Note: No cash or gifts were received for the writing of this post.
I’m being facetious, but, if this were a “sponsored” post, would you feel skeptical about the opinions expressed here? Or, would you applaud my “transparency?”
That’s one of the issues at the heart of the debate around sponsored blog posts and online conversations. Paid outreach to bloggers and other online influencers is practically routine, and often it’s very effective. Two recent happenings, however, have stirred fresh debate around what some call “blogola.”
First, the FTC is expected to issue new guidelines requiring bloggers to disclose compensation by marketers. Now, the proposal is flawed, has plenty of loopholes, and it’s only a guideline, but in principle, it lets the Commission investigate or even levy penalties against marketers who pay those to endorse products online. Second, Forrester issued a report, “Add Sponsored Conversations to Your Toolbox” detailing high-profile examples of sponsored online marketing and recommending the technique to clients.
My company has compensated influential bloggers in the form of product loans, product gifts, and gift cards on behalf of clients. Generally these gifts are positioned as a “thank you” for taking the time to evaluate our pitch or review our product, and they come with no strings attached. They’ve also been some our most successful programs. Then, too, I’ve admired innovative influencer campaigns that use social media, like the Fiesta Movement. Having said that, however, I think sponsored blogs represent a slippery slope. While I’m very comfortable with a product-review format (which mirrors what we do with traditional media), I think outright payment puts both parties at risk. Here’s why:
· Ethics dictate that we require, or strongly recommend, that a blogger disclose compensation or a commercial relationship with brands or companies. In the case of a product review, that disclosure makes sense, and it doesn’t detract from the credibility of the post, in my opinion. A cash payment or gift, however, is far murkier, and disclosure tends to have the opposite effect.
· In traditional journalism, strict disclosure rules, and, more importantly, the editorial role, serve as the ultimate controls. In the disintermediated world of blogs, there are no such checks and balances, so the reader must determine the credibility of the post for himself. This is confusing at best, deceptive at worst.
· Finally, from a practical standpoint, it can harm the blogger, and I don’t mean just their credibility. Google will downgrade paid blog entries by placing them lower in search results. This policy, as BusinessWeek points out, may do more to deter blogola than any ethical guidelines.
I support professional bloggers and feel that most deserve to earn more than they do. But, as in the world of traditional media, and even paid search, the readers deserves to know exactly what is paid for, and what isn’t.