In the name of disclosure… I’ve been blogging for almost four years and I’ve been in marketing for over ten. When I say “we” in this post I’m referring to bloggers, myself included.

I’ve been following the blogging / branding / marketing debates going on in (primarily) the momosphere for awhile but I haven’t really chimed in. For those who aren’t familiar with these debates, in a nutshell (or two or three)…

  • Some bloggers feel product reviews or endorsements done by bloggers (especially unstated reviews by bloggers who do nothing but reviews) devalue the community as a whole.
  • Some bloggers who are just trying to make a little money feel guilty, and victimized by other bloggers for just trying to make a little money.
  • A lot of bloggers feel their community isn’t truly understood and their voices are under-valued (as evidenced, in part, by the lack of compensation for reviews).
  • Some bloggers just want to know how to get in on this whole branding thing.
  • Traditional media can be just plain snarky to bloggers (as we’re all just a bunch of unprofessional sell-outs who are threatening their industry).
  • And marketers – as it is well known – are a bunch of slimy hacks who are making us buy things we don’t need and are either pushy with bloggers, taking advantage of us, or ignoring us (depending on your point of view).
  • Many marketers are also long time bloggers and accepted members of the community.

That’s not even the whole story but you get my point; it’s complicated and there are a lot of sides. So my brain being what it is (because even I admit it makes unusual jumps sometimes) I skip over all the nuanced arguments to take sides and I start thinking about the big picture of this debate.

What I came up with, at the end, was, “What conversations do we need to have to change the structure of this dialogue?”

Because, frankly, I think we’re missing a huge opportunity.

The truth of the matter is most of the companies out there are afraid of bloggers, they are afraid of the consumer’s voice. Really afraid. They’re afraid of not being able to control us or spin the influence we have.

In turn, we don’t trust companies. Big business doesn’t care about people. We feel that they don’t get community and what we’re about. That they’re trying to gyp us and devalue our voices.

And nobody trusts marketers because they are the face of the companies. Hell, marketers are often not even trusted within their own companies. (I speak from personal experience.)

That’s a lot of distrust, and it’s been going on a lot longer than the blogging world. It’s been here since The Jungle was published and probably before. This isn’t anything new, just the latest incarnation of the art vs. sell-out debate, big business versus the little guy.

Except this time around, because of blogging… we have a viable, accessible medium for our voices. Which is what makes us extra scary. And also gives us potential power.

Now I must segue into my personal life, which is one of the reasons I’ve thought so much about this lately, feeling like I’m in the heart of some segment of this debate all the time.

My latest job is working for a company who has (I think) this really cool software. Software that I haven’t talked about because I thought, “Well, everyone is going to think I’m shilling.” I’m not immune to this either. Every time I’ve gushed about a product that I really, truly liked (I’m so a marketer’s dream) I’ve been accused of shilling. But I’m going to talk about it now because I think it’s relevant to this conversation.

The company I work for is called Helpstream and their software merges a traditional support ticket system (think help desk software) with community and social networking. Basically, you can go to a company’s support site who’s using this software and get help from a help desk agent online, just like many companies. But there is also this whole community aspect where you can ask the community a question, you can search for answers, you can submit an idea, or discussion, and of course reply and comment on everything. The difference with this software is that most companies out there have either help desk agents OR a community providing answers; if they have both the systems are completely separate. This software is truly integrating the two sides – a case (help ticket) can get submitted to an agent who can ask the community for help, and a community question or discussion can get sent to agents. Ideas can go back and forth. Content can be created from wherever it’s viable, be that a community member or from a company person.

I’ve got to give a lot of props to Helpstream for trying to open up the conversation between consumers and companies. For providing a system where trust can take place. I mean, sure, it isn’t completely altruistic, Helpstream needs to make money like any other company… but they understand the value that a community provides, and they especially see the potential of what open communication could bring to business and consumers. It’s a process that values both sides and actually stimulates a lot of collaboration. In theory…

… because it has to be implemented to work, yet you still hear companies say things like, “We understand communities are important, we want to build our community, but we’re afraid of what they’ll say.”

Companies want our goodwill and endorsement, they want to trust us but they don’t know how.  And I think that we want to trust companies… or at least we want them to take our opinions seriously and not feel like we’re getting screwed. We both want to be valued by the other, but the distrust blocks communication.

Here’s where I think bloggers could have a lot of power if they choose to take it… I think it’s in OUR hands to open up that communication. I don’t think the companies will be making the first steps toward dispelling the distrust because they have more fear on their side. I think if things are going to change we have to make companies engage with us in an open conversation. I don’t mean getting everyone pissed off on Twitter until a company concedes to something either; that just feeds their fear. I mean, showing these companies that an open communication with bloggers is valuable, that we are worthy of respect and trust. That a fan base is not just a fan base but a source of ideas. That criticism is not meant to harm but be an implement of improvement.

I honestly don’t know if we can make things change or how they would change. It might mean, in the end, we aren’t cashing in on free products, or that no one has ads. Or maybe everyone has interactive ads and our revenue sharing is a lot higher. Or there is NO revenue, but there’s great content and absolute transparency about products. I’m not even sure how we would accomplish opening up the conversation, but I think that if we’re not happy with the way things work then we should use our impressive debating skills to brainstorm some ideas.

Because, us bloggers, we are damn good at communicating. That is our power. 
And we've got the whole Internet as our think tank.

Maybe if we dispel some of the mistrust between ourselves and companies we can get the blogger on blogger hating to stop as well.

       – the weirdgirl

Not too strangely, one of the most open, respectful, and warm review requests that I’ve received from having this blog was from a sex toy company. I think that’s entirely due to the fact that they are quite used to having difficult conversations, and building trust is key.

In defense of marketers… there are a lot of marketers who DO get that bloggers feel devalued because marketing itself is often devalued. If you work in marketing you will have been called a hack at some point or other. Trust me, you’ve got to love it a lot to put up with some of the crap you get.