Go take a look at Project Blogger. It’s a service being run by Richards Interactive, designed for marketing products by weblogs and to webloggers. They were apparently involved in the weblogs launched by Nokia, and have since branched out into a new campaign for Dr. Pepper’s upcoming (I kid you not) extreme milk brand, Raging Cow.
The Project Blogger site has some pretty healthy disclaimers, demonstrating that the Richards folks are keenly aware of the sensitivities of bloggers in regards to their personal credibility. Indeed, the site says, "This isn’t advertising" and "We will not tell you what to write." That’s obviously not true, as advertising clearly extends past paid placement of logos and is increasingly embracing what the music industry refers to as "street teams", enthusiasts recruited to evangelize products during their initial stages of promotion. When I worked in the music promo industry, I had some label execs tell me that in the early stages of a campaign for a new artist, as much as 90% of the online discussion for an act was generated by people who were being paid either directly or indirectly (through freebies and promos) to talk about the music. I don’t doubt that the same is true for Raging Cow.
So is the attempt to put products in front of bloggers for attention a bad thing? Not necessarily. Indeed, the original motivation for the site BlogCritics was pretty much naked greed, an attempt to get some free CDs in exchange for reviews on the site. Despite this pedigree, the site’s been pretty well regarded since it launched, indicating that webloggers aren’t nearly as anti-commercial as they were 3 or 4 years ago.
But the credibility gap seems to come into play when the idea of promoting the products comes from the companies who advertise them, instead of from the bloggers themselves. Indeed, as Jesse dug up over on BlogRoots, there are already a handful of sites linking to the milk campaign. My immediate reaction, likely informed by the Rubberburner and Super Greg efforts, is that all the sites that included the badges were fake. A little poking around indicates that the sites, if fake, are extraordinarily comprehensive, including months of entries and using several different weblogging tools. So it’s perhaps more likely that these are people who actually completed the survey on the Project Blogger site and signed on to promote the products.
There are other less significant issues with the campaign. The name "Project Blogger" seems like a pretty clear clash of intellectual property with a certain existing weblogging tool, which is especially relevant given the recent track record of its parent company’s protectiveness towards its brand names.
More to the point, this is the first evidence of there being a concerted effort to reach webloggers in their native medium. Past attempts to reach these audiences have been transparently obvious or so lamely executed that there was no real danger of success. But by seeming to be up front and recognizing the traits of the medium, Richards seems to be having the first blush of success in weblog marketing, learning some of the lessons that others have outlined about how to approach bloggers.
So what’s the significance? That remains to be seen. The coming of the marketers was inevitable. And their first efforts were obvious and ineffective. But they seem to be honing their tactics, and it’s only a matter of time until some large part of the weblog realm is suffused with messages that are sponsored by commerical interests, especially as greater numbers of novice bloggers with lower levels of media literacy start up sites. The short term effect will be an immediate raising of suspicions and questioning of people’s credibility, but once that first wave of suspicion passes, a return to complacency will lead to tolerance of people’s weblog writing being for sale.
What can be done about it? There might be, as webloggers tend to hope, a technical solution. The trust networks everyone likes to babble about could be formalized, or perhaps a language for encoding a weblogger’s personal code of ethics could be created. (Imagine checkboxes for "accepts gifts from individuals" "accepts gifts of under US$100 value from companies" "accepts gifts of over US$100 from companies) But more likely people will continue to use the subjective analysis of a weblogger’s entire site and inbound links from friends as judgement over the credibility of their writing.
Given the almost subversive subtlety with which weblog marketing campaigns can be carried out, there are going to be people who slide under the radar, promoting commerical products in exchange for reimbursement without their readers ever being tipped off to the transaction. So we’ve turned a corner. The next stage will be quite interesting, I think, as that’s we discover the impact these new influences have on the weblog ecosystem.