Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Join a Discussion on Ethics (and Even More Vital Topics) in Blogging

I've been invited to participate in a webinar about Ethics in Blogging, sponsored by and The Social Media Group. The event will occur Thursday, September 24th at 1 pm ET/10 am PT. You can register to listen and participate for free, and the event is a steal at that price!

If you're webinared out, perhaps this will entice you to listen in: I don't care that much about ethics in blogging.

Don't get me wrong, I believe ethics are vital on a personal and professional level, but a dialog about ethics interests me far less than a discussion about how brands and blogs combine to impact (either positively or negatively) brand perception and consumer actions. Ethics are merely the table stakes--just like in traditional media, ethics are essential but the real magic in delivering results via blogs depends far more on blogger reputation, consumer attitudes toward the brand and category, the offer, demographics, and psychographics.

The operative issue for brands isn't that a blog is run ethically but that the blog, the blogger, the content, the context, the form of compensation, the value of compensation, and the type of disclosure work in concert to enhance the brand as desired. In some respects, I believe all the attention given to "ethics"--which is actually a relatively black-and-white issue--is obscuring the more complex, subtle, and important questions of how marketers can best use Social PR, blogger outreach, blog advertising, and "sponsored conversations" (a/k/a "paid blog posts").

One reason why Ethics in Blogging doesn't excite me is that (according to Wikipedia), Ethics is "a branch of philosophy which seeks to address questions about morality." I'm not a philosopher and I wouldn't presume to lecture anyone on moral right and wrong--but legal and marketing strategy right and wrong are horses of a different color.

The legal implications of paying or bartering with a blogger in exchange for blog posts are a little in flux because the FTC has issued proposed changes to advertising practices but has yet to publish the final code. But even without the final rules change, smart and experienced observers have a strong sense of how the FTC will use its enforcement power to set standards for brands in Social Media.

There are two reasons why few people expect any surprises when the FTC publishes its final guidance. The first is that the agency has already signaled its direction with their preliminary document, furnishing three specific examples of advertiser liability and disclosure on blogs and message boards. (During the Ethics in Blogging webinar, we hope to touch on a few specifics contained in the FTC's proposed rule changes.)

The second reason is that the FTC has always governed advertising with a fairly simple golden rule: Consumers must know when they are being advertised to. In forms of media where advertising is clearly delineated and well recognized--such as TV ads and billboards--no special disclosures are necessary. But when any level of confusion may exist in the mind of consumers--such as an advertorial in print or a paid blog post--then the advertising disclosure must be clear and conspicuous.

The FTC doesn't explicitly define "clear and conspicuous," but one FTC publication challenges advertisers to ask four questions about their paid media:
  • Prominence: Is the fine print big enough for people to notice and read?
  • Presentation: Is the wording and format easy for people to understand?
  • Placement: Is the fine print where people will look?
  • Proximity: Is the fine print near the claim it qualifies?
On blogs, it isn't that hard to interpret these standards. The reader must know from the start (and not tucked into language at the end of a 1000-word blog post) that a commercial arrangement exists between a brand mentioned in a blog post and the blogger. About the only real issue of any disagreement with respect to blogging ethics and the law is what sort of disclosure meets the FTC's "clear and conspicuous" standard. Is it acceptable for the entire blog to have a single disclosure? Must the blog post headline contain an alert such as "Ad" or "Paid Post"? And what of paid tweets--how can adequate disclosure be given in 140-character tweets?

Total disclosure--clear and conspicuous--of commercial arrangements (be they cash, product, travel, or other forms of remuneration) is both ethical and legal, but this is just the tip of the iceberg for marketers wishing to gain attention in the blogosphere. For example, if a blog post begins "I was paid $1,000 to write about Jinkie's brand cereal," will consumers read the article, if so will they trust it, and if so how will the article alter their opinions or actions? What if the paid blog post appears on a blog that is nothing but paid blog posts--will this affect consumer trust and the impact of the sponsored conversation?

These are just a few of the questions marketers need to answer, which is why disclosure is child's play compared to discerning the attributes that separate a blog strategy that helps from one that hurts or does nothing for the brand.

So as a member of this webinar panel, I hope to share some insights and spark dialog not about what is right or wrong for the souls of bloggers but what is right or wrong for brands participating in the blogosphere. If you have specific questions, topics, or opinions you'd like to see addressed, please comment below so we can consider your input!

I hope you'll consider joining us for the free webinar, Ethics in Blogging. In addition to myself, webinar panelists include Maggie Fox, founder and CEO of Social Media Group; Daniel Tunkelang, Chief Scientist and co-founder of Endeca; and John Jantsch, author of Duct Tape Marketing: The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide.

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Jennifer Lindsay said...

You're awesome, Augie (still one of my fave podcast guests! ( You're an awesome addition to this panel - I highly recommend it to anyone interested!


Augie Ray said...

Thanks Jennifer, It's very kind of you to say! I'm on a panel with some pretty impressive people!

Hope you're doing well.