When PayPerPost launched this past summer, the paid blogging service stirred up a lot of blogger vitriol. The jabs keep on coming, but that hasn't stopped the self-proclaimed "rockstartup" from scoring VC bucks, winning over thousands of bloggers and spurring a pack of competitors to join the space. From the soon-to-drop LoudLaunch.com to the just-out ReviewMe to South Korea's beta-phase outfit CREAMaid, a burgeoning pay-to-blog niche is in the offing.
Today PayPerPost will offer a glimpse into its frolicsome world through a new online reality video series called "Rockstartup," available for free on Apple's iTunes and, of course, YouTube. Viewers of upcoming episodes can expect footage of the staff's romp through New York's recent ad:tech conference and perhaps a shot or two of "The Blue Monster," the oversized truck PayPerPost parks at NASCAR events and on college campuses to attract members.
The company also uses the azure-hued promotional vehicle when surprising bloggers in its network, a.k.a. "posties," during surprise "postie patrol" excursions. The Publishers Clearing House-style drop-ins, combined with the company's casual blog, forums, and the new Web video series, have given rise to a communal feel among the posties, fueling their eagerness to produce paid posts.
Up-and-coming paid blogging service CREAMaid was also spawned with community and social networking in mind. The system, currently under construction in South Korea, is designed to unite bloggers who post about the same subjects through "conversation widgets." Advertisers first create a widget, and offer to pay bloggers to write about a suggested topic. A blogger participates by plugging the widget into an advertiser-inspired blog post. If the advertiser selects the blog post, it automatically feeds through to the widgets featured across the spectrum of participating blogs. The CREAM in the company name stands for Customer Relationship Extension and Management.
In addition to connecting people, the system is also meant to build traffic to the advertiser's site through links within the widget posts. "We think these tools should be used to create communities and conversations with the customers," CREAMaid founder and CEO Trent Kang told ClickZ News.
Fair enough. So what kinds of conversations are the paid blogging services enabling thus far?
Half of the 22 posts blogger Brian Reilly added to his blog last week were prompted by PayPerPost advertisers, including SimplyAudiobooks.com and Christian music site JasperStoneMusic.com. He does the paid posting thing every day; in all he's created over 400 posts for the firm's advertiser clients since he joined in August. Rather than actually mentioning the fact a post is paid for, Reilly marks all his sponsored posts with a "PayPerPost" tag.
HP, one of a handful of high profile advertisers that have used the service, will soon pay posties to write about one of its digital cameras. The electronics firm will require network bloggers who accept the offer to disclose the fact that their advertorial blog posts are sponsored. When paying bloggers to plug its show "Pinks," Fox's Speed channel also required disclosure. (Coincidentally, the Speed channel Web site was built by MindComet, the interactive agency founded by PayPerPost CEO Ted Murphy.)
Through PayPerPost's system, advertisers post a blogging "opportunity" and determine the amount they're willing to pay bloggers to post. If the post meets criteria noted by the advertiser in its opportunity proposal, the blogger is paid.
"We reject about 30 percent of the posts that come through the system," said Murphy, who added advertisers don't have to pay for negative posts if they don't want to.
Wallhogging the Blog Truffles
A recent post by Reilly pushed a coupon site. "If you shop online, and who doesn’t, using coupons is a no-brainer," it read. "CouponChief should be on your holiday shopping list. Make it your first stop and you’ll save time and money," he concluded.
Bloggers are limited to producing two paid posts per day through the service. Although "hundreds of thousands" have registered as paid posters, according to Murphy, there aren't enough ad offers to go around. "We had an absolute explosion on the blogger side and haven't ramped up on the marketer side," he said.
"[I] have been blogging for several years and this looked like something different and a way to earn some money," Reilly told ClickZ News regarding PayPerPost. He's "never really made any money" from the Google AdSense ads he's run on his "Brian Reilly's other weblog" site, he added.
Does he think his paid posts provide value to his readers? "I haven't had any complaints yet," noted Reilly, who claims to have more readers since he started with the service. "I think people are looking for information about various things and will find it useful if it's presented in an honest way," he continued.
Pete Blackshaw, CMO at CGM measurement firm Nielsen BuzzMetrics, isn't so sure an increase in advertiser-prompted blog posts will be valuable for advertisers, bloggers or blog readers in the long run. "We're now in this new phase of what I call 'chatterbacking,' where everyone wants to participate in the chatter...[advertisers] want a piece of the action immediately," he said. Blackshaw argues the social currency achieved by trusted bloggers could be eroded if the Web becomes cluttered with paid posts, which may reflect poorly on all blogs as time goes on.
"Advertisers will look more skeptically on a space where the trust will collapse," he said.
Mark Seremet thinks such doom and gloom talk is much ado about nothing. The notion that the blogosphere will become corrupted as a result of pay-to-blog services "assumes the people who do this have no integrity," said the co-founder of Wallhogs, a digital printing service and PayPerPost advertiser. One hundred bloggers in total, including Reilly, will receive $15 each for posting about the service, according to Seremet, who is also co-founder of Take Two Interactive Software, the outfit behind Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto.
