Who's holding the marbles? Bloggers. (photo taken by Sheila Scarborough at the Kansas City Toy and Miniature Museum)There is a fascinating discussion going on right now regarding roles, authenticity and marketing on the social Web.

It’s being shouted and whispered, and no matter what anyone says (including big mouth me) no one has the “correct” answer yet, if indeed there is a “correct” answer to be had.

Warning – in this post I’m going to use the term “blogger” to mean, “A person who creates original, unique content on the social Web.”   I am well aware that not every digitally-savvy person has an active, vibrant blog (maybe they only rock Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or some other platform) but the term “blogger” seems to have become accepted terminology for someone who knows how to communicate on the Web and builds/sustains some sort of community there.

Okay, here’s the question

At what point does an independent blogger who interacts with brands lose some element of his or her “authenticity?”

To be blunt, at what point is a blogger simply another node helping a company do marketing and outreach?

Again, I do not yet fully know the answer to this question for myself, much less for the rest of the planet (so put down those pitchforks, brothers and sisters.)  What I do know after finishing up this year’s South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) tech conference is that businesses and brands want what bloggers already have, and they want it badly.

They want blogger authenticity; what pioneering political woman Shirley Chisholm called being “Unbought and Unbossed.”

Why?

Because business-as-usual advertising and marketing is seen as inauthentic (or at least, all about rah-rah good news and therefore not the whole truth) so people are turning to the “digital back fence” – word of mouth from their friends online, because it is seen as unbought, unbossed and authentic.  In other words:  the truth.

There’s a PR/marketing term for getting talked about in a positive sense without having to pay for it:  earned media.  It means that your product or service is so good that it earns your business free publicity. People will talk about it of their own volition, which is seen as more authentic than paying them to say good things, i.e. paid media or advertising.

What is the best way to, well, earn this “earned media?”  One of the current answers seems to be to connect with digital influencers and bloggers at events like SXSWi.

From Jay Baer’s excellent post 13 observations from South by Southwest (SXSW) we have this snippet:

“There was also a lot of talk (especially among the big brands) on operationalizing social media, and creating true best practices for how to thrive in a real-time world where every customer is a reporter.”

Um, “operationalize?”

Yes, that basically means to take social media seriously and use it to drive sales and increase business, while measuring your Return on Investment (ROI) from those efforts.

Congrats, blogger, you are now part of a marketing plan; a node to drive sales and increase business for a brand.

Nerds As Nodes

I’m not saying whether this state of affairs is good or bad, only that it is what it is, and we’d better continue to acknowledge and talk about it.

There has been a power shift.

Brands have money, but bloggers hold most of the marbles.  Yes, you, blogger – the one trying to figure out how to pay your electricity bill – you hold most of the marbles in the new balance of power.

Brands want access to what you’ve worked so hard to build at 3 a.m. in your T-shirt and sweatpants:  authentic influence and community.

The question is, how many marbles do you trade with brands in order to pay the bills?  Is there a way to make money legitimately without you or your community feeling that they’ve bought your voice?

You’d better be thinking about these issues.  When you’re comfortable with the answers, go for it, but please do take the time to think, and I mean till your head hurts.

Or, don’t think about it. Fine. Take any and all goods/offers and run all the way to the bank, but don’t be surprised if you wake up one day with a pile of freebies and toys and a reputation (that you can’t shed) as a shill.

Respect what you’ve built online and always, always guard it fiercely.

Ask the brand and ask yourself the uncomfortable questions before unwittingly finding yourself in the Fire Swamp battling Rodents of Unusual Size.

Brands Are Not the Booger Man

Brands and businesses, please know that I understand your position, too.

You have products and services that you’re proud of and you want your business to grow, because it’s a good business, right?

I’m in the same position;  as a trainer and consultant myself, I have no problem telling our Tourism Currents clients that outreach to bloggers can be an integral part of their destination marketing – we call it “finding your online champions.”  I myself have been the target of such outreach efforts by tourism organizations, and they resulted in a few blogger press trips where I did a lot of thinking about my own comfort level as a “node.”   🙂

Here’s my takeaway for brands….if a blogger is excessively accommodating, you’ve just been had.

Guard your brand’s reputation fiercely, too, because you’ve worked hard and you don’t need to toss it all away on “buzz” and “viral” crapola from a greedy digital snakeoil salesperson.  They can take their marbles and go home, in that situation.

I do not know all the answers, but I know enough to ask questions. Thanks for listening, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.