Social Media Manipulation? When “Indie” Bloggers and Businesses Get Cozy

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Brands have sought to partner with influential bloggers for nearly as long as there have been blogs, with ads, sponsored posts, and more. Lately, however, a new relationship between brands and popular social media practioners is emerging: It’s not a traditional endorsement deal, and yet an “independent” endorsement for the brand is all but guaranteed.

So how exactly does that work?

Well, for the companies involved, there is a simple two-step approach to establishing such relationships: 1) Locate people who love your brand and hold influence in the social media world; and 2) give these people even more reason to love your brand, so that they’ll use their influence to somehow help promote that brand.

Chipotle is following such a strategy by giving free burritos for life to pro athletes. Free burrito cards aren’t being handed out willy-nilly to every well-known athlete, of course. Instead, the criterion is pretty obvious: The freebies are given to athletes who have already stated publicly (via Twitter, most likely) that they love Chipotle.

[CLARIFICATION: A firm representing Chipotle reached out and clarified that these cards don't guarantee free burritos for life. Instead, cardholders get one free burrito per day for one year, with the opportunity to renew when the 12-month period is over.]

The fast-casual chain is banking on the strong likelihood that if these athletes are munching on its burritos for free regularly, they’ll plug the brand occasionally. The athletes aren’t official spokespeople and aren’t featured in company ads. But in essence, they are endorsing Chipotle, and they’re being “paid” for their endorsement in the form of free burritos.

(MORE: Stealth Celebrity Endorsement: No Money Changing Hands, Just Free Burritos)

Popular bloggers, on the other hand, often agree to relationships with brands that might include official sponsorships, invitations to focus groups on products in the works, or special perks such as freebies or sneak peeks at merchandise before it’s in stores. In 2009, the FTC released guidelines that require full disclosure of “material connections”—sponsorships, free products and perks, and any money changing hands whatsoever—between advertisers and endorsers, bloggers included. For example, Walmart stipulates that all bloggers participating in its Walmart Moms program must “disclose their relationship with Walmart as well as any compensation received, including travel opportunities, expenses or products.”

What the rules can’t require is for bloggers to be 100% honest and forthright in their reviews and social media plugs, leading some to question the credibility of any “independent” voice partnering with a corporate brand.

A recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune story raised some concern about Target’s “Inner Circle,” a group of 16 bloggers that the retailer recruited last year and flew to New York City and Minneapolis to meet with company executives, try out new products, and generally have a fun time. A Target spokesperson explained to the Star-Tribune that these bloggers are “absolutely free to write what they see,” and that, “we are looking for authenticity.”

And yet, because Target handpicked the group at least partially because they’re fans of the retailer, the impression is that it’ll be extremely rare for a member of the Inner Circle to say anything remotely negative about Target. When Alyson Seligman, author of The Average Girl’s Guide blog, found out she was accepted in Target’s Inner Circle, she shared the “amazing news” with her readers: “I literally feel my heart bursting out of my chest with excitement with this one.” In a post in early December, soon after the Inner Circle’s trip to New York City, Seligman raved about Target’s Neiman Marcus collection, which wound up being almost universally bashed as an overpriced flop by shoppers and analysts. “I have a borderline obsessive love for Target,” she told the Star-Tribune.

(MORE: 9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online Reviews)

Upon finding out she was officially chosen for the Inner Circle, designer Jennifer Pebbles gushed on her Studio Pebbles blog that she was being flown to New York City, and reflected on how long she’s been smitten by Target:

I have had a love affair with all things Target for as long as I can remember, back to the days when Micheal Graves made those hot looking kitchen appliances and told us that design was for everyone, everyday, at any price.

In a RetailWire post about the emergence of the Inner Circle, several commenters—who list their full names and statuses as pros in retail and consulting—noted that the initiative could backfire if and when a blogger’s objectivity is called into question. As one comment put it:

Does anyone believe that someone who starts out as an avid Target fan and then gets the royal treatment from Target will be unbiased in their blogs? Any credibility that they had should have gone away when Target recruited them to its inner circle.

Amy Mascott, an Inner Circle member who blogs about parenting at TeachMama.com, told me via e-mail that she has always liked Target, and that she thought her readers would enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at what the retailer does—but that Inner Circle bloggers are under no obligation whatsoever to promote Target or its products. “Obviously they’d hope that we would share the experience, and many of us wanted to, but Target never put pressure on us to do so,” she said. “One thing I appreciate about the program is the complete openness and its stress-free nature.”

(MORE: Tale of Two Supermarkets: Why Fresh & Easy Flopped and Fairway Flies High)

As for concerns about credibility in such relationships, Mascott responded, “As long as any blogger is being open and honest about his or her relationship with brands and is abiding by the FTC guidelines, then I don’t see a problem.”

