People Ready for conversational marketing please disclose yourself, or better yet just go away.

OK, Tony‘s got the great analysis of the trainwreck caused by what Federated Media is calling “the birth of conversational marketing”. He’s pointed out that this is not about the integrity of the individual bloggers involved, rather the hypocrisy and most importantly the similarity to Pay Per Post. These points seem lost on the participants and some commenters like Don Dodge who seems to be suggesting that those who see this as more than a small advertising issue are “dumb as bricks”.

I have a lot of respect for John Battelle, but I’ve also noted with skepticism his enthusiasm for bringing advertisers into “the conversation“. I’m all for advertisers and I’m all for conversations but I’m very skeptical that these “conversational marketing” campaigns can avoid diminishing the participants as the “People Ready” clearly has done.

Ironically it has been the comments of the participants more than the campaign itself that have left me concerned about who I’ve been reading.    The best comments about this, by far, are coming from people like Tony and Matthew Ingram who has another post about credibility and the slippery slope of journalism becoming marketing.

Here is my comment over there:

Yes.    This story has fascinated me because among other things it has brought to light the *potential huge deficiency* of having “A list bloggers” and those who help them advertise try to rule the conversation as happened in the early stages of this fiasco.    This works in traditional media but it fails in blogs.  That’s a *very* good thing.

The defect is in spite of the fact that these folks are bright and very credible folks.  However as you note they are *at risk* of sliding down a new and very slippery slope where money trumps honest conversation.   It started to happen here and a lot of people got pissed.   (IMHO Tony Hung’s got this all exactly right).

Also interesting but not surprising is that the best commentary here is coming from people who are not the A listed deal makers of Silicon Valley.     Rather than whining about this they   should be sending a thank you note to those who are helping to keep them off that slippery slope.

Well, I hardly expect Tony or anybody to get a thank you note, partly because Mike Arrington and John Battelle have more than credibility at stake and seem to see this as an assualt on their business models.   They have a *lot* of money at stake in these things.     Big money.   Tens of millions from IPOs or corporate buyouts of their mini-media empires that are setting new standards in the industry.

Although I think they deserve fat paydays for all they’ve brought to the table, this fiasco has led me to wonder how much those paydays are starting to distort, disrupt, and potentially destroy the real kind of conversation that Tony talks about in the same way we’ve seen websites (including some of mine) distorted by money considerations trumping quality editorial and user concerns.       Katie Couric cannot responsibly address issues surrounding “huge salaries” because she’s in that game, and it has got to be harder (I’d say almost impossible) for John Battelle to criticize Microsoft if he’s about to pitch them for a million dollar “Conversational Marketing” campaign the next day.

So where does this leave us?     It’s simple:

1) Disclosure.     Screw what you have said about detractors pounding sand, Arrington – disclose your conflicts *more* or suffer the monetary consequences which I predict will be severe.

2) Democracy.        I’m replacing Searchblog (which has languished anyway while John was pitching FM) with Tony Hung and TechCruch with Matt Ingram.

3) I’ll be encouraging others to do the same.   We need new voices.   Real ones.

People Ready to shill for Microsoft are:

I’m leaving the list above blank because it is an exaggeration to impugn the integrity of the folks who participated in the Microsoft “People Ready” campaign as part of what campaign creator Federated Media is calling “the birth of conversational marketing”. But it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that something smells bad about this approach, which manages to cozy up advertisers and editorializers in a way that would make a real journalist blush. But not many participants are blushing and we’re not even seeing any clear thinking on the topic except from Om Malik.

Mike Arrington is being downright ornery, essentially arguing that it’s OK to shill as long as it’s for a lame campaign (hmmm – so it would be wrong to participate if this campaign was brilliant and clever, right?). It was his recent and very cleverly titled rant that made me realize how this “conversational marketing” is a euphemism for old style advertorial nonsense.

The good news is that this is a chance to shifting my blog focus to some of the very insightful commenters who are making a lot more sense than the elite tech group. The advent of big advertising money has been distorting the online experience and many online conversations for some time. This is a natural thing. It’s a function of our human condition and as some commenters have suggested it is naive to assume this won’t happen. But when it happens it is important to point out what is going on! Also it’s hypocritical for those participating to suggest this “campaign participation” is fundamentally different from the practice they routinely excoriate, the growing “Pay Per Post” blogging that also distorts the conversation in an attempt to raise search rankings and prominence for advertiser-driven topics. Even many commenters are missing this obvious point. No, the People Ready people are not blogging about the campaign (well, they are blogging about it *now* but not in a way MS will enjoy) however like money in politics there is generally going to be conflict of interest when you mix ad campaigns, editorial, and money.

I think what bothers me the most about all this is that based on the comments those involved are mostly angry at critics because they are stepping on a potentially lucrative revenue stream. It’s clear to me that “conversational marketing” has already distorted the dialog about good blogging practices. Microsoft’s Don Dodge is calling those of us who object to all this “dumb as bricks” just because we are simply noting the obvious – that an advertising campaign is more than just the advertisements. It is the relationship between the advertiser, the publisher, and the victims.

Whoops. I meant “the rest of us”.