Federated Media stepped in it with their latest campaign, getting some of its bloggers to issue not so bon mots on behalf of a not so bon advertiser, Microsoft.
I tried to warn Federated when I adamantly turned down two prior similar campaigns, telling them that this would reflect poorly on the bloggers who do it, possibly on bloggers as a whole, on the network itself, and in the end on the advertisers. But they kept trying to push the boundaries, because that’s what advertisers and thus sales people do.
So ultimately, this is a cautionary tale for all bloggers who take ads: You must set your own boundaries and not let them be pushed. When you do — whatever those boundaries are — that is the very definition of selling out.
In each of these cases, the advertiser’s effort is to get more closely associated with us, our content, our reputations, our brands. They’d like get into our
pants mouths. They want us to speak their names. Nicely. Or at least be near them, associated with them. This happens at every editorial product I know and it becomes incumbent upon their editors to resist and to protect their integrity from integration — if, indeed, that matters to them (and in many cases, such as entertainment shows — Coke glasses on the American Idol desk — it doesn’t). Advertisers can’t get us to endorse their products directly — unless we’re PayPerPosties or actors — and so they try to find some way that we can say something nice somewhere else. That’s what happened in this case, after much Talmudic wrestling that still strikes me as the congregant asking the rabbi for permission to have an affair… with a shiksa… on a pig farm… on a Saturday… for money.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now: The rules are obvious. Our readers should not be confused about the source of what they read. If it is paid for, that should be labeled as advertising. In editorial environments, our voice and our space cannot be bought — or it is not editorial; it is, by definition, advertising. Not every media property needs to follow these rules; entertainment, for example, is not editorial. But this is the essential rule that allows us to accept advertising to support publications without losing our credibility.
First, I’ll give the background of the current case to those who, having taken a weekend day off, had not seen it on Techmeme. And then (at the three asterisks below) I will give you my history and the emails I sent to Federated on this last year.
The current case: On Friday, Nick Denton at Valleywag gave proper a tongue-lashing to Federated and the prominent bloggers in the ad network — Om Malik, Michael Arrington, Fred Wilson, Paul Kedrosky, Matt Marshall (plus Richard MacManus, Mike Davidson, and Federated founder John Battelle) — who agreed to give pappy quotes over their names for a platitudinous campaign about business that is “people-ready,” said quotes appearing on a minisite Federated made for Microsoft and on banner ads. We, the public, are supposed to become so engaged in this fit of interactivity that we vote for our favorite cant (does the winner go on a bumper sticker? a t-shirt? a blimp?) and submit our own people-ready stories. If this felt any more stretched, it’d be taffy. But note how they try to get the bloggers to lend their names and voices even if not on their sites and not about the product but still under the advertiser’s brand. Didn’t fool Denton:
I can’t blame Battelle’s team for latching on to this idea. The campaign is slick; and Microsoft is a deep-pocketed client. But it’s disappointing that so many of his most reputable writers have signed on as spokespeople. One would have thought that tech opinion-leaders as influential as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky would ration their credibility more carefully, and reserve it for companies and products for which they felt real enthusiasm.
This is why I love the Brits: understatement.
Om Malik, to his considerable credit, back-pedaled quickly:
So without making any excuses, to my readers, if participation in Microsoft’s advertising campaign has made you doubt my integrity even for a second, then I apologize.
I have requested Federated Media, our sales partners, suspend the campaign on our network of sites, and they have. We are turning off any such campaigns that might be running on our network. Would I participate in a similar campaign again? Nothing is worth gambling the readers’ trust. Conversational marketing is a developing format, and clearly the rules are not fully defined. If the readers feel a line was crossed, I’ll will defer to their better judgement.
The fact of the matter is 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. (You can read it here, and judge for yourself.) Nor did my words run in any portion of our editorial space. 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.
But today the campaign, which has been running for close to two months, brought up doubt about my editorial integrity for some of you.
