And at last the marketers enter the picture; or more specifically, what the marketers make out of this social psychology research, and their own research into social marketing.
Here’s what we have so far:
1. People don’t know why they do what they do nor why they believe what they believe. Oh, sure, we all think we do. And sometimes we may even be right. But there is no relationship between certainty and the actual likelihood that your beliefs are true (I LOVE that research finding)–certainty is just a feeling, like anxiety or adoration, and it can be completely irrational and unfounded.
2. People’s memories of what they used to believe are basically crap. Just because someone remembers thinking that Product X was terrific before they were given one, or that Service Y was dreamworthy before they experienced it, doesn’t mean that they actually thought that way. We are all unreliable narrators.
3. The mere act of owning or having been given a product or item will cause most people’s opinions of that product or item to improve. And before you say, “Yes, MOST people; but I/my favourite sponsored blogger is/am an exception,” keep in mind that 75% of adult drivers think that they drive better than the average person, a clear mathematical impossibility. Most of us over-evaluate ourselves and think that we are exceptions to this kind of thing. But probably, almost certainly, you’re not.
4. And peer pressure is a real thing with deep roots that makes it very difficult for people to disagree with a group. A solid majority of us will change what we say to go along with a group at least some of the time.
So if you were a marketer in this brave new internet era, maybe you’d like to take some of your products and services and give them to bloggers for review. The act of having received the item or service will cause the blogger to have a higher opinion of it than they would otherwise–an honest higher opinion; they might even revise their memories of their previous opinions–and they will then share that opinion with their readers. Get enough influential bloggers to do this at the same time, and you create the impression of an online majority who all like your product or service, bringing conformity imperatives into play. However, this internet marketer might want some proof that this advertising will work.
And as it turns out, marketers have been researching this very question for a long time now: who pays attention to testimonials (which is what sponsored posts are, after all)?
The answer is found in something called Susceptibility to Normative Influence (aka, one’s “readiness to conform to others’ expectations regarding purchases, and the need to identify with others, or enhance one’s image by acquiring products or brands (Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel 1989)” (Martin et al, 2008 )).
You can get your own SNI score here. My SNI, if you are interested, is very very low: I got 1.1 on valuing others’ opinions, which means I don’t give a flying fuck what other people think about my purchases. The average for happy people is 1.8, and the average for unhappy people is 2.2. Which means, in other words, that caring about what other people think about what you buy is going to make you less happy. Or that it’s mostly unhappy people who do this. In either case, it’s something to avoid.
Honestly, until I came across this, it would not have occurred to me in a thousand lifetimes that someone might go around buying things because they think it will make other people like them more. What insanity is this? Anyone who’s going to like you more because of your jacket/magazine/sewing machine/dining room table isn’t someone you want in your life anyway.
Regardless, it all comes together like this:
1. Companies buy a lot of sponsored posts with a number of influential bloggers, for the cost of a bunch of books or free patterns and a few metres of fabric, plus postage.
2. The influential bloggers, thanks to the Endowment Effect etc., shift their opinions of the products and services in a positive direction, and then write about it.
3. This creates the impression of an in-group who all like the same thing.
4. The impression of an in-group who all like the same thing influences the purchasing behaviour of their followers or fans, particularly the ones who are highly susceptible to normative influence.
I mean, think about it for a minute: companies hire Social Media directors for, on average, $45,000 CDN. Over the course of a year they will spend even more on freebies and postage. Why are they doing this? To be nice? Of course not. They do this in the expectation that they will make back at least the salary + benefits + training costs + marketing and material costs in additional sales. Companies exist to make money, period.
But, you might say, isn’t it possible that all this social media marketing is just to increase awareness of the product or service? But if that’s all you want, you’d just buy an ad. You wouldn’t risk a negative review by sending out the free stuff and giving the blogger free reign to write something damning–unless there were, in fact, not much risk of that happening at all.
Is it really realistic that of all the sponsorship arrangements currently in place, all of the compensated posts out there, that so few would be negative just by chance?
This isn’t the first time I’ve made these arguments, so I anticipate that some people will think (and not say) that I must be against free enterprise, capitalism, and women being paid for their labour. Not so. One of the things that most irritates me about these arrangements is how cheap they are. In sewing blogs, for instance, women will quite frequently spend $60+ of their own money on fabric and notions and hours of their own time to sew up a “free” pattern they received in exchange for the blog post, which constitutes marketing for the company in question.
What would make me happier is two things:
1) Bloggers being paid fairly for the actual work that goes into their end of the sponsorship agreement, and,
2) Being honest about its likely influence on the content of their posts, whether conscious or not, and allowing for the critical questioning of their readers.
Egos need to rise far enough on the one side that we (you–it’s unlikely I’ll ever get sponsorship, given my perspectives on it) demand fair pay for the work, and on the other side, need to bend enough to allow that it’s not a personal attack for someone to believe and state that the sponsorship deal might actually have shifted our opinions.
It’s ok to be questioned. It won’t kill you.