Pay Me To Blog About Your Product or Service

There’s an interesting discussion just starting to surface – finally – here in the blogosphere about whether bloggers should accept payment or any other compensation for choosing to write about certain products, services, or events on their blogs. What I’m finding interesting is that the discussion I’ve seen is currently being framed as an ethical issue, not a practical or pragmatic discussion.
Two quick examples: In his article Blog Junkets, Jeff Jarvis says “That quid pro quo [event tickets for blog coverage] � especially if not disclosed � can tell the public that blog coverage, if not the blogger, can be bought.”, and “I hope we don�t find ourselves in a position where people give things to �get blog.�’ Of course we are already seeing just that, Jeff. Stick with me, though, because I think it’s good, not bad.
And in his article Reasons for developing paid blog post ethics, Tom Raftery writes: “Blogs are a trusted medium – as we read someone�s blog, we develop a relationship with that person. We can converse with them, we come to know them, and largely, we trust them – they become friends” and “More and more we will see bloggers being used to push review products – hence the importance of the original discussion and the need to agree the ethics around �paid� blog posts.”. I don’t agree. At all.


For us to be able to get somewhere with this topic, though, it’s important to split out the discussion into the different aspects of this issue. First off, there’s the question of should bloggers accept compensation of any sort for writing about specific topics, then there’s the entirely separate question of should bloggers reveal that they’re being compensated and, finally, should bloggers detail the exact nature of their compensation? Three very different topics, in my opinion.
Now, before we go further, how many of you still believe that TV, newspapers and magazines, the so-called “Mainstream Media’, make editorial decisions completely and utterly independently of advertising, sales and corporate ownership and partner relationships? When Disney bought ABC and suddenly more events were based at Walt Disney World, was that just a coincidence? When newspapers publish Automotive sections with nary a bad word for any product, and when a newspaper that dares say something negative about a major player like General Motors suddenly finds itself in the middle of a hurricane of red ink and coercion, nay, blackmail from the company, is that just a coincidence too?
Of course not.
No Media is Completely Free of Bias
The fact is, any medium, whether radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, or even gas stations, where the refrigeration units are ‘free’ if they include advertising for specific brands, and bookstores, where the books neatly displayed on what the publishing industry calls “end caps” have a specific pricetag attached, are all influenced by advertiser and public relations dollars.
When you listen to Dr. Laura or Rush Limbaugh present their ‘objective’ views and then pitch a specific product (because advertisers know darn well that ads voiced by the personality are more effective), do you think that like some modern-day Janus, these pundits can be completely free of bias while holding out their hand for payment from advertisers?
Admit it or not, we bloggers are also now part of the media, even if we’re not yet fully into the mainstream. The majority of blogs are intended to both promote a viewpoint, enhance the reputation and “buzz” of the author and, yes, often generate some sort of revenue too, whether directly or indirectly.
On this blog, for example, I have Google AdSense incorporated into my design because it helps pay for my overhead and, shhh, just a bit more too. Does including AdSense mean that I should perforce have a Statement of Advertising Ethics on this site?
Now what if I actively solicited specific advertising rather than just lazily letting Google do its magic with AdSense? Would I then need to have a statement of ethics? Would I have crossed the line where I am receiving compensation to write on specific topics (or even just a general theme) by way of the advertisers paying me money to be associated with this popular business blog?
Let’s take this one step further. An advertiser comes to me and says “We want to advertise on your Apple-related articles, but not if you write favorably about a competitor of ours too. We’ll pay you, generously, in cool hardware.” Is that an ethical dilemma? Note that they’re not saying “don’t write about our competitors”, they’re just offering me a coercive financial incentive to write more about them than anyone else.
The end point of this blog advertising continuum is where an advertiser would say “I’ll pay you $xx to blog about my company, product or service.” I put it to you, dear reader, that it’s not very different from the previous scenarios I have outlined herein, and that if I’m already being rewarded to write about specific topics, even indirectly by getting better AdSense revenue on some postings than others, then in fact we’re all already entangled in this thicket.
I suggest that the question of whether or not to accept payment for blogging is rather moot. Most of us bloggers already are accepting payment for blogging in some form or another, and it’s common practice now for events to offer discounts or even free admission for bloggers willing to cover the event, for example. (A few quick examples: Justice Sunday II, BlogHer and the Youth Forum at UBC)
So Are We Required to Disclose?
The remaining question is whether we need to disclose the nature of our commercial relationship on our blogs or even within specific blog entries. This is tricky too and that there’s a certain sense of naive innocence, if I may say so, that those promoting this view hold.
We are, as I’ve already pointed out, surrounded by mock-objective information sources that are really quite subjective and constantly influenced by advertising and commercial transactions. Believe me, I’ve been a senior editor at a national magazine, and faithful advertisers get their products reviewed more promptly than those who spurn the ‘other side of the wall’. We can’t even trust testimonials any more, as I’ve written about before.
Nonetheless, while I don’t think it should be any sort of requirement – after all, who would enforce it? How would you know? – I do believe that some sort of disclosure is in the best interest of the commercially minded blogger.
When I review books, for example, I explicitly state whether the publisher sent me a copy or not. My recent review of the (curiously apt) book Moral Intelligence included the phrase “…when I heard about the upcoming book Moral Intelligence, I promptly called Wharton Business Press and arranged for a review copy.”
But even there, the book title in my blog entry is linked to Amazon via an Amazon Associates link: should I disclose that I’d make $0.17 for each copy someone bought after clicking through my link? And how different is that than pointing out that if the reader clicked on one of the associated Google ads, I’d make $0.09? At what level do we not need to disclose commercial relationships?
And so, finally, to the title of this article: Pay Me To Blog About Your Product or Service. Would I blog about things if companies offered to pay me? Sure. I already do. And I bet you do too, whether you realize it or not.
The question, then isn’t whether to do it, but whether to disclose, and I suggest that the answer to this supposed ethical dilemma is simply to state that bloggers should use their own judgment. If it is a relationship that’s going to compromise your own integrity, where you’re forced to say positive things about something that you don’t like or wouldn’t otherwise recommend, then you have a problem and you should disclose it to your readers in the interest of retaining your credibility. If not, though, if you’re a gadget freak and Sony or Nokia sending you a neato new toy just sidesteps you having to buy one, well, I suggest that’s not an ethical dilemma at all and doesn’t need to be disclosed.
So instead of a rule or guideline at all, let’s just start talking about a best practice and let each blogger decide where along the disclosure continuum they feel most comfortable.
What do you think?

