On September 24th, Socialmediagroup.com–an agency helping businesses navigate the socially engaged Web–hosted a web seminar on the ethics of blog-brand relations. In light of new rules from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency selected four bloggers/marketers to discuss and debate whether and how companies should compensate blogs for writing about their brands.
With the FTC’s new rules requiring bloggers to disclose when they are writing about a sponsor’s product, both blogs and businesses are in a deciding moment—having to define professional and compensatory relationships that until now have frolicked in the web’s ethical Wild West. While one might imagine that people with a product to promote would want to play fast and loose with these rules, the discussion during the webinar actually revealed a general view among the panelists that violating ethical rules isn’t just bad for bloggers, but for brands as well:
The panel seemed to agree that disclosure may affect blogs differently than other media. Panelists questioned how disclaimers about compensation might affect blogs that build their readership through a sense of honesty and intimacy. “When you are reading something a blogger is writing, you have a belief in their sincerity,” says one panelist — Daniel Tunkelang, the Chief Scientist and co-founder of Endeca who blogs at thenoisychannel.com.
But this doesn’t mean that disclosure is bad for bloggers or for business, some of the webinar panelists argued. “The spirit of it [the FTC rules)] makes a lot of sense… It is a plus when everyone is being on the level, when they’re being transparent… In fact, if people were to be so bland as to only blog about things where they had no relationship, I don’t think readers would be interested,” Tunkelang says.
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In the past, companies have gotten a lot of public flack for sponsoring fake blogs on their products. In 2006, for example, Walmart paid for two people to start a blog telling the story of the couple’s RV travels across the country visiting Walmart stores. Nowhere on the blog did they disclose clearly that Walmart was the one paying for everything.
Augie Ray, the Managing Director of Experiential Marketing at Fullhouse, says that the FTC guidelines don’t change much when it comes to blatant bad behavior. “It’s just simple logic. What they [Walmart] did would have been wrong before social media existed… Breaking that trust, being dishonest has never been a good way to do business.”
Listen to an audio recording of the discussion in full here.
UPDATE: 10:29am EST : The above discussion took place on the 24th of Sept.