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In Social Media We Trust?

Nov 15, 2010

Marketing companies are now offering a new service: social media coverage in the form of front-page placements on websites like Digg and sponsored tweets from Twitter “power accounts” yielding hundreds of thousands of followers. The cost of this service is cheap and the promised exposure is enticing – but is it all ethical? That is the question asked by Forbes’ Elizabeth Woyke in a recent article, “$240 To Place Story On Digg Front Page: One Marketing Firm’s Pitch,” and it’s not an easy one to answer.

Some have argued against the pay-for-play model that is slowly becoming prevalent across social media networks, but on the other hand, social networks need a way to make money and if companies are transparent in their dealings, is there anything really wrong with this model?  As much as social media has been discussed over the past few years, it is still a burgeoning phenomenon.  Social media is evolving, and because there is no formal regulation – yet – us marketers are learning and making up the model as we go.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

The survival of social media networks is entirely dependent on its users – if there are no users, there is no network.  Sites like Digg and Reddit are completely dependent on user-generated content.  Meanwhile, companies seeking increased visibility may opt to use PR companies to generate and distribute content on their behalf, or set up a corporate social account in order to share content.  Social networks need content and companies want exposure– marketing companies that offer to connect the two are, in a sense, facilitating a mutually beneficial relationship (while charging a fee, of course).  Is this not a win-win scenario?

While marketer’s ethical conduct in regards to social media is a topic that is still somewhat new, the issue of pay-for-play in media sponsorships has long been the subject of debate and industry scrutiny. Five years ago, advertisers were faced with considerable pressure as product placements were being written into television and movie scripts.  Last year, it was the “Mommy Bloggers” who were called to task failing to be transparent in their product reviews and their “sponsors.”

Relevancy and Transparency

In these dealings, what’s critical is transparency – and relevant, meaningful content.  Provided that companies fully disclose that they have sponsored the content, and that the content is useful and interesting, users won’t really care where it is from.  The second that consumers believe that they are trying to be swindled by false or inauthentic content, the company’s brand reputation will be shot.  Consumers will read sponsored content if it is relevant and engaging – but what they won’t stand for, and shouldn’t stand for, is having their intelligence insulted, free content or not.

What is your view?  Do you care if someone has paid to take top-billing on a blog or a social media site if what they are delivering is of use, value or meaning to you?

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