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Historical Perspective on Blog and Social Media Ethical Standards Debate

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It helps to have been around business blogging and social media for a while. It gives one historical perspective.


Case in point, the almost perennial debate over whether it's okay to mix advertorial content in with editorial. That argument has been bandied about ever since the days of Marqui's Blogosphere program in 2004.
Then, there was the flap over Ted Murphy's Pay Per Post in 2006 where bloggers were paid to write about brands and products without, at first, being required to disclose the relationship. Oh, and don't let me forget the brouhaha over Wal-Marting Across America, which also took place in 2006.
Cycle around to 2008-2009 and this beast rears its ugly head again, this time with people whom I would never have guessed would endorse the ideology. I'm talking, of course, about Chris Brogan with his post about K-Mart at Dad-o-matic, Joseph Jaffe and Sears and, most recently, Robert Scoble, who monetized his Twitter and Friendfeed accounts through the use of an Amazon affiliate link.
Add to that faux blogs and ghostwriting (a topic Beth Harte adroitly covered the other day) and you've got quite a stew.
Much ado about nothing? Maybe so, but it is a question of ethics that is not going away and which needs to be "thunk" through and debated until we can, once and for all, lay this issue to rest.
The Wild West Nature of the Blogosphere
The blogosphere has always had a bit of wild west character about it in which each person does what is right in his own eyes. Journalistic standards have tried to be applied which said it's unethical for bloggers to receive incentives or be paid to shill for brands or products, at least not without disclosing that relationship. Except, bloggers don't necessarily see themselves as journalists and, therefore, don't always subscribe to the ethics required by that profession.
So, what are we to do, look the other way or try to bring some law & order to the wild west?
Scoble's Twitter/Friendfeed Monetization
Well-known business blogger and marketing expert Jim Kukral fostered such an attempt with his Blog Honor Pledge program in 2006 in response to the Pay Per Post issue. However, in a Twitter exchange with Jim recently, he indicated it was a tired argument that has basically been settled saying, "full disclosure solved all the issues...I think it's all a non-issue."
But, Scoble didn't disclose in his Twitter/Friendfeed posts that his was an affiliate link and that he would make a few dollars from any sales garnered through it. And, so, the debate continues.
Louis Gray raised the issue musing over whether this was a one-time experiment or a "sign of things to come."
The Transparency Police
Way back in 2005, when blogging was still in its nascent innocence (i.e. before marketers began "polluting" the medium), I included an affiliate link to a book in one of my posts without disclosing such and was roundly criticized for it.
In response, I coined the term "transparency police." While I won't be so bold as to suggest that event sparked the ongoing debate over the subject, it did add kindling to a flame that was beginning to rise.
Justifying the Practice as a Social Experiment
Marc Canter, the person responsible for creating the Marqui Blogosphere Program, in 2004 called it a "social experiment." Four years later Chris called his foray into pay per post an experiment as well. How long are we going to "experiment" with this before we draw some conclusions as to whether the practice is acceptable or not?
In a recent LinkedIn bloggers exchange, group member Jason Alba said, "I think the disclosure thing is so overstated and sensationalized. But some people freak out over it. Perhaps we should ALWAYS include something like 'I will make a few bucks if you buy this' or 'I will not make any money if you buy this.' Always? Sometimes? Where's the line? Who cares? Doesn't it come down to trusting the source?"
Indeed, it does. Julien Smith and Chris Brogan, in their social media manifesto Trust Economies, say, "We are suspicious of marketing. We don't trust strangers as willingly. Buzz is suspect. It can be bought. Instead, consumers and business people alike are looking towards trust. We want our friends to tell us it's good. We want someone we know to say we should look into it."
"Buzz is suspect... It can be bought."
Are we eroding trust when we recommend a brand or product knowing there is a price attached to our endorsement?
This issue is real one for me right now as I've just completed an ebook on using Twitter for business which I hope to sell. Blog posts and Twitter announcements are two ways I could use to draw attention to the product. Even though the book is of my own creation, I'm ambivalent about whether to intermingle editorial and advertorial. My better angels tell me to steer clear of crossing the line, but I know it's my best shot for getting the word out about the book.
So, just where do we draw the line? Is there an ethical standard to which all bloggers should adhere? Or is this, as Jim Kukral declared, a non-issue?
My opinion is that, as time marches on, we will move further and further away from the "purist" roots which made blogging a medium that someone once referred to as "the last form of honest advertising." We will continue to become desensitized to the notion that there should be an absolute ethical standard to which everyone must adhere. (This is an age of relativism after all. There are no "shoulds" and "oughts.") What is acceptable will be determined by the wisdom of crowds and the community in which the blogger participates.
But, that's just me. What do you think?
DISCLAIMER: My mention of bloggers in this post is not an attempt to call them out or stir up controversy for controversy's sake. It is an attempt to shed light on the issue from an historical perspective and, as a result, foster critical thinking and further debate.


