Bloggers and PR payola: is this the future?

12 May 2010

More and more bloggers seem to be trying to figure out a way to get paid for reviews that are being facilitated by PR agencies and departments.  While she’s not specifically advocating getting paid for reviews, here’s a recent post from popular Canadian blogger, Kim Vallee that inspired me to explore the topic of compensating bloggers:

I think that bloggers who write about products, stores and restaurants should take notes. With all the brands pitching us stuff that suit their agenda, it comes a time when we have to say “this is enough”. Otherwise, how we can expect to make a living from blogging. I think beyond the banner ads as a monetizing technique.

Take for example, the sales alerts and store events. I receive many emails every week from retailers about these topic alone. But announcing a sale or another promotional event is a form of advertisement that the retailer should pay for. Why not have a classified section or published a (clearly marked) sponsored post once a week announcing the sales?

And another from Michelle at EverythingMom (Update 05/17: EverythingMom has changed its approach based on a variety of discussions, including those in the comments below):

I read the debates around the blogosphere about paid reviews. Some said paid reviews compromised integrity and others said they did not want to read paid reviews because they did not believe them. Some bloggers have stopped doing reviews all together because it is too much work.

The general consensus, it seems, is that paid reviews are a big no-no. Yet here we are, going completely against the grain. Sure there are sites out there that offer paid reviews. But generally, when moms jump into the conversation, they say with gumption – no. No paid reviews for me.

I took each position in, weighing it’s merits, seeing how EverythingMom might fit in to this arena. We were already playing in it full out with our very own Reviews section. And we stood by the same position — no paid reviews. To this day, Carrie Anne has not been compensated (outside of product) for reviews. But I am out to change that.

Erica Ehm of YummyMummyClub left this comment to Michelle’s post:

I am in total agreement with you. “Mom Reviews” are a huge part of spreading the brand though word of mouth. Brands need to pay writers for their time. These “mom bloggers” are usually highly educated, thoughtful women with earned influence and a way with words. They absolutely should be paid for that expertise. The only caveat is that is should be transparent – ie posted somewhere that writer was compensated.

On my site, like on this one, we work with amazing women. I want them to enjoy some financial benefit for their hard work.

Kudos to you Michelle for putting so much thought into this. I’m right beside you on this!

They are all in agreement that as bloggers get popular and build a following through their hard work and passion, they tend to find themselves in demand by PR folk trying to get them to review products, attend events and share their experiences with their readers. That’s not a shocker to anyone in the business.

The general drift: since a PR firm is getting paid to make the pitch (in many instances), that perhaps some of that money should flow to the blogger for their time and effort.

Pay-for-post has been discussed in PR circles a lot. I’ve seen formal pay-for-post programs run by service providers like Izea and I’ve seen ad-hoc pay for play by PR agencies. It’s not entirely black and white, but at its best it feels a little like buying someone’s influence and at its worst it feels like a shakedown.

I don’t think Kim or Michelle or Erica are wrong in asking these questions and pondering how to get a slice of the marketing pie. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have in the social media community that is creating new standards and best practices on the fly. We have to keep in mind that this isn’t journalism, advertising, or PR. It’s everything mixed into a new media stew and we’re still figuring out what tastes right.

It probably won’t shock you when I tell you what feels right to me differs from Kim, Michelle and Erica. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to get paid, but my credibility compass swings towards not ever paying bloggers to post something on a client’s behalf. Even with full disclosure, it feels like it would land on readers as a paid post, sullied by the exchange of money and neither credible or trustworthy. It seems like an advertorial and a shortcut to coverage over the longer term of building editorial relationships with online publishers that are mutually beneficial.

You can argue that product demos, products to keep, products to giveaway to readers are the same as cash. You’d be right, but I don’t think it lands on readers the same way. We’ve given hundreds of dollars worth of products to bloggers, but we’ve never given cash. We have worked on a few projects with MomCentral, who reward their community of bloggers with nominal non-cash incentives ie gift cards and gift packs, that are disclosed. I’m still struggling with whether that constitutes pay-per-post or if it’s yet another ingredient in the social media stew.

