The old model of journalism is dying, at least online. Relationships between companies and media writers have been supplanted by a new business model. My European colleagues, particularly those in Germany, clued me in to how public relations “works” in their countries: If you want your material to appear in newspapers or magazines, you must purchase advertising. Of course, there are exceptions, but in these countries, public relations is considered part of advertising and is budgeted for media spends accordingly. Fabricated terms like “branded content,” “infotainment” and “edu-mercials” immediately come to mind.
Do paid placements count as PR “hits”? Technically, yes. Are they credible? Hardly. For those unfamiliar with this concept, imagine if The Wall Street Journal replaced genuine news items with page after page of Paid Advertisement content. Maybe you’d read a story about a breakthrough, pain-free back surgery or replica Rolexes, but would you actually buy it? Me neither.
I understand that the blogosphere isn’t the same game as old-world journalism, and, therefore, a new set of rules has been created and is likely to continue evolving. I co-authored the original Blogger Relations Ethics code for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), so I have a stake and interest in this new development. The ethics code was developed with several objectives in mind, the first and foremost being to preserve the sanctity of the blogosphere and, in the process, to create a concrete set of guidelines for marketers seeking to engage with bloggers.
The landscape of the U.S. blogosphere, if it can be geographically defined, is quickly turning into a pay-to-play arena – and that’s a frightening proposition not only for public relations professionals but also for the bloggers themselves. Here’s why: The rise and popularity of blogs is based on several things – the ease of publishing content; honesty; and, most important, the voice of an authentic author telling personal stories and giving credible advice. Enter paid posts and “Houston, we have a problem.”
The blogosphere is only as strong as the credibility given to it by its readers and, to some extent, the mainstream media. The mainstream media’s legitimizing of the blogosphere is evidenced by their acceptance, and, yes, quoting of bloggers as real news sources. From there, it’s no surprise that advertisers are viewing blogs as legitimate properties too. If advertising can do nothing else, it can certainly slap a logo on something and pay handsomely for it – except for the fact that bloggers aren’t even being paid well for their troubles. This, of course, poses a huge moral and ethical dilemma – should a “Mommy blogger” who directly reaches 20,000 moms accept as little as $20 and taint her credibility in exchange for reviewing a product she’d never like or try? If you look around online, you’ll find the offers are being snatched up faster than tickets for a Bon Jovi concert down at the Jersey Shore.
This new model obviously presents a conundrum for both PR and word-of-mouth professionals, and for the bloggers. Advertising always ranks at the bottom of consumer trust. Decade after decade of false promises, ridiculous premises and over-the-top glitz have resulted in people saying “No, thanks” – which explains why advertising, especially television, banners and print, is the most expensive element in the marketing mix. Consequently, word-of-mouth ranks the highest and public relations second on the ROI charts. Throughout history, advertising has only been successful at attracting eyeballs and gigantic budgets.
In the short run, will buying bloggers kill the word-of-mouth and online PR model? Possibly. However, readers will be the ultimate judge. Will this diminish blog readership? Only time will tell. Some bloggers have gone as far as setting up stand-alone “review blogs” to circumvent the ad contracts they’ve signed, publicly distancing themselves from the Madison Avenue suits queuing up to line their pockets with some Jacksons.
Ultimately, there’s a simple equation that will play out. A loss in consumer trust equals fewer readers divided by X minus trust in the blogosphere times less revenue from advertisers. At the end of the day (or the paid post), is it worth $20?