Should Bloggers Create Commercial Content?

Filed as Features on January 31, 2007 8:11 pm

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The traditional “Chinese Wall” in publishing stipulates that ads need to be clearly labeled as ads and that editorial content is completely independent, i.e. not paid for. The classic “advertorial,” with content that appears to be editorial but was actually bought and paid for, always walked a fine line by merely using a small slug at the top that said “Special Advertising Section.” That system worked well enough in a world of mass advertising, with one-size-fits-all messages. But we’ve already seen in this new era of micro niche marketing that marketing messages need to be tailored for individual relevancy — it’s a big open question who will create all of this new marketing content, because traditional ad agencies aren’t set up to do it.

Bloggers, almost by definition, create their own niche communities — they create content, readers comment, other bloggers link — it’s a deeply symbiotic relationship where participants get to know each other. There’s a direct connection between bloggers and their communities — so who better than the blogger to create marketing messages that are relevant and interesting for their communities?

This issue was crystallized for me reading Jeff Jarvis’ account of his run in with PayPerPost President Ted Murphy at the AlwaysOn conference. PayPerPost has taken A LOT of heat from all corners of the blogosphere for violating the principles of the traditional Chinese Wall. I’ve written that it comes down to the issue of deception — paid content that’s not dislosed as paid content is deceptive. PayPerPost brough this on themselves by not initially requiring bloggers to disclose that their posts were paid. But much of the outrage (mine included) seems to have overlooked the issue of whether bloggers creating marketing content that is relevant for their readers actually makes sense — ASSUMING, of course, proper disclosure and transparency. This jumped out at me from Jeff’s post:

He also said that he saw no difference in Amanda Congdon making commercials on her old or new vlog and a Pay Per Post person making a commercial on her blog. Fair point. But one of the panelists said that Rocketboom is clearly a show and a commercial makes sense in that context; the relationship is clearer.

But isn’t a blog clearly a publication, and therefore isn’t a clearly labled paid post equivalent to a host thanking a sponsor on a video/TV program or an advertorial in a magazine? Again, the issue of disclosure, crucial as it is, seems to be overshadowing the larger question, i.e IF you have proper disclosure, than that what are fair commercial practices for blogs?

Many bloggers, like David Weinberger, don’t believe in commercializing their blogs at all — and there are some other traditionalist bloggers (yes, it’s been around long enough to have an old school) who think that any ads on blogs are a sin. Certainly bloggers are not obligated to be commercial, but for those who want to make money from blogging, the standards are still very much a work in progress.

So just to play out this scenario — let’s say a blogger who writes about life and family, and has a number of readers outside of friends and family, occasionally writes a post through PayPerPost and properly uses the equivalent of “Special Advertising Section” to disclose that the post is paid. In the context of the entire blog, what’s wrong with that relative to how it has worked in other media?

I write this knowing that there has lately been a PayPerPost ad at the top of the Blog Herald — I can assure you that they didn’t paid me a cent to write this. Of course, the Blog Herald is paying me to write this, and PayPerPost is an advertiser, so did that influence my using PayPerPost as the example rather than one of the other services like ReviewMe? Oh, dear.

The truth is, standards in media have never been simple — blogs are just the latest medium to slog through the commercial mud.

Scott Karp runs ads on his blog Publishing 2.0, but does not get paid for individual posts (other than for the page views and ad clicks those posts generate — oh, whatever).

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  1. Blog Herald Column: Should Bloggers Create Commercial Content? » Publishing 2.0January 31, 2007 at 8:16 pm
  2. By Karoli posted on January 31, 2007 at 9:37 pm
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    I do exactly this, and I choose the PayPerPost opportunities with an eye to what makes sense in the context of my blog, rather than what might be the highest-paying opportunity or newest. Before it was required, my PPP entries were always identified as sponsored and my readers know the reason that I’m writing them is to make the $$$ for a new lens for my Nikon D70. They’re okay with that because they like the photos I post and would like to see what I’d do with an even better camera setup.

    It’s all a question of how you do it. If I dropped a PPP link into a post that wasn’t clearly labeled that way, they’d have a right to be annoyed, particularly if it was to a site that was irrelevant. But if you do it with a care to the readers, I don’t see it as much different than context-sensitive ads placed at the bottom of a blog post.

  3. By Andrew Flusche posted on January 31, 2007 at 11:31 pm
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    I think this is a fabulous post. It really gets the heart of the “paid post” issue.

    I agree completely with Karoli, and those are the same practices I use. EVERY paid post on my blog is prefaced with “Sponsored Post” right up at the top in bold font. If you don’t want to read it, don’t. I’ve only seen traffic grow, so I’m going to keep on doing what’s working.

  4. By jhay posted on January 31, 2007 at 11:46 pm
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    The situation is quite different from blogging beginners who aspire to be like the probloggers and practically make a living by simply staying at home and sitting in front of the computer all day blogging away.

    They grab every opportunity that will earn them something, thinking that it will all add-up soon enough. Along the way, they only put in disclosure clauses once the ad program requires them to do so. However, they are not aware that what they’re doing is somewhere near objectionable to the community and the industry.

