Transparency is the ethical high ground

If you can’t read it, the caption on the cartoon accompanying this post says, “Well, Hamilton, we can add ‘discharge shotgun’ to the list of things people who live in glass houses shouldn’t do.”

When it comes to creating and managing something that is this weekend being called, “conversational marketing,” I’d first like to disclose this: I live in a glass house. Type in the domain name, ‘conversationalmedia.com’ and it will redirect you to Hammock Publishing, a company I started almost 20 years ago to help corporations and associations create and manage media designed to communicate directly with customers and members. We started out doing this in print, but quickly (as in pre-web) broadened our services to include such activities as managing forums on CompuServe. Today, we help associations and corporations develop media — and media strategies — using just about anything short of sky-writing.

Because of my residency in this glass house, I have been reluctant to throw rocks regarding a debate that is being characterized as “ethical” that has raged among some A-List tech bloggers since Friday afternoon — I’m writing this early Sunday morning. The rumor website Valleywag kicked off the tsk-tsking over an advertising campaign — a custom publishing micro-site for Microsoft — developed by the advertising network Federated Media. Jeff Jarvis has the long version of the controversy. Jeff, who is a client of Federated Media, did not participate in the program and was adamently opposed to it when he first heard of it. In short, the bloggers who participated did not actually endorse anything, they merely provided a quote that somehow tied into the theme of the campaign. In the context of an ad, however, the bloggers’ names quacked and waddled like an endorsement. The controversy is swirling around whether such endorsements compromise the integrity of the bloggers involved — or, at minimum, convey to others the “appearance” of a compromised integrity.

From two decades of developing custom media for corporate and large association clients, I have learned one thing: readers (members and customers) are intelligent. They know what is legitimate, insightful and quality information. And they know what is hype. Because they are intelligent, most customers don’t like advertising that is hype-filled — and they detest content that appears to be paid-for propoganda. A sure-way for corporate and association media — conversational media — to fail is to confuse it with hype and self-glorifying promotional material. In other words, if you do the exact same thing you do in advertising — but merely try to “recontextualize” those approaches in the format of a magazine or blog or YouTube video — you’re doomed to failure. However, if the information found in ads or any form of corporate media serves the need for which they joined the association or became a customer of the product, customers and members view it as very valuable, often they view it as a “premium” of the relationship.

I can’t stress enough to marketers and media creators (including bloggers) who want to enter the arena of whatever you want to call this (conversational marketing, custom media, content-marketing) to do the following first: Read the Cluetrain Manifesto (Amazon link). I won’t be presumptuous and speak for its authors, however if I were to suggest one take-away from the book, it is this: Institutions are comprised of human beings. Those who have relationships with institutions actually want to communicate with human beings in those institutions. While they may say they don’t like “advertising,” customers and members like talking with people about shared passions. If someone buys your product and you can tell them how to use that product better, that’s called “conversation.” If you can learn more about your product from listening to your customers, that’s called “conversation.” If you think like “an advertiser” and want to “package conversation” or worse, “purchase conversation-like ‘blurbs,'” that’s not going to be effective conversational marketing. It’s traditional advertising wearing a new dress. (Again, traditional advertising is fine in many instances, if it is helpful, honest, informative — and not merely hype. 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 — sidenote: if I were just talking with southerners, I would have at that point mentioned something about lipstick and a pig.)

As for “ethics.”

Transparency — a clear explanation of the sponsorships and relationships involved in the development and presentation of any media — is the foundation (or high ground) that must be adhered to whenever determining whether or not something is ethical. Frankly, beyond that, ethical standards are a negotiation between media creator and media receiver.

I publish magazines that are paid for by marketers, but I’ve never published one where that fact was not proudly declared on the cover of the publication — and typically on every page. Even in such publications, we are always clear about what is and is not paid advertising or advertorial — and what is not. Also, we have never sold paid placements in the editorial sections of those magazines — if we did (and we don’t), the reader would be informed if the product had paid to be featured.

I don’t carry ads on this blog. It’s an ad for me, I guess — and perhaps, by extention, my company, Hammock Publishing. I’m not interested in advertising other products. That said, I have no objections to those blogs that carry advertising. I endorse it, as a matter of fact. I think it’s great — but just not for me, at this point. But I am very opposed to bloggers who participate in undisclosed or even barely disclosed programs that pay bloggers to write about specific products.

In the seven years this blog has been around, I’ve tried to always disclose any relationship I might have that could be construed by readers as having some impact on what I might have to say on that topic. That’s the only code of ethics I need. If readers think I’ve been paid-off by someone, they can choose to not read this blog. I will confess that I don’t disclose why I may choose not to blog about something. (One of the objections to bloggers being paid to endorse something is the possibility that in the future, that endorsement may influence a bloggers decision to avoid blogging about the sponsor.) In my case, this blog is a “personal” platform and I’m not “covering” any defined beat, so I’m always choosing what it is I write about. I don’t think I would have the time or ability to explain why I’m not writing about something.

One last thing on this topic: There is a blogger who has confused “paying” someone for an endorsement with programs that allow bloggers to review a product. Specifically, I am talking about a program where Nikon has provided bloggers with a camera to review. The camera is not given to the blogger, rather it is provided for up to six months — a year if an extension is requested.

I’m participating in the program — and, despite trying for several weeks, can’t figure out any “ethical” issue that Nikon or any of the bloggers need to defend. As the magazines my company publish are constantly requesting for review or photo-shoots the products we write about, the process of receiving and returning products to use or review is standard practice. We always return such products — however some products where it makes little sense to pay for shipping to return the product, books for example, may not be returned but are donated to literacy or other programs. I haven’t written yet about the camera, but if and when I do, I am required by NIkon to disclose my involvment in the program. (Nikon did not require me to agree to write about it when they sent it.) Come to think of it, the only camera I’ve mentioned on this blog recently, was a Canon product I have purchased since receiving the review camera from Nikon.

So, to the blogger who keeps emailing me suggesting I am selling my soul to Nikon because they have provided me a camera that must be returned or purchased — that reviewing a product is equivalent to being paid to endorse a product — I have just one thing to say: If I were selling my endorsement soul, it would be for a lot more than the use of a camera. (A pre-release iPhone, perhaps, but a camera? No way.)

Later: Paul Conley, who I am now designating as the official rexblog business-to-business media ethicist, adds his insight to this topic.

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