19 comments on “Pay Me To Blog About Your Product or Service

  1. I have never received any money or other compensation from any company, I have no ads on any of my blogs, and don’t plan to ever have any.
    I am an often harsh and blunt critic of everyone from the Wall Street Journal to General Motors (a former client).
    However, I do have sidebar badges for Firefox because I like their browser. I have even posted once about how people should dump IE and switch to Firefox. But I’m not paid to say this.
    I have a I Power Blogger sidebar badge, which is a passive promotion of Blogger, but I have to leave it on my Blogspot blogs, according to Terms of Use, and I often promote the benefits of Blogger, but I’m not paid to do so.
    Google gives me free Gmail and Blogger and Hello/Picasa, so I defend Google against unfair attacks, recently in Business Week Blogspotting post comment, the post where Google is blamed for link farm pseudo or “spam” blogs, spamdexing blogs. I think my defense of Google against Stephen Baker may have gotten me blacklisted into a DNS blackhole, forbidding me to post any further comments at their blog. I have to investigate this.
    So I experience the very opposite. I am punished by blogs and corporations for criticizing them in good conscience.
    Is it wrong to accept payment to blog about a product, book, service, company?
    Well, I maintain the blog core values of transparency, authenticity, passion.
    If I criticize anything, my readers should be aware that no one is paying me to speak harshly of their competitors.
    And if I praise something, my readers should be aware that I’m authentically pleased with it. I’m really buying and using and satisfied with it. I’m not pretending, or exaggerating, or glossing over faults, due to the company paying me.
    But this is my personal method.
    I am not saying any other method is wrong or unethical. It may or may not be.
    You are doing a great service for the blogosphere by bringing up this subject.

  2. As to having advertising on your blog, that depends on the purpose of the blog. If it is your business or related to your business, the goal is to keep the person on your pages, and not off on potential competitors as AdSense can do for you. In the business blogs, the ads should be to your sites and products.
    Now, if it is a personal blog, and you don’t have a business you own, having ads can be a source of income for you. Having ads up in itself tells the reader, in most cases, that you get compensated if someone follows up on it.
    As to getting paid to blog about a product, I would hope that the payer is coming to you because you have already expressed interest in the product in some way. I do not have a problem with a respected blogger getting paid for something they are pationate about, and I don’t mind if I don’t know if they get paid. Now, if they don’t like the product or they are not 100% about the faults of the product, sole because they are paid not to, then I have an issue.

