Trust Is Non-Transferable

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Some Bloggers were recently taken to task when they published a sponsored Blog posting about a shopping spree they took with a major retailer. It is an amazing view into what marketing and advertising is in this new media channel (especially one where everyone can be a pundit and critic).

The idea of being paid to post is a fascinating and recurring topic (shall I trot out the dead horse now?), and one that needs to be removed from these specific incidents and looked at with a more macro perspective. The reality is that there are many great Bloggers out there who are seen as leaders. People want to connect to them and, more importantly, some companies see them as an opportunity to connect their brand to that community, or to build credibility and create awareness for their brands, products and services. Also, because there are no clear advertising and sponsorship models in many of these newer social channels (beyond buying banners), we’re seeing a ton of experiments to figure out "what works." It’s very interesting and somewhat confusing – but that’s the amazing part of being in the Marketing, Advertising and Communications business right now.

Real interactions between real human beings.

Advertising works when it’s the right brand in the right environment with the right audience. The general comments on these Blogs are all focusing on the levels of transparency and whether or not the Bloggers are entitled to take money in exchange for a Blog posting. I think this is the wrong conversation to have (all of these Bloggers were very transparent). Marketing and advertising works when there is trust between the content provider and the audience. It’s not just about that relationship of trust, it is extended towards two very different sides of publishing – the content and the economy behind it. On the one hand, the audience trusts that that the content creator will stay true by providing valuable content, and on the economic side, the audience continues to play along knowing full well that all of this great content comes at a cost – advertising, sponsorships, consulting gigs, book deals, speaking opportunities, and everything else. No matter what, both sides have to live up to the audiences expectations, meaning the content must be strong and the advertising must be relevant. That’s how all successful publishers across all of the media channels have won to date. 

Trust in non-transferable.

We expect Bloggers who post – and are paid to do so – to be transparent. Transparency is table stakes. We expect people to disclose what is an advertisement, what is sponsorship and what – if any – affiliations are had with other things that are mentioned within these social environments. But, there is something more profound going on here. When a company pays someone to post, they are hoping that the trust people have for that Blogger will be transferred to them. No chance. Trust is non-transferable. We have companies who have little-to-no social community credibility riding the coat-tails of Bloggers who have spent a long while building up their community and, if there was no prize at the end of the rainbow (meaning the community also gets a chance to "win" something – not just the Blogger), it would probably leave everybody feeling a little icky. The only way for that not happen is when the company that is paying to post has equal or more trust within the community.

You can’t buy trust.

The best advice a Digital Marketer can give a client who is asking them if they would accept money to post about them, etc… would be to help them understand that a brand can’t buy trust, but they can – over time – build community and earn reputation. And, by going through with a program of this nature, it’s also not very social media at all – it’s just advertising (whether a Blogger yaps about it or they run a banner ad on their site). Someone is being paid to write about something. The advertorial has been around forever (well, at least, since the 1960s). There’s nothing all that experimental with this format. But there’s a problem if it doesn’t work: the bigger brands can chalk it up to experimentation and simply move on, while the Bloggers now have to rebuild something that is incredibly frail and impossible to buy from their audience: trust. Many Bloggers react with an, "I don’t ask my readers for money, I give readers all of this great content for free, so what’s wrong with a little money from someone else along the way to cover some costs and put shoes on my babies’ feet?" statement. There’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s the understanding of the community from the get-go. There might be something weird about it if it just suddenly appears out of nowhere.

Ultimately, everyone has to figure out what works best on their own spaces – be it a Blog, Podcast, Twitter or Facebook. The real challenge is in knowing your community well enough to decide if it’s a good fit and, if it’s not, is it worth the advertising dollars over the community trust and engagement?

What do you think?


  1. Forgive me for being very confused about all the controversy, but coming from a broadcast background, I’m really not seeing why this has become an issue?
    This is merely endorsement.
    I think “bloggers” sometimes forget their business is really just communication. They have a soap box and audience. That’s pretty nice for advertisers wanting to capitalize on it.
    Now, the only problem I can see is if the blogger isn’t just owning up to the fact that it’s an endorsement.
    but really…. why all the fuss?

