Promotional Method: Sponsored Posts That Aren’t Technically Sponsored Posts

by anna on February 18, 2011

There’s a tactic for promotion in blogs that has been gaining popularity about which I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it annoys the crap out of me that bloggers who do this assume nobody can connect the dots. But on the other hand I’m kind of impressed with their ingenuity, too, so I’m not above saying that maybe this is a good idea to do, given you have certain goals and certain priorities, particularly since so many brand/blogger campaigns seem to gain success from it. At this point, it’s tough to predict what the ultimate effect on trust capital View definition in a new window will be, if there is any.

Here’s how it works: say you’re a blogger who has some kind of gathering coming up — a party, or a conference, for which you are soliciting sponsors. Or, maybe you already had the event View definition in a new window, and you have a list of sponsors who were promoted at that event that you’d like to keep happy. So what you do is, you mention that brand in your blog (or blogs, if you write in multiple places). And the mention is sort of organic, right? Because maybe you actually use the product and actually want to evangelize about it.

Except . . . then the product shows up a few months later in a gift bag at a party you are throwing. Or, the company that makes the product ends up as a sponsor of your event. You can’t really say these things happened because you evangelicized about them, and you definitely cannot call them sponsored posts because it’s most likely no money changed hands for that particular interaction. But . . . still. It’s not exactly disinterested promotion.

Example No. 1: Tieks

For example . . . Tieks. If you’re not familiar with Tieks, they are a brand of ballet slippers that were given away to the attendees of the Mighty Summit View definition in a new window last year. Except just a few months before that, in an ostensibly unrelated move, Tieks were mentioned on Mighty Girl, the blog written by Maggie Mason View definition in a new window, one of the founders of the Mighty Summit. And just recently, Tieks were mentioned on the blog Laura Mayes (another Mighty Summit co-founder) writes for Babble, along with a coupon to get 15% off.

In both of these cases, there is no disclosure of a relationship between the blogger and the brand. And I don’t think there should be, at least according to the way the FCC rules work. But on the other hand, I don’t see this shit flying in the New York Times.

Example No. 2: OPI nail polish

Did you notice that Number 25 on Allison Czarnecki’s life list View definition in a new window is to “Name an Opi Nail polish color“? I’ve always found OPI polish’s names kind of interesting — not sure I’d put it on my life list, necessarily, but who am I to judge? Except . . . the Social Luxe party (organized by Czarnecki) gave out OPI nail polishes in their swag View definition in a new window bag last year, which is fine because maybe Allison is a huge fan of OPI — many people are. But what about the fact that OPI also appears in a gift guide (along with some Aveda products, which I also received in a gift bag last year from the Social Luxe party), and a mention of a new Fall line of OPI polishes also warranted a whole post. , and . .? Are the two things unrelated? And the fact that OPI was a sponsor of the EVO Conference last year (a conference that Allison Czarnecki is in some way connected to, though I’m not clear on the precise terms) . . . is that unrelated? You tell me.

By the way, there are tons of other examples of this — I am singling these out because they are the easiest for me to document, but I’ve seen this happen again and again in blogs recently, spread among a wide population of bloggers. And in nearly every case, this method of promotion is wildy successful — I’d venture to guess that it’s far more successful (and cheaper) than a traditional sponsored post campaign, in fact. There’s part of me that thinks that this is just how things are done. But then, I also wonder if it will have an effect on a blogger’s credibility long term if they lean too much on this kind of officially unsponsored sponsored post to promote their other projects.

What do you think? Am I being stodgy again? Is this just how things are done, and I should go back to my ivory tower? Does it bother you when you see this stuff cropping up again and again? Do you even notice it?

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{ 28 comments }

1
Rebecca February 18, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Anna, my background is in service journalism. You’re right, this shit doesn’t fly in the NYT, but I’d be lying if I told you that there aren’t some blurred lines with PR people and advertisers out there. It’s never explicit, but it’s there. In the cases cited above, it’s hard to tell the order of events. Is OPI just that blogger’s favorite brand—or is all that placement a calculated plan? Not sure, but it’s definitely fishy.

