I saw Seth’s post on blog disclosure the other day and it struck a chord with me. Of course, accepting small gifts from vendors/advertisers/etc is nothing new in business. In my work, there are ample opportunities to get swag, which I generally avoid (though I never turn down donuts).
I think I inherited my reluctance to join the swag-fest from my dad. He worked as an inventory control guy and apparently had ample opportunity for free stuff. I remember him mentioning it to me one time–I was probably in high school. I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t take the free stuff people wanted to give him! Now, of course, I understand that there are strings attached–both implicitly and explicitly.
Seth never says so in his post, but I think he’s talking about Bzz Agents. That new phenomenon of ‘word of mouth marketers.’ I’ve got mixed feelings about the niche, but I know it’s not going away. On one hand, I understand Balter‘s exhortation that people have always done this. He’s right. People have always shared good products with their friends (and as a recovering retailer, I also know that if you do good, one or two people might tell their friends; but if you do bad, 10x that many people will tell their friends). Point is, people talk to each other. On the other hand, introducing incentives into the talking seems like it greatly increases the likelihood of "false positives." Those instances where people are talking nicely about a product they don’t really care about. I think BzzAgent walks this line pretty well. They encourage all their agents to file feedback, even when they (the agent) don’t like the product. If the agent is bzzing smack about the product, they’ll get the same credit as if they were bzzing good vibes. They get credit for being active agents, not for being positive agents. The company has also done the right thing by changing their policy about disclosure. Now agents are encouraged not to hide the fact that they’re a BzzAgent. That’s good.
Even with everything that they’ve done to keep people from gaming the system, the whole thing still rings untrue to me. Seems to me that when a BzzAgent gets something for free and they know that they’re expected to talk about it, they’ll be more inclined to talk good about it, than talk bad about it…even if they don’t really like the thing. I’m sure this isn’t the case with all agents. Folks who are highly self-actualized probably won’t feel the need to do this. Others will. If I’m a producer who is contracting with BzzAgent.com, this phenomenon works to my advantage–I get more positive buzz out of the deal, even if it’s not justified. Of course, this is all my opinion/gut feeling, but I’d be surprised if there isn’t a serious academic study about this kind of thing very soon.
Anyway. I understand Seth’s post, but I’m a little bummed by the need for it. I wish for more transparency and trust. I wish we didn’t have to tell people we’re not being externally influenced by cash or swag.