  3. I think part of the problem is that there is no universal or commonly accepted definition of a blog and what it is used for. It can be “media”, personal promotion, a personal diary, or one of a hundred other things depending on the author. It’s my personal opinion that the underlying reason for the blog makes all the difference in the world about how/when/if to reveal any compensation issues.
    I’ve struggled with this a bit myself due to the book reviews I do. The vast majority of the books I review are received direct from the publisher. I don’t state specifically that they are free. Occasionally I do, and occasionally I allude to the fact. I also link to Amazon with my associate ID. This information is all present in my disclosure statement if you read it (http://hostit1.connectria.com/twduff/home.nsf/htdocs/TDUF63Z2TS.htm). The specific part for books is this:
    I read. A lot. I live a block away from a public library. That’s where nearly all my “recreational” reading material comes from. The books I review on this site are posted here and on Amazon. If you read a review on a tech book, you can nearly always assume I’ve received this book for free from the publisher, such as O’Reilly, Wiley, Apress, Addison-Wesley, and others. I’m on their reviewer lists and receive review copies of books that are of interest to me or my blogging audience. Other than the free book, I don’t get paid for these reviews. I am under no pressure from the publisher to generate positive spin for a book just because they sent it to me. In fact, they encourage me to be honest. So, if I post a positive review, it’s because I really did like the book.
    I think you have the key phrase and answer in your post, Dave… “Best Practices”. You’ll never make it a “rule”, and you can’t apply a single answer to multiple intentions. But as with everything you read or see, it pays to think about “why” the person is writing. It’s probably even more important with blogs.

  4. Duffbert raises some enlightening points and I appreciate Don Bell’s astute insights here also.
    I admit I am groping around a bit in this issue, but you emailed me and asked me my opinion, as imperfectly formed as I realize it may be, here it be.
    I just hate the idea of saying, “I’ll rave about anything if you pay me enough.”
    This is not ethical journalism, blogging, or even candid conversation.
    If I’m into web usability analysis, and Microsoft or Google wanted to hire me to write articles on web usability in general, to make them look hip and current and expert, by association with me and my writing, this seems legitimate.
    If I write web usability articles, I’m not a blog-stitute. Blogstitution would be saying anything for anybody with a wallet opened up.
    If they wanted me to mention how I use MS or Google products in my web analysis work, then I’d have a problem.
    Remember the Progressive ads, “we give you our prices and the prices of at least 3 major competitors. Sometimes we’re lower. Sometimes we’re not.” That builds credibility.
    Credibility is enhanced by biting the hand that feeds you. If I was able to praise Microsoft or Google competitors freely when I felt it was honest, that would make it more ethical.
    I have not spent a lot of time and effort on this specific topic, since it’s not immediately relevant to me, nor do I wish to be combative on this issue, at least not now. It’s yet another vital aspect of blogging I want to investigate, but I’m working on some other angles at the moment.
    So I tried to be fair, express my practices and standards, but not attempt to impose them on others. I think a blogger could be paid to blog about a General Topic Area for a company, but to receive pay for blogging about a Specific Product or Issue is of uncertain ethics.
    I know advertising agencies are paid to say the best things about the company and product, but still cannot engage in False Advertising or Consumer Fraud.
    I am combatively opposed to “Buzz Agents” who deceptively pose as satisfied users, happy customers, but are not. They try to spread online word of mouth memes in an unethical and counter-productive manner. Once exposed, or disclosed, the company and the agents are subjects of ridicule and their credibility is damaged greatly.
    I really don’t know about book reviewing.
    I think if you pull no punches and, like a MSM journalist is supposed to do, tell both the negative and positive aspects of a book you actually did indeed read, that is okay.
    Readers will probably notice if a reviewer rarely says anything harsh. Readers expect a true reviewer to even hate and ridicule a book or author now and then. Right?

  5. Alas, absent full, transparent disclosure, what choice does the reader have but to assume the worst? That’s a sad thing to have to say, but does reflect the reality of *all* media in our society.
    Most so-called reviews are strictly subjective, and hence not necessarily relevant to any particular reader with their own quirky needs.
    At best, reviews of any sort are simply clues and readers must do their own research to determine whether there is fire under all that smoke.
    I’d vote for full, transparent disclosure, but I don’t expect it and I don’t require it.
    — Jack Krupansky

  6. On the book review front (since I’m very familiar with that area), you’re right on, Steven. Look at the top rated reviewer for Amazon. She posts multiple reviews a day, the reviews are all rosy, and she loves everything. I’m sure her books come from publishers, and her formulatic style of reviews make her a target for people who discount what she has to say. It’s not a blog, but it’s a situation where disclosure might affect what people think about her writings. In my case, I don’t overtly state the source of the book on each review. Conversely, I often mention I got a “review copy” of the title. I also rest a bit more easy knowing I’ve panned titles before, so I’m not a paid shill who loves everything that comes across my desk. 🙂

  7. NO. Bloggers should not PAY to blog about a product unless it is disclosed as an advertisement. Having ads on a blog of course. Do I blog about my advertisers, but I write “welcome to new advertiser so and so…” and then I write a bit about the advertiser’s product.
    It all boils down to the trust that your audience has in you.
    Ramon Ray
    http://www.smallbiztechnology.com

