Strange Conversations vs. Sponsored Conversations

A couple of years ago, I received an email from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Kris Delmhorst, inviting me to help fund (and thus expedite) the production of her new album, Strange Conversations, by buying it very far in advance. In exchange, she’d write a personalized inscription on every CD I ordered. With several birthdays coming up (not all of them my own), I ordered three, and took even more pleasure than usual in the record when it came out, knowing that I’d helped make it possible.

A recent Boston Globe article reminded of this experience, and the current online debate about “Sponsored Conversations” has led me to view it in a new light. Coined by Forrester, this term refers to the practice of paying bloggers to review products and services—a practice generating a good deal of heated and healthy rhetoric in the marketing world. Fueling that fire are proposed new FTC guidelines that explicitly address the role of bloggers as it pertains to product endorsements. At one end of the spectrum are analysts and practitioners who believe that this is a useful and legitimate technique, provided that the bloggers disclose that they are being paid and are free to write honest opinions. At the other end are writers like David Churbuck who refers to those engaging in this practice as “blog sluts.”

I’m not going to write about my personal stance on this question… at least not yet. (In the interests of disclosure, I serve on the Board of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), whose Current Code of Ethics opposes this practice, and that clause is under public reconsideration.)

But I am free to compare paid blogging to the quieter, narrower, but ultimately more compelling phenomenon, which is the rise in “fan funding.” What do they have in common? Well, both are about consumer-generated endorsements. But in sponsored conversations, the brand (or its third-party proxy) pays the blogger/consumer to offer a review (hopefully a positive one). In contrast, in fan funding, the consumer is paying way upstream in the product development process to offer the most significant endorsement anyone can get—they’re paying to produce the product that they want to buy.

Fan funding is a manifestation of consumers tangibly declaring the value of something in a manner that goes beyond mere market-based pricing or supply and demand. It’s the kind of endorsement that money can’t buy, generating the kind of authentic passion and word of mouth that can’t be sponsored.

P.S. For a tasty Kris Delmhorst sampler, I suggest “You’re no Train” (from Songs for a Hurricane) and “Midnight Ringer” (from Shotgun Singer). Both display that perfect meld of lyric and melody that keep the genre alive and growing.