2
anna February 18, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Yeah, I’m thinking that magazines use this kind of method often. Like, they’ll buy the actual ad with the perfume insert, but then they get a mention in editorial as well. And in that way, it’s not totally different from what I’ve done before with “Meet the Sponsors” posts, except that I always have disclosed the fact that I’m introducing you to sponsors.

The thing is, I think that OPI probably is her favorite brand! And I definitely think that Laura Mayes and Maggie Mason love their Tieks. It’s just . . . I’m not sure that it matters exactly. But it may be that attitudes toward this are changing and I’m just slow to catch on.

3
agirlandaboy February 18, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I think a lot of different things are going on and that it would be impossible to track it all, particularly because the evolution of many of those relationships probably happened slowly over a long period of time. I’m getting some help from social media for my wedding, as you know, and you can bet that I’m going to use my short soapbox to thank the people who have been involved–both those who have donated time/services and those who were paid vendors. Some might think the resulting posts are “sponsored” because I “owe” those people/companies that exposure in exchange. Some might think I’m thanking these people publicly because I’m actually just thankful. (They would be right.) Some might realize I enjoy promoting the things I like–paid or “sponsored” or not–and that if my writing about them sends any business their way, that’s a small thing I can do to start returning the favor. I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my case, I’ve contacted people I had an existing relationship with, and I bet that happens a lot. If someone writes about how much they love Product X, the makers of Product X might actually approach them for a sponsorship. Does that invalidate the earlier posts, and does it cheapen the subsequent ones? I don’t think it necessarily does.

4
anna February 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Well, in some ways it’s ideal, because it suggests that you’re being paid to promote brands you love anyway. And that part of it appeals to me, actually. But . . . that said. it’s tough because I think the more you do this kind of thing, the harder it is to sort through which instances are genuine disinterested endorsement of the product and when they are greasing palms for some future or past sponsorship promotion.

And to be honest, the people who are talking about how we should be careful to judge brands (in this recent Toyota kerfluffle) are coming across the same way to me. It comes across as a kowtowing to brands and potential sponsors. Maybe it is not actually that, but if I’m thinking it, it suggests to me that people have lost something by doing this kind of murky promotional stuff.

5
agirlandaboy February 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I don’t doubt that there will be tons of people who will say, “Ooh, X Brand is obviously open to sponsoring bloggers, so for the next six months I’m going to publicly kiss ass before I approach them about a deal.” What can we do about that? Eh, not much, I suspect. I guess we can hope that those sorts of episodes will become as obvious as other now-obvious tactics to increase pageviews, etc.

6
jonniker February 18, 2011 at 6:16 pm

You already know this, but yes, it came across the same to me. Hi, brands! I love you! Let me list all the marketers that pay well AND do a great job, so that I won’t alienate THEM!

Now bloggers: You should have known better than to think Toyota would do something so silly. We TRUST Toyota!

OMFG. My head is coming out my ears like jelly.

7
anna February 18, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Yeah, exactly, particularly with the list of the “good” PR people — all of whom pay much, much better. Totally coincidence though, I’m sure.

8
jonniker February 18, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Not to make it about something else, but since you brought it up, I am legitimately curious as to how your wedding will fly with BlogHer and their editorial policy, which I think is quite Draconian.

9
jonniker February 18, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Magazines totally use this method. Totally. I used to do consumer PR and it was, uh, special, the way you could buy editorial with things like a free gym membership, free product, etc. etc.

I don’t know how I feel about this in general. I HOPE it’s organic, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t in most cases. This is where the blogger’s reputation comes into play — do they have a history of monetizing the crap out of everything? Do they make it their job to take money from sponsors and/or advertisers? If that’s the case, I’m inclined to be highly suspect, but I’m also inclined not to read their blog in the first place. As in the first example you gave, although I think she does a good job with it in general.

I think when they pop up as a sponsor because of an existing love for the product, too, the blogger is more likely to be all, can you BELIEVE they offered to do this?! the way Jennie was for Langston boots, whom she *already* loved, and who offered her a discount for her readers and herself — not a sponsorship, but a nice thing that made everyone look and feel good.

