Bloggers: Can I trust you?

by Urs E. Gattiker on 2010/01/06 · 22 comments 14,884 views

in b why benchmark failures,c blogging - case studies,d business ethics,e marketing 101 style matters

Last week we posted Social media marketing: Can I trust you?, about trust in marketing. This week’s post focuses on business ethics, disclosure, social media marketing and the LeWeb conference (see Twitter hashtag #LeWeb).

LeWeb touts itself as one of the more important conferences in Europe. It claims to bring together those who believe they know what the future holds in social media marketing, web analytics and whatever other buzzwords are current.

‘Official’ LeWeb bloggers
Bloggers can apply for a free pass to attend the conference – a €1,500 value. According to Stephanie Booth, ‘blogger programme curator’, the criteria used for selection are:

    “- their geographical and linguistic location (ever thought of language as an online ‘place’?)
    - their readership and influence – their motivation and the value they offer the conference by their presence – when they made their request (yes, there is an element of ‘first come, first served’ in the selection).
    Selected bloggers will be asked to display a badge on their blog up to the conference date and blog about it at least once before mid-November. They will be listed in an official blogroll on the conference site and will be given a ‘blogger accreditation’ to attend the conference and cover it.”

At first glance, the above rules appear specific, but on closer inspection, they are actually rather vague.

    - Does readership mean absolute number or type of readers? – Does having teen-aged readers matter more than retirees? – How is their ‘motivation’ criterion measured as applies to ‘value’?

Finally, how each criterion was weighted and used in making the final selection remains a mystery.

Disclosure: Like other unselected bloggers, I was offered attendance for €600, instead of €1,500.

LeWeb selection and FTC guidelines
In order to make blog sponsorship and endorsement more transparent, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) adopted a guide on December 1, 2009 just prior to LeWeb ’09 Paris (December 8-9). What is of particular interest for bloggers are statements such as:

    “If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be ‘endorsements’, as are postings by participants in network marketing programs.” (page 10)

Because one criteria used for selecting LeWeb bloggers is readership and influence, this falls under endorsements, according to the FTC. Accordingly, best practice for attending bloggers is to disclose freebies whenever blogging about LeWeb:

Public relations expert and CEO Marcel Bernet neglected to reveal this, though he dutifully posted two stories as required for LeWeb ’09 Official Bloggers, keeping his chances open for re-selection in 2010:

For US LeWeb ’09 Official Bloggers, compliance with FTC guidelines requires that this ‘endorsement’ be disclosed when blogging about the conference. For instance, Irene Koehler remembered to add a kind of disclosure to LeWeb bingo. Watch and play along!, but neglected to do so in another blog post.

If the shoe fits Image - tweet by ComMetrics - social networks: who you follow matters. Build on similarities, benefit from differences + connect across borders #metricsWhy should the whole disclosure issue matter? It is difficult to manage justly and ethically, since nobody expects or requires a TV or print journalist to disclose a free conference attendance. So why is it required from bloggers?

Plus, a journalist is not required to publish two articles about a conference and post its logo on the newspaper’s website to get a free pass. Some bloggers discharged their ‘duty’ by writing posts of limited depth and quality. Of course, not everybody gives free conference attendance to the press. Choices must be made.

Andrea Varscellari demanded free registration, but also wanted the organizers to pay his travel expenses plus a fee for podcast interviews of presenters and blogging about the event.

Although this is unheard of for journalists, bloggers are generally self-employed, not paid by a publisher or network to cover such events. Christian Leu found a different solution to this issue. After being informed of his selection, he found a sponsor to defer his travel expenses (Reisesponsoren an die #LeWeb gesucht).

More resources about LeWeb ‘endorsements’, disclosure, ethics and trust

Bottom line Being ethical comes at a price; it requires following best practice, striving for quality and adhering to full disclosure, while complying with applicable legislation.

Choosing a blogger is not necessarily about being ethical or producing quality content. From a business point of view, reader numbers, influence, and visibility are vain metrics. They make you feel great, but we focus on actionable metrics instead, such as how many customers read our blog, how many new leads the blog generates and what percentage of this ultimately yields profits.

Even a thousand readers might be enough, as long as they are the right ones. But in most cases, including the LeWeb Blogger program, vanity metrics rule and are used to determine what blogger warrants which freebie.

This is the same conference that tries to convince start-ups to participate in its start-up venue for a whopping €1,500 (vanity metrics – unless the start-up gets what it came for – funding). This case illustrates that submitting to the conditions as stipulated by LeWeb may affect the blogger’s brand and personal reputation.

Of course, the price of ethics is not to submit to the stipulated conditions, or at least disclose them. Your readers’ trust in you as a blogger requires no less.