  5. By J. Angelo Racoma posted on February 1, 2007 at 12:10 am
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    “The situation is quite different from blogging beginners who aspire to be like the probloggers and practically make a living by simply staying at home and sitting in front of the computer all day blogging away.”

    LOL. :P

    Well, speaking for myself, I personally don’t try to grab every opportunity that will earn me something. I try to weigh the pros and cons–especially if involves a lot of effort, and especially if it will undermine my credibility to some extent.

  6. By mr.denali posted on February 1, 2007 at 4:02 am
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    So when we watch the Superbowl this week, should every commercial state the fact that it is a commercial?

    People are smarter than what many of us think.

    If it looks like a fish, smells like a fish, and tastes like a fish, it’s probably fish.

    Bloggers do the same thing anyway now, 90% don’t get paid for it though. We write about what’s hot, then we get readers, then they click on ads somewhere.
    I enjoy this site, and I can see ads, it doesn’t bother me at all. If this site were to go to 100% PPP I wouldn’t care, as long as the content is worthy of my eyes.

  7. By Amrit Hallan posted on February 1, 2007 at 5:04 am
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    I don’t know why people are so touchy about making money off their blogs. It is, I think, an underlying guilt of wanting to earn, or they think blogging is just a hobby. Any kind of publishing takes time and effort and if that time and effort gets you some money, what’s wrong in that? And about the perpetual PayPerPost dilemma, I think as long as readers know for what purpose the post is being written, nobody should have any problem with it.

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  9. By John Evans (Syntagma) posted on February 1, 2007 at 8:25 am
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    Which is the reason we’ve dropped the idea of commercial “blog” networks in favour of network magazines (which have the idea of commerce built in) using WordPress technology.

    It sounds convoluted — and we’ve taken a lot of stick — but bloggers are far too sensitive about making money to engage many of them in a conversation about this.

    Here in the Dollarsphere (not to be confused with the Dolorsphere) we don’t have such agonising wrestling matches with our consciences. Maybe the commercial end of blogging should drop the word “blog” altogether?

  10. By Piers Fawkes posted on February 1, 2007 at 11:38 am
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    As it’s unlikely that many if any bloggers will really earn much money through CPM advertising or even pay-per-post, the best direction for them is to run special sections – or what magazines call programs. Magazines have been doing this for ages and bloggers should look at this as a possible revenue source too.

  11. By VC Dan posted on February 1, 2007 at 12:00 pm
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    Nice post Scott.

    I was struck by the same points when I heard the AO panel try to distinguish between RocketBoom and blogs. They’re all the same thing, along a spectrum of purity (Weinberger) and paying the bills (Rocketboom).

    The part that amazes me is the blinders of the elites to declare what advertising/practices are “proper” (yes, JJ even used that black & white term) in this huge, diverse, consumer-generated world. It’s as if they expect only the benefits of diverse participation, without respecting the diversity of opinions and goals of those participants. That’s why they continue to whine months after PPP required disclosure and made it clear that bloggers choose their topics — JJ and his crew don’t respect/value the right of bloggers to choose how they will cover their time/effort/expense in contributing to the blogosphere.

    It would be different if they approached it as you do, recognizing there may be a spectrum of “good/better/best practices” for doing sponsored posts, but they can’t bring themselves to say that…yet ;-)

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  13. By Scott Karp posted on February 1, 2007 at 2:35 pm
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    Dan,

    I don’t think it’s fair to tar “JJ and his crew” as “elites” — from his experience in traditional media, Jeff, I’m sure, has seen first hand the importance of maintaining standards. Many new entrants in media, via blogging, risk learning about the importance of standards after they have done harm to their reputations, which for many is the most important asset.

    This is to a large extent an issue of perceptions — PPP stigmatized itself by not requiring disclosure out the gate, so many people (myself included) are still leary of being associated with those negative perceptions, even if they no longer reflect updated policies. This post took a somewhat coldly analytic look at the issue, but the reality is that perceptions do matter.

    And I’m not sure I agree with there being a spectrum of right and wrong in terms of standards, e.g. you’re either being deceptive or not — there’s no “sort of deceptive.” The debate is over where to draw the line and how to judge whether something is over the line. Engaging in that debate, and expressing personal bias based on perceptions and experience, isn’t necessarily “elitist.”

    If anything, we’re all a bit confused because everything is changing so fast.

    Scott

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  15. By VC Dan posted on February 1, 2007 at 4:26 pm
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    Actually Scott, I referred to JJ as one of the “elites” which is accurate, although different from calling them “elitist” (your term) which can be considered pejorative. That said, checking out your term “elitist” at Wikipedia was a real eye-opener on the social dynamic going on here. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elitist and I’m guessing you’ll recognize some of your own beliefs on this topic flow through the definition.

    It’s kind of an oxymoron to talk about a “spectrum of right and wrong” (again, your term not mine). What I said was there is a spectrum of good/better/best practices. That is absolutely true, particularly when you consider that posts encompass text, audio and video; and people blog for a variety of goals. I think you’d agree with that just as I agree “we’re all a bit confused because everything is changing so fast.”