Over the years several community papers and radio stations pulled the same sort of stuff: “we’ll write/talk about your client if you buy an ad.” That crosses a journalistic line in my books and I suppose I hold bloggers to the same sort of credibility standard as I do journalists: you either have a desire to inform your readers, or you have a desire to inform readers about things you get paid to write about.

These fine women aren’t the first or last bloggers to bring this topic up. But I do wonder if it is the start of a change in mindset on a broader scale. One thing is certain: both PR people and bloggers need to start understanding how each other fits into the social media universe. We really are on the same side.

UPDATE: Eden Spodek, a blogger at Bargainista long before she became a social media consultant at High Road, has written a post from her unique perspective: http://bit.ly/cuiZST

8 Responses to “Bloggers and PR payola: is this the future?”

  1. Kelby Carr

    I appreciate you writing about this topic, but I feel like some crucial points are missed here. This is not about paid reviews, which grossly simplifies the issue. No, mom bloggers want to get paid. Just like every other medium. I think a paid review is perhaps one of the worst models, if not the worst. A review implies an impartial testing of a product or service, and an unbiased assessment for readers of its performance. There are many other ways to pay a mom blogger, and some of those are currently being sought for free even so: spokesblogging, advertising, consulting, contests, sponsored content (it need not be a review… what if a food company paid a food blogger to come up with and write reviews using their product as an ingredient, with full disclosure? Good for readers, ethical way to pay). There is paying a blogger to write for a company site or blog. There is paying a blogger to outreach to other bloggers in her community. There are mom bloggers who host Twitter parties, and some (like me and several others) who host national blog conferences in which a firm can arrange a sponsorship for their clients.

    And I also don’t buy the argument that PR handles only earned media. I see plenty of PR companies every week pitching me to do far beyond “earned” media… posting to Twitter, posting to Facebook, these “badges” (aka euphemism for banner ads) for moms who represent a company, blog posts, consulting, contests, spokesblogging, you name it. I would highly recommend reading this example:
    http://www.mom-101.com/2010/05/nothing-in-life-is-free-except-it-seems.html

    Yes, PR firms can and should pursue earned media. The fact remains that it is a tough challenge, because writing about a product for many blogs isn’t something that is a natural thing they would write just in the interest of their readership. That is no different than traditional media. What percentage of pitches to traditional media outlets actually result in coverage?

    That is exactly why agencies ask for the other items I just listed. Those items, however, go well beyond earned media and should be considered paid media.

    So… bottom line is PR agencies can feel free in my mind to pitch bloggers to do reviews and to cover the product. Period. If all PR agencies handle is earned media, then stop at that. Don’t ask for more. And don’t be surprised when you have a very low rate of actual blog posts as a result.

    But anything beyond that should be paid. In cash. If you want to go beyond that, then you need to accept that you are in the business of paid media.

    I think it’s time to see agencies step up and offer pay as a matter of doing business. And pay is not product. I know of not one PR firm that receives its pay from companies/clients in product.

  2. David Jones

    Very thoughtful comment. I appreciate your point of view and what that brings to the discussion.

    Much like everything in social media, there aren’t really any rules and everyone needs to realize that bloggers (and PR people) are individuals and not some sort of homogeneous group that acts as one with the same motivations.

  3. Twitter Trackbacks for Collective Conversation » Bandwidth » Blog Archive » Bloggers and PR payola: is this the future? [hillandknowlton.com] on Topsy.com

    [...] Collective Conversation » Bandwidth » Blog Archive » Bloggers and PR payola: is this the future? blogs.hillandknowlton.com/bandwidth/2010/05/ – view page – cached More and more bloggers seem to be trying to figure out a way to get paid for reviews that are being facilitated by PR agencies and departments. Here’s a recent post from popular Canadian blogger, Kim Vallee: Tweets about this link Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['doctorjones'] = {“photo”:”http://a3.twimg.com/profile_images/711913437/daveatpcto2010crop_normal.JPG”,”url”:”http://twitter.com/doctorjones”,”nick”:”doctorjones”}; doctorjonesHighly Influential: “RT @typeamom: Just left a lengthy comment at this post by @DoctorJones about pay for bloggers (or not): http://bit.ly/dygwX4 ” 9 minutes ago view tweet retweet Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['typeamom'] = {“photo”:”http://a3.twimg.com/profile_images/558734759/kelby-headshot-sq_normal.jpg”,”url”:”http://twitter.com/typeamom”,”nick”:”typeamom”}; typeamomHighly Influential: “Just left a lengthy comment at this post by @DoctorJones about pay for bloggers (or not): http://bit.ly/dygwX4 what's your take? ” 12 minutes ago view tweet retweet Filter tweets [...]

