About two years ago, before I joined the communications department, we were approached by an agency pushing us to have their bloggers for hire go out and start blogging positive mojo about our then-new educational asset, Axia College. The original pitch was just that: bloggers, who aren't our students, telling the blogosphere, MySpace-dom, Facebook-hood, and the rest of the world just how great it is to go to school with us.
I joined and was handed the contract. We'd spend a boatload with this agency specing out this contract that no one in the department really knew what to do with, so they passed it off to the only guy who had any skin in the game.
I had a huge problem with the arrangement, and I have the same problem now that it's evolved and reared it's head from Microsoft and Cisco. Valleywag has a good summary. Here's a snitch:
John Battelle's ad network has roped in some of its star writers to an ad campaign on behalf of Microsoft's "people-ready" catchphrase. In the ads, and the companion site built by Federated Media, Michael Arrington explains how his Techcrunch site became "people-ready". "When is a business people ready?" asks Gigaom's Om Malik. "The minute you decide to strike out on your own..." Other writers who've been paid to repeat Microsoft's slogan include Paul Kedrosky and Matt Marshall of Venture Beat, as well as Fred Wilson, the blogger-investor.
The evolution is fairly obvious -- in this case, these lassoed bloggers are shilling, and making it clear that they're shilling, for an advertiser. On the surface, that should be the end of the discussion if you hang your hat on the "Truth in Advertising" mantra. Nick Chase tries to paint this issue with spit and polish in the Valleywag comment thread.
So the next step, naturally, is for marketers to want to join the conversation. It can be done in ethical, responsible ways, and FM's authors are among the first to figure out how to do it.
Then why do I still have such a problem with this mess? In my own situation, I tried to make this work. The first proposed change was to use our own stable of bloggers -- current students of Axia college who might happen to have had blogs at the time. We couldn't find enough of them, and the ones we did find couldn't blog for beans.
Then we thought about having the agency stable of bloggers go back to school with Axia to legitimize their shill. Of course, they wanted to be paid hourly for their time in school, their time studying, their time writing papers, their time thinking about school, and so on.
As you can imagine, the whole pitch was suddenly loosing its luster. I cancelled the program.
I cancelled it because the methods did not meet the objectives of the program. The pitch was all about creating a discussion with our prospective students. But no matter how you spin it, there's no way to create a legitimate, authentic discussion when that discussion starts from the voices of those who are not students, are not experienced, are not authentic.
Commenter Filament nails it far more eloquently than I ever did:
This is only "conversational" in the sense that a chat with Tony Snow about Bush's record is a conversation: only technically. What you're doing is creating the false appearance of conversation to make money.
This whole mess smacks of a key learning that so many companies are failing to learn. Companies formerly accustomed to building relationships through the brute force of advertising dollars don't know how to translate their wares into anything more transparent than tin foil. You can't blame Microsoft for giving it a shot. They're not architected to know any better.
It's harder, as with all things, to do it right. It's harder to actually build an army of flag-waving maniacs sreaming from the rooftops about your organization. Leaders have to shake the trees, clear out old-media thinking and build the army the right way, from the beginning. Otherwise, you're building a Potemkin Village, and your conversation is nothing more than vapor.