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On The Media Interview: How to be an ethical marketer. Why it’s wrong to pay for blog coverage.

Welcome to all the new readers who heard me on On The Media this morning.

I did an interview with host Bob Garfield about the most important issue in the world of blogging: ethics.  Specifically, we talked about what happens when marketers pay for placement in blogs.

(More here)

Paying for blog coverage — what you need to know:

  • Disclosure is the difference between honesty and sleaze.  Most media is supported by some form of advertising — but they label it clearly.  When you say "and now a word from our sponsor" you've done the right thing. If you forget the disclosure, or hide it, you are lying to your audience.
  • The FTC agrees. Taking money for blog posts is illegal if you don't disclose that you were paid.  The new regulations make it clear: you are responsible for what you write.  You don't get some special protection from long-standing rules just because you write on a blog instead of a newspaper.
  • The problem is when your paid message gets repeated (without the disclosure). When you take money for a blog post, even if you disclose it properly, you can't ensure that the disclosure is repeated on Facebook, Twitter, and by everyone else who re-blogs it.  You can't — which means you are the source of a wide-spread deception.

Advice for consumers: Learn to tell the difference between paid endorsements and regular blog posts.  Stop reading and linking to anyone who crosses the line.

Advice for marketers:  There is no good reason to pay bloggers. Ever. The promotion you might get is no better than if you used non-paid PR and advertising.  The downside, however, is huge. If you screw up just once — or if the blogger forgets to mention that you paid them — you risk an major scandal, national humiliation, and permanent brand damage.

To learn how to do this the right way, use the Blog Council's Disclosure Best Practices Toolkit.

Update:

Based on email I've been receiving, I've confused more than a few people (maybe myself).

1. We are talking about when a company pays you write a blog post
(or tweet) about their product. We're not talking about a blogger on
payroll or an advertisement (that looks like an ad).

2. Disclosure is the rule. If you get paid to review or write about
a product you must disclose. It is legal and ethical to get paid, with
disclosure.

3. My personal advice. Don't take money to write a post, even with
disclosure. It's still likely to discredit the blogger and the
advertiser.

It's ok to be a professional blogger who earns a living from
advertising. But when you get paid for the editorial as well as ads,
you're in danger of crossing the line.

Recommendation: Ads should look like ads, not posts.

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Comments

  1. Torley April 19, 2009 at 9:58 am #

    Yes, so often people focus solely on money, when it’s actually disclosure that’s the primary problem. If you get paid to do what you love (and would’ve done anyway) and you’re upfront about it, that’s a killer combo. But when money is the motivating cause behind your actions and not something awesome, therein is a stinky problem.
    Subject to the same box are people who love the products their company puts out, where it’s key to state “I work for this company and I really love this stuff.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
    Too bad all the scamsters and sleazeballs keep tainting the equation — it’s problematic people like them who make the general term “marketing” sourer to public perception.

  2. Jeremiah Owyang April 19, 2009 at 10:05 am #

    I agree.
    My Forrester colleague Sean Corcoran’s report on Sponsored Conversations agrees with this. We insist that when this happens, clear disclosure and transparency is required, followed secondly by authentic content.
    http://blogs.forrester.com/marketing/2009/03/sponsored-conve.html
    Secondly, take a look at this growing list of sponsored conversations. It’s easy to see this is a trend, and we’re happy to help our clients know the right way to approach this.
    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2009/03/03/running-list-of-sponsored-conversations/
    Thanks Andy for highlighting what we insist is the right way to approach this: clear disclosure of a financial relationship and authenticity.

  3. Stuart Foster April 19, 2009 at 10:27 am #

    Paying for blog coverage is definitely a journalistic taboo. It should be a brand taboo as well. If you are going to pay someone to promote your brand from an independent standpoint…first off: don’t. But if you can’t avoid doing so, make sure the independent source makes a full disclosure.

  4. Matches Malone April 19, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    Have to disagree with this one. I write for a poker blog, and he pays me for the privilege. Am I to understand that you believe everyone should be writing free? #fail.

