NEW YORK Despite concerns that paid "influencer programs" blur the lines between editorial and advertising, the payoff for brands in starting conversations makes them likely to spread, according to Forrester Research.
Per a new report by the research firm, such "sponsored conversations" are a cost-effective way for brands to ignite word of mouth online. It advises marketers to be scrupulous in the bloggers they work with and insist on disclosure that they are compensating the bloggers.
The rise of social media has made online word of mouth a top goal for marketers. It's led some marketers to embark on programs that give products, services or travel to bloggers in exchange for posts about their experiences. Kmart, for instance, gave five top bloggers a shopping spree in exchange for posts about their experiences. Panasonic flew several top social media bloggers to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where they posted about the show and Panasonic products unveiled there. Mercedes recently gave a top mommy blogger use of an SUV for a week in exchange for posts about it.
The programs are particularly attractive to marketers because they are comparably low cost to expensive media buys while the bloggers bring with them their own loyal and often passionate networks.
Some have criticized the programs as payola that would be forbidden under the typical rules at editorial publications, but others defended it as an innovative way to bring marketing off the sidelines in ad units and into the meat of the conversation on blogs that are not news organizations. Forrester rates paid conversations as falling somewhere between public relations outreach and advertising.
They are most useful for brands that have little innate buzz about them. Not every company is Apple or Nike. For others, paying for conversations is a helpful way to ignite chatter about their products, Forrester concludes. Kmart, for instance, generated more than 2,000 comments on the six blogs in its program, goosed by the enticement of a sweepstakes entry in return for a comment or post on Twitter.
"Consider a brand that sells products like batteries or mufflers -- products that may not get a lot of discussion on blogs but may be quality products," writes Forrester analyst Sean Corcoran. "For these low-buzz brands sponsored conversation is another way to increase discussion about your products."
The research acknowledges potential pitfalls. While marketers get the authenticity of their brand being reviewed in the blogger's own voice, it also risks a backlash from compromising the author's objectivity, according to Forrester.
For that reason, Forrester believes it is important that the bloggers reveal they were compensated and marketers give them freedom to write what they want. The question remains, however, whether positive feedback is expected since a blogger would not be invited to participate in future programs if he wrote negatively. Standards will inevitably arise, Forrester writes.
"Bloggers gotta eat, and marketers gotta market," Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff writes. "The forces leading to this spot were inevitable."