February 4, 2007

Bloggers’ choice: Free agents, or infomercials?

Scott Kirsner wrote the lead article in the San Jose Mercury News’ Perspective section today about bloggers who write about clients for a price. Good piece, though it doesn’t answer the fundamental question of whether disclosure is all that’s required to ameliorate the ethical issues involved.

Some additional pointers relevant to this issue:

Influence peddling in the blogosphere (on SocialMedia, originally in OJR)

• Media Bloggers Association Statement of Principles (on SocialMedia and on the MBA site)

I believe Scott’s article undeservedly goes behind a firewall in two weeks, so I’ll excerpt from it here:

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 12
million Americans maintain blogs, and some of the most popular attract
millions of readers. …

So it shouldn’t be surprising that marketers and public relations
firms are now trying to sway people who publish blogs, produce podcasts
or post video clips on the Internet. Shortly before Microsoft and AMD
doled out free laptops, a company that customizes the interior of
private jets flew a Lear-load of bloggers and vloggers (video bloggers)
to Washington state for wine tastings and a dinner. Last year, in an
attempt to counteract negative coverage of its employee health care
offerings, Wal-Mart funneled rebuttals to right-leaning bloggers —
some of whom posted the material without noting its source — and later
surreptitiously helped fund a pro-Wal-Mart blog.

And marketing firms like PayPerPost.com, ReviewMe.com and
SponsoredReviews.com routinely dangle cash — as much as $1,000 —
before bloggers willing to write about a particular product. …

Earlier last week, at the Always On Media Conference in New York,
bloggers Jeff Jarvis and David Weinberger sparred with the chief
executive of PayPerPost, Ted Murphy, about the company’s tactics.
“It’s a corrosive influence,” Weinberger said of the practice of
paying bloggers to review products. “It makes the conversation less
trustworthy.” …

In October, the Washington Post reported that the blog “Wal-Marting
Across America,” which had chronicled a couple’s RV trip across the
country and focused on their rosy conversations with Wal-Mart employees
and customers, had actually been funded by an advocacy group created
and financially supported by the giant retailer. The bloggers neglected
to mention that their travel expenses were being paid by the Wal-Mart
group until after the Post’s story appeared.

One of the site’s bloggers was James Thresher, a photographer who
worked full-time for the Post and who eventually repaid his share of
the trip expenses. This came less than a year after some political
bloggers posted material sent to them by a Wal-Mart PR representative
— often word for word — without mentioning its origins.

Disclosing entanglements

Author David Weinberger, who maintains the technology and business
blog Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, has a disclosure
statement linked prominently from his front page that details his work
as a marketing consultant. “When you think that your entanglement with
a company might affect what you’re writing, you should disclose that
entanglement,” Weinberger says, “and the entanglement might be that
you consult with them, or you’ve been using their product for 15 years,
or you went to school with one of their product managers. If that’s
affecting your judgment, you should mention it.” (Among the companies
for which Weinberger has consulted are Microsoft and Edelman, a public
relations agency that represents both Microsoft and Wal-Mart.) …

I believe we will soon see a bifurcation in the blogosphere, with
trusted bloggers letting readers know about connections that may
influence what they write. Blogs where payment for reviews seems to
dominate — or where every third posting is about wonderful free
dinners and gifts lavished upon the blogger — will be regarded much
more skeptically.

JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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One thought on “Bloggers’ choice: Free agents, or infomercials?

  1. Nice post JD. I’m not sure the future holds a bright bifurcation, but instead a spectrum that matches the reality of our population.

    I invested in PayPerPost because, just as sponsored search has done for Yahoo, Google and others, there will be an equilibrium of sponsored/organic CGM content that unlocks a long-term revenue model — and long-term rewards for the internet as a whole.

    See you at WeMedia later this week…