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Dislcose if You’re Going to Sell Your Soul

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There’s another blogstorm about a new style of conversational advertising.

Let’s back up a second. First, I wasn’t approached for this advertising campaign. I’ve done similar ones, though, for Intel. Why didn’t I get called out? Cause I pointed out that I was doing such and what I was getting in return here on my blog. From what I can tell the first time we learned about this advertising campaign wasn’t from the bloggers themselves, but from Valleywag.

So, first rule of avoiding bad PR for taking money is DISCLOSE, DISCLOSE, DISCLOSE!

I personally didn’t have a problem with the campaign itself although I thought it was pretty lame. Last night when the campaign disappeared I saw the story change, though. That was a tacit admission that something was smelly with this campaign. It was getting negative commentary therefor it must be pulled. Whoever did that made a mistake.

Why do companies try to do this kind of advertising? Because of a few reasons:

1) Bloggers start conversations. If you want a conversation to get started in the world, one big way is to get bloggers to talk about you. I’m looking at my emails and I have more than 1,000 pitches from PR people all over the world who are HOPING I’ll write about them, their company’s products, or their news. Almost everything you see on TechMeme started as one of these press releases.

2) Bloggers are credible. Credible enough, at least, to start conversations and accelerate those conversations through the world. Recently a CEO told me that because he was on my show he got on Fox News because a Fox News producer was watching my show, liked what he had to say, and invited him onto Fox News. He said that really gave them a major shot in the arm. He’s been telling all his CEO friends that they should also get on my show. So now I’m getting nailed by even more PR firms.

3) Bloggers increasingly have influence. Almost everyone I know reads TechCrunch, or GigaOm, or Valleywag. How do I know that? Because at dinner parties, or whenever I meet geeks they bring stuff up that was discussed on TechCrunch. When Valleywag printed that I was looking for a job tons of people started emailing me (totally fabricated, which is why I generally don’t believe much I read on Valleywag), or Twittering me about whether or not I really was looking for a job. Companies are paying attention to that too and are trying to figure out how to get into these influence networks.

4) The professional journalists are moving in. Look at TechMeme on the average day. I usually see more “professional” “big brand” journalism names there than people who came through the blogging ranks like Mike Arrington or Peter Rojas. We’re all competing for the same advertising dollars now, and some are going hungry and, so, the pressure to do things “to pay payroll” is increasingly to sell your credibility.

5) Advertisers know banners don’t work as well as text. Heck, Google got to be the #1 brand and half as big as Microsoft by understanding that. If I did have advertising on my blog I know that the content stream is FAR more valuable than anything I put over in the navigation part of my blog. So, if advertisers come to me they increasingly are wanting to get access to my content stream.

6) Increasingly bloggers’ recommendations DO sell product. I’ve seen this over and over in my own life as people come up to me and tell me “I bought XYZ because you wrote about it.” Or “I tried that Web service because you said it was cool.” So, increasingly advertisers want their brands to be mentioned by, or associated in some way with bloggers. ScobleShow’s sponsor, Seagate, is very happy because it is associated with me. That increasingly gets them mentioned at conferences, gets them included in conversations, and at the recent CES got them in touch with far more other bloggers (and professional journalists) than they would have hadn’t had an association with a blogger.

So, anyway, there’s a lot of pressure on bloggers to put their names on advertising. This pressure has been there for years. After all, Microsoft hired me back in 2003. They saw the value of having a blogger associated with their brand way back then (and tons of companies have followed).

If this pressure is going to be there (it will), then what can bloggers do?

1) Disclose, disclose, disclose, and disclose some more. If even there’s a PERCEPTION that money is changing hands, gotta disclose. Valleywag keeps nagging me everytime I write about Adobe cause Adobe paid PodTech some small amount of money to do some podcasts a year ago. I gave them power over me by not being ultra clean and making sure everyone understood what PodTech was getting paid for and what I was getting paid for. I assumed that since that wasn’t paid to get influence over me, it didn’t need to be disclosed. It really did. That way my readers can figure out for themselves whether or not my writing is biased.

2) Make it very clear what is advertising speech and what is not. This is why I don’t like PayPerPost and other advertising schemes that get bloggers to talk. If you write something you’re getting paid to write it should have the word “ADVERTISEMENT” in the headline. If you don’t do that, well, then prepare to get thrown under the Valleywag bus.

3) Disclose EVERYTHING you’re getting paid for. Even if it isn’t on your blog. This is what gave this story some power. Dave Winer writes that he didn’t know about this practice.

Any other rules for selling your soul? I know some people say “don’t sell your soul in the first place.” Well, that doesn’t work either, at least for those of us who aren’t independently wealthy and increasingly it’s difficult to not take the money. I know some bloggers who have half the audience size I do that are getting paid $8,000 a month for advertising on his blog. Bloggers share those kinds of stories all the time. It’s incredibly difficult to turn down $8,000 a month, or even $2,000. All advertising is “selling your soul” at some level. Advertisers are buying advertising to get access to your audiences. If you don’t have an audience you don’t have to worry about this, but if you blog increasingly you’ll have to face this at some time or another. Even a free phone, or a free laptop is really advertising. Disclose that, too. Let your readers know your conflicts of interest.

I even disclose when I sell stock, or when I am going to own stock (I still own my Microsoft stock, for instance). Why? Because that’s a potential conflict of interest. If Valleywag ever finds out you own stock and you’re a blogger with a big enough audience expect to get thrown under the bus for that too. Why? Cause everytime Valleywag finds something that they can poke you with they get traffic. Hint, you are making Nick Denton richer everytime you give him something to say about you.

As for advertisers, come to PodTech and I’ll consult with you about how to get conversations started in the blogosphere without getting bloggers to sell their souls. There’s lots of ways to do that, but they require a bit more work on your behalf than the Microsoft “people ready” campaign did. I’m sure some people at Microsoft see this campaign as a success. After all, we’re all talking about it this morning. But I disagree.

Anyway, sorry for adding onto the blogstorm here, but thought it was important enough to add my $.02. What do you think?

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