In the future I shall focus on what I know best – reporting and writing.
Good on Om. He was clearly seduced by some silver-tongued ad sales guy but has thought better of it. So has Paul Kedrosky: “…I still should have taken more time and said “No” to an ad whose style could so easily be misconstrued.” Fred Wilson has not thought better of it and called Nick so old school for sticking to these rules (Fred, some rules are worth keeping). Ditto Michael Arrington, who tells critics to “pound sand” and argues that it’s clearly an ad. Absolutely right, but it’s still an ad with your words in it. Except then Mike reveals these aren’t necessarily their words: “…generally FM suggests some language and we approve or tweak it to make it less lame. The ads go up, we get paid.”
Clearly, Federated has not thought better of it. Their new VP of author relations, Neil Chase, a topnotch editor who just left the New York Times for this gig, responded to Denton trying to justify this self-delusion by taking lipstick and writing the label “conversational marketing” on the pig:
ValleyWag today suggests that one of FM’s conversational marketing campaigns is hurting the editorial integrity of our authors. It says that Microsoft paid them to write, which is simply not true. They were invited to join a conversation with readers about Microsoft’s new theme, and they did so, but they didn’t write about it on their blogs. The only money they get from Microsoft is from ads running on their sites, for which they’re paid by the page view.
Well, but they were paid. Mike Arrington’s laudably candid on that point. They were paid for the media rather than the creative, as we say. In publishing, we call this “value added.” Some media companies insist that they won’t negotiate their rates but then they throw in extra stuff — parties, goodies, extra ads elsewhere — to essentially lower the price. The value-added in this case was the bloggers’ words. Neil continues in his comment to Nick:
Welcome to the birth of conversational marketing.
It’s making people like you and me, who came from the world of traditional newspapers, have to learn about three-way conversations. We have already witnessed the evolution of the two-way conversation among authors and readers that is replacing old-fashioned one-way journalism. Even our old employers (yours at the Financial Times, mine at The New York Times) are now actively bringing their readers into two-way conversations.
So the next step, naturally, is for marketers to want to join the conversation. It can be done in ethical, responsible ways, and FM’s authors are among the first to figure out how to do it.
Uh, Neil, I think you’re jumping to a conclusion there and if you listen to the conversation about this “conversation,” you might think otherwise. Hear Charles Cooper at CNet: “Why would ostensibly independent voices come across as Microsoft shills?” Here‘s Ashkan Karbasfrooshan joining the discussion: “Frankly, it makes me distance from MSFT, dislike Battelle’s tactic (note singular John) and distrust what the bloggers have to say.” Neil continues:
We’re carefully expanding conversational marketing based on all kinds of new ideas that are coming from authors, marketers and our sales reps. We’re drafting a set of principles for conversational marketing that will help everyone, inside FM and across the industry, frame the discussion about how we do this the right way. And we’re taking care at every step of the process to make sure we don’t compromise the editorial integrity of our authors.
I’d say it should have been drafted long ago.
* * *
I pulled out email from September 11, 2006, from a Federated rep trying to get me into a similar program, this one with Cisco trying to get such bromides from bloggers for its effort to associate itself with the phrase “human network.” Worse, in this case, they wanted to write a Wikipedia article about the network to get their brand in there. I call that knowledge spam. I was told that if I chose to participate, my definition of “human network” — which I would deliver after they gave me a “seed definition” — would appear in an ad on Buzzmachine. The net to me for this opportunity would have been $559. I said no. And I gave them some free advice:
This will get them KILLED in the net. It is wikipedia spam. It is not transparent. It is wrong for them and wrong for me and I would say for FM.
I was told in email that the client decided to change how the Wikipedia entry was made, but they still made it. The original is here; the latest here. [*See note below.] I pressed on in a subsequent email:
I’m afraid they are still on the dark side. You just can’t put something with commercial motive into Wikipedia. Admitting it is hardly better; it is still a crime. The Wikipedians and bloggers will attack hard and they will deserve what they get.
