On Blogs and Conversational Marketing

There's been a (mostly boring) conversation going between some blogs over the past few days regarding the line between editorial and advertising. Largely, this is a case of the same silly-meme-into-faux-fact path that I tried to document yesterday. In this case, it's a little less innocent -- Nick Denton used a Valleywag blog post to take a jab at John Battelle and FM Pub by implying its writers sold out by creating copy for a Microsoft campaign that ran on their sites.

The whole thing is, as I said, mostly boring, except that the idea of the post is what ended up being debated, instead of the fact that this is really a case of a not-that-serious personal rivalry turning into an assault on the credibility of a number of good bloggers. And a number of overrated ones, but that's beside the point.

Again with the disclaimers: I know both Nick and John, and like them both for what they're good at, as well as for what makes them different. And I have good friends in both of their companies. This isn't name-dropping; A big part of my job is making connections to people who do innovative things with blogs and in the blogging industry, and they both fall squarely into that description.

But Nick is being pretty transparently intellectually dishonest here -- throwing bombs at John and FM not because he believes what he's saying, but because he knows it'll get attention. The idea of advertising becoming more blog-like is a good thing. If every ad were written by an actual human, had a permanent link to its location, and let people share or tag it, we'd end up with a radically better advertising culture.

The idea of a media team creating advertising content isn't new -- it's as old as publishing itself. And it continues today. Here's Ziff Davis' Contract Publishing services. In public media, here's PBS' Red Book guidelines for underwriting content. Sure, it makes sense to have different teams be responsible for money and editorial. But in blogging, where the editor is the publisher and you can't split a one-person staff in half, merging these functions isn't just logical, it's inevitable. Perhaps if Nick hadn't been a pioneering blogger himself, I'd have believed he was simply mistaken.

In this case, though, we're fortunate to have some pretty articulate advocates for the idea of conversational marketing. For example, FM Pub's Chas Edwards does a great job of telling the story.

But perhaps the best advocate for this style of conversational marketing is Nick Denton. From three years ago (Emphasis mine):

For appropriate clients, Gawker Media will...

  • conceive a weblog campaign
  • provide editorial talent and oversight
  • create a co-branded page within one of the Gawker sites
  • design and build a standalone blog
  • promote the campaign weblog on Gawker sites
  • promote the campaign weblog on other weblogs
  • syndicate out the campaign blog content to news reader applications
  • distill and spotlight weblog buzz on the campaign

Some people will question the use of the weblog format in marketing. There is no straightforward answer. Contract publishing, online or offline, can be done well, or badly. It depends on the subject matter, and the tone. Dr Pepper/Seven Up seemed cynical in its exploitation of the weblog format when it launched ragingcow.com, a site devoted to a new milk drink. However, a smart approach to an appropriate topic can work. Witness, Macromedia's product weblogs, or Jason Kottke's weblog campaign around the release of Adaptation, the movie.

In principle, campaign weblogs allow a marketer to participate in the weblog conversation, rather than observe it as a passive sponsor. Now we'll just have to see whether they work.

Seems reasonable to me. Or at least worth a try.

Update: Nick sent me an update with some very reasonable additions to my post. His email follows.

First of all, if you're going to imagine my motives, at least say that you're doing so, rather than pretend that you know. In fact, I was just rooting around for a story, on a very slow news story.

Second, for evidence of that, read the original post: I took to task, not Battelle, nor even Michael Arrington, but people I thought should know better, such as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky.

"I can't blame Battelle's team for latching on to this idea. The campaign is slick; and Microsoft is a deep-pocketed client. But it's disappointing that so many of his most reputable writers have signed on as spokespeople. One would have thought that tech opinion-leaders as influential as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky would ration their credibility more carefully, and reserve it for companies and products for which they felt real enthusiasm."

And, finally, good find on Gawker's old contract publishing business. However, one thing I'd appreciate you mentioning: we hired writers specially for the marketing copy writing, precisely because we didn't want to compromise the credibility of any of our editorial writers.

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