January 24, 2006

The Sprint "payola" comment, and why it's total bullshit.

I read this BuzzMachine blog about Sprint contacting influential techie bloggers, offering to give them a new phone for free in the hopes of getting some feedback on new features. This is just one of many similar examples of big companies attempting to reach out to the blogger... a person they know can be mysteriously influential, but haven't quite figured out how to interact with.

(Others similar attempts have included McDonald's, and this Forbes article details what worried marketers and branders call The Attack Of The Blogs.)

So far, Sprint's is the best execution I've seen on the part of a corporate PR department. There was no "beg", not even an ask for coverage. Props for that, though this sort of polite behavior should be obvious.

One of the comments that followed Jeff's blog, though, is ridiculous, and inspired a response from me. This guy refers to Sprint's clever strategy as ""payola" and "unethical"".

Payola?! This is good communications, pure and simple. Look, I understand and agree that Sprint hopes influential bloggers will say something good about the new phone, and that the fact that it is free MIGHT help their case. But playing the "human nature" card is anything BUT "unethical". Men like breasts and asses. Women, particularly single ones, wear clothes that subtly accentuate these features. Is that unethical? Women dislike potbellies. Men who want these women to talk to them spend time in the gym, working off the 6-pack of Coors in exchange for a 6-pack of desire. A moral sin? Hardly. The truth is, we're all selling something, but we can choose what we buy.

Sprint is no dummy. They seriously weighed the consequences of as many bloggers or more disliking this new device as liking it. (As Jeff mentioned, freebies only go so far as to raise an eyebrow - after that, the device/service does all the work in developing brand loyalty). And Sprint had to consider that bloggers are likely to hate being contacted by a corporate giant, as the concept of blogs are rooted in consumer-to-consumer or expert-to-consumer or entertainment-to-consumer connectivity, not corporate-giant-to-potential-consumer, as far as the communications model goes.

What Sprint did was clever, and if done right, gives us an opportunity to improve our consumer experience with the company. If they were smart and did their homework (as I suspect they did) they knew that most bloggers would repost their “ask”. They might have even considered that they would get feedback about their brand as WELL as feedback about this new device. They possibly recognized the value in such dialogue, positive or negative, and that if they ask for it and then listen carefully, they just might learn something. (About their brand image, their service, their strategy, who listens to the experts they’ve contacted, and last but not least, the phone itself.)

Or maybe I'm giving them way too much credit.

Either way, I'm not offended nor victimized by this strategy. It's no manipluative ploy - we, and they, are smarter than that. And I'm growing tired of this upheaval from bloggers of late about such outreach from big companies.

I understand that the beauty of a blog is that we all get a platform to say what we think, unfiltered. The flip side, however, is that without any code of ethics or accountability for balance we can cause a ruckus amongst those who don't recognize flagrant emotional rants and we can thereby slowly chip away at the credibility of those expert bloggers out there who hold themselves to a higher (dare I say journalistic?) standard. I'm certainly no example, but I'm also not out in the ether yelling about conspiracies, ripping at companies, making recommendations or slinging mud at companies who are trying to start a dialogue with me, or even -- gasp! -- hear what I have to say. That's just silly.

I can recognize and appreciate that corporate America sees some value in the dialogues that go on in our world... and I've been carefully watching as they become smart enough to try to learn how to participate in it.

That said, having had a terrible experience with Sprint in the past, I wouldn’t use one of their phones if it was plated in platinum and someone was threatening to set my left foot on fire while pulling out my fingernails one by one and tickling me unless I used it. They are inflexible, their customer service people are testy and I always either went over my minutes and paid a month's rent for my cell phone or I under used my minutes and still spent a small fortune, with those minutes gone forever. And data sending was like watching paint dry.

Bad product and bad service will sink good strategy every single time. But if they are reading carefully, perhaps their product will improve.

Then we all win, don't you agree?


David said...

I want to comment on this but I am too tired.

Mister Underhill said...

Anything less than a milly and I aint pimpin jack for da man.

Pat said...

I'm still hurting from that one time I said, Amish Vanish Cleaning Solution was a breakthrough in the sanitary market. I think it's just goat's blood, but I can't prove it.

unbonhomme said...

I am all about subtly accentuated features of the single woman and an eager buyer.


As far as Sprint giving away phones to bloggers? I think this is all going to be very short lived. Corporations are frenzied to figure out *SOMETHING* (anything really) to do with this whole blog thing, this whole podcast thing, etc. See my post from December about the consultant turning up at my agency to talk about this:


Bottom line for me is, Trebuchet saying how wonderful her FREEBIE sprint phone is would not, for example, sway me toward the product (her subtly accentuated girl-parts are another story).

We're all fans of free crap. BUT. Unless said free crap is genuinely better than the paid-for crap, its still not going to sway anyone.

Short. Short. Short. Lived.

Trebuchet said...

Certainly the direct relationship between bloggers writing about products and the "bottom line" in terms of product sales is up for question.

What I don't think is are the following ideas:

- Sprint is being strategic, NOT unethical.
- The dialogue Sprint could gather from bloggers and their commentators could be valuable in better honing their over-arching business strategies (branding, customer service, image, etc.)
- Offering up a flattering package never hurt buyer or seller (whether it's "try this free, we value your opinion" or "damn, I look good in these jeans")
- Unbonhomme needs to get laid.


Trebuchet said...

Oh, and nice input, Dave. Way to participate.

auntiegrav said...

