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.
Paul Chaney is a veteran digital marketing consultant, trainer, writer, editor, and author of four books, including The Digital Handshake: Seven Proven Strategies to Grow Your Business Using Social Media. Reach him via email@example.com.
LinkedIn: Paul Chaney