"We wanted to build up a lot of buzz quickly because of Christmas," said Seremet, who said he pays for all posts, even negative ones. "I think the vast majority of people will be positive anyway," he added. Seremet has also used the blog buzz service to promote Repliqa, his "discovery engine" that serves up site links based on user preferences. He plunked down around $300 to pay 43 bloggers to write about Repliqa, which he said boosted its traffic ranking on Alexa.
Sucking Out the Google Juice
More traffic and links means higher rankings in search engines, a result many advertisers using pay-to-blog services are after. Google's algorithm bases organic search result placement partially on the number of links leading back to a particular site.
"I think it's a benefit, but I don't think it's a core benefit," said Murphy of the search engine boost effect. "We never would have been able to raise the [venture capital] money...if we were building our business model on somebody else's algorithm." The Orlando firm scored $3 million in investor dollars in October.
Companies in this nascent space could fall prey to what's besmirched another SEO-driven industry niche, affiliate marketing, which is crowded with sites lacking in valuable content and created with the sole intent of driving traffic to retail, gambling or other commercial sites. Pay-to-blog services will surely inspire crafty types to create blogs just to earn paid posting dough.
"We're doing our best to get rid of those guys," said Murphy. "We don't want the people that are blogging just to earn a buck."
Because of the way it was designed, the latest blog payment service to come on board, ReviewMe, could filter out low-value blogs, since it rates blog quality. "Generally those types of blogs created to build traffic can't get into system," said ReviewMe President Andy Hagans.
ReviewMe Banks on Second Mover Advantage
While PayPerPost lets advertisers determine compensation rates, ReviewMe gauges fees according to a blogger's Alexa ranking, the amount of links leading back to that specific site and the number of subscribers to its RSS feed. The ReviewMe system was built on the technology behind Text Link Ads, a text link service designed to drive traffic and raise link popularity; Hagans is a strategist at Text Link Ads.
He hopes the system "will be interesting to those higher traffic bloggers, and in the long run I think that's what's going to make us attractive to advertisers." Among the 4,000 blogs in the ReviewMe network are prominent sites such as Search Engine Journal and Blogcritics Magazine.
The service also takes a different tack from PayPerPost by allowing advertisers to choose which bloggers they want to post. Once they've settled on a wish list, ReviewMe puts the call out to the chosen bloggers, who have 48 hours to accept or reject the offer and another 48 hours to post a review of at least 200 words.
"[PayPerPost is] going to be allowing that type of model in the future but it's going to be more of an advertiser saying I want a blog that meets this criteria...rather than singling out specific bloggers," said PayPerPost's Murphy.
Some argue ReviewMe's model could create headaches for bloggers in the form of constant proposals in their e-mail inboxes. ReviewMe blogger David Ponce hasn't turned any offers down yet. Although the managing editor of tech blog OhGizmo.com is accustomed to getting pitches daily from PR folks, his ReviewMe requests aren't especially frequent, possibly because it costs advertisers $250 for a paid review on his site. ReviewMe takes half that amount.
One of three paid posts Ponce has made since enlisting with ReviewMe last month, was a description of data recovery software product Handy Recovery. His post was prefaced with a disclosure introduction: "I am being financially compensated for the time I took to review this product. The opinions expressed are my own." His verdict: "Handy Recovery seems anything but handy to this reviewer."
Although he believes data recovery is an important issue, the professional blogger admits he wouldn't have written about the product had he not been paid to do so. "The way I see it is it's more of a consulting fee, but instead of keeping it private, we make the results public." Ponce said he "sort of was shocked" when he learned that PayPerPost doesn't require bloggers to disclose payments, and is quick to disassociate the company from ReviewMe
"Our one piece of currency that we have is our credibility," he said, explaining the need for full disclosure. OhGizmo.com also runs Google ads, display ads through the Federated Media network and Vibrant Media's Intellitxt text link ads.
Ethical One-upmanship and the Over-Grazing Blues
By requiring bloggers to include specific disclosure language with paid posts, LoudLaunch.com aims to one-up ReviewMe and PayPerPost in the ethics department. ReviewMe asks only that posts are "disclosed as being sponsored in some fashion," according to the company's site, and PayPerPost does not require disclosure unless requested by an advertiser.
"We strongly suggest disclosure," said PayPerPost's Murphy, "but at the end of the day we believe in blogger freedom." The company paid network bloggers $10 to include a disclosure policy on their sites.
LoudLaunch.com co-founders Phil Greenwood and Christian Underwood expect to take the wrappings off the service, which pays bloggers to write about advertiser press releases, this week. The company allows advertisers to set a budget for paying bloggers to post, and bases compensation rates on the amount of exposure a particular blog has. Greenwood said advertisers "can't dictate the tone" of the posts, nor can they pick which blogs write about them; however, they can ban blogs from posting about them through the system in subsequent campaigns.
The disclosure debate mirrors a broader discussion topic that's dominated online conversations among word-of-mouth marketers this year, drawing particular attention from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). Buzzmetrics's Blackshaw, a WOMMA co-founder, remains concerned the persuasive value of commercial references in blogs could diminish through "over-grazing" via paid blogging services, but he's not ready to write them off yet.
"The key thing," he said, "is we're going to have to run a lot of tests to determine if [paid blogging] does persuade consumers."
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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