And I cannot stand behind an advertiser getting me to write something for pay. In most quarters — in quality, reliable, editorial, credible blogs — that is equally a crime. You cannot buy my editorial voice or space; that is the very essence of church/state in any journalistic context; that is what I have told everyone who has ever worked for me whether on a newspaper, on a magazine, or online. . . .
I want to stay as far away from this as possible. And I will still counsel that FM should also. If you’re going to sell your soul, I suggest doing it for a fuck of a lot more than $559! Not that someone cannot choose PR and press-release writing as a career, but I would hope that is not what FM stands for.
This tactic came up again in a campaign for a gadget (I don’t know whether the campaign ever ran, so I’ll keep the brand confidential). This time, we were expected to write directly about the product with positive sentiment. I’d say that’s the definition of a product endorsement. I turned it down and responded: “This is pay-for-post and I will not do it and condemned it today on my blog.” They came back and said, well, it’s not an endorsement but a personal anecdote of a time when I appreciated the kind of ability this device afforded — if I owned that brand of device. I came back and said: “I fear that this could blow up in Federated’s face.” I laid out the same rules I repeated above and added: “It’s one matter for an advertiser to pick up something we say as a blurb; happens to movie critics all the time. It’s another to assign and pay for a blogger to write something about the product. You can say that’s not endorsement but I’d say it sure smells like it.”
My real advice to them, relevant today:
I suggest that Federated have a policy on the relationship of its bloggers with advertisers. I would argue that in the church-v-state of this media and journalism world, you need to be the state and create a wall that allows us to be the church. You have the contact with the advertisers; we don’t. And I would further suggest that the editorial voice and space of Federated bloggers is not for sale. Whether you want that policy is up to you and the FM bloggers; but that will remain my policy. I think there is an opportunity to pull up above others and work on a higher plain. I also think that having such a policy makes it easier with advertisers: You have something to point to. I’d be happy to help with brainstorming such a policy. . . . My two cents. Just trying to be helpful. . .
Never had that brainstorming.
So now I’m disagreeing with myself. In that last email, I put the onus on Federated to come up with that policy. And though I still think that would be principled and wise, I shift at the top of this too-long post when I say that I now believe it’s the bloggers who must make these calls. That’s because advertisers will be advertisers; they will try to push for more integration with us (and we should beware taking that as flattery). And sales people will be sales people; they will try hard to get the sale. So we bloggers are left, inevitably, with the need to say no. I also generally oppose efforts to create omnibus codes. I can wish others would operate in a certain way and I can judge them accordingly. But I’ll just speak for myself with my advertising policy in greater detail:
1. My voice is not for sale. No one can pay me to say what they want me to say.
* * *
2. My editorial space is not for sale. I accept advertising and it must be clearly labeled.
3. When I am paid to write (as in a freelance article) or to speak, I will still determine what I say and I will disclose that relationship.
4. I will attempt to disclose relevant financial relationships so you are free to judge me and my words accordingly.
5. In some cases, such a relationship will prevent me from speaking on a subject (as in talking in detail about an employer). However, I will not be compelled to speak because of such a relationship.
6. If I say something openly and freely here, it may be quoted by a commercial entity (the blurb) but I will not be compensated for that.
7. My acceptance of advertising here does not constitute an endorsement of the advertiser. However, I will at times turn down advertising I find unacceptable.
8. I recognize that many blog, vlogs, etc. do not pretend to live by editorial standards and that is their right and freedom. But when they say some things, I will need to take when they say with appropriate salt.
9. I have financial relationships with others who do not follow these rules and in many cases I do not believe these rules apply to them (e.g., entertainment). I enjoy and respect many sites and products that do not follow these rules, but I expect to be able to find out what rules they operate by. I believe one’s rules and relationships should be disclosed.