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Paul Chaney is "The Social Media Handyman" and the author of The Digital Handshake: Seven Proven Strategies to Grow Your Business Using Social Media (www.thedigitalhandshake.com). Reach him via pchaney@gmail.com.

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  • by Alan Wolk Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    I think the problem is fairly straightforward and stems from the definition of "blog" and "blogger." It's too narrow a term for such a wide ranging category. Pay-for-Post matters if you want to be seen as a journalist. Then you just don't do it ever because it clearly violates a certain trust and makes you look like a hack. But not all bloggers want to be journalists. Many provide entertainment or opinion or something in between (kind of like a television talk show.) And so why care about "journalistic integrity" when that's not your focus? It's a perfectly legitimate option and we need to stop seeing all blogs as the online equivalents of the New York Times op-ed pages. The decision is the individual blogger's (or blog editor's) to make based on how they want to market their site. Only caveat is that it's near impossible to go back to being a journalist once you've become a talk show host.

  • by Gareth Cutter Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    "Are we eroding trust when we recommend a brand or product knowing there is a price attached to our endorsement?" I'd say, unequivocally, yes: although it might not completely obliterate my trust it would certainly diminish it. Which I think is why some people on the web are so reluctant to come clean - they stand to lose out from doing so. From an ethical standpoint, its always better to be transparent about these things; from a business standpoint, it should be a no brainer - betrayed trust is incredibly hard to win back.

  • by CK Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    Excellent post and a topic that more marketers will need to understand as more start tapping this medium. When you wonder if we'll move from our "purist" roots, to me that seems as though we'd move away from ethics of not mixing "church and state" (i.e ads and content). I really hope we don't move away from those guidelines. So I'll choose to remain sensitive --not desensitized as you say above. Anything less means I'm not serving the customers' interests; and for me, that's when I would need to hang up my marketing hat (as that's when I become a polluter). But, overall, it seems with all the smart marketers, we could certainly come up with more creative and FAR more compelling ways to encourage WOM than to have paid-for posts or tweets that "transparently" begin with "This is sponsored by XYZ--but don't worry, it doesn't affect my opinion whatsoever." (note: If these are the strategies that I spent money on business school to learn–I want my money back) Why aren't more marketers creating great advisory boards or clever programs to engage these passionate communities? I'm honestly confounded. In any case I have to say--and I've been in this "conversation" for years--I'm amazed at the majority of poor strategies and tactics with marketing in social media--even worse when ppl say "but at least it's transparent". Well, it's transparently dull and a credibility killer, to boot. I'm not trying to stir up controversy--but I'm not afraid of others disagreeing with me, everyone's entitled to their good opinion. Just being honest to the good points in your post, and to the lack of creativity (or real results) with these paid WOM efforts. Instead let's look at the strong programs that such co's like Sci-Fi channel, CNN/YouTube, AMEX and others have done--they are a better example for marketers looking to make inroads and a real impact in this medium. Even better, you can do these programs without adding noise/pollution, killing credibility and maintaining great guidelines. So that's a win-win-win.

  • by Paul Chaney Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    Alan, I think you nailed it. If bloggers want to ID themselves as journalists, then those standards apply. If not, then Pandora's box is still open and caveat lector. Thanks for your insights.

