Sponsored eBooks

Tarantula on Angel Food cakeI’ve recently come across “sponsored” eBooks, and they caught me off guard. They combine concepts I hadn’t thought were at odds with each other. But together they’re like a tarantula on angel food cake.

Sponsored eBooks are free PDFs, promoted online, written by a Subject Matter Expert (SME) and paid for by a company trying to sell to the SME’s audience. However, sponsored eBooks feel honest and dishonest at the same time.

The sponsor’s brand is on the cover so we know there’s a pitch to buy something somewhere. That’s the honest part.

The pitch is subtle. SMEs write about an audience’s problems, which the sponsors’ offerings solve. The SME doesn’t mention the sponsoring company in the book or call out the offering, but the buying logic is there. That’s the unsettling part.

When reading sponsored eBooks I found I was looking for the pitch. I was trying to figure out what the SMEs tie in to the sponsor was. What they were trying to sell. As a result I missed some of the SME’s content. I was distracted, and suspicious.

What’s my problem? It’s just a book.

Idealism about Books

I believe books are special. What many books are, can be, strive to be, is important.

They’re containers for authors’ ideas and stories, and we want their authentic voices, feelings, thoughts, experiences, research, and opinions. We want to feel it’s coming from them, speaking for themselves, not as spokespersons.

Sponsored eBooks smudge that line between a SME’s authentic voice and sponsors’ marketing messages.

The confusing part for me is the nature of eBooks.

Idealism about eBooks

I love eBooks. They’re portable and agile, easy to create and distribute. They take the idealism of books and democratize sharing.

For marketing purposes, eBooks are great tools to gain audience visibility and credibility. Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus reached at least two million readers and it’s the #1 most downloaded eBook in history. Seth wrote something worth reading and then gave it away as a free eBook. His unadulterated ideas, beliefs, and vision.

Seth gained massive exposure and spread his ideas as a virus through his free eBook. And that’s what his book was about. Brilliant!

Idealism about Content

If SMEs feel strongly about their content and would give it away free to market themselves – why not do that? Under their own name, for their own purposes, marketing or otherwise.

However, if the goal is to make money, why not write content for their sponsors in a straight-forward way? Write in formats that are unambiguous (white papers, case studies, ads, etc.) Brand and promote it unambiguously.

But not all SMEs approach eBooks in the same way.

Idealism about SMEs

There’s nothing evil about being a corporate spokesperson. The Tiger Woods – Nike pairing works. But many A-list actors, such as George Clooney, only do ads and commercials outside the U.S. Why? Possibly to keep there reputation in their primary market as undiminished and undiluted as possible.

It’s a tricky road, reputation and leveraging it for gain.

I now think differently about SMEs who’ve written sponsored eBooks. Before, I imbued them with objectivity regarding their subjects. They are the experts after all. In my mind I’d made them a bit altruistic.

But now the lustre is off, their motives are in question, which is unfair of me. They’ve always been working to earn a living, trying the most effective and efficient ways to do that. The same as you and I.

It’s only my opinion of them that’s suffered. Seeing a little more clearly. A personal lesson learned.

I understand the arguments for eBook as marketing messages. Reaching a sponsor’s target audience by association with a respected SME.

It’s that sponsored eBooks tripped me up. I was confused by not having seen many of them. As a result, I wasn’t sure how I felt about them.

But when they become as common as other forms of corporate sponsorship, I’ll probably see them in the same light as:

  • Product placement in movies & TV
  • White papers, Case studies, Free webinars
  • Infomercials
  • Corporate sponsorships in sporting events

I wonder if the Louvre will be diminished by selling its name to the United Arab Emirates for $1.3 billion?

What do you think about sponsored eBooks?

Chris Arlen
President, Service Performance

Technorati: marketing, sponsored eBooks, subject matter experts

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