The Dangers of Pay-for-Play in Social Media

I was troubled by a recent story in “Counsel” the publication of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations (an organization for marketing pros at two-year colleges) that discussed Colorado Mountain College’s practice of paying students to blog on behalf of the school:

“By far, the best marketing money Colorado Mountain College has ever spent is a small budget for student bloggers.  For about $25 per week per blogger (plus a hoodie and coffee mug), the college has purchased content far more powerful than anything it could dream up.  Even a high-powered agency couldn’t come up with this stuff.  The student bloggers write about what they do when they’re bored, have a conflict, or get crazy with a group of friends.  In turn, the college gets rich content – and credibility.”

It’s not entirely accurate that a high-powered agency couldn’t come up with this stuff – they’ve actually been doing it for years (before “social media” even had a name marketing firms were paying people to hang out in chat rooms to talk up bands or products or to spam message boards).  More recently “Flogs” (“Fake Blogs”) have emerged along with the practice of “Blogola” (paying bloggers for favorable coverage ala “payola”). These practices have done considerable damage to a number of organizations, from Wal-Mart’s fake 2006 blog “Wal-marting Across America” (created by Edelman) to the more recent scandals resulting from Lifestyle Lift writing fake reviews about itself and  “Mommy Bloggers” being paid by entities like Ragu, Michelin, Kmart and Wal-Mart.

In fact, the practice is so widespread it’s drawn the attention of the National Advertising Review Council and the Federal Trade Commission, which may start regulating the practice and require transparency.  Under the proposals they’re evaluating now (their first revisions since 1980), even a free hoodie or coffee mug would be cause for clear disclosure (or penalties could be levied).

It’s good to see anyone being proactive about getting involved in social media, so I want to make my criticism constructive.  I’m sympathetic to CMC’s aims – just the other day a colleague of mine was asking how GRCC could insert itself into the conversations of prospective students happening throughout the web.  That’s just it: the conundrum of social media is that you can’t.

People have almost complete control over what they see, and they  are highly adept at sniffing out inauthentic content (especially young people).  As a result, society is becoming more and more insulated in its perceptions.  We’re nearing the era of the pure meritocracy; in order to gain access to an audience, one must be truly relevant and offer something stakeholders actually want.  Moreover, everything is real-time, so as soon as someone has an experience that doesn’t comport to what was ‘advertised’ – they can tell their entire tribe with a tweet.

There are a several features to programs like this that make them potentially problematic:

Disclosure: Any institution is putting its greater reputation on the line when using any measure of deception.  As such, every institution should weigh the costs against the rewards in situations like these (the rewards are seldom worth the costs).  As public relations practitioners, we tend to view the world through a different lens than the general public, so it’s important for us to step outside of ourselves and realize that the public views many commonplace PR practices (like ghostwriting) as outright dishonest.  If the public were to view CMC’s campaign as disingenuous, that could cost them dearly in the future as any authentic mentions of the college in social media could be tainted as “blogola.”  Though there was some branding on some of the blogs, it was scarce enough that one could legitimately cry foul if they mistook the blogs for stand-alone entities; especially if they found them through a search engine than directly through the CMC website (where they are prominently linked).

Metrics:  It’s often difficult to gauge the success of any social media campaign.  CMC credits this campaign with a 33 percent increase in female enrollment at its Leadville campus, but at a glance it’s difficult to support this conclusion because of the myriad factors at play and the murky world of social media which is frequently difficult to plumb.  For example:

  • Analytics: CMC’s marketing department uses StatCounter, but that system is based on cookies (which many people block – a reality that has driven many organizations to track visitors using Flash) so they could be missing some data.
  • Search Engines: Another measure of the reach of a blogger is their presence within the indices of search engines.  All four of the blogs I looked at didn’t show up in Technorati (either under the blogger’s name or the name of the blog), and not all of them showed up in Google BlogSearch (this is odd because they were all housed on Blogger, which is owned by Google).
  • Comments on blogs can be a good indicator of how often a blog is being actively read.  For the CMC blogs, excluding the comments left by the blog’s authors themselves – one blog had 6 comments, one had 9, one had 27 (though most were from the blogger’s family), and one had 10.
  • Followers can also tell how active the community is around a particular blogger (though this number can fluctuate, so it’s important to watch over time).  One blogger had 11 followers, two had 9 and one had 7.

Credibility: David Weinberger put it best when he said “There is an inverse relationship between control and trust.”  That the blogs are censored means implicitly that readers will trust them less.  They will also be less interesting to read (as humanity salivates over sensationalism).  Overall CMC was good about being hands-off, but even restricting the use of profanity can sap the authenticity of a blog (reducing its appeal to a college-age audience in particular).  PR has always been about balancing the credibilty of a third party with the lack of control over what that third party says, which is why as a discipline it’s a better lens through which to view these types of efforts.  In order to reach your audience, you must be willing to give up virtually all control and allow them to discuss you based on your merits.

My suggestions to make a program like this even more effective would be the following:

  1. Standardize the copy and some of the elements of all of the blogs so that they’re clearly identifiable as being related to one’s organization (better yet, house them within your own content management system if possible).
  2. Include a clear and standardized disclaimer that the blogger has been compensated.
  3. Don’t be afraid to leave the blogs uncensored; in all of my experience I’ve found that people are pretty generous in realizing that organizations don’t control every single person who talks about them so they’ll more often than not give you the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Make sure the blogs are optimized for search engines, and link to them from as many places as possible (your organization’s main site and any related sub-sites, the social networking profiles of the students and any other websites they maintain, etc.)
  5. Give out assignments.  Poll or interview students on campus or prospective students and find out what they would like to know about the student experience, and rather than have them meet a quota of a certain number of posts – have them tackle certain topics (crime/public safety on campus), go on adventures (find out how to challenge a grade, document a study abroad trip), or do reconnaissance (which bookstore has the lowest prices? which clubs have the best drink specials?).
  6. Make the bloggers mix it up in the analog world (which CMC also did).  To make these efforts more effective, make them sticky; have them to interact with their classmates and post the results of those interactions online  (profiles, interviews, take pictures of their tattoos and post them along with the stories behind them).  EXAMPLE: One of the most successful social media start-ups, CollegeClub, built its audience by paying students on campuses across the US to attend student events, take photos, and post them on the web.  While at the events, the students handed out business cards with the URL of the site where the photos would be housed (very few of us can resist the pull of vanity, and students logged on to see themselves and their friends – thus building the community).  Unfortunately CollegeClub was sold several times, and the owners neglected the community they’d built in an attempt to monetize the network (by loading pages up with ads, laying off customer service staff and moderators) so the site collapsed.
  7. Don’t limit yourself to blogging.  At the rate other social networking platforms are exploding, there are plenty of better ways to get your message out there using rich media.  Use Twitter.  Use YouTube (Flip video cameras are very inexpensive and it looks like CMC is doing some of this in their next iteration).  Create a contest for the best photos of the student experience on Flickr (my alma mater, Grand Valley State University, encourages students to tag photos in Flickr and incorporates them into its website design).
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