This coming weekend more than 200 bloggers and retail representatives will be meeting face to face in Bentonville, Arkansas with the purpose of collaborating and creating "collective bias" for certain retail brands on the Internet. Collective Bias is actually the name of the organizers of the event. "Effective leveraging of the social space" is actually the term being used to describe the collusion between bloggers and brands that is expected to be the result.
At face value this seems to be a conference built on an ethical tightrope for both the bloggers and the retailers who will participate. While there are separate designated tracks and presentations for company representatives and bloggers, it is unlikely that the formal sessions are the attraction of the event. I doubt that retail marketing employees and bloggers who have the ability to influence consumer opinions are making the effort to visit the exciting metropolis of Bentonville for three days just because of the workshops. When these two contingencies share meals, hallways, hotels, bowling lanes and Happy Hour events for three days, there are sure to be some "relationships" (wink) forged.
The description of the Collective Bias "SoFabCon" doesn't list the relationships (wink) that will be created as one of the benefits of the event, but undoubtedly everybody knows why they're there. Making the connection between retailers who need some positive social press and bloggers who have the ability to generate it is what the Collective Bias business is all about.
The stated purpose of Collective Bias on its website is to "drive retail sales through the coordinated creation of social media stories." It's a worthy mission and there's nothing wrong with it. That is, unless the readers of these "coordinated social media stories" don't know that the blogger who wrote them was "influenced" to cover the topic and that they have a relationship (wink) with the companies that will profit from the positive press about the stuff they're writing about.
Kmart is one of the companies that has used the "coordinated social media stories" strategy, according to the Collective Bias website. Reportedly Kmart sponsored a blogging campaign for their Outdoor Living department products with 40 bloggers. In looking at the sample posts, it is clear that the bloggers were given clear instructions about what links to include in their articles and even some of the verbiage to use in their because several things are repeated by different bloggers in different posts.
Now, I'm sure that Kmart and Collective Bias will be quick to jump in and say that all of their bloggers are required to post the standard disclaimer... "I am a member of the Collective Bias™ Social Fabric® Community. This shop has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for Collective Bias™. #CBias #SocialFabric. All opinions are my own! " Legally, this seems to meet the minimum requirement for declaring a sponsorship relationship (wink). But the fact that this disclaimer is posted at the end of a long article, after several large photos, at least one video, and numerous links to the sponsors' website pretty much guarantees that it won't get read. Especially since it's often in 6 point type and barely understandable.
Really, does the average reader know that "compensated as part of a social shopper insights study" means the same thing as "one of 40 bloggers who received compensation from Kmart to write about their outdoor furniture and link back to their websites and social media accounts?" This is risky ethical business not because it's illegal, but because consumers often have a different opinion about right and wrong than courts and lawmakers do. Consumers don't like to be duped and they're not inclined to be forgiving after they find out they have been.
It's unfortunately not surprising that Kmart would engage in anything that could be considered risky social media business (and allow the Collective Bias website to proudly display it as a case study) given the desperate hail-mary marketing from Sears Holdings (SHLD) that has been using just to try and keep its business alive. Seemingly, though, this "leveraging of the social space" seems to be a great example of going after short-term gains at the expense of long-term relationships. This is probably the kind of managerial thinking that got the Sears and Kmart chains off track in the first place.
If long-term success is dependent on customer engagement and loyalty (and it is) and if customer engagement and loyalty are built on a foundation of trust (and it is), then the potential for collateral damage from these collusive blogging campaigns is huge. Not because anything is illegal, but because it's not as forthright as it could be.
Why isn't the legal sponsorship disclaimer posted at the beginning of the article so that the reader knows what's happening before they read the article? I can only imagine it's because consumers don't respond the same way to advertisements as they do to unbiased content. But the fact of the matter is that few if any of the 40 bloggers on the Kmart campaign had ever blogged about Kmart outdoor furniture before they were compensated to. So even the consideration of the topic was purchased, which makes the content biased. Consumers deserve to be informed about the bias up front, in my opinion.
Sears and Kmart are unlikely to win themselves a spot on the "Most Ethical Retail Companies" list with these kind of marketing smokescreens. And they're unlikely to rebuild their base of genuine loyal brand advocates with semi-deceptive strategies and purchased mouthpieces. You might be able to mislead people through your doors, but in the age of transparency, you can't believe you won't ever be called out for it.
This is not to imply that anybody is doing anything "wrong" or that Collective Bias is the only company that is in the business of connecting bloggers with sponsors. Blissdom is another company based in Canada that will be sponsoring a similar conference in October. Along with workshops, the Blissdom conference will include at least one Sponsor "Meet and Treat" event and classic trade show booth exhibits presumably manned by company representatives who want bloggers to talk positively about them.
It sounds like a walking talking full weekend swag bag. Not that there's anything wrong with that either for the participating bloggers or the sponsors like Chevrolet (GM), Microsoft (MSFT), Starbucks (SBUX), Indigo, and Sleep Country who will be courting their affections. They're just "taking a meeting."
I'm not sure what the laws in Canada are regarding sponsorship transparency, but if readers are unaware that their favorite blogger's affections are for sale, it's less an issue of legalities as it is an issue of trust. It seems like both bloggers and retailers would want to factor in the value of customer trust before doing anything that jeopardizes it because genuine trust is one thing that will never have a price tag.
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