  2. You raise an excellent point. And since the trust is non-transferable, if a blogger betrays readers by conforming to what the company paying the bills wants — does that trust just disappear? I understand the transparency, but how often do you see, ‘I didn’t review item A by a certain manufacturer because my sponsor wouldn’t like it?’

  3. You’re making an assumption that the community that the Blogger helped initiate agreed that part of the entire relationship would involve advertising or advertorials.
    Imagine suddenly getting advertising-related text messages on your mobile phone. Just because you have a relationship with your carrier, it doesn’t mean they can suddenly send you advertising messages (or does it?).
    I think the fuss is that these Bloggers – who normally had no content like this – suddenly sprung it on their community.
    But that’s not what this post it about – it’s about trust and the relationship that people have with content and where new models of advertising fit into it.

  4. you hit the nail on the head mitch. it IS all about reputation, and assessing whether the short term gain (how much was it? $500 dollars?) is worth it.
    blending community (which what a blog represents, to some extent, for many readers and followers) with commercial interests like sponsored posts is awfully tricky, and in my opinion only serves to poison the well 😉

  5. I disagree that trust is non-transferable.
    What about freedom?
    I trust that the country I live in will always allow me certain inalienable freedoms, and that regardless who I elect to positions of power, those freedoms will remain enforced.
    I know you are writing about marketing, but it’s unfair to use definitive statements when they can be broken when changing the context.

  6. @ Gillian – ahh, the age old mass media problem: do we cover issues that our advertisers might not like? I’m not biting on that enchilada!
    @ Ari – feel free to disagree, but just because you trust one leader doesn’t mean that their trust is transfered when someone else takes over. Yes, I’m talking about Marketing, but I’m also talking about human beings and how we interact with one another.

  7. Mitch,
    A person with a platform has to be able to alter their platform on occasion. That might mean the audience also changes, but I think that it’s still about communication.
    The consumer picks the product they will consume. So, sure, maybe they put their trust in the provider that content would always remain something and now it’s changed.
    I don’t see that as not being transparent. I see that as a communicator changing their approach and risking alienating audience or gaining a new audience.
    Again, with endorsements, we can turn down the deal because we would never even use the product. Or, we don’t.
    I still think it’s up to the messenger to decide what message he wants to send.

  8. @mitchjoel “ahh, the age old mass media problem: do we cover issues that our advertisers might not like?”
    Hmm. I forgot about that. If the marketer is viewed negatively by the consumer–then what’s the point? Whether or not someone is classified as a journalist, or author, or content producer, or chair of so and so company, or blogger, or podcaster, or contributing voice, or editor, or paid, or.. yeah we all get the point.
    My point to be very clear in this hotbed of ethical BS: I REFUSE to accept the opinion of someone that is on someone else’s dime. Why is that so hard to understand? Indepence–once a virtue–is now considered non-compliant?
    That’s not what I learnt from the free market.

  9. Also to clarify: “someone else’s dime” refers to the very fundamentals of blogging. Is what you’re saying forward-thinking? Good for your industry? Or just self-serving? There’s a LOT of leeway for the question of “how do I pay my bills?”. Well, in the free market–if one can’t pay his of her bills–he or she is a doubtful candidate for the “new business models” that are on the horizon. Hell of a footnote, but hopefully useful.

  10. I agree with Rob: I will never value an endorsement, or opinion, etc from anyone who is being paid by the party they’re endorsing. Motivation, objectivity and clarity are all compromised.
    No trust to transfer here – I don’t trust the messenger, definitely won’t trust the source.
    I think they should play smarter with us.

  11. I agree with Elizabeth – it is an endorsement. Not everyone is influenced by endorsements, but if it is from someone that one respects or admires, then there is a chance.

