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No money, no social media honey?

July 15, 2009

A recent NY Times article highlighted the tension between those bloggers comfortable making a living from their online efforts, and those with an almost journalistic fervour that blog posts should be unbiased and free of commercial endorsement. This debate is manifesting itself in may ways.

MomDot, a well-known mommy blogger network has proposed a “PR Blackout Challenge,” urging all its bloggers to spurn all paid and product giveaway posts between 10-16 August and get back to talking “about your kids, your marriage, your college, your hopes, your dreams, your house and whatever you can come up with for one week.” Just looking through the comments demonstrates the polarised views of the community, including the classic line “…I feel ya… but I probably won’t take part in the Blackout.”

– I love smart firms like Nuffnang, but its success has definitely increased the commercial considerations of a number of bloggers across SE Asia and Australia who won’t consider any form of brand engagement, unless it’s driven by elements such as pay-per-post – an area currently receiving close scrutiny by the US Federal Trade Commission. I personally believe that bloggers can be paid to post, as long as there is stringent transparency about the relationship/transaction. However, I’m seeing less transparency these days – but, that’s a topic for another post.


– There are also grumbles against events like a Blogathon in Singapore, where high-value prizes are being given out to selected participating bloggers and the creeping realization that the event is about hardcore brand promotion, rather than promoting blogging or raising money for charity, which is the well-known focus for a ‘Blogathon.’ I don’t know many journalists who would get involved under a structure like this – celebrities yes, media no.

Maybe it’s jealousy by the bloggers who don’t get the big blog ad dollars, or the fancy prizes. However, the net-net of all this is that people are now extremely wary about what is paid out there and what is not.Edelman China recently outlined five examples of brands that got burnt on the mainland for falling on the wrong side of paid disclosure and transparency divide. The clear rule of thumb for marketers is to ensure that you clearly understand and have mitigated the risk before engaging online – and if it’s wrong, just don’t do it. Some people (yep, some of them marketers) tell me the average person doesn’t care and that as long as they are entertained, damn the torpedoes. I could not disagree more!

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association recently spent the month of June debating the issue “We stand against marketing practices whereby the consumer is paid cash by the manufacturer, supplier or one of their representatives to make recommendations, reviews or endorsements” for its code of ethics. A fascinating range of viewpoints and insights if you get a chance to review.

In short, I believe there needs to be a (simple) common industry ethics charter that gives brands, agencies and bloggers a simple, yet consistent set of ethical guidelines to shape campaigns. There is no doubt in my mind that agencies should be the ones with the biggest vested interest in driving this, esp. as we nearly all use variants of the WOMMA ethical guidelines, just with different words and focuses. When I say agencies, I also mean agencies across the entire marketing spectrum – I’m seeing way too much client promotion from a whole variety of agency leaders who don’t disclose that they’re promoting a paying clients events? They should know better!

A commenter on the WOMMA ethics debate called Richard summed my position up nicely – “If you’re paid cash for anything by a company or brand, you’re an employee of that brand, and if you’re blogging about it, you should say so every in single post: “I’m an employee, or “This is a paid endorsement.” Readers deserve at least that much consideration and honesty.”

If maybe it’s not the payment that’s the issue, but the disclosure by the blogger or the agency person trying to promote a client event about the commercial relationship – what’s it going to take to make it easy for consumers to tell the difference between paid and non-paid? Again, does it really matter? Ok – off my pulpit now. Appreciate your thoughts.

Please Note – this is a mirror of a post I wrote for the MEDIA blog.


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