Bloggers, Brands & the New Publishing Paradigm
Boy do I understand the value of blogger endorsements. Along with many of my PR brethren, I’ve been championing the power of their influence for several years. And by now, enough marketers have embraced bloggers that the FTC wants to revise its endorsement guidelines to make mandatory the disclosure of “material connections” between bloggers and companies whose products or services they’re endorsing. This has been widely discussed on- and off-line so I won’t belabor it here; good news is, many leading bloggers already have disclosure policies posted on their sites. This is a good thing, whether they’re being paid to road test products, being taken on trips, or given product gratis to try (more on this in a moment.)
(I’ll pause here to say that the agency I work for has organized events and product road tests with bloggers on behalf of our clients. We also wholeheartedly support the disclosure of such arrangements on the part of the blogger.)
In the wake of the FTC announcement, some of our clients are anxiously wondering if they should change the way they’ve been dealing with bloggers. If you’re in PR, I’m sure you’re having the same conversations with your clients and marketing colleagues. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and was eager to hear what some of the leading voices in the mom blogosphere had to say during a Twitter chat last week on bloggers and brand representation.
The conversation moved at a blistering pace and I jumped in for only a portion but this was my big takeaway: this group is well aware of the need for transparency and disclosure. As mentioned, most of them already operate this way. Here’s where the conversation got interesting: there is sentiment in many corners that bloggers deserve compensation for what they do. I was interested to hear some bloggers describe what they offer on their sites as “advertorial” in nature, thereby casting themselves in the role not of content editor, but publisher. In other words, akin to the business-building side of the classic magazine church/state divide.
Which is sticky, because we PR types have helped our clients “get” bloggers by equating them with editorial influencers. In which these rules apply: marketer provides gratis product, editor tries, editor may or may not write about it favorably. No money changes hands. So the editorial game is high risk/high reward – you can’t control the outcome, which is why PR will always be several parts art (vs science) – but the potential value of unpaid editorial endorsement far outweighs the risk that an editor will slam your product after trying it.
Here’s where blogging gums up the works. “Publisher” vs “editor” distinctions don’t apply anymore. The blogger role is actually a new publishing paradigm. They wear multiple hats: selling advertising space, marketing themselves and their blog(s), creating promotional partnerships with brands, publishing content – but (here’s the gummy part) they are also the ones writing that content. And in some cases, that content involves road-testing and endorsing products. But unlike the magazine world, the blogosphere has no guidelines establishing the boundaries between publishing and editorial — indeed, publishing and editing seem to have merged and no one’s quite sure how to assign a monetary value to the blogger’s output.
To that point, some bloggers who approach product endorsement as an advertorial opportunity believe the endorsement carries a cash value. But remember that advertorial is an off-shoot of advertising and – crucial distinction – the marketer who pays for it in a magazine controls the content. And the resulting advertorial is clearly labelled as such, as dictated by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Bloggers wanting to traffic in advertorial should be aware that the marketer writing the check will expect to control the resulting post content. And the bloggers I know have too much integrity to let their blog real estate be “rented” in this way. This is why we will likely hear more on the question of whether bloggers should create off-shoot sites solely dedicated to product reviews. Which raises the question: does the product review lose its value if pulled out of the context of the blogger’s real life, everyday narrative? (A debate for another post.)
So here’s what I’d like to say to the bloggers I’ve gotten to know in the past few years, many of whom I respect a great deal, genuinely like and would love to partner with ongoingly:
The power of your personal endorsement makes you very attractive to us, just like an “old school” editor is attractive. But if I can’t control what you say about my client’s products, I can’t in good conscience give you their money. If I do, we’ve entered into an advertising/advertorial relationship and my clients are will expect to call the content shots.
Some of you are up-front about being “PR-unfriendly.” You filter out press releases and don’t do product reviews for free. I respect your honesty. So if I need bloggers willing to review product for free, I will leave you alone, seek the others out, give them the product to try, support them in disclosing the gratis arrangement, and be prepared to take the lumps if they don’t like the product.
For those of you who don’t do free reviews, there are plenty of other things I’d love to pay you for. Here are just a few:
Consulting and creative services: come help us shape our next social media campaign…please. We’d love to collaborate with you this way.
Panel and roundtable discussions: we would happily pay for your time and experience to participate in such events for the benefit and education of our clients and our own staff.
Promotional partnerships: will you be at an upcoming social media conference, and have an innovative sampling idea that will get my client’s product in the hands of influential bloggers? Sure, I’ll pay you to provide that service. I’d pay models in branded tees to sample on street corners; why wouldn’t I pay to benefit from your time and connections?
This is a rapidly evolving landscape, to be sure. I don’t need the FTC to tell me that. I hope that as we all continue to learn our way towards appropriate rules of engagement, we can continue to find mutually beneficial ways to work together that create value all around and — most importantly — keep us all on the right side of the ethical debate.
I welcome and value your thoughts. Please do share them.
To check out the FTC proposed revisions firsthand, read here.]
L.A.-based blogger Jessica Gottlieb speaks out in this post (there’s gold in the comments, including from Jessica Smith (“Jessica Knows”) who actually tags her Twitter tweets when necessary to identify them as sponsored.)
Jessica Smith also addresses inaccuracies in the BusinessWeek reporting here.