21 April 2009

Where WOMMA Has It Wrong

I got a note yesterday from a friend in the PR business asking my take on the FTC's proposed guidance on "sponsored conversation" online. I got a similar question from another PR pro at my social media presentation last week. Essentially the Federal Trade Commission is considering imposing penalties on bloggers and/or advertisers who make false or misleading claims about products online.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association has been very active in the rulemaking process here, and that's a good thing. I think they're spot on when they insist that bloggers and/or marketers and advertisers fully disclose any financial arrangement related to a blog post or a product review. I also think that people (no matter where they work) should be held accountable if they knowingly make false or misleading statements that have a financial impact. WOMMA's comments to the FTC are based on their ethical code, which is generally sound.

There's one part of their ethical code (pdf) that poses a serious problem, however:
We stand against marketing practices whereby the consumer is paid cash by the manufacturer, supplier, or one of their representatives to make recommendations, reviews, or endorsements.
WOMMA certainly wants bloggers to review products - online product reviews are very valuable. They will certainly continue to ask bloggers to review products. They just think it's unethical to pay bloggers for them. I think this is because another model exists, one with which marketing & PR types are comfortable - traditional journalism outlets where an employee of a publication draws a salary as a "reviewer" and doesn't take compensation from companies. (Of course, that publication takes ad revenue, but that's another story.)

But here's the thing - BLOGGERS ARE NOT JOURNALISTS, no matter how inconvenient that is for marketing people. They aren't compensated for their time by a third party. They've spent their time and resources building a following as a personal publisher (hat tip to Bicycle Mark for that term) and now WOMMA wants the value associated with that following and the credibility of the blogger to help market a product. In exchange for that item of value, WOMMA is prepared to give - what, exactly?

I see the issue in three hypothetical discussions between a PR/marketing person and a blogger. First, the conversation as it typically exists today:
PR guy: Hey, love your blog. I noticed a lot of people read it. I'd like you to take this product and tell your readers what you think about it.

Blogger: Thanks, this is somewhat interesting but I'm not inclined to give you a free ad on my blog, and my time is worth something too.

PR guy: OK, if your time is worth x and you spend y time, here's xy. Just disclose this payment, please.

Blogger: Cool. I'm on it. Send me the stuff.

Now here's the conversation under WOMMA's code of ethics:
PR guy: Hey, love your blog. I noticed a lot of people read it. I'd like you to take this product and tell your readers what you think about it.

Blogger: Thanks, this is somewhat interesting but I'm not inclined to give you a free ad on my blog, and my time is worth something too.

PR guy: Sorry, paying you to review this product violates my code of ethics.

Blogger: But you had no problem asking me to provide you a service for free. That's some code of ethics you have there.
Of course, that means we'll be seeing a lot more of this conversation:
PR guy: Hey, love your blog. I noticed a lot of people read it. I'd like you to take this product and tell your readers what you think about it.

Blogger: Go away.
Most bloggers are not journalists, but many are entrepreneurs (often women entrepreneurs), and I think this is something the FTC must consider as they develop guidance on this issue. They have a right and an obligation to protect consumers from false or misleading statements that influence commerce, regardless of the forum. But because they're FTC, they should recognize that online personal publishing technology has brought about a new self-proprietor business model that doesn't really resemble a traditional trade or consumer publication - the "review blogger." FTC should consider the restraint of trade issues that threaten a new generation of technology-inspired entrepreneurs - bloggers.

Online moms don't have a trade organization fighting for their rights at the FTC. Marketing companies do. The FTC is right to insist on disclosure and accountability. Here's hoping the FTC looks out for the small, often mom-based business and entrepreneur as well.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I get what you're saying and I don't disagree, but I question the level of influence a blogger has when they are paid to review a product?

If a blogger just starts saying how much they love X-product because they're actual consumers of the product, I'm inclined to think it's good. If they start talking about it simply because they were paid to do so, I'm less inclined to believe that it's actually a good product. See where I'm going with this? In my opinion, the power of word of mouth completely disappears when the conversation is paid for.

David said...

Thanks for the comment - I think you have every right to question the credibility of someone who is paid to review products. That's why disclosure is so important. But there are credible and valid people like the folks at Parent Bloggers Network and Mom Central who do this. Some people will trust their reviews, some won't.

If this conversation you describe happens organically, that's great and it's credible and everybody wins. Further I think there are, indeed, occasions when this takes place.

The point to me is that members of WOMMA ask bloggers to conduct reviews because they see the "power" you describe and understand that it has a monetary value. They're not willing to compensate bloggers for their time and effort.

I think it depends on your perspective. Celebrities can "endorse" products on television or in a newspaper or on a personal website, and get compensated for that endorsement. WOMMA's code prohibits this. Why? Because they're bloggers? Because it happens online?

Many of the bloggers I know feel exploited by marketing & PR people who basically want them to promote products for free. To me that kind of exploitation isn't ethical.

Anonymous said...

I believe there are ways PR people and bloggers can work together that doesn't involve the exchange of dollars. I can't speak for WOMMA but I would think they are not against giving other forms of compensation (like a free product, or test rental of a car, etc.) In this way, the blogger benefits and has true exposure to the product or service the PR/Marketing person hopes they will eventually talk about.

A paid review, to me, is no different than an advertorial, which is essentially advertising and not PR.

I think the difference lies in what the PR person is asking for. If the PR person is asking for a blog post, then I think it's fair for the blogger to ask for payment. (For the record, I don't think PR people should tell bloggers what to post on their blog in the first place.)

If the PR person reaches out in an effort to engage in a conversation or to share info/free product because they know the blogger is an influencer, and doesn't ask for a blog post in exchange, then I don't think compensation in the form of dollars is necessary.

And from a consumer standpoint, I would be influenced more by the latter, that is if the blogger so chooses to write about the experience.

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