FTC determined to root out payola in the blogosphere

US Coins Collection Isolated on WhiteI confess: One of my largest clients manufacturers and sells safety equipment, and I’ve been known to blog (on my own blog) about the importance of having safety equipment in the workplace — without mentioning that I have an association with that company.

By the end of the summer, this sort of unethical behavior will place me squarely in the sights of the Federal Trade Commission. FTC guidelines regulating blogger endorsements are about to go into effect.

According to this story published yesterday by the Associated Press, people using the internet have no idea that the posts they read on blogs are anything less than objective, and that “Many bloggers have accepted perks such as free laptops, trips to Europe, $500 gift cards, or even thousands of dollars for a 200-word post.”

Thousands of dollars for a 200-word post? “Many” bloggers? (I checked the URL to see if I had somehow been redirected to The Onion. I had not.)

But wait! The AP article drivels on:

Savvy consumers often go online for independent consumer reviews of products and services, scouring through comments from everyday Joes and Janes to help them find a gem or shun a lemon.

(Would someone please turn off that loud alarm? I’m trying to write.)

Savvy consumers? No, savvy consumers are consulting Consumer Reports, CNET.com, and the consumer comments posted on Amazon.com and Zappos. The people basing major purchasing decisions on a post from Joe-the-Blogger are not savvy consumers but nincompoops, and, to be blunt, they deserve what they get.

The reaction to the AP story from the blogosphere has included widespread incredulity, particularly from people who actually work in the intersection of blogging and marketing. I particularly liked this summary from James Joyner of Outside the Beltway.

To begin with, what company is going to pay a low-level blogger “thousands of dollars” for a product endorsement? And they will be paying a low-level blogger because top-level bloggers don’t accept payola. They don’t accept it, mind you, not because they are all honest but because the blogosphere is a place where unscrupulous behavior has a way of catching up with you. In spades. Imagine these scenarios:

1. Jane-the-Blogger recommends that people abandon their trusted backup software and switch to new Brand X backup software. People follow her advice, and Brand X Backup corrupts their  hard drives. They post angry descriptions of their experiences with Brand X on their own blogs (mentioning Jane’s blog), so that people Googling Jane’s blog find instead a lot of unflattering reports about it. And they post their experiences with Brand X on reputable tech sites, as well. In return for the amount Jane has received from Brand X’s payola department, she’s now forfeited her own blogging credibility, and lost traffic to her blog.

2. Company Z sends Joe-the-Blogger a fancy piece of technology to review and says “go ahead and keep it.” He does. He tries it, is unimpressed, and doesn’t blog about it. The company has achieved…what? I’ve represented clients who do PR campaigns to bloggers, and send out product samples, and they do not waste expensive products on shots in the dark.

While it seems simple for the FTC to require a blogger praising a product to disclose that they have received the product or service for free, or that they receive a percentage when they link to a sales page for the product, the situation gets far more complicated in practice. Try these scenarios:

1. I hear about an interesting new service, call the owner, and write a blog post about it, which generates a lot of buzz. The owner calls me a week later, thanks me, and provides me with some insider tips and connections for a story that I go on to write and sell to a publication for $1,000. Do I go back and amend the original post to reveal this?

2. I attend a conference (for which I pay full fee), and later write a blog post describing the conference and recommend that my readers attend that conference next year. However, I don’t mention in my post that I was a speaker at the conference, and that as a result of my speech I made some important business connections at the conference. Is it possible that the conference, by offering me the speaking opportunity, was in effect “bribing” me to write a positive story about their conference? Should I bring this up in the blog post?

My answer to these questions is, I’m afraid: Oh, good grief.

Full disclosure: Neither the FTC nor the Associated Press offered me any payola to review, respectively, their regulations or their coverage of this story. I endorse neither. They did provide a nice boost to my blog traffic after I was interviewed on KUOW-FM‘s The Conversation  yesterday about the new regs. However, I’m almost positive that boost was inadvertent.