  12. @ Elizabeth and Simon – I’m not sure I am following your messages. I never said these were not paid endorsements and I never said that they were not transparent (in fact, I said exactly that). Please review my last paragraph.
    I also think a Blog can become more than a soap box and communications channel. It’s a community where many people feel that they have equal voice and say (whether real or perceived).

  13. I have been involved in the community aspect of the online experience long before I had a public/personal blog. In the 4+ years that I’ve been reading blogs, I’ve seen some of my favorite bloggers move from blogging as writing to blogging/advert model and it doesn’t always work.
    I don’t care if you bitch/moan in your blog about a “work” trip that involves jumping through whatever hoop the company wants you to. It both makes you seem difficult to work with and doesn’t make me buy that you’re really at all unhappy to have the status of being one of the top tier bloggers chosen to participate.
    I’m only being vague to save the hate mail. Community online is a tricky thing to begin with. Profiting from community is where the ick factor comes in for me.
    You are right. Trust is not transferable. I wouldn’t even trust you until I could have this convo face to face. I would enjoy an online or email banter, but I would not know your motivations for asking, yk?

  14. Everyone is blogging about this topic this week…I chose not to because it’s being covered ad-nausium. Here is the bottom line:
    You really ruin your level of professionalism with the platform when you decide to take money to influence your writing. The platform is whatever you want it to be, of course, but if you are blogging as a professional to share your viewpoints with the world and build your reputation, monetizing your blog directly doesn’t matter.
    If you have a cat blog or a blog about your hobby, monetize away – if you blog as a professional you will ruin your credibility.

  15. I think what Elizabeth and Simon are trying to say is that people tend to trust more what other people are saying, than they tend to trust corporations.
    If you get a recommendation from a friend or otherwise from a person you trust or admire, you are likely to respond positively. Not the same thing we can say about regular ads.
    However, for a paid recommendation to still be a real recommendation, it’s necessarily that the blogger writes only about products she really believes in. If she gets paid too for doing that, it’s perfect.
    But that’s the ideal; we all get biased when “greens” come into play.

  16. Thanks for explaining that Creator. I guess we both come to the same conclusion: do you have the same levels of trust for someone’s opinion if you know that they are occasionally paid to give their opinion? Again, I think some will mind and I think others will not.
    It reminds of the advertorial business. When I was a journalist (I guess I still am one), I was asked to do advertorials by some major newspapers. The money was good, but I knew that if I did them, it would be much harder to get some prime stories in the “real” editorial section after that. That was my experience and personal feeling.

  17. This is the most sane discussion on the topic I’ve come across yet. Brett hits it on the head and I think his reaction is more common than many would think.
    Endorsements are hugely valuable. I’ve bought products because you endorsed them, Mitch. Because you used them, liked them and told me about them…not because you were paid to do so.
    Paid endorsements aren’t particularly trustworthy. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a buck, but selling blog posts just doesn’t seem viable to me.

  18. Leveraging the bloggers trust is a play on the general motivation of legacy advertisers – associate with positive experiences and hope for the best.
    Actually – we can look to television as a great example of why this type of leverage based advertising is being jammed into the new media space. Hot new show = hot new ads.
    These same advertisers pay millions (billions) to be associated with one of North American’s sporting events – in the hopes that some guy on the Monday after reaches for their product on his way to work.

  19. I can’t understand why this is such an issue.
    To me it’s a simple question of disclosure isn’t it?
    If a blogger is being paid to write posts on their blog then it must be assumed that it isn’t their opinion it’s the opinion of whoever is paying them.
    Their blog is theirs to do with as they wish, however if they value their community/readers they should tell them the post they’re reading is a paid one (or an ad). Isn’t a question of honesty? A post is either your own thought or opinion… or it isn’t.
    Of course when you consistently have lists of “Topmost Inflentual Bloggers etc” you can’t really blame companies for wanting to capitalize on these by dangling money in front of said bloggers to promote their products.
    They know a good thing when they see one.
    It’s a case of “Just Say No” or “Say Yes, and Fess Up” to your readers… and let them move on if they wish.
    So what about bloggers who are paid company bloggers then? I still see a ton of people reading those blogs. Is that because disclosure has been there from the get-go.

