Controversy Over Blogging For Pay

Is money in your pocket from sponsored posts or paid reviews worth the controversy?

Is there really a controversy over blogging for pay? Or is this just a non-issue, raised by those who don’t have a good grasp on making money online (or offline for that matter)? What roles do blog readership and government watchdog organizations play? Is this even an issue for international blog owners? How does this controversy relate to performance marketing?

Aside from the assertion that blogging is better than FaceBook, there seem to be more questions than answers about blogging for pay. The controversy over making money with sponsored posts and paid reviews generates opinions galore, both for and against the practice. Moving away (a bit) from purely “internet marketing” types of blogs, today’s topic includes those engaging in this strategy for monetizing blog content like travel blogs, fashion blogs, and mommy blogs. Let’s talk about it a bit and see what’s being said around our global town.

Two “Blogging For Pay” Camps

Money makes the world go round. At what point can we as media makers (old and new media) stop feeling like we have a apologize for wanting to make money in our field? — Comment by Susan Murphy on Forrester is Wrong About Paying Bloggers, ReadWriteWeb.com

The debate rages hot and heavy about ethical and not so ethical ways of monetizing blog content while staying on the right side of the FTC, search engines like Google and Bing, and readers who trust your voice. Bloggers love to write, share, expose, and promote but they also have to eat.

There are myriad ways to monetize blog content but one arena that continues to gain popularity and momentum is that of sponsored posts, paid reviews, and paid links within content.

This is nothing new. As Google weeds out the trash that has traditionally blocked legitimate blogs from rising in the SERPs and as advertisers acknowledge the value of organic traffic generated by focused bloggers, the opportunities increase. Whether blessing or curse is determined in equal parts by ethics, disclosures, perceptions, and big brother’s interpretation.

The main arguments for and against blogging for pay run the gamut and also encompass some gray areas that we don’t hear much about. The primary arguments for say the bottom line rules and disclosure satisfies both readers and government watchdogs. The main arguments against decry unprofessionalism and underhanded tactics aimed at fleecing the unsuspecting. Which is loudest?

It is really a toss-up.

FOR: Count Me In!

I agree that sponsored posts are opening up many more possibilities for us as bloggers. We just need to be careful not to lose the trust of our readers. — Todd Wassel, Travel Blog Advertising Survey Results

Going somewhere? Business travelers, vacationers, day trippers and those that make travel arrangements look for more than just price comparisons; they want more information about a wide range of topics concerning their destinations.

Travel blogger Todd Wassel is a member of a huge network where requests for gifts, perks, and requests for paid reviews are prevalent. His recent travel blog advertising survey did not show enormous revenues in the sponsored posts category, but the presence of the question indicates how commonplace these kinds of posts are in his segment of the blogging industry. Both Heather on Her Travels and 2 BackPackers show hefty fees on their advertising and public relations pages for the inclusion of paid blogging content.

There are numerous bloggers who agree that incorporating sponsored posts and paid reviews into your blog makes sense when done the right way. In the interest of space, let’s move on and see examples of who is clearly against mixing the streams of paid and free content.

AGAINST: I Wouldn’t Touch That!

So-called “mommy bloggers” pack a powerful punch in the marketplace because they are vociferous about products that encompass the entire family, household, and extracurricula activities.

Generally speaking, the mommy blogger movement recognizes its own ability to impact opinion and has been at the forefront of accepting sponsored posts and paid reviews. However, in response to Jennifer James’ question, “[D]o you the think the prevalence of sponsored reviews in the mom blogging community weakens and cheapens our collective influence or is it simply a part of the evolving landscape of brand and blogger partnerships?” commenter Margot Finke had this to say:

As a consumer, I shy away from products that feel as if the reviewer has been paid in some way – whether in money goods or services of some sort. If you want readers to trust a reviewer’s opinion, it needs to be clear that the reviewer is completely independent of the product and the company. . . My opinion is that a fair and honest review can not involve payment or goods in kind.

Definitely a thumbs down.

Millions upon millions of smartphone apps have been sold – many of them based upon the reviews of Android, iPhone, and Blackberry users. Tech gadget writer, Juli, is vocal about Why Paid Reviews are Bad for Consumers and Developers, and How to Avoid Them. She warns: “While it is not illegal or technically against Apple rules for an independent publisher to be paid for a review, it does cause people to question the credibility of both the site and the developer of the app who bought the review. App reviews should be truthful, informative, and helpful to readers, not marketing ploys to fool readers into making unwanted purchases.”

With a title like Fighting the Rise of Paid Reviews, there is no doubt about where Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence stands. And Brian Notess asks this question in response to TentBlogger’s article on accepting paid reviews and sponsored posts: Have you ever done a sponsored post for a product or organization you weren’t thrilled about? If so, how did it feel to lose your soul?

The sentiments against blogging for pay run high and deep!

