Category Archives: IZEA

Closer, closer: Twitter’s tantric ad model


So at long last and after much lustful speculation, Twitter is set to launch an ad platform. Trick is, Twitter advertising won’t appear in your tweet stream — the paid messages will only pop up when you go over to search.twitter.com to see what the world is talking about (or search inside Twitter via various other doorways).

This shows remarkable restraint, perhaps signaling Twitter realizes ads — even if clearly marked with something such as IZEA’s sponsored tweet #ad hashtag — annoy the devil out of people when they’re chatting inside social media. So rather than risk upsetting the masses, which could drive away the audience that MySpace and Friendster found so fickle, Twitter will keep interruptions away from your clever 140-character missives unless someone else is specifically hunting for your topic.

What could it mean?

1. Twitter could be using the search ecosystem as a test, to see how people respond, before expanding the ads into the main chat streams.
2. Twitter may bet its search functionality will scale and someday rival Google (although only 429,500 U.S. people visit its search page per month as of now).
3. Or perhaps Twitter is simply acknowledging that ads work best when a consumer is in a search modality instead of a social mode.

We’re betting test; in marketing, as in love, it’s hard to make restraint last forever.

Image: H. Koppdelaney

Twitter lists: You are no longer the center


Twitter has created lists. Now, rather than connecting directly with others in the microblogging-whatever service, you can simply snatch names and build your own list of people under any title you want (Gurus, Athletes, Dorks, Quacks). To take a peek, the new site Listorious offers collections of lists where you can peruse groups of interesting humans like stacks of dusty comic books at an antique shop.

If you play in social media you know that human desires drive most online connections, and now this new Twitter sorting mechanism for egos has people breathing hard. Is it a new form of self-aggrandizement? A new way for ideas to connect with the world? Is it turning human connections away from one-to-one social networks, back to vicariously watched broadcast channels? Grad student Venessa Miemis posed great questions about lists over at her blog, and here is our response:

Your ego has been stolen

“Venessa, nice to meet you … What I find most interesting is this new format has changed social media in a fundamental way — removing the human ego from the center. In the (very recent) past, all social graphs revolved around an individual at the core; now the individual user is removed, and social graphs can float as bubbles in the ether, evolving over time (just as your own list of thinkers will change).

“Networks of people with no ego at the center driving the connections create some intriguing moral questions. Will stalking others be easier, if you now follow people without them realizing it? Can someone defame your name, if they put you on a list of, say, Really Bad People (think of the ugly names of lists posed in the next presidential election!)? Will list-chasing by wannabe thought leaders create a new currency for self promotion? Will companies such as IZEA, which have polluted social media with paid posts and paid tweets, now game the list system by encouraging payments to insert brands or advertisers into popular lists? Will the ability of anyone to promote others to lists create a new sentiment analysis scoring system, providing more intelligence to data miners as they can now see what markets of people think about the individuals or brands in their lists?

“I have no answers. The fundamental issue is people are learning how to manipulate the connections inside human networks for the first time, where in the past they could only control the message. Will be fun to watch.”

To explore more, here is Venessa’s own “meta-list” of the top lists she likes.

Image: Idlphoto

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.)

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?