10
anna February 18, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Yeah, and if it comes around only once in a while like that it’s more credible. Obviously some of the reason I’ve reacted so strongly to these defenses of Toyota is because of compromised trust capital in the case of people doing the defending. I have absolutely no idea what Toyota does or doesn’t do in actuality — I only have their (damaged) reputation preceding them, plus the compromised reputations of people saying, “Oh, clearly Toyota knew nothing about this. Why — just look! The blogger has admitted it!” Riight. I’m sure there’s no way to make that kind of thing happen. It just smacks of TRUTHINESS!

11
Wendy Piersall February 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm

I agree on the NYT – BUT, I also agree with Rebecca. I’m SURE it happens.

As for the FTC, the guidelines to disclose are specifically required only when the blogger is giving an endorsement or review. “Endorsement” is such a gray area. I’m not sure that the FTC would call “Name an OPI nail polish color” a true endorsement, but you and I probably would. Gray area. Gray as your blog footer.

Honestly, I don’t have a problem with moms kissing up to the brands they love. That’s just how business works. But once a true relationship has formed, I think a disclosure should be there. Period. And it should be in a permanent place on your blog under the title “Current and Former Clients”.

12
anna February 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

This is a good point — the only really thorough and meticulous listing of sponsor/blogger relations I’ve read is from Chris Brogan, who lists all of his affiliate links, all of his past clients, all of the people he’s had some kind of business relationship with in the past. I do think that posts come up all the time about brands you love — I do this on Commodity Fetishism all the time — and to grease the wheels of sponsorship I don’t even think it matters all that much, it’s just kind of savvy. But once there is a relationship that anyone caring to actually look for can find, it seems kind of shady not to mention it. And maybe they are but I’m not going to the About page to figure it out. Who knows.

I do wonder about this for my own consulting work: I work mainly with bloggers, not brands, and my theory has always been that it’s a confidential relationship. So I don’t feel like I should have to say “so and so is my client.” I don’t think most clients would like that, in fact. But does this mean I can never link to a client? I’m not sure.

13
Wendy Piersall February 18, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Wow. I knew I liked you for a reason. You’ve totally stumped me with that last question. I’m not easily stumped! I can’t not know the answer to this. I’m going to find out for both of us!

14
Jenny, Bloggess February 18, 2011 at 7:18 pm

I think it’s very common for a blogger to write about a product they like and later the company starts a relationship with a blogger after they realize what kind of impact the blogger makes. A few years ago I wrote a post vilifying a company for sending a terrible pitch. The company read the post and apologized in a good-natured way and that was that. Then when they started a magazine the next year and decided to hire someone snarky to write humor I was one of the first people they offered a spot to. It certainly wasn’t planned and I know the post that I wrote about them probably hurt them more than it helped them but it did get the attention of the owner of the company and it lead to a good business relationship.

15
anna February 18, 2011 at 8:48 pm

I agree, though I think a lot of these things continue to happen after the fact. Like, the first mention is totally disinterested but then a business relationship forms. And then after that, I cannot really see the mentions without snickering, even if they are sincere. I just don’t read them the same way anymore.

16
BrassyDel February 19, 2011 at 5:54 am

I think in some cases, bloggers are talking about their favorite brands in unsponsored posts because they are fishing for sponsorship (and I realize in some cases they don’t care at all if a sponsorship opportunity arises and just really love the brand or product). I’ve read about using unsponsored reviews, for example, as a way to build your review portfolio so other brands will want to work with you. So order of events is really crucial.

Though, I think that if you are mentioning a brand that you’ve previously worked with, even if it’s unsolicited in this current instance, that you should mention it somehow.

17
Mir February 19, 2011 at 8:31 am

Anna, I think you know you operate from a higher “suspicion base” than the average bear. ;) In this case, I think several of those suspicions come together in a way that creates a negative view of something that actually is… not really as calculated as you’re assuming.

We had part of this conversation on your post where you said “never do a giveaway without getting paid because I assume you’re being paid anyway!” I said Hey, I do it because my readers like it, and I’m cool with not being paid for it. My impression then (and still is) that you can’t really wrap your brain around that as a viable position. And I think this is a similar thing; even as you’re admitting that Allison probably really does love OPI, you’re saying that somehow it’s a calculated sponsorship thing. I think you’re reaching. Sometimes people pimp products they love with no expectation of any sort of reciprocity, and if it happens, they’re delighted, but that wasn’t the goal. Sometimes they pimp products hoping for sponsorship and it happens and then… what? The world explodes? There’s no playbook for this stuff; if a company decides that some sort of interaction is worth their while, so what?

