Blogging popped up in the late nineties, around the time free web publishing tools started becoming available to the general public (who remembers Geocities?). It was a way to post thoughts, ideas, knowledge, pictures…. Pretty much anything you wanted on the internet. The term ‘blog’ is broad and what a blog encompasses is rather broad as well. From photo journals, to online diaries to commentary pieces on superheroes and the existence of aliens — if you want to find a thought or photo there is likely someone on the internet who has blogged about it.
Towards the end of 2012, WordPress recorded more than 56.6-million blogs on its platform. That doesn’t include Blogger, Tumblr and a host of other blog platforms available.
So why do people blog? Some have an opinion they want to share, others simply enjoy writing and many are blogging because the digital marketing folk are telling them their business needs them to — search engine optimisation, being considered an expert in your field… there’s a variety of reasons they’ll tell you this a good idea.
Blogs beat traditional mainstream media in that there are no fast and hard rules governing them. Bloggers are free to express an honest and unedited opinion. Didn’t like the service you received at a restaurant? Absolutely horrified that the latest skin product you used left your neck in red patches? Well, blog about it.
Brands have realised that the readership of a blog is far more loyal than that of a magazine. Readers have a personal relationship with the blogger, they interact with them on other social media channels and therefore they trust them – far more than their copy of Car or Cosmo magazine. Their opinion matters and it only follows that their opinion sells.
The blogging bandwagon has taken off and it has hit a few potholes in the road.
Bloggers around the world have been able to quit their day jobs. Typing out posts has become a full-time profession. Clever marketing types are happy to blow ad spend on banner adverts on a blog as opposed to their old position of inside front cover in a magazine — because their market happens to be a loyal reader of that blog. PR Companies have a new tool to add to their arsenal. Supply a new mom (and blogger) with a nifty new baby-related device and, if she likes it, she may just blog about it. Her blog readership is made up of fellow new moms so your target market is well and truly reached — some good PR in exchange for product.
First pothole: When your blog becomes your income, how honest can you be?
Here’s an example: a young fashion blogger started off posting photos of her favourite items in the stores while blogging her “must have” lists and bargain buys. She spotted trends for cheap and fellow fashion lovers flocked to her blog. Stores and designers caught on and now have advertisements running up and down the sides of her webpage. They pay her when she posts about their brand or new product. How ethical is she going to be? Are you going to post about how overpriced Brand X’s latest shoes are when Brand X happens to pay you for posts and holds the main banner position at the top of the page?
What happens if Brand Y, a new kid on the block, offers up really great jeans but their marketing budget is minimal and they can’t afford to pay for a post? Do you feature them when Brand X is offering to pay for their latest product to be featured? Would Brand X possibly pull advertising if their competition started featuring and does that mean Brand Y cannot appear on this particular blog? So many questions…
Second pothole: Ethics
Journalists are bound by the editorial policy of their publication. Believe it or not, they are supposed to follow a set of rules. Bloggers don’t have any restrictions. In the example mentioned above it is very easy for the blogger concerned to only publish paid-for posts. She has to eat right? But the ethical questions don’t stop there.
What about the smaller blogger just starting out. They’ve developed a small and loyal following. A clever PR agent picks up on their blog and has a few brands that could benefit from coverage. Said agent sends the blogger a product to review or invites her to an event. Blogger writes a good review and the brand gets a positive response from the audience. Blogger is happy as is the PR agent. So the relationship continues. And then one day the PR agent sends the Blogger a product she doesn’t like. So what does she do? An honest review is what her readers want but it could jeopardise the relationship with the PR agent. No PR agent likes bad press or a negative review.
The blogger now has clout and her opinion matters. Voicing a negative one could mean the PR agent cuts off the supply of free product and event invites which, for the blogger, translates to less content to blog about but also a possible “cut off” from the industry. Other brands may be dubious to work with the blogger in the future. So the blogger just doesn’t review the product or she posts her “bad review” which is littered with “buts” and “on the positive side.”
PR companies need bloggers and for many bloggers, they need the PR companies. But there is another factor in this equation – the reader.
We read blogs because we enjoy the content or we value the opinion of the author. What if that opinion or content was swayed because of a paid for post or freebie, would you want to know? The big concern amongst readers is: if someone is being paid to promote a particular product how honest will they be in their review of it?
Third pothole: Legislation
Policing the internet is probably an impossible task. The Federal Trade Commission in the States has introduced regulations which are meant to enforce the disclosure of paid for posts and free merchandise in exchange for promotion. Celebrities who are paid to tweet about a particular brand need to indicate that the tweet is sponsored by placing “Ad” in front. Blogs need to disclose in a clearly visible spot on the post that a particular post has been paid for or goods have exchanged hands. If a review of a product is done along with an endorsement then the blogger must mention the “typical” results someone can expect from using the product. In other words, you will need to publish the facts along with your opinion.
According to IDG News Service the FTC is not so much concerned with the actions of individual bloggers but rather with how advertisers pay for endorsements and reviews.
A number of countries have no blogging regulations. While some bloggers may choose to disclose sponsored posts or pledge to follow the FTC rules — there is no monitoring body to ensure they “do as they post”.
Fourth pothole: Does it matter?
Some readers feel betrayed when they find out that their favourite blogger is being paid to tell them how great something is. Other readers aren’t too bothered. And herein lays the beauty of blogs: if you don’t want to read it you don’t have to. You can choose.