  20. So are you saying then that bloggers, in order to be seen to be trustworthy and credible should never take money to post but should only ever post their own opinions on their blogs?
    Or are you saying companies should never engage bloggers to post about their products? Or is it both?
    Just trying to understand.

  21. Top line (and there are always exceptions):
    – Bloggers should hold ourselves to a higher standard than even journalists because it’s not just a job we have taken on to work for a company – our Blogs are “us” and our communications channel to the world.
    – It’s not just the Blogger, but the community. A conversation needs to take place between their community about what the community wants, would like and is willing to accept.
    – And yes, a Blogger who takes money for their opinion has a less credible opinion overall. To me, that’s pretty basic. If your opinion can be bought, it is less credible and trust-worthy.
    – Companies should engage Bloggers to post about their products, but they should not pay them to do so.
    Again, this horse has been beaten to death countless times, and just because this is how I think, it may not be best for everybody.
    Ask yourself this simple question: why doesn’t Seth Godin, Tom Peters, Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson, etc… do this sort of stuff on their Blog? My guess is because they would like to be seen as impartial and credible.
    For more, I would recommend you read the following posts and check out the comments:

  22. I just read the other post Mitch. It seems that what you’re saying is that taking payment to post removes or at least lowers (the blogger’s) credibility in their own community, even if the blogger tells their community upfront that’s what they are doing.
    Which means to avoid any doubt bloggers shouldn’t take payment to post.
    Personally, if I trusted a blogger I don’t think that trust would vanish as long as I knew upfront that what I was reading wasn’t necessarily their opinion – on occasion. Clear disclosure.
    Then I could just skip the content entirely. If I was not made aware, then I would be wondering how many other posts were actually “paid” opinion and that would make me doubt their credibility and probably stop reading them.
    The other side entails making a judgment call on a blogger because, in general, they have chosen to take money from a company to post an opinion on their blog.
    Does it reduce their credibility in my eyes? Quite likely. I think it might depend on who the blogger was and how “invested” I was in their community. It would be rather dangerous to recommend a blog opinion only to find out it was actually bought and paid for by some Big Brand.

  23. I read the one about Chris Brogan. What happened there would not reduce his credibility in my opinion – He gives far, far more in my opinion than almost any blogger I read and I’ve not been reading him that long. So maybe he could have done things differently… and didn’t. If people don’t approve they can always stop reading him 😉 I actually agree with much of Julien’s longer response on that one. Anyway, I understand what you’re saying in your post and it’s worth bearing in mind.
    Thanks for the clarification, responding… and the links to the other posts!

  24. No worries Nicky.
    Chris is a friend (check out my latest Podcast where he and I discussed this issue). Also, if you go up to the very first paragraph of this Blog post, you’ll note that there is a reason why it was generic and I do not want to discuss one, specific, Blogger.

  25. Nicky/Mitch. The argument here is circular. Let me see if I can provide some points of reference.
    1. It’s not about bloggERS. It’s about bloggING. Clearly, as individuals we can do whatever we like with our websites. However, I’m taking Mitch’s point to be that being completely libertarian in this fledgling space could have negative repercussions on the larger social media
    2. There is no right answer. But there are differing points of view. If you look at this space as a business ie pro blogging then you’d have a certain viewpoint on monetization. If you look at this space as a new media channel, then advertorial, pay per post and other ways to buy your way into the conversation seem logical. But if you look at this space as a technologically inspired evolution in human interaction, where the power of networked individuals and the trust we have in our communities of shared interest have the ability to fundamentally effect the way we interact with each other, companies, governments and organizations, you can appreciate how important maintaining unassailed credibility and trust in the entire social media space is to people like Mitch (and me).

  26. The idea of being paid to post is a fascinating and recurring topic (shall I trot out the dead horse now?), and one that needs to be removed from these specific incidents and looked at with a more macro perspective.

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