10. I do not believe I have a price at which I would sell out. But if I did, I can say I certainly haven’t seen it yet.
Some more blog comment on this. From Sam Harrelson:
And here’s the lesson to be learned from all of this, whether you’re in the Technorati 100 or Technorati 100,000…
Pay Per Post, Review Me, or accepting money in exchange for some sort of content production (whether a full post or a small block of text) comes across as slimy to your readers, hurts your credibility and does more long term brand damage to your blog and your brand than short term (monetary) good.
The only reason to engage in these sorts of schemes is to make a few quick bucks… but it’s not worth your blog’s soul. . . .
In our post-modern world, ideas such as “trust,” “objectivity,” “disclosure,” and “reliability” have been turned over and rendered subjective. That doesn’t mean that these terms are meaningless, it means that things like trust are now subjective in the eyes of the beholders. Authorial (or editorial), on the other hand, is meaningless. How I perceive you means everything.
He said it better — and briefer — than I did.
t’s about whether or not you want to be the blogosphere equivalent of Suzanne Somers hawking a ThighMaster. It’s about the crossroads between cash and credibility.
All we have as bloggers is our reputation and our track record. No ad campaign is worth risking that, regardless of whether it crosses any ethical line. This is more about common sense than ethics.
Dave Winer says:
… But to imply that everyone knows they’re doing it is wrong. I didn’t. I’m sure others didn’t as well.
Second, and this is the really important one. It’s one thing to let Microsoft buy space on your site (it’s called advertising) and quite another to accept Microsoft money for words coming out of your mouth. Next month when we read something positive on these sites about Microsoft, how are we supposed to know if it’s an opinion, or just another example of being paid to say something supportive of Microsoft.
The only one of the people involved who showed any interest in what others think is Om Malik, and even his interest was conditional. In public writing, what people think of your writing is very important. They may not agree with you, they may not like what you say, they may not like you, but you want to be sure they know where you’re coming from. Any doubt about that removes value from your work. Do it often enough and it removes all value.
Mike says that this discussion cost him money that he needs to make payroll. I encourage him to look at a bigger picture. Any cloud over his integrity with readers will have a much bigger impact, imho.
: * LATER: John Battelle left this comment, which he also sent in email:
In fact, on the Cisco campaign, in now way did Cisco spam Wikipedia. They wanted to post a wiki version of their definition, and naturally their first thought was Wikipedia. Thanks to input like yours and many others, they did it on Wikia, the commercial cousin to Wikipedia. In fact, they sought out Jimmy Wales’ advice on the matter. The entry was later put up on Wikipedia by one it its editors, independently. Why? Because Cisco sponsored an honest conversation. Is it somehow illegal for companies to be part of a conversation? I really find that presumption offensive. Why can’t companies, which as the Cluetrain reminds us are just made up of people, be part of a conversation, and invite leader into that conversation? I’ll be posting more on this later, but I wanted to clear that up.
I never said “illegal.” I’m also taken aback by Battelle’s effort to be the offended party. I don’t know who posted the “article” and how it got there, yet it got there and the end result is the same. But there is Battelle’s stand.
: See also Fred Wilson’s response in the comments and my two responses, in turn.
: And here is Battelle’s post defending what he sees as “conversational marketing.” He says it’s new. I think it’s very old: It’s advertorial. I, for one, won’t contribute to advertorials. He also says that advertisers have a right to be part of the conversation. Of course; I don’t hear anyone arguing with that. The question is how they get there.
: THE NEXT DAY: Jackie Danicki asks why I didn’t write about this at the time. I did here. As I explain in the comments on Jackie’s post, I didn’t reveal the parties involved because this was business; they were just pitches at the time; I didn’t think the campaigns had actually gone through (my bad assumption); and I think discussing the issues is what matters here. This isn’t an expose. It’s a necessary discussion for bloggers. See also my response to Scoble on that point in the comments below.