The success of using bloggers to market things depends upon the trust capital that bloggers build up with their audiences. Lately, I’ve noticed a significantly increased amount of brand engagement from bloggers that is taking place directly in the content column, instead of in the sidebars or as a secondary aspect to their blog’s usual content. While I have no problem with this engagement in theory — I am about as pro-blog monetization of a person as you are going to find — the increased interaction gives me some pause because of the trust capital factor. As a way of evaluating whether or not content engagement is going to work for you and your blog, I wanted to start a discussion about what trust capital is in the mommyblogosphere, and how we can think about developing it, as well as making sure our efforts to monetize do not undermine its maintenance.
1. Trust capital is a specialized form of social capital.
Trust capital functions in a similar way to, but should not be confused with social capital in new media. Social capital is the degree of influence that you have as a result of your connections in the new media space. You start off with nothing, and as you become active on blogs and Twitter, you start to earn credibility or influence as a result of your engagement with people. Your relationships and influence become things that have a value, and that you can actually “spend” in certain contexts (e.g. getting your Twitter followers to support you in voting for a blog award, or in helping you to publicize a project). Trust capital is a form of social capital, but it applies directly to bloggers who have developed a relationship with readers attached to a specific set of expectations. For example, if you have been blogging for many years without doing any kind of sponsored content, your readers have come to expect that when you feature a link to products or services on your blog, you are sharing with them free from any kind of monetary consideration. Your readers come to expect that you are telling them about your life (and the products you like) just as a natural offshoot of content creation. They trust that what you tell them about is good, because otherwise there would be no reason for you to mention it.
2. Trust Capital Takes Time To Build
This process takes time. It takes a long time to develop a relationship with a readership, and it takes a long time to build up trust. Trust capital does not just appear overnight, and that’s why it’s so valuable — it’s the difference between having a product recommended by somebody you’ve never met, and a product recommended by somebody who is a trusted friend. Whereas somebody can have a ton of social capital just by their relationship to other people (e.g. if you are known to have influence over a particularly popular blogger, for example, you may have a large amount of social capital), you cannot build trust capital without developing a readership on your own and filling it with people who trust that you are a person to be listened to.
3. Trust capital needs to be balanced like a checkbook.
If you have a great deal of trust capital, you are controlling a valuable commodity for which advertisers will pay handsomely. It can be very tempting to use your trust capital to get some actual economic capital — particularly once you get a glimpse of how much advertisers are willing to pay for it. Content-column placements pay much better than sidebar placements, and if you want to make money as a blogger without the kind of crazy traffic levels that are required to make a full time income from sidebar ads, you will be tempted to start experimenting with leveraging your trust capital by putting sponsored content in your content column. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you must do it with an eye to keeping your audience’s trust — it is not enough to ensure that your audience is getting content in exchange for their time, you must also make sure that their trust of you is not being affected.
Trust can be eroded in various ways — are you featuring products that you would never mention, were they not paying you to do so? Even if the product is not directly affecting your content (e.g. a sponsored post that simply says “Sponsored by XXXX company” but is otherwise completely free from third-party influence), this can still erode trust. It might not be fair, but watching comments and emails from people who are dealing with blogs that have an increased amount of sponsored content suggests that this is how it works. People start to trust you less when you feature sponsored content. They may still read you, and they may want to buy the things that you have, but the element of trust is still decreased.
4. Trust Capital Is a Suspension Of Disbelief Based On Past Performance.
One way to figure out when you are spending your trust capital is to look at what you are asking of your audience. When you say, “I am asking you to suspend your disbelief that this sponsored post is worth reading, based on the fact that in the past I have given you tons of great free content,” you are spending trust capital. When you ask your audience to believe that your endorsement of a mass-marketed product is genuine and uninfluenced by your sponsorship relationship, particularly when you have never been one to endorse mass-marketed products in the past, you are spending trust capital. There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending trust capital, but you have to remember that you only have so much of it to spend. If you repeatedly spend your trust capital without doing anything to build it back up, you are eventually going to find yourself with an empty account.
5. The Way You Build Trust Capital Is By Doing Things That Are Right, And Possibly Difficult, Even And Especially When There Is No Direct Benefit To You.
Trust capital in blogging is initially established by creating high quality free content. But if you plan to do a lot of sponsored content, you are going to have to up the ante a little bit. It will no longer be enough to just blog the way you have in the past: you will need to do more. One way I have seen this done successfully is by creating additional, bonus free content that has an easily recognized direct market value and giving it to your readers for free. For example, Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) had a set of Photoshop Actions developed and released for her readers for free. She could easily charge for these products — many people do. By giving them to her readers for free, she has upped the ante in terms of their trust that what she is doing is in the spirit of generosity and giving.
Another way to build trust capital is to do or say things that are not necessarily beneficial to you. For example, if a company or sponsor does something you do not like, removing them from your blog immediately and explaining why you have done so, can build trust capital. Deciding to not participate in the same kinds of campaigns that other, comparable bloggers have chosen can also build trust capital. Saying things that are not popular, when there is a clear moral issue at hand, can build trust capital with readers who feel similarly.
6. I’m a little concerned about how trust capital is being spent right now in the mommyblogosphere.
First, let me acknowledge that I don’t know what is going to happen with the economy of trust capital in the mommyblogosphere any more than anyone else. I have no idea if audiences will respond to the increase in sponsored content favorably or not. However, the reason that I wanted to start talking about trust capital is that I’ve been disturbed by the shit ton of sponsored content I’ve seen recently around the mommyblogging space. While I’m excited that people are finding ways of monetizing, I am worried that there may be partnerships formed with brands that do not have the best interest of the blogger’s brand at heart. From an advertising brand’s perspective, the blogger is interchangeable: if a blogger becomes less influential as a result of working with too many brands, they will just move onto the next one. But if a blogger becomes less influential, they are going to have a tough time building that value back up. I’m worried about this because in blogging there is no middleman network on whom we can place the blame for sponsorship: in TV, we can always note the inclusion of commercials or product placement as something “the network” or “the studio” forces the creative people to do. In blogging, there is nobody like this to blame, and though it’s not fair, and as much as I want bloggers to be paid for their work, I worry that they are cashing in on a resource that is dwindling.
What do you guys think? Will blogging audiences become more amenable to sponsored content? Is their a limit to how many sponsored posts you can do? How do you figure this out?