I’ve had companies reach out to me because I’ve shared (unsolicited, no-point-other-than-just-giving-my-opinion) praise of them on one of my sites. Sometimes it makes sense to work with them, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not the NYT, nor do I claim to be an impartial journalist. Other than disclosing a sponsor’s contribution (of either swag or other payment), I don’t understand what other “responsibility” you think the blogger bears in this situation.

18
jonniker February 19, 2011 at 9:21 am

Mir, in most cases I totally agree with you. Totally! Hell, I got a contract with Huggies after I talked about them, and I did nothing to force it myself, so yes, I know it happens.

But in the case of Maggie Mason, who might be the smartest, savviest person in terms of getting sponsorships, I am inclined to be suspect. I don’t think I actually CARE, nor do I think she owes us a lick of disclosure responsibility for it, but I like looking at it and wondering how she did it, if it was calculated, etc. Because let’s be honest: the woman is a sponsorship/promotional genius. She IS. And part of her genius is that she never lets you see how the sausage is being made, as a friend of mine put it.

19
anna February 19, 2011 at 9:47 am

Right, and you are suspicious of those because there have been partnerships in the past! That’s my whole point. There’s no legal obligation to disclose, and I’m not even sure that I want there to be. I’ve always hated the FTC rules because they make things so awkward and stupid, and other industries don’t have to adhere to the same rules. My point here is, these things erode trust capital. Maybe the bloggers in question don’t give a shit, and that’s totally fine, but they do. They erode our trust in the idea that you are recommending a product just because you want to — and the marketing strength of blogging and social media, friends, is carried within that trust. That’s my point.

At some point, after doing these things many many times, do you end up with no trust capital left? I don’t know. I do know that the first thing to go is the street cred with other bloggers. Me recommending something means something different from the bloggers above recommending it, and I think people who read both know that. Now, some of them might have bigger audiences and, if your audience is big enough, perhaps it doesn’t matter anymore. Perhaps once an audience gets big enough, you are dealing with a mass media advertising tactic at that point, and the nuances of social media just don’t matter.

But for those of us without a million eyeballs, I think it does matter a little more.

20
anna February 19, 2011 at 9:25 am

I really hate that term “reaching.” It’s patronizing. I didn’t map out all of the dates of these posts for you guys, but at the *very least* there are posts about a product that has been a sponsor *in the past* that are not disclosed. That’s not reaching — that is EVIDENCE. You can say that it’s my interpretation about when the sponsorship thing happened, whether it was calculated or not — and indeed I even say that IN MY POST. But you cannot deny the fact that they are posting about products made by companies that have been sponsors in the past without disclosing. It’s not illegal, but it’s a form of greasing palms, and that’s just a fact.

I am so fucking sick of the patronizing language that is used against bloggers who express any kind of dissent. Like we are all not as fucking smart as you guys who have been doing this longer.

21
Mir February 19, 2011 at 9:46 am

Anna, how come I’m not allowed to disagree on this without you getting your panties in a wad? You may dislike the word I used; all I said is that I think you’re reaching when you attribute nefarious intent and/or calculation to every single one of these situations. There’s gray in my world; often I see nothing but black or white in yours. And I’ve taken issue with you on that more than once, without being nasty about it. It’s just debate. Like Jonna, I tend to agree that someone like Maggie probably does plan this stuff, but where I have a problem is with the assumption that everyone does it that way.

I have never patronized you. I took the time to express a differing opinion in what I thought was a civil manner, in part because I think (there are those words again) your genuinely valid points are often muddied by this all-or-nothing tendency, and in part because I think I’m not understanding what your whole point is here. I don’t think it’s necessary to bite my head off.

22
anna February 19, 2011 at 9:54 am

Yeah, I’m sorry for biting your head off. There are two explanations: 1) I’m very sick and have zero patience left (which is obviously not your fault); and 2) I react really strongly and over the top when people doubt my perspective of something that I’ve presented evidence for. I don’t mean they have to agree with me — it’s when I put a bunch of things out on the table and somebody says, “Nope, I see you think those things are there, but really it’s all a coincidence wrapped in an optical illusion.” I hate that, so I always fly off the handle when that happens.