Unlike unbonhomme, I'm NOT all for free crap. It's usually just that: crap, and it costs somebody somewhere, especially our children. Every time some marketing Geeeenyuss comes up with free shit, their company has to work harder to exploit someone or something in order to show profits. If they don't show a profit by giving shit away, they then fire the people who worked their asses off to create the scheme.
In a world full of people, only some want to fly: the rest are in advertising.
What's the Net Creativity of free shit that gets thrown in the landfill?

auntiegrav said...

I checked into it, copyright doesn't apply and trademark costs too much. I guess I'll have to live with ANOTHER of my ideas fluttering away into the public domain (or the black government projects-never to be heard from again..more importantly, never to be paid for..).

Feel free to use Net Creativity as you deem necessary. Except in porn films, there I draw the line and you have to pay me for it (or send me a "Pirate"...)
If you send it before, it's a bribe, afterwards it's payment. Huh.

unbonhomme said...


So what, if I need to get laid?

David said...

I'm really pissed, I wrote a whole big thing about this yesterday and swore I added it. Then I came back to see what everyone thought of my always witty comments, and it's not here. What happened?

Trebuchet said...

No clue, Dave. Try again?

auntiegrav said...

Sorry Dave,
It's probably my fault. The black helicopters seem to follow wherever I go.....

pylbug said...

Hello there. I'm "that guy" and I'd like you to explain how paying someone (in the form of a phone) in exchange for blogging about your company's products is NOT like payola.

My comment compared what Sprint is doing with bloggers to payola, and noted that payola is unethical in other media (radio, namely). That same comment was primarily directed at Steve Rubel, who only commented on the story so as to chime in with the product name -- essentially proving his loyalty to freebies from Sprint.

Recognizing that there is value in dialogue is a no-brainer, and nothing you should be giving Sprint such resounding credit for. The point I was making was, this has happened before: a marketer makes some form of payment to get air-time for his product. It's unethical in radio, and it's a passing fad in the blogosphere - where the arrogance of bloggers blinds them to their own weaknesses (like grubbing for free stuff, spreading the names of products you got for free but don't actually use, etc.).

Now, a long-winded comment that only restates the obvious and strokes Jeff Jarvis in the process... that's total bullshit.

Ideas you are missing:

Being "strategic" does not mean you are also being ethical. Of course Sprint is being stategic - nobody challenged that. We are each entitled to our own opinions about how ethical their behavior is, however. For you to imply otherwise is "total bullshit".

Dialogue is not something a company like Sprint can "gather" - you either engage in the dialogue or you don't. Pat Sprint on the back all you want - but know that doing so doesn't mean they did the right thing, the right way.

In Sprint's case, you pay off other people to carry on the conversation (dialogue, as buzz-words go). Why can't Sprint speak for itself in an honest, forth-right fashion? Is it because the company knows it's a message we don't want to hear? Why should you listen to a guy who's willing to shill products because he gets them for free? Because he's willing to be a shill? Think of the audience instead of Sprint for a second.

Flattery may get a particular blogger talking about your product, but so what. When it's obvious that your company has lobbied the blogger with flattery and freebies, you've diminished the value of your own actions.

Trebuchet said...

That guy - nice to see you here, and I'm glad you took the time to engage. You make some good points:

- Freebies must be taken into account when assesing the value and purity of consumer feedback. "...you've diminished the value of your own actions."

- Ethics are subjective - saying otherwise is bullshit; strategy doesn't equate to ethical.


- "It's called payola" is not a comparison, and "certainly unethical" isn't leaving much room for subjectivity, is it?

- I wouldn't call defending my take on the ethics of Sprint's attempt to connect with bloggers "resounding credit", particularly when I said this type of behavior should be obvious (ie. come standard).

- Stroke's Jeff's ego? C'mon. Having a point of agreement and agknowledging it? I don't even know the guy. If I publicly agreed with you would I be stroking your ego?

On "payola": Merriam-Webster calls it "undercover or indirect payment (as to a disc jockey) for a commercial favor (as for promoting a particular record)". My point is that in the blogosphere, it's unlikely that Sprint's giveaway would be undercover, and they weren't asking for a commercial favor, but rather feedback. Semantics? Maybe. But I am hard-pressed to consider it bribery or "payola" when I accept a free sample at Costco or a health fair or try one of those cereal samples that frequently arrive in my mailbox courtesy Kellog's. But that's just me.

I understand your perspective, but fundamentally disagree. I don't believe getting product into the hands of consumers is unethical. Grassroots marketing goes way back. The difference here is that bloggers have shown a penchant for communication and have a platform from which to do such. My specific interest is in watching how companies ultimately decide to interact with the relatively new world of blogs - if at all.

It sounds to me, though, that you're more irritated with grubbing, arrogant, product-plugging bloggers than Sprint, when you get right down to it. That we can agree on. If all a blogger talks about is the cool free phone, the value of the blog is zero. If, however, the blogger talks about the phone critically (this is great, this is bad, this could be improved), I see value there. For Sprint AND consumers. The problem with(and the beauty of) blogs is that there is no code dictating that we must be balanced, we mustn't grub, and we mustn't plug. (As I stated in my original post).

All opinion aside, I'm sure you've determined by now that much of this site is unnecessarily dramatic, mostly for entertainment's sake. While I won't apologize for being "long-winded" or having an opinion, I am sorry that I clearly offended you with the "bullshit" remark. Uncouth, yes, AND unnecessarily inflammatory.

Glad you took the opportunity to clarify (and throw a few barbs my way, as well). All's fair, after all...

Anonymous said...