Gray Areas and Uncommon Issues

As if the discussion were not already polarized enough, how to handle sponsored posts and paid reviews can fall into gray areas and raise some uncommon issues. A few areas for consideration:

  • retroactively tagging old content
  • selling reviewed items
  • endorsements and testimonials
  • social media
  • sponsored videos

Marking Old Content As Paid or Sponsored

Louis Gray raised the question of whether or not it made sense to go back and mark old content as paid or sponsored. This became an issue for him as he took on consulting clients and increased the likelihood of writing reviews that could be construed as paid or sponsored content. Once the question came up, he had to also consider how far back in his archives was far enough.

Writing about older content reminded me to take a look at my own. Looking at my sitemap, I came across a pseudo-review of an autoresponse system I own and for which I’m an affiliate. I’m crafting a disclosure for it as soon as I publish this article!

Have you faced this issue? How did you resolve it?

Selling Previous Reviewed Gift Items

In discussing this with so many amazing people, it really struck out to me (and many of them) what a grey area selling is and how many factors are so personally based. Unless FTC mandates come out, I’m not personally sure that there will be a right or wrong answer about how to tackle the subject. — Ashley Mischief, Ethical or Not: Selling Gifted Items, Independent Fashion Bloggers

Fashion bloggers, like Mommy bloggers, make up a sizeable community. Because of their collective voice (and resulting power), they are sought after to give a nod or a thumbs down to men’s and women’s clothing, accessories, and personal grooming products. To this end, they are showered with items to review, possibly resulting in overflowing closets.

The problem presents itself when they consider what to do with all this bounty once they’re done writing or podcasting about it. Since they are not always compensated with hard, cold cash, selling the items is a way to convert bounty into bucks, but everyone is not in agreement that this is the way to go. The conundrum is akin to blogging for pay.

Social Media

These voluntary guidelines apply to anyone who’s providing an advertisement or testimonial. In addition, though, social media strategists, consultants, gurus, masters, superheroes and PR agencies and their employees should be well-versed on this topic because they, too, may become liable if they are advising clients or bloggers to engage in action that is clearly contrary to the guidelines. Social Media Examiner, Are You Disclosing

Gray areas extend to social media.

One-hundred and forty characters flying across the screen at breakneck speed might not seem like enough conversation to grab the attention of bureaucratic agencies, but if what it says includes a pointer to a post that you’ve been paid to promote, it just might. How do you disclose a material relationship with a company as a part of your stream of pithy conversation conducted via social media like Twitter?

As Louis Gray pointed out in his article mentioned earlier, “automation prevents disclosure“. Items accessed through an RSS subsciption cannot be easily (if at all) marked up to include disclosures on the individual feed items, at least not through a service like FeedBurner. Items added to FaceBook or Google+ could have a disclosure added but not if they are published to these media through an automated process.

Does the FTC speak clearly on this issue?

How does this controversy relate to performance marketing?

From the standpoint of advertisers tracking performance marketing, there are a few things that can (and should be) done. I’m not fond of exclamation marks at the end of every sentence, but in this case I’ll make an exception for these three points:

  1. Remember the Alamo! (That is, remember the firepower rained down (aka the hefty fine levied) by the FTC on Legacy Learning Systems, Inc. concerning how it gathered testimonials for its guitar DVD training course.
  2. Require disclosure! (Take note of the FTC-related events that sparked retail giant Ann Taylor’s institution of a blogger disclosure policy.)
  3. Do due diligence! (Carefully select ethical bloggers, especially when they are also affiliates, to blog about your product. See the first two items above.)

The founder of TopRank Online Marketing Blog cautions performance marketers to measure the risk carefully: “Consider your larger objectives and strategies carefully and ask yourself if sponsored posts are the tactic for you.”


Share Your Insights

I’ll leave you with the words of fellow technology consultant, John Saddington of TentBlogger.com, to chew on: You’re ultimately going to do what is best for your blog and your community as it relates to your business modeling and monetization strategies. Just like you can’t fault one blogger for doing it ‘one way’ no one else can fault you for making a few dollars off of sponsored posts.”

Thanks for reading! Let’s hear your thoughts and insights on the questions below . . .

Besides “pro bloggers,” what other industry segments do advertisers seek out for paid content?
Do you think a clear disclosure should be placed on every blog post?
Are Google and the FTC minding your business too much?
Should bloggers use sponsored posts or paid reviews as part of their blog monetizing strategy?

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Vernessa Taylor | CoachNotes Blog

As a Technology Consultant, Vernessa Taylor works with both online and offline business owners. She writes about small business systems such as project management and customer referral systems at CoachNotes Blog.

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  1. I can tell you personally I have started getting spammed for “guest” posts or asking to review product (for free mind you). And I am in no way a “pro” blogger. I’m just the lil’ guy who is trying to get his blog out there and if I’m lucky to maybe earn a buck or three to get some bills paid.

    My issue is this. I want guest posts from real people running real blogs or websites. Not marketers or sites trying to push their wares on the unsuspecting public.

    Even if I get paid – I would forewarn the company I’m working with – you might not like what you read – but I get paid either way.

    I think in the end we need to find our own moral compass and follow it. For me it means that sure I will run a review of your product. But don’t whine to me if I totally and completely trash it because I think it’s junk.

    1. Hi Jason,

      The consensus of the average ethical blogger is that paid reviews should be truthful representations of the blogger’s experience. Some writers even refuse advertorials or sponsored posts if they seem too “salesy” or make what appear to be outrageous claims.

