Rita Arens of BlogHer posted recently on a topic that’s been filling quite a bit of my mindspace of late — that of ethical marketing and word-of-mouth advertising on blogs. And when I heard recently that the FTC was also taking up the topic with a proposal to expand endorsement fraud regulations to include blogs, I was honestly relieved that somebody was talking about it!*
To Monetize or Not to Monetize: That’s Just the First Question
The idea of monetization has always been a touchy one for me, on the one hand, most of us know the rather insidious nature of most advertising and the manner that it serves not only to inform, but sometimes to alter our own deep perceptions of who we are and who we need to be. When marketing is used to this end, it can quickly become a sickness of our culture, as I’ve hinted at in my posts on green consumerism and on frugality and simple living.
On the other hand, I know that I spend countless hours doing thorough research to support the information I provide to my readers and the online community at large, seeking background information on things like Orajel safety that don’t become clear with one quick google search. Heck, sure, I’d like to be reimbursed for my time by those that find my writing valuable! Logically speaking, that reimbursement would come from the readers themselves, but as we know the pay per use model just didn’t make it online.
This leaves three options for writing professionally online: get a job (from somebody who probably posts advertising), post advertising yourself, or put up a donate button and wish for the best. Those options may not be mutually exclusive or black and white, but the core financial funding for online content remains the same: advertising.
The Crucial Question of Transparency
But it’s not the issue of whether to monetize that drives Rita Arens’ questioning, it’s the question of how — or more precisely how not to monetize. With technologies on the net driving rapid changes in advertising norms, thousands of bloggers and advertisers adopt new methodologies before the general public can even comprehend the platform upon which they reside.
Journalistic integrity in the print world, though it may seem like ancient history to us today, has maintained clear ethical standards that protect us as readers and citizens from misleading advertising messages. Rita Arens holds that integrity up as a yardstick:
Magazines and newspapers that do product reviews comply with journalistic standards, which require full disclosure and transparency about the reviews, the relationship of the parent company of the periodical with the parent company of the product being reviewed, etc. A journalist who’s not completely transparent is a journalist who will not be working long.
She points out that Mommybloggers are valuable and they are trusted. Therefore, she concludes, if they want to retain that value they must maintain the same journalistic standards: clearly indicating all paid reviews, as well as those compensated with products or gift certificates:
Just say you’re doing a review, say you received money to attend the amusement park — say you didn’t pay your own money for whatever you’re talking about, so that other people can decide for themselves whether they want to spend theirs.
Here Comes the Law
I’ve been following this topic casually for a while now as I make my own decisions regarding hdb. In my comment on Rita’s post on BlogHer, I pointed out some of the issues that extend beyond sponsored posts into affiliate partnerships (kind of like bloggy salespeople).
As I discuss below, the interest in maintaining marketing secrecy on some blogs is so strong that they actually employ cloaking techniques to hide their affiliate links. Such cloaking services are marketed to bloggers as a way to keep their readers from “stealing” their commissions! This is not an idea I will ever subscribe to here at hippie dippie bébé.
What’s fascinating too, as I point out below, is that FTC regulations are not far behind the industry. Proposed guidelines have been drafted that support holding bloggers and their advertisers legally accountable when transparency is not maintained:
My concern has always been a) the general public is not as aware as bloggers and marketers are of the mechanisms by which a web publisher can receive compensation b) the whole concept of not only journalistic integrity but also interpersonal integrity is marred when transparency is not cultivated.
You make mention directly of “pay for post” above, but I also have concerns about affiliate marketing. Affiliate bloggers who include contextual links in their posts have even more incentive to gush about their products than pay for post-ers. Because they are paid only on commission, the money is not yet in the bag for them. Yet, they do not fall under the traditional blanket of “sponsored review” as no money has exchanged hands at the time of their writing.
In that regard, I actually decided to make use of the “(aff)” tag on my blog for full disclosure of affiliate links, even when I’m just including a quick amazon link for a book I mention briefly. Though it’s a bit wonky and waning in popularity, the “aff” standard was something I felt I needed to implement to keep it clean.
Meanwhile, I see on other blogs hints of moving in the opposite direction: implementation of link cloaking software that actually modifies link text to make an affiliate link look exactly like a non-tagged link.
Search for “affiliate link cloaking” and you’ll find the results saturated with software companies more than happy to help bloggers intentionally disguise their income stream.
The FTC has recently proposed extending its jurisdiction over endorsement fraud regulation to bloggers. Although lobbyists are scrambling to loosen the FDA’s reach, I believe the FTC’s proposed rules can help shape our conversations about transparency and WOM ethics.
Your Opinion on Affiliate Links
So what’s your opinion on affiliate links? Does knowing that a blogger is writing reviews to earn a commission irk you? Or is it only a problem when she tries to hide it? Do you feel that she should fess up, or just cut it out entirely? Please take my poll, and comment below on your thoughts.
[Edit: I realized that in writing this post, it would have been more helpful if I included the proposed text from the Federal Trade Commission that related to regulation of bloggers. Here it is:
Example 7: A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. The readers of his blog are unlikely to expect that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact would likely materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge. -- Federal Trade Commission, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising]
* For the record, there are no “secret marketing links” in this post! In fact, all affiliate links on hippie dippie bébé are explicitly declared. For more on that, read my disclosure policy.