Mediacheck

Tainted Love in Blog Land

Paying bloggers to buzz about products. Ethical?

By Carrie-May Siggins, 25 Jul 2005, TheTyee.ca

Blogs

As a blogger, is it ethical to take money to endorse a company? Even with total transparency, is something unique to blogging lost when you do? On July 27, Janet Johnson, Vice President of Communications at Marqui, will speak at a conference at Simon Fraser University on the marketing idea that eight months ago snagged the attention of both the blogging and business worlds.

In December, 2004, Marqui partnered with experienced blogger Mark Canter to launch the “paid-blogger program.” Bloggers wrote about the company twice a month using information and links to Marqui, and bloggers added Marqui’s linked emblem to their home page. In exchange, the blogger received US $800 a month for the three-month period.

Marqui supplied bloggers with content that includes weekly stories about the company and its clients, which bloggers were then free to ignore. The target market of the program was specific: web developers who would be interested in Marqui’s specialized service, what they call software-as-a-service(Saas). Web developers are part of the demographic most likely to use blogs to collect trade information, so even if a blogger mentioned in passing that they were offered a contract with Marqui, this contributed to generating awareness for the company.

'This blog brought to you by…'

Because the program was in part designed by a blogger, Marqui directly addressed any questions of integrity from the beginning. The issue of transparency is dealt with right in the “paid blogger” contract.

“We do not require you to acknowledge this payment relationship publicly,” it states. “However, we encourage you to communicate to your readers that you are being paid to blog about our product by doing such things as placing a separate colored background behind each blog post, delineating the posts with borders or by communicating in some other way through language.”

Marqui didn’t require bloggers to write only praise. They could be as critical as they wanted, so long as they mentioned the company. “It is our desire that acceptance of this agreement reflects your basic confidence in the product and that it serves as an endorsement on your part of the Marqui product,” states the contract. “However, Marqui places no limits on the content of your blog or the wording of the weekly mentions of our company or service offering, other than the limitations stated in this agreement.”

'Very uncomfortable'

The buzz began almost as soon as the program was launched. “We were surprised,” says Johnson, “when, two weeks after announcing the program, we set off this ethical debate. We became the poster child for the bad boys for a while.”

The controversy focused on the editorializing of ad content. What happens to a blogger’s voice once they have shopped it out to the highest bidder? Can it regain the authenticity and independence, which is the reason many people click onto blogs in the first place?

Blogger Richard MacManus began his Marqui entries with a lengthy meditation on the ethical issues involved. “Would you think I was ‘tainting’ the blogosphere?” he wrote. “Would you accuse me of being a sellout? Would you doubt my integrity? Hmm, well, that's the sort of controversy I'm walking right into the middle of.”

“I treated the three month arrangement as a social experiment and I had an open mind going into it regarding the ethical questions,” MacManus told the Tyee. “Over the course of the three months however, I determined that I was very uncomfortable with the idea of mixing editorial and advertising.”

'Something to write about'

Jack Bogdanski, a tax law professor out of Portland, Oregon, had no qualms about the program. He says he loved the monthly cheques for $800, and that the people at Marqui “were very nice people.” In fact, all the bloggers who talked the The Tyee had glowing reviews of the people at Marqui.

“If my blog was about marketing,” says Bogdanski, “if it had been that I was showing them tech products, and then all of a sudden there’s Marqui, that might be a problem.” But because he has a personal web log, his life is his main source of material. Being paid to endorse Marqui is simply something to write about.

One blogger's experience wasn't so positive. Jon Lebkowsky, the man behind the popular blog Weblosky, would decline if offered the job again. “I didn't mind being paid to convey info,” he says, “but I didn't want to be paid to ‘endorse,’ even if I believed in the product. Somehow that felt close to the line.”

'Shilling'

The problem was that Lebkowsky actually believed in SaaS and Marqui. “When I decided I thought their product was good, I felt uncomfortable saying so because I thought it would appear that I was merely shilling for them.”

The most vocal critic of the program was blogger and Weblogs CEO Jason Calacanis, who did not participate in the program. “The problem I... have,” wrote Calacanis in a blog entry from December 3, 2004, “is when writers get paid for their editorial space, and for their voice.” He believes that even if you are up-front about being paid, once you sign the contract, everything you write becomes suspect. “That is why journalists are not endorsing products.”

“What is really stupid about the whole thing,” he continues, “is that you could just work hard and get 500,000 page views a month and charge a $8 CPM and make the same kind of money. Of course, that would take months of hard work… taking $800 a month for selling out is so much easier.”

'Buzz worth 200K'

The one clear winner in the “paid-blog program” was Marqui. The buzz alone was worth the $200,000 Marqui spent on the program. “Our expectations were wildly exceeded in terms of awareness,” says Janet Johnson. They received over 100 pieces of press coverage, and ended up in Business Week’s print addition twice. They have had partners approach them, have closed a few deals, and experienced a 43 per cent quarter-over-quarter growth. “For a company that was small, and just trying to break in to a very crowded market, we were surprised.”

Marqui also claims to have made the first podcast infomercial. But this "infomercial" is presented on the site simply as a Geek News interview with Marqui CEO Stephen King, again raising the question of where the line is drawn between editorial content and advertising.

Richard MacManus believes that rather than making money by editorial endorsements, bloggers should become involved in patronage deals. This means that other sites, usually sketchy ones, pay popular bloggers to link to them on their front page. The literal space delineating what is content and what is advertising is crystal clear, and the voice of the blogger remains “untouched.”

Carrie-May Siggins is on staff at The Tyee

See The Tyee’s list of BC Blogs here. Have a blog and want us to list it in the directory? Send the info to editor@thetyee.ca.  [Tyee]