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Blogging, Advertising and Conflicts of Interest: Disclosure Policies

disclosure keyboardSci Fi channel got slapped in 2004 when it publicized a supposed rift with film director M. Night Shyamalan over an un-authorized biography when in reality no biography existed, nor did the rift. Both were fictionally created by marketers.

In December 2006, Sony got itself in similar hot water when it created a fake fan website to support its PSP game platform.

Marketers have learned there is a fine line to walk between maintaining the trust of their customers and promoting their products with newly emerging online techniques.   In the Internet publishing world, an online world where everyone has a voice, where anyone can be an author, or a journalist, a videographer or otherwise, credibility is sometimes assumed before its earned but its ongoing maintenance is essential. 

Over the past few days the value systems of the developing blogosphere and Web 2.0 world have been thrown again in the spotlight as Internet Ad publisher Federated Media and some of its higher profile publishing clients from Tech Crunch to GigaOm  have been drawn into a heated  debate over related issues. (Though, this time, unlike with Sony or Sci Fi channel, its been the appearance of impropriety, and not any actual wrong doing, that’s raised discussion – and arguably, a disproportionate and overblown response at that).  The debate, which has gained momentum since Friday,  has apparently even been heated enough that some frustrated participants have even sent each other one line emails saying nothing more than: “you’re an idiot.”

At the heart of the matter lies a new marketing method  called “conversational marketing” that tries to initiate a dialog about a product, service or company.  In this case, specifically, they involved advertisements and a companion website that are part of Microsoft’s People-Ready ad campaign. Both the campaign and site showcase short essays or quotations from blogger’s relating to the “People-ready” theme.   Each of several authors shared their thoughts on what that phrase meant to them.

Friday, foul flags were raised by a few and the integrity of several of the authors in the advertising network was openly questioned.    While the blogger’s comments regarding “People ready” were their thoughts on what the theme meant to them, not endorsement of a specific Microsoft product, and the words were not presented on a site that might lead to confusion with their regular works – it was enough for the authors to be challenged for possible conflicts of interest by some of their peers.

Om Malik, author of Giga Om, posted a classy reply Friday evening.  He clarified misinformation and noted that “the original premise of the campaign was to give my thoughts by what People Ready meant to me – it wasn’t an endorsement of a specific Microsoft product.”  He further pointed out that none of his words ran on his own editorial space.  He says, “Microsoft asked us to join a conversation, and we did. I wasn’t paid to participate in the conversation, but Microsoft ran an ad-campaign that paid us on the basis of CPM.” 

At  the question of impropriety, even the speculation of questionable ethics, Om Malik had the ad campaigns removed from sites in his own network.  He also went on to say he would defer to readers judgment if they felt a line was crossed.  “Nothing,” he said “is worth gambling the readers’ trust.”

The incident, and the ongoing debate, brings back to the forefront the same kinds of issues that were held over Sony, and Sci Fi Channel over the past few years.  At its core is the transparency of marketing.

The reality is, the challenges to the integrity of authorship aren’t really much different in an online world as opposed to off.  Magazines sell advertising just as blogs do.  They receive products for review just as some high profile online news sites do.   The differences are primarily twofold.   First, online, an author and owner may be one in the same, or more closely interrelated than in print where there is sometimes a church and state like separation of powers.  That causes added suspicions about an author’s motives and incentives.

The second issue is the key: transparency.  In online interactive marketing there are tools and techniques available that might empower ads which may be misleading and not immediately recognized as advertising:  “Pay per post” blogging for example, where blogger’s are paid to explicitly promote or discuss a product, service or company.   Such things don’t exist in print.  In print, while an occasional multi-page insert labeled in small print “Advertising Supplement” might be mistaken as an article, the majority of advertising is clear for what is. Online, absent clear, trusted disclosure – things may not be what they seem.

To balance between the open access and suspicion of misrepresentation, in the new media world – trust and reputation carry significant weight.   The blogger’s in this non-scandal didn’t appear to do anything wrong, but the mere perception they might have was enough to cause a hiccup in their businesses.  Om Malik’s reaction was professional but it was also prudent. He responded quickly, directly and was up front and open – he addressed his readers concerns and let them judge for themselves.

Marketer’s techniques are evolving, especially as they try and participate in, and monetize, social networking related services.  This experience demonstrates, as marketers explore they have to tread carefully.  Whether its NBC or Rolling Stone setting up there own social network, or a blogger’s handling of advertising – the rules of engagement for online marketing are not always clear and the penalties sometimes unfairly sharp. 

When in any doubt, it seems, the necessity is for anyone involved to err on the side of caution with clear disclosure policy and transparency.  




[Note: In the interests of trying to maintain best practices, Metue maintains a full disclosure policy in the site's Terms of Service.]

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