  • by Joseph Jaffe Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    Paul, Appreciate this considered post and the historical overview. Agreed on the bloggers v journalists call out and think we need to put this to bed once and for all. I do want to state though that I categorically do not agree that the Izea/Sears/K-mart effort was (or should be compared to) Pay Per Post. Clearly, Ted Murphy is the link between "what was" and "what is"; if this becomes "guilt by association", then so be it...but from my perspective (and as a participant), the two are not the same. As you pointed out, earlier efforts for PPP did not provide adequate and/or necessary disclosure. In addition, the posts being written were explicitly being paid for i.e. there was a direct cause-effect. The Izea program on the other hand, was just that...a program; a promotion. I know you feel strongly about this and I'm not trying to change your mind, but let me just say that in way do I (or would I) endorse the ideology of PPP AKA Faking a Conversation. I think it's critical to recognize the ever changing and evolving nature of this space/business...AND to keep an open mind. I also think we need to recognize that mistakes are going to be made along the way, but at the same time, I think it's imperative to not be blinkered by our own biases and perceptions of what is considered to be black or white in an otherwise multicolored collage of innovation/change.

  • by James Hipkin Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    @alan got it right regarding how the blogger positions themselves. Disclosure is key but, and building on Alan's point, so is the value of the content. If the post brings value to the blog's readers, assuming proper disclosures have been made, then there shouldn't be an issue. If it's a gratuitous attempt to make money without consideration for the blog's readers, then the readers will soon solve the problem. After all, another fine blog is just a click away.

  • by Uwe Hook Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    My main concern with all these programs are that they clutter important channels and turn useful tools (Twitter/Facebook) into spam-like channels. During the Panasonic promotion at CES my Twitterfeed resembled a marketing feed for new products. Same happened during the Sears/Kmart promotion: everybody was retweeting and clogging up the system. I think all of us agree that marketers should use these various platforms to enhance the conversation. I was annoyed.

  • by CK Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    @UweHook: Amen. The noise is incredible. I actually asked several marketers to please, please rethink their "retweeting requests" as part of promotions as it degrades the conversation--yes, the conversation that we marketers hold and promote so dearly!--for the innocent tweeters that only want to use these tools for their intended use...which is, to say, share and exchange ideas, views and recommendations. (not RT contests and sweepstakes). What I couldn't understand is why marketers didn't give thought to the lack of consideration they were wielding at their markets. I know that I had to significantly limit my use of twitter during those contests.

  • by Ben Kunz Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    I find it laughable that we have to debate this. The fact that bloggers are concerned that something may be wrong with shilling opinions is evidence that deep inside, we know it is wrong. Disclosure is not enough, because it does not protect you from diminishing your opinion. "Hey, look, I get to play with a free Nikon camera! This is a great way to reach out to bloggers!" Please. There's nothing wrong with writing those words. There's nothing wrong with being a vacuum salesperson or circus clown, either. The question of bloggers adopting reporters' journalistic standards misses the point. It's worse. Bloggers -- at least those who try to be thought leaders -- are more like the editorial voice of a newspaper offering a viewpoint on world events than they are to the reporters merely relaying facts. If the WSJ editorial board swayed an opinion over a gift card, no one would ever believe them again. This is not about ethics, but rather efficiency. The reason the communications market has evolved into "editorial" and "advertising" is because delineation is effective. There is value in each side, but only if clearly labeled. When we blend the areas, our audiences get confused ... and then they leave. Newspapers don't keep unbiased voices because they are altruists, but because if they don't it's bad for their long-term business. Don't believe me? Try to listen, really listen. Why is there *controversy* on Twitter when a leading blogger shills? Maybe the community is trying to tell you something. I would suggest that social media networks are a self-correcting organism, defending themselves against a cancerous intrusion -- paid opinions -- that will eventually devalue the entire system. If you think that is too strong, I invite you to revisit telemarketing in the phone networks and spam in the email networks, and see how they devalued the entire systems to the point that both were eventually rejected by the public. It's fine to shill. But if you do, I promise, I won't be hiring you next year for any business strategy that my own livelihood depends on, and I won't be recommending you to any million-dollar clients. Because, my paid blogging friend, you have wasted your name and broken our trust.