Most people are trustworthy, but maybe my grandmother was right: the key to following your moral compass in business is to respect, but also suspect. Take-aways There are some crucial things to remember when considering business ethics, disclosure, transparency and ‘endorsement’ issues in social media (e.g., blogging, podcasting).

    1. Disclosure and transparency for bloggers: Regardless of whether you should accept a freebie you might keep afterwards or not, treat your readership with respect and let them know that you got to attend LeWeb for free. No harm done and besides, compliance requires it of US bloggers.
    2. Better governance and best practice require disclosure for advertisers and sponsors: If you find a blogger important enough to justify providing them a sample or freebie, treat them like any journalist (hint, don’t demand things you would never dare to from another journalist) and make sure they disclose this ‘endorsement’ somehow.

Please, leave a comment! We love to hear your thoughts: how do you feel about getting freebies as a blogger and public disclosure. What is your experience with this subject. Tips to stay out of trouble? Here is a chance for anyone with first-hand knowledge (this means you!) to share your insights. P.S. – You can get updates on this blog in Twitter by following @ComMetrics. You can also get a free subscription by RSS, visit My.ComMetrics.com (register yourself for benchmarking your blogs) or get new posts via email:

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  • http://twitter.com/ericamcclenny Erica McClenny

    The power of blogging can build and destroy a reputation quickly. I think LeWeb should be clear about established Bloggers with followers instead of the general description I just read.

    Freebie's are not bad and YES they should be disclosed 110%.

    PAID blogging is another story…I think there is a recent story about a top followed blogger who was berated after a paid product review that they failed to mention…opps! They were killed by others.

    • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

      Agreed: @ericamcclenny yes, the selection procedure should be changed for #LeWeb 10 bloggers #ethics #socialmedia

      I also agree that paid blogging is a whole different kettle of fish.

      However, according to the FTC this will surely affect the public's perception of the value of such reports if the disclosure reveals that the blogger was paid in cash (e.g., credibility, trust, etc.).

      Erica, thanks again for sharing this interesting comment.

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  • Chris McGeehan

    I’ll answer the last question first with a quote from Willie Brown, speaker of the California Assembly, former mayor of San Francisco and an attorney –(at least I think he said it)–”If you can’t take people’s money while campaigning and then vote against them, you don’t deserve to be called a politician”nnThus, in my opinion, the real test isn’t whether you take freebies or other goodies, it is whether you go out and actively tout the products and become a shill or whether you maintain your independence.nnWhether nondisclosure is a serious problem depends largely upon the sophistication of the audience and the amount of informational disparity that exists in the the market. The existence of information disparities is probably more important since market research with hidden biases is often targeted to intelligent businesspeople.nnI haven’t received any significant freebies from vendors since the market turned south a couple of years ago. However, in many industries , it is pretty standard for vendors to offer free meals, sporting event tickets, etc to potential buyers. Even in professions where there may strict limits on freebies (like journalism), an “exclusive” or access may have great value to a young reporter.nnThe most problematic situation is where the speaker/blogger occupies as position of trust and are relied upon by their audience. [Amusingly, I attended a networking seminar yesterday where the organizer pointed out that the goal of all salespeople is to be considered trusted advisors.] This problem is exacerbated if there is information asymmetry. For example, one class of bloggers that were targeted by the FTC rules were “mommy bloggers.” Because many mothers identify with the mothers who blog and do not have sufficient free time to the evaluate products recommended by the mommy bloggers, these bloggers have received many freebies from consumer product companies, as an article from last month’s United Airlines inflight magazine last month discussed:nnhttp://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2009/12/01/parental-guidance/nnThus disclosure of interest is paramount. Typically this takes the form of disclosing that consideration or sponsorship has been received or that the speaker has other relationships with the makers of products/services he is recommending.nnHowever, I’m not sure that these issues are presented by the LeWeb situation. To the extent LeWeb expected uniformly favorable coverage, I doubt they got it. Looking at the English language blogs, it appears that LeWeb was victimized by freeriding, since there are minimal posts by most bloggers. Even worse, one of the organizers essentially accused a sponsored blogger of not being sufficiently grateful for the invitation in the comments to her post which presented both the good and bad of the conference. I don’t see any evidence that these bloggers compromised their principles in order to present an unduly rosy picture of the conference.nnChrisnnP.S. Never agree to accept a free trip. It always ends up with a high pressure sales pitch for a vacation timeshare…nnCM

    • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

      Thanks @Chris_McGeehan: maybe bloggers are carpet baggers – solely for personal financial gain – or #LeWeb failed to grasp the truth about how #PR works

      For me (thanks @deborahdrake for pointing this out to me – once again), there is a small difference between marketing and public relations:

      PUBLIC RELATIONS = encompasses the good, the bad, the ugly – but whatever gets you noticed helps and even bad publicity is better than none – or as some might put it: I want them to spell my name right.

