As part of my doctoral program at George Fox Seminary and my dissertation topic studying the effects of social media on preaching, I had the great opportunity to attend the largest industry blogging and social media conference in North America.
One of the many things I gleaned from the conference was the economic potential that exists in the area of blogging and social media. This economic potential is being rapidly and increasingly democratized and monetized. It is democratized in that anyone can jump into the blogging and social media world and, with enough social networking, media creation and media curation, you can create “clout” (interestingly: the company klout.com scores clout). This clout can then be monetized. The increasingly inherent challenge is that the monetization of clout carries with it a major temptation – the temptation to sacrifice authenticity on the altar of economic opportunity.
Let me explain:
First, clout (or influencer) is an industry word that simply refers to the influence you have online. Basically, the more hits you receive on your blog and the more social connections you have with social media (FaceBook friends, Twitter fans, etc.), the greater your “influence.”
Second, as your clout and influence grows, so does your potential environment for advertising and product endorsement. These fertile environments are bursting with ecological potential for financial benefit. Allow me to explain through a hypothetical example: Jim Bob is marketing his new Whatyamacallits and he knows that he can use traditional advertising to reach a large group of people but by doing this he also knows that the audience will interpret the advertisement message as the Whatyamacallit Company talking about Whatyamacallits. Thus, people will be, inevitably, skeptical of the claims the manufacturer is making about the product they manufacture. The audience knows that the manufacturer is not neutral. However, if the Whatyamacallit Company can get seemingly neutral Jane Doe to blog and/or Tweet about their product to her large social following for either a sample of Whatyamacallits and/or other financial or promotional incentives, people will pay attention because they will assume that this third person is an impartial product reviewer. This neutrality becomes assumed and perceived authenticity.
Third, the other revenue stream exists through advertising. This revenue stream can produce substantial income to the blogger. Custom advertising by an ad service can provide significant income, but it also comes at a relational price. Ad services work by using information provided by the content of the blog and any information it can glean from the blog visitor, customizing the ads for greatest impact. In essence, the person blogging submits part of their online presence and the information of their visitors for financial gain.
I have no problem with any of this IF it is clearly understood and disclosed upfront by the blogger/social media user. The problem is that this level of authenticity rarely happens and if it does, is often hidden or subtlety communicated.
As we look ahead to the future of social media and blogging, this practice will only increase (industry experts and their budget allocations affirm that this will only intensify in usage). The challenge is that our culture highly values authenticity and relationships (part of why using it for marketing is brilliant and effective). This is the very reason that blogging and social media have economic value. In addition, people are also increasingly skeptical and as people become more aware of what is happening (recognizing that people are monetizing their authenticity and relationships), skepticism will only increase, inevitably decreasing the economic value of influencer clout and destroying the presumed relationships that once existed.
Once again, I have no issue with people who use their clout/influencer ability to promote products, services or earn money through advertising, as long as they are honest and upfront about this. If they are not, they are, to use a shockingly pejorative term, prostituting their authenticity and relationship connections for financial gain. This, of course, will eventually hurt one’s credibility and in a culture that highly values authenticity and relationship will not have sustainability.
The future of social media and blogging is exponentially growing and as it does, we need to increasingly be aware of the effects it is having on us and how it is being used and abused and/or using and abusing us. As Marshall McLuhen brilliantly said: “All media works us over completely.”