may not agree with the liberal commentator on MSNBC or the conservative on Fox News, but you believe where they are coming from, and because you judge the input to be factual you take it in entirely to recast as your own opinion. Editorial comments are healthy vegetables for the mind.

Paid advertising is the flip side, an obvious attempt to spin a message to get a consumer to buy. (We work all day at our shop designing media plans trying to make ads work as effectively as possible. Yes, it’s manipulation.) But the beauty of promotional advertising is it is obvious — and consumers can judge it fairly to see if the message about the new car, new bank, or new cell phone is something they want. Paid advertising is the dark chocolate for the mind, a sweet treat that may be bad, but you indulge because you know it will fulfill your cravings.

Alas, pay-per-post blogging makes a distasteful chocolate-veggie soup. It’s worse than advertorial because the opinion of a noted writer is misrepresented to favor something that he or she really does not. The resulting opaynion makes the ad message weak (do we believe what Mr. Brogan writes about Kmart?) and erodes the power of the editorial voice (hmm, what do we think tomorrow when Mr. Brogan blogs about another retailer?). Neither writer nor sponsor win.

We don’t mean to sound haughty; we have deep respect for Mr. Brogan, who over tweets with us this Saturday morning professed his innocence. Many of his regular readers agree — hey, the post was clearly labeled “sponsored.” But if you think beyond the $500 caveats you’ll see upcoming thought-leaders at risk of losing the credibility of their opinions, if some of those thoughts are forged under the banner of “paid idea here.”

Yes, advertorials are common in print, and talking heads give voice to ad scripts on the radio. But the internet media is more bent toward knowledge … and now that knowledge is getting bent. The more bloggers who sell out, even under full disclosure, the less value the blogging channel will have — until the information is so discounted that marketers will have to move elsewhere to find new ways to manipulate the minds of consumers. Maintaining autonomy, especially in the world of marketing and advertising, is an almost impossible task. Here’s to the growing few who try.

UPDATE: Chris Brogan responds to the Kmart pay-per-post controversy here. Most of his readers don’t see a conflict. What do you think?