      MARKETING = the focus is on the positive side of the message about the product. Most important, we are looking for generating more sales or getting conversions.

      While marketing and public relations or PR are joined at the hip, they are definitely not the same.
      Marketing is more direct, while public relations gets you noticed and ultimately also increases sales. Unless I know about you, how can I can buy…
      But public relations takes longer until it hits your bottom line then marketing can and must. Seems a bit like social media (LOL – Laughing Out Loud) , you have no or if you are lucky limited control about the type of PR your efforts will generate for your business or conference like LeWeb.

      So if a conference organizer or a company invites somebody to an event, it has no control over what the journalist or blogger will write about the event. But that is the risk you take with PR.

      Chris, thanks for this comment and I am glad that in principle we agree, because you and I both feel disclosure is key.
      I also can see that you feel strongly in order to stay neutral, objective or independent bloggers may have to go a step further and not accept these freebies.

      This could really help increase trust in what bloggers write. I struggled with this issue in a previous blog post:

      http://commetrics.com/articles/when-to-pay-jour

      Thanks for sharing.

      Urs
      My.ComMetrics.com

  • http://deborahdrake.com/Blog Deborah Drake – Catalyst

    hat comes to mind as I read this post Urs, as reflect on this conference's “Marketing Strategy” to attract interest in attending: be it for a free, discounted or at full registration price, is this…

    I am reminded of a recent personal experience of my own. An event advertised the first 100 paid and registered received bonus “auction dollars” to play with when it came time for the evening's auction BUT in arriving and checking in, it became clear, everyone had been given the extra play money. There were 400 people who attended a holidat evening of shopping, networking and that “auction.”

    And while the event was fun, I felt in some way “duped,” thinking my quick reaction for a seemingly limited opportunity was me getting an added benefit. What people do to market new ideas these days, with inauthenticity and an agenda, makes me less interested and stuns me at times. But perhaps I am not their audience anyways.

    The other reaction that I have to this PR stunt by Le Web is that “Some” Bloggers and Lobbyists are beginning to have more and more and more in common. And I agree with Erica, how quickly our reputation can be easily damaged and in some cases never repaired. As for earning a trusted reputation as a blogger and a review source, that takes time, quality content and consistency in showing up.

    An advertorial is not editorial. Is a sponsored blogger a neutral journalistic source?

    Could they really be entirely honest if they feel they owed their patron something?

    The FTC regulations will be tested for some time and in the end new order will be established and best practices in my book include staying freelance if attending a conference is of interest to me, personally.

    Interesting to read what is now also happening in Europe. I'm used to the US being overly commercial, but not so much what I hear of European counterparts.

  • http://www.MarkMcCulloch.com Mark McCulloch Success Coach

    Thank you very much for the quality information you are providing as after visiting your blog several times I really feel that the quality you deliver really is very valuable.

    Mark McCulloch

    • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

      Dear Mark

      Thanks for your nice words… hope to have more comments from you soon on my blog.

      Greetings from snowy Zurich

  • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

    Reading Comment by @deborahdrake “An advertorial is not editorial. Is a sponsored blogger a neutral journalistic source?” points the finger on a sore spot. nnYou could argue that a sponsored blogger getting free attendance is nothing else than a sponsored journalist attending for free. With the latter case we have gotten used to this and find nothing wrong with it either. nnSo who is to say a blogger cannot be as much independent as a we believe a journalist can? Either we accept that both can and likely will or we reject that premise. nnAlso, neither the journalist nor the blogger cannot be entirely honest if they feel they owed their sponsor something. So the question is: nnCan they afford to be honest without getting the sponsor annoyed which, in turn, could result in not being invited next year? nnOf course, famous bloggers or journalists from major newspapers like Le Monde or Su00fcddeutsche will probably get away with this. Main reason being that the sponsor cannot afford not to invite them. But for bloggers like myself or regional newspapers, things may be different. nnSo I like your point that in your book: best practice is paying for attending and then be free to do what you find is best for your readers. Great advice I will follow. nnDeborah, thanks for sharing.

  • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

    Reading Comment by @deborahdrake “An advertorial is not editorial. Is a sponsored blogger a neutral journalistic source?” points the finger on a sore spot. nnYou could argue that a sponsored blogger getting free attendance is nothing else than a sponsored journalist attending for free. With the latter case we have gotten used to this and find nothing wrong with it either. nnSo who is to say a blogger cannot be as much independent as a we believe a journalist can? Either we accept that both can and likely will or we reject that premise. nnAlso, neither the journalist nor the blogger cannot be entirely honest if they feel they owed their sponsor something. So the question is: nnCan they afford to be honest without getting the sponsor annoyed which, in turn, could result in not being invited next year? nnOf course, famous bloggers or journalists from major newspapers like Le Monde or Su00fcddeutsche will probably get away with this. Main reason being that the sponsor cannot afford not to invite them. But for bloggers like myself or regional newspapers, things may be different. nnSo I like your point that in your book: best practice is paying for attending and then be free to do what you find is best for your readers. Great advice I will follow. nnDeborah, thanks for sharing.

  • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

    Reading Comment by @deborahdrake “An advertorial is not editorial. Is a sponsored blogger a neutral journalistic source?” points the finger on a sore spot.

    You could argue that a sponsored blogger getting free attendance is nothing else than a sponsored journalist attending for free. With the latter case we have gotten used to this and find nothing wrong with it either.

    So who is to say a blogger cannot be as much independent as a we believe a journalist can? Either we accept that both can and likely will or we reject that premise.

    Also, neither the journalist nor the blogger cannot be entirely honest if they feel they owed their sponsor something. So the question is:

    Can they afford to be honest without getting the sponsor annoyed which, in turn, could result in not being invited next year?

    Of course, famous bloggers or journalists from major newspapers like Le Monde or Su00fcddeutsche will probably get away with this. Main reason being that the sponsor cannot afford not to invite them. But for bloggers like myself or regional newspapers, things may be different.

    So I like your point that in your book: best practice is paying for attending and then be free to do what you find is best for your readers. Great advice I will follow.

    Deborah, thanks for sharing.

  • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

    Reading Comment by @deborahdrake “An advertorial is not editorial. Is a sponsored blogger a neutral journalistic source?” points the finger on a sore spot.

    You could argue that a sponsored blogger getting free attendance is nothing else than a sponsored journalist attending for free. With the latter case we have gotten used to this and find nothing wrong with it either.

    So who is to say a blogger cannot be as much independent as a we believe a journalist can? Either we accept that both can and likely will or we reject that premise.

    Also, neither the journalist nor the blogger cannot be entirely honest if they feel they owed their sponsor something. So the question is:

    Can they afford to be honest without getting the sponsor annoyed which, in turn, could result in not being invited next year?

    Of course, famous bloggers or journalists from major newspapers like Le Monde or Su00fcddeutsche will probably get away with this. Main reason being that the sponsor cannot afford not to invite them. But for bloggers like myself or regional newspapers, things may be different.

    So I like your point that in your book: best practice is paying for attending and then be free to do what you find is best for your readers. Great advice I will follow.

    Deborah, thanks for sharing.

  • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

    Reading Comment by @deborahdrake “An advertorial is not editorial. Is a sponsored blogger a neutral journalistic source?” points the finger on a sore spot.

    You could argue that a sponsored blogger getting free attendance is nothing else than a sponsored journalist attending for free. With the latter case we have gotten used to this and find nothing wrong with it either.

    So who is to say a blogger cannot be as much independent as a we believe a journalist can? Either we accept that both can and likely will or we reject that premise.

    Also, neither the journalist nor the blogger cannot be entirely honest if they feel they owed their sponsor something. So the question is:

    Can they afford to be honest without getting the sponsor annoyed which, in turn, could result in not being invited next year?

    Of course, famous bloggers or journalists from major newspapers like Le Monde or Süddeutsche will probably get away with this. Main reason being that the sponsor cannot afford not to invite them. But for bloggers like myself or regional newspapers, things may be different.

    So I like your point that in your book: best practice is paying for attending and then be free to do what you find is best for your readers. Great advice I will follow.

    Deborah, thanks for sharing.

  • http://My.ComMetrics.com Urs E. Gattiker

    Reading Comment by @deborahdrake “An advertorial is not editorial. Is a sponsored blogger a neutral journalistic source?” points the finger on a sore spot.

    You could argue that a sponsored blogger getting free attendance is nothing else than a sponsored journalist attending for free. With the latter case we have gotten used to this and find nothing wrong with it either.

    So who is to say a blogger cannot be as much independent as a we believe a journalist can? Either we accept that both can and likely will or we reject that premise.

    Also, neither the journalist nor the blogger cannot be entirely honest if they feel they owed their sponsor something. So the question is:

    Can they afford to be honest without getting the sponsor annoyed which, in turn, could result in not being invited next year?

    Of course, famous bloggers or journalists from major newspapers like Le Monde or Süddeutsche will probably get away with this. Main reason being that the sponsor cannot afford not to invite them. But for bloggers like myself or regional newspapers, things may be different.

    So I like your point that in your book: best practice is paying for attending and then be free to do what you find is best for your readers. Great advice I will follow.

    Deborah, thanks for sharing.

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