Federated Doesn't Get It

I know I'm coming into this a bit late (I was going to let this pass without comment), but after thinking about it for a little while, I decided I couldn't avoid going on the record - that is, to the extent that posting to a not-very-well-read blog constitutes "going on the record." Somewhat recently, Microsoft and Federated Media put up a site together as a sort of discussion focal point for the "People Ready" MSFT tagline, where bloggers can discuss when their particular business became people ready.  Several Federated bloggers contributed.  It's an interesting strategy, but the execution of that strategy contained elements that weren't consistent with the values of the blogosphere.  For one, Microsoft was an advertiser on Federated, and the notion that their bloggers showed up to the site to contribute to it lends the appearance of impropriety.  (As an aside, I don't think Microsoft or its agency meant any harm, but what they did wasn't compatible with the laws of transparency, it looked like shilling and it created an opportunity for blogging pundits - particularly ones with competing blog networks - to score with some potshots.)

Of course, Nick Denton took his shot.  And he's right, both in the sense of taking the shot at Federated to start with, and with the thrust of his argument.  It does look like shilling.  And Microsoft should know better.

In a perfect world, Microsoft shuts down the campaign and apologizes for the appearance of impropriety, there's a three-day round of territorial pissing over who "gets" the blogosphere and how to monetize it best, and we all move on.  But I saw this arrogant little snippet from the comments on Nick Denton's post, and I couldn't let it go...

Welcome to the birth of conversational marketing.

It's making people like you and me, who came from the world of traditional newspapers, have to learn about three-way conversations. We have already witnessed the evolution of the two-way conversation among authors and readers that is replacing old-fashioned one-way journalism. Even our old employers (yours at the Financial Times, mine at The New York Times) are now actively bringing their readers into two-way conversations.

So the next step, naturally, is for marketers to want to join the conversation. It can be done in ethical, responsible ways, and FM's authors are among the first to figure out how to do it.

In the case of this Microsoft campaign, the marketers asked if our writers would join a discussion around their "people ready" theme. Microsoft is an advertiser on our authors' sites, but it's paying them only based on the number of ad impressions delivered. There was no payment for joining the conversation and they were not required to do it. They're not writing about this on their blogs, and of course several of them have been known to be pretty hard on Microsoft at times as reporters. They're talking about the topic, and readers joined that conversation.

We're carefully expanding conversational marketing based on all kinds of new ideas that are coming from authors, marketers and our sales reps. We're drafting a set of principles for conversational marketing that will help everyone, inside FM and across the industry, frame the discussion about how we do this the right way. And we're taking care at every step of the process to make sure we don't compromise the editorial integrity of our authors. Because our authors are in constant conversation with their readers, they know how their audience feels. If a reader feels an author has crossed a line or betrayed the reader's trust, that author will hear about it quickly.

You're right to be skeptical; we should all be watching carefully to make sure we do this right. We certainly are.

Best, Neil Chase Vice President Federated Media Publishing

Careful where you sling that term, Mr. Chase.  We're not witnessing "the birth of Conversational Marketing" with the advent of this poorly-thought-out campaign from Microsoft.  First, Conversational Marketing has been around a lot longer than this campaign.  Second, this campaign doesn't meet the definition of Conversational Marketing because it's not an open dialogue between a company and its customers.  It's an attempt to get people talking about a business concept/tagline that Microsoft wants to own.

When someone screws up, it's best to acknowledge it and move on.  Instead, Chase tries to defend the indefensible, saying that bloggers were paid only for the ad impressions that ran on their sites, and not for their participation in this campaign.  Perhaps on paper the money changed hands based on a number of delivered impressions and a CPM, but folks who are familiar with the publishing business will wonder whether participation was offered as "added value" or whether Microsoft's continued sponsorship was contingent on blogger participation in the conversation on the microsite.  It is this appearance of impropriety that Microsoft got wrong.  And I don't see how it can be defended with a straight face.

If it were me, I might have concentrated not on blogger participation, but on audience participation, using the banners on Federated to prompt discussion.  Then again, I probably wouldn't have suggested a campaign to get people excited about the tagline, but if the objective was to do that, this is how I would do it.  I'd make it 100% clear that any blogger participation was of their own doing and that participation wouldn't be considered when it came time to put together the media plan for the next quarter.

That Federated even tried to defend this strategy, though, suggests to me that they really don't get what Conversational Marketing is all about.  They should have known that this strategy was likely to raise eyebrows, and they should have warned Microsoft and its agency that this might happen.

Disclosure: I have something of a partnership with Pajamas Media in which we pitch Conversational Marketing programs to clients together, so I do have something of a dog in this fight.