      Telling it like it is and telling your readers that you got paid to tell it like it is seems to be the new mantra.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

  2. I’ve always said I wouldn’t do it and I stick by that. I think if I was getting paid for things and writing reviews on it that if the reviews were positive people would question whether it was a legitimate review or not. You know that I do reviews when people send me stuff, but I didn’t pay for it and I’m not getting paid for it I don’t think that there is any expectation by anyone that I have to write a good review because of it. By not getting paid to do it there is no question as to whether my “good” review is being bought or not.

    And, of course, since I said I wouldn’t do it, I never go back on my word. 🙂

    1. Hi Mitch,

      Of course we’ve had this conversation on Google+ (it’s amazing how it makes it quick and easy to dive right into any stream of interest!).

      I do get where you’re coming from. Because of the suspicions associated with “paid to say it,” and the less-than-ethical nature of some bloggers, many others aren’t earning an income from an area in which they are more than qualified to do so.

      That’s the overarching reason I maintain that when a blog owner can ethically write a paid review, there shouldn’t be any expectation of a “good” review. And when dealing with ethical companies the only expectation should be that the review is good in terms of quality, thoroughness, and truthfulness.

      Thanks for coming over and having your say, Mitch.

  3. This all comes down to the same thing it has ALWAYS come down to – and that is integrity. An ethical blogger can and many do write impartial reviews even when they are being compensated for their time or given the product.

    The wise among them make it VERY CLEAR to PR folks and brands that they better expect an HONEST evaluation. Their reputations IS at stake and their opinions are NOT FOR SALE.

    There is much more to say about this and this comment got so long that I have saved the rest of it and asked Pace if he wants to publish it as a response post. If he doesn’t I will publish it elsewhere.

    1. Gail, I left this comment over on your article, but it was prompted by your original comment here.

      I can always count on you to present a deeper revelation of an issue.

      Yes, it comes down to ethics, integrity and removing the love of money from one’s eyesight. And, like you eloquently point out (along with Anita, Kelli and others), those participating in the online world MUST recognize that bloggers shouldn’t have to dance for their supper. Personally, I never have any qualms telling someone, “and the cost for that is x amount of dollars,” because the grocer isn’t accepting IOUs.

      So long as there are bloggers who don’t understand ethics, integrity, or businesses who try to ignore the need to pay for products and services, we’ll keep raising the bullhorn.

      Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts here … and the rest of your thoughts in a new, related blog post (Ethical Blogging: Bloggers, Is YOUR Opinion for Sale? Is Traditional Media Unbiased?).

  4. I’m with Gail on this. My time may be compensated but my opinions and ethics are not for sale. I’ve actually had the conversation with people where I say ‘you may not like my review’. At that point they can decide whether they want a review from an ethical blogger or not.

    1. Spoken like a true ethical blogger! LOL Jason Mathes mentioned it too. “You might not like my review” is the litmus test of whether a product owner or service provider is seeking honesty or just wants an advertisement, in which case, just paying an advertising fee gets meets the goal. The weight is on the blogger to make the distinction, then act accordingly.

      Either way, proper disclosure keeps the channels clear.

  5. As I said on Gail’s post, my integrity is not for sale. However, space on my blog IS for sale. I am a relatively low traffic niche blog on vegetable gardening and I get spammed with press releases and supposed “guest posts” that are just ads for products. When I point out that I charge for ads and tell them the fee, they grumble and leave. Part of the problem is that at first, bloggers as a group made the same mistake newspapers did — put up there content for free. Now people grumble when newspapers try to charge and they grumble when bloggers try to charge. Too bad. I spend a lot of time on my blog and I deserve to make a little money off of it. If you want me to help you make money, I expect to be paid, too. I do make clear that my opinions are my own and the reviews are honest. That is just how I am — honest and outspoken.

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      Can we use your “slogan” on our advertising pages? LOL

      [M]y integrity is not for sale. However, space on my blog IS for sale!

      Overwhelmingly, the grumblers are shysters, anyway. Hopefully, blog owners aren’t taken in by them. I get my share of those requests for “guest posts.” Most of the time, when I check out their offers, their products and services fall waaaay short of the quality necessary for me to recommend them to my readers.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. I am a blogger and the owner of Giveaway Bandit. We get paid for the product reviews and giveaways on our site. I think it is about gaining the trust of your readers on whether or not they think a sponsored post or review is honest. We always give our honest opinion 100% of the time! Plus, my son does a lot of the review via youtube video so you know a 7 year old is going to say nothing but the truth about the product!

    1. Hi Melanie K,

      Haha, a 7-year old’s opinion is probably worth more, dollar for dollar, than some of the opinions put forth by “career reviewers.”

      You’re quite right, it’s all in perception and what your readers expect from you. And when ethical bloggers have the appropriate disclosures in place, there shouldn’t be any issues at all.

      Thanks for weighing in. The shopping season is coming around so I’ll be sure to check out your offerings.

      1. the line between journalism blogging and cash for comments is pretty easy to define. It was said best in the comment above “My time may be compensated but my opinions and ethics are not for sale”.

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