Still, she acknowledged that anytime a blogger—or company, for that matter—enters into a business relationship with a brand, there are risks. Mascott’s blog has had several sponsorships, including Target, toymaker Melissa & Doug, and clothing maker Land’s End, and while considering any possible partnership, she asks herself things like: “Will readers stick around and continue as loyal subscribers? How many brand relationships is too many? How many sponsored posts vs. un-sponsored posts?”

Melissa Garcia, who blogs at ConsumerQueen.com and has been a member of the Walmart Moms community, said via e-mail that over the years she has turned down many brand partnership opportunities because they weren’t a good fit for her, and they could damage her relationship with readers. “Most of the bloggers I know (myself included), have spent many years growing our blogs and working hard to gain the trust of our readers,” she explained. “I would never want to jeopardize the relationships I have worked so hard to build for a brand that I didn’t believe in or for products I didn’t like.”

If and when readers are turned off by too many sponsorships or get the impression a blogger is little more than a shill, the blogger is likely to hear about it, in the form of nasty comments or a falloff in page views, or perhaps the loss of another sponsorship. This is all part of the equation for the blogging world today. “The great thing about reading blogs is that there’s never any pressure to do anything,” explained Mascott. “If someone likes the content, she subscribes or visits. If not, she doesn’t. Done. On to the next one!”

6 comments
grainfed
grainfed

I've been noticing these types of social media types on youtube comments, and on news sites -- not just facebook.

You can quickly identify them when they defend the indefensible. They act identical to paid lawyers having to defend a killer that's already confessed. True prostituteswith no conscious.

Goresuch
Goresuch

Look at the comments below-- by bloggers-- excusing their deceptions. They have zero shame.

Miscfinds4u
Miscfinds4u

I am a professional blogger and as such, I partner with brands. However, I only partner with brands I'm comfortable with and feel I can honestly and wholeheartedly promote. I've turned down many, many opportunities because that wasn't the case. 

Sadly, the gist of the article is that because I'm being paid I can't be trusted, and that couldn't be further from the truth. I haven had only one company ask me to pull a review because it was negative (which I refused to do). Most understand that when they hire me, they're not buying a positive review, but an honest look from me. That said, again, I don't take products I know I'm not going to like and I believe most bloggers are the same.

As for the Target bloggers, they very likely do love Target. I know there are many who live in towns where the shopping choices are limited and Target is a great option for them. Where I live, I have so many other options that I rarely shop there so I wouldn't write the same glowing message their bloggers did....and that's why they likely didn't invite me to participate. Wouldn't you hire people who love your brand?


piter
piter

I read this article with a lot of interest because I am currently reading a very interesting book on Goodreads called THE 5-STAR BUSINESS NETWORKS by Vivek Sood which argues similar points in a much more forceful and coherent manner. This was an abridged paperback version for kids to read. The book was simply splendid. I was not aware that I had a mind that could imagine things so explicitly of the things I was able to read. I will encourage the journalist to talk to the author of the above book to get deeper insights into the material he is covering. <a href="http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17727283-the-5-star-business-network">THE 5-STAR BUSINESS NETWORKS </a>

janetlolo85
janetlolo85

aren't bloggers endorsing products and services to an audience of colleague/fellow bloggers anyways? Where is the true ROI when brands give away products in exchange for a 'positive' review? and to know that those participating and reading the 'positive' reviews are fellow bloggers too? There is a community of bloggers supporting each other...it's so apparent! Where is the true 'value creation'? Sure, bloggers are 'customers' too, but what about the 'un-blogger'...I personally don't know any one of my upwardly mobile non-blogger friends who follow 'bloggers' for product reviews.

I believe that bloggers are essentially reaching critical mass, if so where does it go from here?

MannyRuiz
MannyRuiz

I understand why this article has the sexy, tension-filled headline but it doesn't do justice to the fact that most credible bloggers who engage in these deep dive relationships with brands generally abide by one overarching principle: to engage with brands they love.  

Does this mean they will absolutely LOVE or have to rave about everything those brands have to offer?  Of course, not!  That's not how life happens and in general you will see that rather than protest or shame the brands they love good bloggers will often just not write about something they don't feel comfortable endorsing.  

Thinks about it this way.  Do you love your spouse any less just because she or he isn't perfect?  Would that make you complain to everybody that they are a bad spouse and that you don't love them?  Of course not!  That's sorta of how it is with bloggers who blog for brands they love.  That's the way I've handled the brands I've worked with on our social media platforms and even my personal blog.  I think it's the right way.