The Federal Trade Commission has issued a staff opinion stating that word of mouth marketing, like blogs, are deceptive if potential consumers are more likely to trust the endorser of a product or service based on an assumption that the endorser is independent from the marketer. This opinion hits secretly-sponsored blogs right between the eyes. If a company is sponsoring you to speak highly of them, you better make your audience aware of the sponsorship. That warning also extends to marketing firms seeking to influence bloggers on behalf of their clients
I write about issues that affect my readers. People read my words. People like my words. It is all about the words. If my words told you that I was the best patent lawyer in the world, or that I offered special holiday discounts on my services, or that I offer a money-back guarantee (none of which are true), what would you think of my words? You would question their integrity and probably not read them anymore.
Blogs which merely push a product or service never gain long term traction. Great blogs offer insight, information and entertainment. Readers know great blogs. Great bloggers are: transparent; responsive to their readership; and personal. These traits engender trust and, at times, personal and professional relationships follow.
People trust blogs; they do not trust marketers. Marketers know that the secret of success on the blogosphere is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you have it made . . . or so they thought. The blogosphere police are powerful. Blog readers are comprehensive. Large companies like Wal-Mart and Sony learned to their chagrin that a forceful “outing” of your secretly sponsored blog is unpleasant. Such outings destroy years of hard-earned brand value. Such lost value dwarfs any slight benefit a fake blog could hope to garner.
If marketers cannot write their own fake blogs, what can they do? The next obvious step is to sway existing blogs with a solid readership and a reputation for integrity. As I have written about the current Iowa Microsoft antitrust case, I have received an increasing flow of information. Some pro-Microsoft, some anti-Microsoft. What I noticed was an insidious flow of pro-Microsoft propaganda not identified as being sponsored by Microsoft. Although the information started off neutral, the tone changed toward an obvious bias. That led me to check out the sender. Once I identified that the information was sponsored by Microsoft, that knowledge irreparable impaired the credibility of the information and the sender. I erred in my initial failure to make the connection, but as noted in the FTC opinion, I trusted the endorser more because I assumed the endorser was independent of Microsoft.
Tiny companies with tiny problems may get away with planting blog posts no one will ever read. For big dogs, like Microsoft, attempts to surreptitiously manipulate the blogosphere on larger issues will inevitably back-fire. Keep that play for the mainstream media.
I like Microsoft. I use their products at home and at the office. This blog would be less of a blog without Microsoft clip art. While I do not like some things about their products, they are better than anything else I have found. I am a customer by virtue of the strength of their products; I just hope they do not lose me through the furtive nature of their marketing.