  • by Chris Brogan... Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    Just a response to @UweHook - Twitter/Facebook are opt-in. If someone provides content you don't like, dump them. That's the beauty of both those systems. You can opt them out of your stream. Email. If only email were the same.

  • by Chris Brogan... Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    Oh, and on the other point, I'm not a journalist. I even wrote that post back in 2007 or so around the Nikon D80 issue. There's something to content marketing and I'm exploring it in 2009. So is Federated Media. So is Izea (disclosure: I'm on the board of advisors there). I think there's a way to do this in a much less questionable way. Yes, we still need to experiment. Show me a company not trying to innovate, and I'll show you a bankruptcy.

  • by Joseph Jaffe Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    I want to add to what Chris just said... @uwe - I think my friend (and I hope we connect next week in SFO; I'll DM you later :)) that you're being a little naive in your approach, especially considering the company you work for. Here's the point: "important channels" perhaps...but what's the business model??? are you and 1,000,000 of your closest strangers going to pay for Twitter. You know the answer to that. This is clearly not about "black" or "white", which Ben seems to be intimating in favor of. The answer is in experimenting or attempting to find a better solution to the fading status quo and alternatives... @uwe - The CES program was most definitely not a promotion. Whilst I agree with CK about the RT'ing (that should stop) and I've commented to the effect elsewhere, I'm not sure you can even remotely criticize the uniqueness/originality of Chris livetweeting a major press conference and making sure his followers found out about various news items before the MSM had a chance to do likewise. Now, if you're asking...is this relevant to the community, I don't know....you tell me? Tech, gadgets, HD...hell yeah. Finally to Ben. Do you really believe what is being talked about i.e. Sears/Kmart/Panasonic etc are being "shilled"? When bloggers are free to write what they want, with adequate disclosure and without censorship, I struggle to see how this could be called "shilling". One more thing...the art of listening is not to listen selectively. The active minority has always overshadowed the silent majority, and whilst I'm not advocating taking a poll...I will say this: ask (or don't even ask) 10 social media experts for an opinion and you'll get back 15 (all different) Peace.

  • by Alan Wolk Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    @Ben - Agreed-- I was thinking more like editorial voice than Moscow correspondent when I referred to journalist (hence the reference to the NY Times Op Ed) But not everyone sees themselves that way. And it's up to their readers to decide if they like the talk show host scenario. @ Everyone: This conversation reminds me of the political debates you see on sites like Daily Kos or HuffPo. One side is never going to convince the other or even acknowledge that a rational human could hold that POV, but that doesn't stop them from trying.

  • by CK Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    @Ben: I think you've got a great point on efficiency with the ad/content models. It's simply not viable when we mix the two. The best ways of doing so are either (1) true sponsorships (like an event with sponsors, or a show that thanks its sponsors but doesn't change its content) or (2) product placement where a brand shows up in a program due to its relevancy to the scene–and then it's gone. @awolk: Hmmm. Likening the different POVs to political parties. Well, in a sense, both political parties are arguing their way/ideology is the best way to run the country so I guess you could say we're debating which way is the best model for the medium. And there will certainly be differences of opinion (hey, that's a democratic country and democratic medium for ya). But let me put 'personal feelings' on what's ethical/pure/whatnot aside. My astonishment lately is just how uncreative these paid posts are. I understand needing to find ways to monetize the medium--but I think, with our collective smarts and our lessons learned from other media--that there are so many more viable, and truly innovative ways of engaging audiences. Look at what CNN did around the Inauguration yesterday with Facebook. Or how Amex has created vast forums for users to share reccs on most any biz service/product. Or how Dell's Digital Nomads is focusing on content that's "not just computers but new ways of living/working". Those are the types of models I'm promoting to my clients (and other marketers). So Alan, I guess that's the party I'm (proudly) affiliated with ;-). @Chris: Let me explain: it's not that we could just unfollow 1 tweeter who was running the contest as the RTs that were encouraged as part of the contest were from hundreds. Astounding how they were filling up our tweetstreams--remember there were approx. 8 that were doing the same contest and encouraging RTs. Julio over at Twitter actually sent screenshots around showing how bad it got for his conversations. It was worse than any barrage of ads you've seen and turned this "conversational medium" we all encourage into one BIG SPAM channel. @Jaffe: I sincerely appreciate your agreeing that the contest RTing must stop. Thank you!