So I’m sorry about that.

As far as the patronizing thing, I don’t think that you usually patronize me or other bloggers; however, I’ve been seeing a lot of that lately and it infuriates me, obviously. So to hear the word “reaching” (which I take as patronizing) after the past few days of reading patronizing posts and comments about branding and PR, it was just too much.

As far as the overall point here, I don’t want more regulation, and I don’t even want these people to disclose, necessarily. What interests me about this issue is that I think (this is just a theory) that if you do this kind of thing you end up at the point where you don’t have any credibility anymore, and so the placements on your blog become more like traditional mass advertising, rather than carrying with them any of the social media punch that they might have once had. This might not matter for somebody like Dooce or PW (who, by the way, is really very conservative about this kind of thing and I find that very interesting), because their audiences are huge, so the trust factor doesn’t matter. But with a smaller audience, the only reason you have any kind of advertising clout to begin with is because of the trust factor that comes with social media. So for the average blogger, I think this is something they should think long and hard about doing.

23
Mir February 19, 2011 at 11:31 am

I’m sorry you’re still feeling crappy. That sucks.

Look, I think you’re right that it can become a credibility issue; the question, I guess, is can you predict when/where that happens? Or draw conclusions about every situation? I’m not sure there’s going to be an “action X performed Y times leads to outcome Z” formula to be had here, because there are so many factors involved—who’s the blogger, can you tease apart the chicken-and-egg-ness of the corporate relationship, how often does it happen, does the level of swag-ness matter (do you feel differently towards someone getting free nailpolish vs. a free exotic vacation), etc. To me it’s of philosophical interest but I’m very wary of drawing conclusions. Too many wild cards.

24
anna February 19, 2011 at 9:31 am

And another thing, let’s just test out this theory that I’m “reaching.” I am going to predict right now that Pop Beauty products will be given out in the swag bags for the Social Luxe party at BlogHer this year. Let’s wait and see if I’m wrong.

25
Gwen February 19, 2011 at 8:17 pm

I would like to keep my rose colored glasses on and in most cases, assume that most relationships like that happen organically.

After reading this, I feel like I have to state the brands that I like right now, stating that I don’t have a relationship with them, I just like them. You want my list?

26
laura @ hollywood housewife February 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

I understand what you’re saying, but I agree with some of the other commenters this can also happen organically. I talk quite a bit about beauty products and clothing on my blog, and I talk about them without sponsorship or an agenda. But if I were to throw a party that involved swag, the products that I use and recommend would be the brands I would approach first. Because that seems natural to me, not because I planned it all in advance.

If people who receive those swag bags then narrow their eyes at the products inside, I shrug my shoulders. I like the product, I’m now giving you the product. You can trust me or not on anything that happens in-between.

27
MommyNamedApril February 21, 2011 at 6:40 am

i have not read the other comments yet, but i think this is a great way to get a brand you love interested in working together. it’s one thing to say ‘hey widget company, i love your product can we work together?’ but i suspect it’s a whole lot more effective to say ‘hey widget company, i love your product so much that i’ve already told me readers about it, let’s take this one step further.’

i do, though, think that if a business relationship is established at any point, it’s in good taste to disclose it as such. regardless of the legalities (which i have admittedly not looked into)… you know, trust capital and all.

28
Milehimama February 21, 2011 at 9:22 pm

It’s hard to say, which came first- the brand relationship, or the mention?

It’s happened to me. I bought product A. I loved and adored Product A and became an evangelist. A bigger blog invited me to write a post about Product A, because Product A fits in with her niche (natural living.) The owner of Product A read the guest post – and contacted me to become an advertiser on my blog, since I was such a huge fan.

(And yes I did the guest post for free- but the non-monetary profit was worth it in networking, new traffic, offers for new campaigns, and this new advertiser!)
Of course I *do* mention that Product A is an advertiser when I mention it in my posts, *now*, but I didn’t go back through my archives searching for every mention I made before Product A bought advertising from me.

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