    As such, I think we agree on most things around this topic, but perceptions get in the way. I’m not big on managing perceptions myself. I try to do what is right for me, respect that “what is right” may be different for others, and speak up for the little guy being hassled for doing his own thing — thus, I resonate with your “what’s wrong with a disclosed sponsored post” scenario.

    Keep up the great blogging!

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  17. By Rob Hyndman posted on February 1, 2007 at 6:20 pm
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    “But one of the panelists said that Rocketboom is clearly a show and a commercial makes sense in that context; the relationship is clearer.”

    Everything is a show.

    How one gets paid (ego stroke / notoriety & visibility / speaking engagements / banner ads / sponsorships / salary / wages per post / Pay Per Post), and the directness of the relationship of that payment to any particular piece of content varies, but it’s only a question of degree.

    Sooner or later, the market / ‘sphere will assign the right value to opacity / transparency, and hopefully all of this heavy breathing will finally come to an end. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, your traffic will be obliterated.

  18. By Scott Karp posted on February 1, 2007 at 6:33 pm
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    Dan,

    “blinders of the elites” isn’t pejorative?

    As for “elitism,” I never suggest that my views, Jeff’s views, or anyone else’s views are the only one’s that matter. When my daughter gets close to the stove, I warn her not to touch it. Is that because I’m practicing agism? No, it’s because I’ve touched the stove and gotten burned and know it’s a bad thing, so want to help her avoid that mistake that I’ve made. There is value to experience. There are some mistakes she has to make on her own to learn from, but I try to help her avoid the really bad ones. So much of what’s happening in new media has been playing out in old media for decades, and some of those lessons are likely relevant.

    My point was precisely that there isn’t a spectrum of right or wrong — it’s right or it’s wrong. Your notion of “spectrum of good/better/best practices” seems to skirk the issue what is right or wrong. Just because something is effective, doesn’t mean it should be done (e.g. spam, deception).

    I agree that there is some relativism on what is right on some things, but on certainy things, e.g. deception, I take a pretty hard line. Everyone can make their own decision, but they will make the best decision if they do so with eyes wide open, and hopefully informed by past experience.

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  20. By VC Dan posted on February 1, 2007 at 7:36 pm
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    Scott,

    This whole discussion is about sponsored posts with disclosure, something even more transparent than much of radio, TV, print and movies use today — not deceptive practices. JJ continues to take issue with disclosed sponsored posts, and I don’t think it’s about deception. Ridiculing, as he did, a woman for filming her kids hammering a non-HP camera for $20 is just class warfare being played out in the blogosphere — although she seems to have enjoyed the attention, see http://www.buzzmachine.com/index.php/2007/01/31/pray-per-post/#comment-313521 .

    Your reference to learning from experience is a good one, but I’d also note that JJ’s examples always speak from the writer side, rather than the advertising department or publication owner. He admitted himself that he left prior magazines because of differences with the business side of the house (was that because of right/wrong lines everyone agrees on or people being at different points on a spectrum because of their perspective?). Interestingly, bloggers are writer, owner and advertising department rolled into one — so they must find the best solution among that spectrum.

    Alas, we’ve probably beaten this one to death, but that’s what’s fun about the medium…thanks for the thought-provoking question: What’s wrong with bloggers doing disclosed, sponsored content?

  21. By Jim Kukral posted on February 1, 2007 at 7:52 pm
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    VC Dan said. “What’s wrong with bloggers doing disclosed, sponsored content? ”

    Absolutely nothing, and I’ve always argued that, always. Why is that ok? Because with a full disclosure, a clear dislosure, it’s on the blog reader to decide if they’re ok with it. If they’re not, they can stop reading that blog.

    And frankly, gasp, I agree with VC Dan and Ted Murphy now, knowing the changes they have made to make PPP disclosed.

    As covered here in the BH: http://www.blogherald.com/2006/12/18/payperpost-regains-its-integrity-requries-disclosure/

    This conversation is boring, and should have been put to bed the minute that happened above.

    However, Jarvis has, and always will be a blog loudmouth.

    http://www.revenews.com/jimkukral/archives/000912.html

    Wait, did one of PPP’s loudest haters from the past just come out and say he agrees with them now? Yeah, I just did.

    Let’s put this to bed people. Nothing more to see, the disclosure solved the issue. The attempt at deception has been removed neh? So what’s the problem now?

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  24. By Mike Rundle posted on February 2, 2007 at 5:41 am
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    I think it’s funny how you guys harp on PayPerPost a lot here at Blog Herald, but have a gigantic PayPerPost banner in your top ad slot beneath the header of this page.

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  27. By Tony Hung posted on February 2, 2007 at 3:38 pm
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    Mike,

    I guess its an example of how our advertisers and content are kept at arms length. We don’t tell our bloggers what to write, and we don’t let your advertisers tell them either. So, I guess that’s funny — but, not in a “ha ha” kind of way.

    Cheers
    Tony.

  28. By Martin Neumann posted on February 3, 2007 at 9:23 am
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    Mike – it’s not really funny at all and Tony is spot on – it shows how editorial and advertising can be kept completely separate and you actually can achieve editorial independence.

    Once again Mikee, think before you comment. ;-)

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