Want Buzz? Be Interesting (and don’t put up barriers to conversation)

A few weeks ago, at the AlwaysOn Media conference in New York, there was a panel titled “Can Brands Get Away with ‘Buzz Marketing’ in the Blogosphere” – it was moderated by Jeff Jarvis (BuzzMachine), and included Rick Murray (Womma, me2revolution, Edelman), Gordon Gould (ThisNext), Barry Reicherter (Porter Novelli), and David Weinberger (Joho the Blog).

I was intrigued by an article in Information Week (“Blogger Smackdown at AlwaysOn“) which concluded:

The debate quickly escalated from a discussion of whether buzz marketing was feasible to whether marketing through blogs even made sense. Online blog marketing firm PayPerPost was savaged by both Jarvis and Weinberger, with PayPerPost’s CEO present in the room trying unsuccessfully to defend himself.

The video from the session is online at the AlwaysOn Media site, though they don’t provide any simple way to link to or bookmark a specific session. Instead, go to this webcast archive page, scroll down to where the session title is, and click on the icon in the video archive column. (Actually, there are lots of good sessions available – including the keynote on “Surviving the Media Disruption” – but beware, the volume varies wildly).

Unfortunately that the conference’s own site seems to be missing out on some of the opportunities social media presents – thy’ve got all this great video content, with significant speakers and good topics, but there’s no way to share the videos – blog, email, download, or embed. In addition, though they show chat from the live event (in fact there’s no way to turn off the chat while watching the archived video – it’s all in one embedded flash player), but there’s no forum for comments or ongoing discussion. When you combine that with the fact that you can’t even link to a particular video, it becomes very difficult (as evidenced by the description above) to talk about and point to the sessions.

(Ok, so it isn’t that hard for a person to follow the above directions – but the whole point of links is to be machine discoverable and one-click, not “describable in less than two sentences”).

They’ve managed the first part – made the conference content interesting – but have failed the second part by putting up barriers to the conversation. I suppose it is only fair to give them credit for making the video content available at all – when many conferences will only make video available to atteendees or paid subscribers – but a simple tweak or two to allow a specific url to be assigned to each session would make a world of difference.

The heart of the “smackdown”  is the PayPerPost, which  pays bloggers to post about things on behalf of advertisers. As of December 2006, they require bloggers to disclose blog posts which are paid, but this disclosure requirement itself came only recently and after pressure from the community.

What both Weinberger and Jarvis object to – and I share their concern – is that PayPerPost ultimately makes it more difficult to tell true passion from paid endorsement, and more difficult to tell honest recommendations from advertisements. Pay Per Post didn’t invent this problem, but it makes things worse rather than better.

What about ThisNext, whose CEO was also on the panel?

One could argue that they are also blurring the line between passion and paid recommendation: their platform enables people to make recommendations about products they like – including affiliate links through which users are compensated for purchases driven by their recommendations. All affiliate relationships essentially provide a kickback for the recommending user. Is it because they are explicitly in the context of a recommendation – and generally though not universally disclosed – that these relationships are relatively free of controversy?

(In the interest of full disclosure – I’ve had an Amazon affiliate account since maybe 1996 – I’ve made less than $5 from that relationship over that 10+ years).

As social bookmarking, social networking, and collaborative filtering applications become increasingly popular, how will we deal with the influence of marketing dollars?

In addition to folks like PayPerPost, we also need to be ready for  “human powered social bookmarking services” like this one.

Over time, we’ll all need to get much more sophisticated about identifying paid influence in its various forms. Users will need to learn to apply the traditional caveat lector to the all kinds of messages, even those which don’t look like “marketing.” Develoeprs and site creators will need to create new techniques for highlighting disclosure and filtering / flagging paid endorsements from unpaid.


  1. Great post, John. I find astroturfing–online and offline–offensive, destructuve, and annoying as hell. But, I do wonder if Weinberger and other “top shelf” bloggers think that the blogrolling that made them “top shelf” was not a variant form of this? remember when we saw Weinberger a few years ago now and he told the story of the passionate Maytag owners? Even then I would have assumed that those people were either 1) paid by Maytag or 2) so insane that I could not take their rah-rah for the new front-loading models seriously. I think that makes me a cynic.

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