  • by Uwe Hook Wed Jan 21, 2009 via blog

    @ Chris: You provide a lot of useful information on your blog/Twitter etc. And I totally appreciate it. I don't want to turn off that information stream. But I want to find a way to turn off the advertorial stream. It doesn't add anything to my life, dilutes your brand and doesn't add anything to the conversation. As to your innovation point: Absolutely. That's why we have this discourse. You might be in the majority, I might be in the minority. I just think that PR stunts like that or the Kmart/Sears thing, even the Jaffe's iPhone stunt feel very small. Don't we want to work with major brands, changing the whole advertising world? (I think we should) These little stunts make us look smaller than we are. And that's not a good thing. Especially in times when we should shine. Brightly. @Joseph The CES program was not a promotion? Come on. Your oovoo initiative was a promotion but one that added value to everybody's participant lives. But Panasonic? It was a promotion that was appreciated by some, being considered as noise by most. (My assumption...) I think we should have a serious discussion about this topic and how all of us can advance Social Marketing. I have underwritten SM programs that sucked and I wouldn't do them again and that's the beauty of the space we're in: Experimenting is okay. But we need to discuss these programs in detail to ensure that the overall idea of Social/Conversational Marketing is not diluted by certain initiatives/tactics.

  • by Paul Chaney Thu Jan 22, 2009 via blog

    Stating the obvious here, but something to which we can all attest, social media marketing is a young discipline and one that should undergo the scrutiny of experimentation. As I see it, the problem with the way we're doing it is that it's in an uncontrolled open forum. Though I'm no scientist, I don't believe researchers would consider that the optimum environment. Experiments when rightly done include the test of an hypothesis, a "control" and an independent variable that's being tested against the hypothesis. (Anyone who is more well-versed than I on experimental models, please chime in!) Are those elements present in this "experiment?" If so, can someone show me where they are defined? My impression is that we're doing this in an "open source" sort of way and one that lacks the disciplines described above. Is that really very efficient? Doesn't appear to be so as history keeps repeating itself in these perennial cycles. Perhaps it should become the purview of the IBNMA (www.ibnma.org) to become the standard bearer and/or laboratory through which these experiments are run. There needs to be some degree of governance or oversight. I realize contrarians might suggest that the open market is our lab and will vet this over time...the wisdom of crowds will be the ultimate determiner. I'm not sure I agree; not sure I don't either. In the meantime, we continue to make judgments about what constitutes signal vs. noise. I'm all for open dialogue and healthy debate, but not if, in the end, that's all that gets accomplished. Is there a better way to move this along to a conclusion supported by empirical evidence? Or, are we content to all just stand on our soapboxes in the middle of the town square? The experiment should begin with an hypothesis. What's ours?

  • by Mack Collier Sun Jan 25, 2009 via blog

    I think there's two ways we can handle the idea of sponsored/paid social media content: 1 - Stop it completely. That means content creators will have to find other ways to make money off their content, such as ads on blogs. 2 - Experiment. This way we can come up with better systems that not only create more value for the content creator, but ALSO for the people that interact with that content. #1 isn't going to happen, so we can either pout about it, or look for ways to improve the entire process of compensating content creators. Some of you have mentioned how 'advertorial' content does nothing for you. Fine, then let's abolish all of it. Now we are let with ads on blogs. Yeah, because those are SO valuable. We can either complain about the system, or improve it. Ironically, this is a lot of what's wrong with social media itself these days, we have too many people that want to complain about what someone else is (or is not) doing, and too few that want to roll up their sleeves and move the space forward. Does that mean that every sponsored post or advertorial content is good or even mediocre? Nope, and in fact many have been complete disasters. But the process HAS improved because some people are trying to move it forward.

  • by Paul Chaney Sun Jan 25, 2009 via blog

    So where do we begin Mack? What's the hypothesis? Is "user benefit" the litmus test? How is that defined? Rather than curse the darkness, let's light a candle...or a Bunsen burner.

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