June 23rd, 2007

Online Publishers Need To Set Their Own Editorial Standards And Stick To Them

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Did Federated Media and Mike Arrington, Om Malik, Richard MacManus, Fred Wilson, Paul Kedrosky, Matt Marshall, and Mike Davidson cross an ethical line when they created a promotion for Microsoft’s “People Ready” campaign in which each of these well-respected publishers wrote what “People Ready” means to them?

Nick Denton said they did cross an ethical line. The issue is, of course, being hotly debated — as it should be. Trust is a publisher’s most important asset, if they want people to opt into reading and discussing what they publish.

But I don’t think this particular instance is a serious ethical breach. Why?

  • Everything is clearly labeled as “Sponsored by Microsoft.”
  • None of the publishers in question actually endorsed any Microsoft product or service — all they did was riff on the “People Ready,” tagline, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on. I don’t think anyone was manipulated or deceived, which I take to be the ethical standard.

That said, I do think this Microsoft promotion falls down in one critical respect — it creates very little value for Microsoft or for anyone who reads the blogs where the promotion ran as an ad unit.

Most of the blame falls on Microsoft and its ad agency — with all due respect, “People Ready” is a pretty dopey tagline — no wonder Federated Media sold them on a promotion where a bunch of smart publishers say what it means to them. But despite the effort, I still have no idea what it means!

So while none of the participants is guilty of deception along the lines of PayPerPost-like product endorsement, I do think they are guilt of not listening to that little voice that I’d guess probably spoke to all of them, saying, “This is ‘People Ready’ thing is stupid!”

Traditionally, there is no boundary that states when an advertiser has stupid creative for their campaign, you shouldn’t take their money and run the ad. But when they ask you to use your own name and voice to amplify the stupidity — well, perhaps there is a line there that shouldn’t be crossed.

Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky had the courage to admit they didn’t listen to the little voice telling them this was a bad idea. Fred Wilson still doesn’t think it was a bad idea, and I can respect that position as well. Richard MacManus takes the position that it’s all overblown (and the ethical aspect I agree is), then throws it open to comments — the comments on each of the participant’s blog post on this subject show the blogging medium at its best.

As Jeff Jarvis wisely states:

You must set your own boundaries and not let them be pushed. When you do — whatever those boundaries are — that is the very definition of selling out.

That’s the big takeaway for me — every online publisher needs to draw a dark line and be very careful not to cross it.

  • There are certainly shady areas on the web that would benefit from a good dose of bright light -- but this particular issue is not close to being one of the most important.

    People are talking about an *obvious* banner ad. What about the non-obvious marketing and cross-promotion that's going on?

    More thoughts on my site.

  • Funny, this post is exactly what I would have said if I chose to speak up about it. Although I'm named in the "complaint", I haven't really been personally targeted (perhaps since Newsvine, as policy, rejects having an editorial voice at all).

    But yeah, to me, there is really only one interesting thing about this whole campaign: that it wasn't very interesting at all. I knew that when we were writing our quotes and I knew it when we saw the ads. As you say, there's nothing wrong with running a campaign on your site that doesn't seem all that effective, so I think that's what everyone ended up doing.

    Time to move on and think of more creative/effective ways of providing value to readers and advertisers.

  • Coming from the world of journalism, this is one of the things that scared me most about blogging. Traditional news organizations have a long history of maintaining separate departments responsible for advertising and editorial content. Sure, you can look at many magazines and television programs these days that don't seem to have gotten the memo. But at most news organizations the reporters will never speak directly to the business managers.

    Most bloggers don't have that background, and more importantly, they don't have those resources. If you're running a company of one, or even a company of 5 or 10, you probably can't afford to hire someone to handle the business while you crank out content.

    Services like Google AdSense are great because they take most of the control out of your hands. You're not picking and choosing your advertisers, and there's no real pressure to write positive reviews of any particular product, because you never really know what's going to be advertised on your site.

    But once you get into campaigns like the "People Ready" one, you're seeing bloggers taking an active role in advertising. And once that happens, you'll never know if you can really trust that blogger's words in the future, or if they're making sponsored endorsements. In fact, probably the best thing about the Federated Media campaign is that it was so blatantly obvious. It highlighted who some of these bloggers are.

    I respect Om Malik, Mike Arrington and the others, so I doubt I'll stop reading their blogs. But this incident might make me pause to think a bit more about what exactly it is that I'm reading.

  • Rick,

    There's an urban legend that Kennedy made a mistake when using the phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” in his famous speech in West Berlin during the cold war. The legend goes that the phrase actually means I am a jelly donut.

    Like this urban legend, the Microsoft ad is more silly than anything else.

  • Rick

    I disagree the notion that they are not actually endorsing Microsoft. It's not a specific service or product they are endorsing, it's much much more then that. They are identifying themselves with everything Microsoft stands for. Phrases like "...then I became People Ready" are meant to send the same kind of message as "Ich bin ein Berliner". These ads, the way in which they are written and designed, are meant to say "these highly influential people stand shoulder to shoulder with us, Microsoft, and our ideology".

    The fact that it's utterly lame and fails completely doesn't change that.

    And the whole "conversational marketing" bit is just a smokescreen. It's pure 100% traditional advertising.

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