  5. Zack Smith April 19, 2009 at 10:45 am #

    Andy, thanks for reminding us of the ethical standards that need to be maintained in social media. I graduated from Northwestern’s IMC in December and had the pleasure of listening to your lecture on WOM in Clarke Caywood’s class.
    I’m currently marketing a new series of classic comedy roasts on DVD featuring timeless comedians such as
    –Editor: I cut out a bunch of shameless self promotion. See my comment further down.–
    I want to take advantage of Twitter’s targeting capabilities, but also want to ensure that I’m acting in an ethical manner. What does everyone think?

  6. Andy Sernovitz April 19, 2009 at 10:54 am #

    Matches – Nobody said anything about writing for free. Every journalist gets paid to write. We’re talking about hiding the fact that you are paid, or disguising ads as editorial.

  7. Andy Sernovitz April 19, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    Zach – Better go back to class. Your comment is way over the line. My comment box is not a place for you to advertise your product. Especially because you tried to bury your ad in the form of a question. Not right.
    Read this – the rules of comment spam:
    http://www.damniwish.com/2009/04/quick-note-on-blog-etiquette.html

  8. SelfishMom April 19, 2009 at 11:03 am #

    “Matches – No body said anything about writing for free. Every journalist gets paid to write. We’re talking about hiding the fact that you are paid, or disguising ads as editorial.”
    You’re not making this clear at all. Which is it, never pay bloggers to write about your product, or pay but make sure they disclose it properly?
    The only way to get some trusted bloggers to write about a product is to pay them. Why is that wrong? Some people develop a relationship with blogs that they read regularly and trust what the blogger has to say. It’s in the blogger’s best interest to be honest in order to keep her readers’ trust.
    Blogs take time and for many of us are a business, not a hobby. All advertising has risk, but the rewards of a good review from a trusted blog can be huge. It’s an ethical minefield, but to just dismiss paying bloggers completely is a real disservice to all involved.

  9. Zack Smith April 19, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    I’m sorry Andy. My intention was not to advertise a product but to ask a question about how to approach this subject in an ethical manner. I will read the rules of comment spam, but please be aware that I was not using this as a platform to sell anything! If I had another forum to communicate with you, I would have used it.

  10. Andy Sernovitz April 19, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    To be clear:
    1. Never pay for blog coverage
    2. Never take money to write a post on your blog.
    It’s ok to
    1. Sell advertising that completely looks like advertising and doesn’t look like a blog post.
    2. Have a job as a staff writer who blogs for a company, as long as it is clear that you are an employee.

  11. Zack Smith April 19, 2009 at 11:28 am #

    Andy, thanks for recommending that I read your rules on comment spam. While I subscribe to countless blogs, I don’t often comment so I wasn’t well versed in the rules of commenting. I completely agree with everything you’ve listed and would never have included many of the specifics in my comment if I had known better. By the way, none of my classes ever covered the “rules on commenting spam”, so possibly you should include that in your next lecture. Once again…my apologies!

  12. Andy Sernovitz April 19, 2009 at 1:52 pm #

    Based on email I’ve been receiving, I’ve confused more than a few people (maybe myself).
    1. We are talking about when a company pays you write a blog post (or tweet) about their product. We’re not talking about a blogger on payroll or an advertisement (that looks like an ad).
    2. Disclosure is the rule. If you get paid to review or write about a product you must disclose. It is legal and ethical to get paid, with disclosure.
    3. My personal advice. Don’t take money to write a post, even with disclosure. It’s still likely to discredit the blogger and the advertiser.
    It’s ok to be a professional blogger who earns a living from advertising. But when you get paid for the editorial as well as ads, you’re in danger of crossing the line.
    Recommendation: Ads should look like ads, not posts.

  13. SelfishMom April 19, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    Thanks for the clarification, I’m clearer on your position now. But I still disagree.
    “It’s ok to be a professional blogger who earns a living from advertising. But when you get paid for the editorial as well as ads, you’re in danger of crossing the line.” How is this different than a company hiring a celebrity spokesperson?
    I recently interviewed a TV celebrity who does commercials for a company and has a house full of their products, given to her gratis. She has, in effect, disclosed that she works for them by appearing in their commercials, but she does not prepend every statement about them on her show with “I work for them and they pay me to talk about them.” That, to me, is a much grayer area than a blogger stating up front “Company X sent me this product and paid me to write about it. Here’s what I think.”
    Of course it’s going to look suspicious. Of course some people are going to think that the blogger just writes good things to get paid. But that’s something to be figured out by the blogger and the company. If the blogger has laid a good foundation of transparency and honesty, her readers will believe her and the company will benefit (if they have a good product, and get a good write-up).

