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?