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.

Comments (25 Responses so far)

  1. All Blogs Are Publications And All Bloggers Are Publishers » Publishing 2.0 robcurley.com » washingtonpost.comâ??s new Facebook app Scott Rosenbergâ??s Wordyard » Blog Archive » Conversations with corporations Online Publishers Need To Set Their Own Editorial Standards And Stick To Them » Publishing 2.0 Get more norgs links. Hey! what’s a norg?

  2. s Advertising.com network and other ad networks have been successful because many sites can’t or don’t want to do their own selling. That is the principle behind Federated Media selling ads for top blogs — it’s notable that the recent Microsoft advertorial controversy represents an instance where some sites did not feel that their interests were well represented. I think there remains a robust market for sites that need traditional ad networks, i.e. someone to sell for them

  3. 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. And that’s why it’s not surprising to see the latest mini-controversy to hit the blogging world. (I say mini, because like most news about blogs, its 15 minutes of fame will probably last through the weekend and disappear the moment there’s something else to focus on, like the iPhone).

  4. If you ignore it, they get bored and move on. For More Reading… There’s some really good thinking on this subject beyond what I referenced above. I especially would commend to your attention two differing points of view. Scott Karp tends to agree with me that this is much ado about nothing, but speaks to a need for bloggers to establish and stick to personal standards. Jeff Jarvis and I couldn’t be farther apart on this issue, but he puts quite a bit of thought and reasoning

  5. Why can Leo Laporte and Disney do it, but Mike Arrington and TechCrunch can???t?  – Robert Scoble Fun with Yahoo! Pipes: Brand Monitoring  – Peter Kim Online Publishers Need To Set Their Own Editorial Standards And Stick To Them  – Scott Karp Catching up from ??June Blur?? ?? Tel Aviv / Stockholm / Chicago over Three Weeks: Just watched Good Copy Bad Copy  – Ian Forrester

  6. You just can’t dress up something old in a new dress and say it is something different than traditional advertising in a new dress — ” So, we all know the difference between right and wrong. If not, all you will lose will be your credibility.As Scott Karp writes, “every online publisher needs to draw a dark line and be very careful not to cross it.” Rex discussed the Nikon Blogger program and stated that he did not understand the need to defend his participation on ethical grounds. I wasn’t presented

  7. You just can’t dress up something old in a new dress and say it is something different than traditional advertising in a new dress — ” So, we all know the difference between right and wrong. If not, all you will lose will be your credibility.As Scott Karp writes, “every online publisher needs to draw a dark line and be very careful not to cross it.” Rex discussed the Nikon Blogger program and stated that he did not understand the need to defend his participation on ethical grounds. I wasn’t presented

  8. if that is incorrect and inaccurate, what else in traditional publishing is inaccurate, too?  Do writers and their subjects make things up because they’re not being taped and can get away with it, or was this an exception, and not the rule… A lot of very experienced and intelligent people chimed in on Federated Media’s Microsoft’s campaign, but why aren’t these same people asking the question I’m asking today? Is it ok to blast Michael Arrington, one of the

  9. [IMG Comments][IMG ]

  10. Online Publishers Need To Set Their Own Editorial Standards And Stick To Them 11:06 PM EDT, June 23, 2007 via Publishing 2.0

  11. Jeff Jarvis, who picks apart the various positions to come to a simple conclusion: the rules are clear, and this campaign stepped over the line. UPDATE 4: More smart comment from Doc Searles, Ross Dawson, and Scott Karp.

  12. 11:15 AM [IMG] Scott Karp / Publishing 2.0: Online Publishers Need To Set Their Own Editorial Standards And Stick To Them

  13. The publisher of Gawker as ethical watchdog? Too hilarious.

  14. @SpragueD – I’m thinking of the historical role of the court jester.

  15. “I don’t think anyone was manipulated or deceived”

    I think the purpose of the campaign was to make it appear as if these men were endorsing Microsoft, even if they really weren’t.

  16. Seth/SpragueD,

    You may not like Nick Denton’s style, but he’s asking the right questions.

    Hashim,

    How exactly did it “appear” that they were endorsing Microsoft?

    I think the purpose of the campaign was to try to give meaning to the empty “People Ready” theme.

  17. 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.

  18. [...] 4: More smart comment from Doc Searles, Ross Dawson, and Scott Karp. June 23rd, [...]

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. [...] more complicated and messy than relying on a masthead to carry the freight for you, but at least it puts you in control of your own [...]

  22. [...] more complicated and messy than relying on a masthead to carry the freight for you, but at least it puts you in control of your own [...]

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. [...] RSS Feed ← Online Publishers Need To Set Their Own Editorial Standards And Stick To Them [...]

  26. [...] the recent dust up over Federated Media’s Microsoft advertorial, I thought I would grab the bull by the horns by articulating a statement of principles regarding [...]

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