This week's Time has an intriguing article titled "The Human Billboard." No, it's not about the branded clothing we wear to show our good taste or our status or our allegiance to a certain designer or movement. It's about online personalities who are "walking product placements," in the words of the article.
These human billboards are, in effect, paid brand fans, compensated in some way for their comments, whether through payment or through free products. An entire industry is springing up around the idea of sponsored tweets. The Associated Press is selling sponsored tweet space in its main Twitter feed to advertisers such as Samsung.
In contrast, people who tweet or blog about their experiences with a brand are organic brand fans if they're not paid for these comments.
Why does this matter? Because organic endorsements (unpaid) are generally seen as more credible. The marketer didn't solicit them or pay for them, they're not controlled by the marketer.
It's the same in the world of search results, where organic results (meaning non-paid, non-sponsored results) are overwhelmingly what people click on when they search for information.
Transparency is key here. One lifestyle blogger is quoted by Time as saying she doesn't always label her sponsored posts as such because she wants to maintain an "irreverent style and tone," although some of her posts do mention partnering with brands. Under newly revised FTC guidelines, the rule is that if you're getting paid to say something about a product in social media, say so. Even if you only have 140 characters for your content, a brief tag like #spon or #paid can get the point across.