Bloggers for hire

The days of genuine "citizen-generated" media may be numbered. Suddenly big business is all over the

Towards the end of last month a posting appeared on a website called "Blog Republic - By the Bloggers. For the Bloggers". "Blog Republic is looking for bloggers who are interested in being paid per post," it said. "We're looking for motivated bloggers in the following areas: cellphones, broadband, travel, gadgets, health, stocks and blogging. We're looking for quality bloggers who can make insightful posts. The more you post, the more you earn."

This plea caused quite a flurry in the online world. After all, if blog culture has been about anything, it has been about sticking it to large corporations rather than taking their advertising dollars. Last year, for instance, Dell would not replace a faulty computer owned by the influential blogger Jeff Jarvis. He started chronicling the company's poor service on his blog buzz machine.com under the heading "Dell Hell". His postings hit such a nerve that Jarvis was soon receiving 10,000 visits a day.

Sites attacking McDonald's, Starbucks, Nestlé, Nike and just about every oil company proliferate around the net. With a successful legal action against these vociferous individuals costing more in legal fees and bad publicity than the victory would be worth, blogs have been seen as an extension of consumer activism. A poll conducted by NOP World Consumer in March last year found that 50 per cent of bloggers express opinions about a company or product at least once a week, while another survey, for Hostway, showed that 77 per cent of online consumers viewed blogs as a useful way to get insights into the products they were looking to buy. With all these opinions reaching their customers, companies felt like a boxer attacked by thousands of children - staggering from tiny blow to tiny blow, unable to hit back but sure that, at some point, damage was being done.

This summer, however, something changed. In June, a disgruntled Land-Rover customer called Adrian Melrose set up a site called have yoursay.com to track the company's lack of progress in dealing with a complaint about his new Discovery. Melrose was soon attracting 700 visitors a day, which placed him at the top of a Google search if you typed in "Land-Rover Discovery". In July, the company caved in and sorted out his problem but then struck a deal to turn haveyoursay.com into a Land-Rover customer feedback forum.

Suddenly corporations are all over the blogo sphere. Last year, Business Week ran a feature, "Six tips for corporate bloggers", which highlighted a deal between the web services company Marqui and 20 bloggers who were offered $2,400 each to write about the company once a week for three months. At the end of June this year, the idea went pro with payperpost.com, a site set up by Ted Murphy, chief executive of the advertising firm MindComet. PayPerPost's home page shows a youthful adman in a smart suit and with a cheeky grin - "He wants to create a buzz for his new product" - alongside a glamorous girl kicking back at a cool party - "She wants to make money". "You tell the blogger what you want him/her to post about," the advice for advertisers reads. "You can require the blogger to add photos to their post, write about experiences with your product; the possibilities are up to your imagination."

Old-school bloggers predicted a riot. When the online guru Marshall Kirkpatrick complained about PayPerPost's idea on his own blog, TechCrunch, the reaction from his older readers was outrage. "I hope this is some sort of cruel joke," wrote Simran in Kirkpatrick's comments section. Many called Murphy the devil. Some younger users, however, couldn't see what the fuss was about.

"Why not get paid to write about something you believe in?" wrote skyblue. "It's up to the blogger if they want to do paid posts, then it's up to the reader if they want to continue reading," argued Paul Short." "I'm just some college student who started a blog over two years ago and has had approximately 150 hits," Ben Belden posted. "I hadn't even written anything in months on my site before I found out about PayPerPost. Since then, I've written six posts and hopefully in 30 days I will have made $137.75 for just writing what I think."

Until now, the founders of the blogosphere have jealously protected their online world. This was easy when blogging was a difficult and complicated business, requiring at least some working knowledge of computer code. Early blogs tended to be written by the highly motivated and technologically literate. They often argued that this was a new paradigm - "citizen-generated media", free from the restrictions of top-down "old media".

With the expansion in open-source software over the past 18 months, however, anyone can get involved. Many new bloggers are school or college kids just trying to get laid. For them, the purity of the blogosphere is irrelevant. The idea of getting paid to chat about a soft drink seems absolutely fine. Nicole Discon, a high-school senior from New Orleans, was paid by 7-Up to plug a new milk drink called Raging Cow on her blog Sparkley.net. She said the commercial connection didn't bother her and "now that I've delved into the whole advertising thing, it's something I really love doing". For youth brands, this teenage ambivalence is great news. After all, online is where their customers are.

Steve Henry, executive creative director at TBWA and the adman behind the "You've been Tangoed" and Pot Noodle campaigns, believes that in the next four to five years the accepted model of advertising will change completely. "You're only going to be able to sell in an opt-in environment like a shop or website, somewhere people choose to be," he believes. "To get a customer there, you need to surround them - PR, stunts, ambient media, the works. Blogs allow your brand to become part of the culture, to become something that's talked about."

Opinion sponsorship

One of the big advantages the blogosphere offers adland is, ironically, a function of its birth as an unregulated samizdat medium. It is admirable that editorial content can't be controlled, but the absence of any oversight means the same is true for commercial deals. The kind of opinion sponsorship PayPerPost and Bloggers Republic are offering would be illegal in the UK if practised by any of the conventional media. And the ramifications are not just in the soft drinks sector. The US marine corps is already using the networking site myspace.com for recruitment and brand-building - and has form in paying for positive editorial in Iraqi newspapers. Who's to say that the marines aren't already slipping teen bloggers a few dollars for a bit of positive spin? Who's to say? No one. Because the blogosphere is completely unregulated.

And once an idea exists in the online world, it exists in the real one, in effect. The music industry uses chatroom ambassadors to develop band reputations and recruits kids to rave about an artist at school. In June, the ad agency Starcom MediaVest recommended that its clients use conversation as an advertising medium. "Traditional advertising is not as effective as it used to be," says Starcom's research director, Jim Kite. "Word of mouth becomes more important, but we didn't realise how important it is. We are telling our clients that they should make word of mouth the focus of their ad campaigns."

Companies such as Procter & Gamble have started recruiting "brand ambassadors" - key social figures in a neighbourhood or community who will get paid to drop brand references into conversations or hold barbecues where they pepper the talk with praise for dusters or aftershave. Steve Henry is stunned to report that some brand ambassadors forget to pick up their cheque - "They just like to have something to talk about," he says. This month, the fledgling industry created its own trade body - the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Now the hidden persuaders could be anywhere. You may not want to read ILikeCokeBlogger's views on soft drinks, but it's hard to turn away if your best friend recommends a soap powder. What's the price of free speech when opinions are suddenly for sale?

Becky Hogge, Reboot, page 42

 

Five ways companies can use the internet to target your wallet
Research by Daniel Trilling

Use a social networking site The model Christine Dolce (aka ForBiddeN, left) launched her career on MySpace, where she also promotes a Unilever-owned brand of deodorant. http://www.myspace.com/ForBiddeN

Pay a blogger PayPerPost is one of several services that introduces companies to bloggers willing to write nice things about their products - for a fee. http://payperpost.com

Mount a counter-attack Dell launched a customer-care blog in response to sites complaining about its products. http://www.direct2dell.com

Hire a "street team" The PR company M80 recruits enthusiasts to promote bands, films and TV programmes in return for exclusive downloads, videos and competitions. http://www.fanboost.com

Create a viral e-mail A marketing campaign for the Hollywood film Snakes on a Plane offers fans the chance to e-mail a personalised message from the Snakes star, Samuel Jackson, to their friends. http://snakesonaplane.varitalk.com

This article first appeared in the 28 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blogs plc