  14. Jim "Genuine" Turner April 19, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

    Would love to invite you to help promote the idea of “Sponsored Conversations Summit”. Send me an email Andy and we can talk more.

  15. Liz April 19, 2009 at 2:48 pm #

    I heard your interview. It was interesting, and timely, but I don’t trust “On The Media” anymore. Right after NPR took heat for the fact that one of their hosts, Fred Goodwin, of The Infinite Mind public radio show, was being paid to give marketing talks for the pharmaceutical industry, “One The Media” did an unconscionable hatchet job on the independent producers of the show. The upshot was that “On The Media” later had to correct and apologize for the story, saying their actions were “a lapse of journalistic judgment.” It’s documented on PR Watch.com: http://www.prwatch.org/node/8314
    It raises the question, who’s watching the watchdogs when an NPR media watch show pulls a stunt like this, which would not be allowed on a high school newspaper.

  16. Lee April 19, 2009 at 2:52 pm #

    Are you talking about reviews? Product endorsements? If so, I think you need to call that out.
    Blogs are no longer just one person’s journal. They are becoming more and more journalistic every day. When an objective point of view is provided, why shouldn’t the writer/journalist be paid for their time? What if they are REPORTING NEWS, not just expressing an opinion? What if they’re covering an event? Since news organizations are going bankrupt, why shouldn’t a journalist seek innovative new ways to get paid?
    It takes time to research. It takes time to write. What’s more, what you’re really paying for are YEARS of practice in honing their skill so that the writing style is engaging and clear.

  17. Andy Sernovitz April 19, 2009 at 3:55 pm #

    Ethics are not a game.
    You don’t have to like the rules. It’s not about your ability to make money.
    Journalism ethics rules have been clear for generations: Editorial and advertising must be separate. It’s unethical to take money to write a story that appears to be news.
    The test is simple: Does the reader know that a specific post was paid for?
    The FTC has made this perfectly clear: These rules apply to social media, they apply to bloggers, and they apply to celebrity endorsements. Read the new rules:
    http://www.ftc.gov/os/2008/11/P034520endorsementguides.pdf
    It’s still just fine to be an advertising-supported publication, and it’s fine to be a paid journalist.
    I don’t understand why anyone would want to sell out in this way. I don’t understand why any advertiser would want their product endorsed by someone who would sell out like this.

  18. SelfishMom April 19, 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    “I don’t understand why anyone would want to sell out in this way. I don’t understand why any advertiser would want their product endorsed by someone who would sell out like this.”
    I’m not sure what you’re referring to here. If you’re speaking about writing a paid post that isn’t clearly marked as such, then I agree with you, that’s totally wrong.
    But if you’re referring to someone taking money to post, I think your idea of “selling out” is out of touch.

  19. Muiris April 22, 2009 at 6:12 am #

    Selfish Mom, I’m actually with Andy on this one and don’t see where all the confusion’s arising from.
    The difference between a celebrity endorsement in a TV ad (which we know is always a paid-for medium) and a “normal person” endorsement in a medium where people will naturally mention brands without necessarily getting paid to do so is huge.
    The assumption is that the celebrity is being paid to endorse the product whereas the assumption is that the blogger is not – so disclosure is only necessary in the second case.
    As for the worth of paid-for blog posts, I think it ties in well with Seth Godin’s views on spam:
    “Earning permission is a long-term, profitable, scalable strategy that pays for itself. Think about how much better off a brand would be if it took the time to make promises, keep them and be transparent about its communications.”
    Short term it might work – but any faith an audience has in a blogger (or anyone else) will be quickly eroded if they’re obviously shilling themselves, especially if the products themselves aren’t up to scratch.

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