The rise — or demise — of paid editorial?

We’ve of late increasingly experienced an influx of influential site owners requesting financial compensation for their involvement in our clients’ marketing campaigns. When blogging was still in its nascent state this was a somewhat prevalent phenomenon, although it ran directly counter to the “citizen journalist” ethos that spawned blogging in the first place. It didn’t last. And while it’s impossible to say how the current resurgence ultimately will shape up, it’s my hope it doesn’t survive its revival.

It’s mainly in the consumer space that we’re seeing bloggers and site owners requiring monetary consideration for their participation in promotional campaigns. However, there’s a rub: While we’ve indulged a few of these sites (always with full and proper disclosure on their part, of course), the results we’ve observed have been less than convincing. It turns out the many of the unpaid bloggers we worked with on a particular program supporting a national apparel retailer performed far better than their paid counterparts in terms of both volume and quality of content produced. Although we didn’t have as much direct input into editorial (by virtue of not having compensation as a lever), we found that that fact didn’t matter nearly as much in the final summation. The unpaid entities we worked with created 3 times as much content – of their own volition, no less — and that content was far more compelling and useful to our client than the content secured via paid contract.

In effect, our client traded off reach instead for endorsement, and got middling results for their pains.

It’s hard not to see this as validation of blogging’s fundamental appeal and reason for being: Blogging provides an outlet for topics that matter to people. It’s a channel for one’s interests and passions. In that sense it’s like art — not a transaction but a performance.

Our take is that paid editorial content may be a viable strategic approach when employed in the right context and at the right time. As ever, the difficulty is knowing when and when not to employ this specific tactic. One way to look at it is buy-vs-make: Spend money (much like for an ad) and know what you’re getting, but know at the same time your impact is limited by the medium. Or alternatively, take the time to earn the content, relying on the depth of your relationships with content publishers, and know that your mileage may vary as a consequence.

Nevertheless, our initial experience has shown earned content to be far more valuable than paid content on a cost-per-piece basis.

For my money, I’d rather not risk the hit to a blogger’s credibility and instead explore ways to compensate them indirectly, say via ad placements, site sponsorships or consulting. And thereby keep everyone’s integrity intact.

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