  4. At Home with Kim Vallee

    I feel that you misinterpreted my post. I am NOT talking about getting paid for reviews. In fact, you can’t buy coverage on my editorial column (that is my blog). I even wrote a post about that important fact (http://atk.im/va).

    But I am running a media, just like a magazine does. I hire graphic designers, programmers and tech support to run my business. My site is not a hobby, it is my livelihood. This means, I need revenues to pay my staff, the operating expenses and my salary.

    Like Kelby Carr said in her comment, bloggers provide other services that can be sold to brands; none of which involve paid reviews. I am looking beyond the banner ads and beyond the posts for a solution. In fact, I am building a company that will deliver social advertising tools (no paid reviews, no tweets for money or that sort of things) to bloggers because I feel that we need new means to generate revenues. The extract you published was a part of the thought processed that lead to the new social advertising services I am building.

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  6. Erica Ehm

    David -

    Clearly you and I are on the opposite spectrum of this discussion.

    Let me give you a picture of what life is from YummyMummyClub.ca perspective, which is one of Canada’s largest online mags that speaks to the woman in every mom.

    We have over 20 bloggers who are specialists in a various topics. They spend hours online building their “brand” via Twitter, Facebook, their well-written blogs and through word of mouth.

    On a daily basis I get 3-4 pitches from PR agencies, often starting with “Dear Mommy Blogger” asking us to try their “flatulence pills”, their “new thinner diapers” and great “new vitamin drink”. But this is not unconditional requesting. They want these bloggers to spend their valuable time writing about their products. To rave about their experience. To explain the benefits which are often laid out in emails for the blogger to copy.

    Why? Because research that we’ve done – http://www.yummymummyclub.ca/marketing_to_mummies.php – shows moms are influenced by their peers to buy a product more than any other type of marketing. So, in terms of efficient, effective marketing, using bloggers to amplify your message is smart.

    But why is it ok for the person working for the diaper company to make a salary to engage the bloggers, but it’s not alright for the bloggers to be compensated for their time – not only the time to test the product, write about and tweet about it – but for the time put into building their following.

    I see a blogger more as a persona, an online celebrity if you will, but on a grass roots level. We’re not mainstream journalists. We write from a personal, subjective point of view. That’s what a blog is.

    I can’t understand why you question paying them for that perspective, for their time, and for helping you do the job you can’t do yourself – other than it would eat into your budget. Less to keep and more to spend isn’t a business model agencies want to adopt.

    This is a co-dependant relationship – one that should be beneficial to all parties – not just yours.

    How else do you think we pay for the costs associated with running our on-line businesses? And how else can we earn a living in order to pay for products like the ones you’re promoting.

    And, by the way, if your team is sending out pitches in the next little while, please remind them my name is Erica, not mommy blogger.

    Thanks for letting me share my point of view. If you’d like the YMC rate card, let me know :)

  7. David Jones

    @Kim

    I’m sorry if I misinterpreted you on paid reviews specifically. I was intrigued by your phrasing: “With all the brands pitching us stuff that suit their agenda, it comes a time when we have to say “this is enough”. Otherwise, how we can expect to make a living from blogging.”

    That and other bloggers who are talking about getting paid for reviews inspired this post and has led to a healthy discussion and debate.

  8. Jody Maley

    David and ladies,

    I have a site on which I blog and provide a service.

    I don’t however, take compensation for any reviews….tweets, FB promotion, and have stayed away from Banner advertising because I want my followers to know that when I post about a product (good or bad) it’s my opinion.

    Since I’m fairly new to the whole blogging world…I do have a question: “Are the reviews that sites are getting paid for being honest in their reviews?”

    As a mom of six….I do listen to other moms and want their knowledge (and hopefully others will want mine), but I want to know how good..or not so good a product is.

    PS…looked at all the sites by Kelby, Kim and Erika and really enjoyed the knowledge shared.

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