  8. Ramon, I presume you mean “should not be paid to blog”, yes? Very interesting discussion here, but I still suggest that there’s a nuance that you’re all missing, that the very topics you blog about are subtly, or even unconsciously, influenced by potential revenue.
    For example, let’s stick with the book review example. Let’s say that you want to be a book reviewer and post reviews on your blog. You pick a few of your favorite books off the shelf and write about them, producing some nice, well-received reviews. You then use that as a starting point and call up some publishers, requesting review copies of specific titles. But now when you review them — and remember you want to do more reviews — and find that they’re not so good, are you going to write a bad review and risk having the publicist at that publisher cross you off their list, or are you going to smooth over or simply skip writing that bad review so you don’t topple over your own proverbial wagon?
    Now, take that same scenario and apply it to Google AdSense or Yahoo Overture ads. The advertisements are automatically selected to match the content of a given page, and some ads produce higher revenues because they’re more in demand demographics. Now, when you have two possible topics to blog on, do you pick the one that’s going to generate better ad revenue for you, even subconsciously?
    And, finally, as I said in the original piece, when someone comes to you and offers you money to blog about them, do you take it? Do you disclose that you have a relationship with that firm? Do you detail out exactly what the relationship is and how much money you’ll be paid for that entry, even if it’d nullify any chance you have of working with that company again in the future?
    These are tough questions!

  9. Interesting Discussions.
    What happens if you review products and you do get them free for the review? What if those products cost a few hundred $$s?
    Well if I do get a free gadget for review, I am not going to say no. But then how do you put it up. Do you say “I have got a free review gadget xyz”??
    I think Google Ads are all right, since almost everyone has it and most people realize what they are. Also all Ads are clearly labeled as Ads by the Google script.
    I would me more worried of the other point raise. If you get the book/gadget free, will it not affect your review. I think it will, maybe not consiously, but rather at a subconsious level.

  10. A publisher would be a pathetic fool if they only dirstribute comp copies to those reviewers that published favorable reviews.
    First: the reading, book-buying public will not trust any reviewer who never bitches and complains about a single title. It’s like the girl or guy who hops into bed with anybody who comes along. The credibility of their “I love you” is zero.
    Second: a publisher should deliberately submit pre-published versions, I forget the correct technical term, “proofs” or whatever, to such critical, objective, cranky, straight shooting, vaspersian critics to get a frank and thus highly valuable assessment of the book in question.
    So undue influence is fatal to audiences, publishers, manufacturers, and critics themselves.
    No reputable, successful reviewer of films, books, products, etc. is always favorable about all items reviewed.
    Look at the success of Consumer Reports, their credibility. And guess what? They accept NO advertising. What does that tell you?

  11. Interesting question Dave. Actually, I think a more constructive comparison might be drawn to the worlds of scientific/academic/clinical research, rather than media. Specifically, a business or organization needs to have studies done to reality-check their claims, or to guide their decisions. That research might later be used to bolster commercial goals — but ideally that happens only after sound, objective research has been done.
    In the blog world, the equivalent of “sound research” would be “an honest opinion, not skewed by the presence of money.”
    …In either case, “ideally” is the key word, because we all know that in real life researchers sell their credibility all the time. In fact, in many fields and institutions it’s become virtually impossible to get ahead unless you court major sponsors and cater to their agendas. This has become a major controversy in science and medicine lately. But I digress…
    I’d say that it might work well for some bloggers to accept money to influence their choice of topic, without necessarily influencing the content. The key to making that work would be transparency, of course. People want to know what they’re getting.
    This might especially make sense with book, music, DVD, and game reviews, come to think of it.
    It would be an interesting experiment. Sure it would ruffle some feathers — but that’s what feathers are for, right? 😉
    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  12. I pretty much agree with Amy here. She has thought long and hard about this topic.
    Money could influence a topic, but should not influence the content or evaluation of a product.
    Like I’ve said, a company could hire me to blog about web usability topics, but not to rave about their product, or even to subtly imply that it’s good.
    I think Amy is closer to the truth and genuine blogging ethics.
    A good reputation cannot be bought, but a bad one can result from being paid off. So, I’d rather be poor and honest, than rich and full of BS.

  13. I like what you write, because I think exactly the same as you do.
    I even go further.
    I like to write and I adore to be challenged.
    What if you propose me to write about “Garage Floor”?
    Many would either make a limitless positive post about how convenient is to have this or that floor on your garage, or just dismiss it as “something they would never lower to do”.
    I ask: how much?
    And if it is a sum I am willing to work for:
    How can I write something people would stop to read, and may be find amusing?
    or: Am I able to write something readable?
    They paid &15 and I wrote something which can be summed to:
    I would like a checkered (black and white) tiles garage floor, because it would perfectly match a red Ferrari.
    It is true I do not own (yet) a Ferrari, but who knows?
    I put the link as requested to garage floor and next step the $15 are on my PayPal account…
    Well I also wrote better posts than that, but I had a better subject too…

  14. I highly agree it is important to develop ethics in any business transaction paid blogging is no different.

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