In this day and age opinions are bought and sold every form of media. Sometime it may take the form of an outright cash purchase, but more commonly it takes a more subtle form – taking an editor out to a nice dinner or sending them some free merchandise (commonly referred to as “schwag”). A cynic may theorize that all PR efforts are a form of exploiting a supposedly unbiased source. Bloggers, however, are not journalists. A journalist, by definition, should be an objective observer of events. They should never push their own political or religious agenda to their readers, for example. There are millions of blogs, however, that address political and religious issues. How do they do this without alienating their audience?
Because the blog universe is a collection of decentralized micro-publishers that cater to a specific niche. Here’s my point – if a blogger decides to “sell-out” and accept payment for their opinion, they will quickly lose all credibility with their target audience and, hence, their revenue model. On the other hand, if they accept payment from an advertiser to objectively discuss the advertiser’s product and they disclose this fact, I would have more faith in the opinion that they offered then I would without the disclosure – if they didn’t disclose the relationship then I would, as a naturally skeptical person, wonder if the advertiser had paid them and take what they say with a grain of salt. I also want to distinguish between market research and advertising. Let’s assume I am a market researcher with a design for a new toothbrush. I reach out to a group of bloggers and ask them for an objective review of my design (which has been rendered by a graphic designer).
Some bloggers like the design, but some criticize it for its bulkiness and inability to fit in the mouth of a person with an exceptionally small mouth – this data is invaluable and it has helped me engage an audience that will eventually be a potentially customer – it sounds like a win-win-win. If the blogger disclosed his willingness to review the product publicly for the advertiser, I can’t imagine readers having a problem with his willingness to do this. Suppose, however, that I have invented my larger than life toothbrush and I am ready to bring it to market. I approach several bloggers and offer them some money for a review, but the cash is contingent on them writing a positive review. This is where it gets murkier – as a blogger continues to exploit the credibility that he has built with his audience he risks alienating them and losing the source of his revenues.
Consumers usually vote with their feet, but in the blog world they vote with their eyeballs. So, as with most things in commerce, I propose that market forces will keep the actions of a few rogue bloggers in check. The same problem exists today with traditional advertising vehicles. Bloggers who choose to jam their page with ads and stuff them in their rss feeds will soon find that they are without an audience. Credibility is the key to success with a blog and bloggers will learn to use blog inclusion sparingly and err on the side of caution by disclosing all potential conflicts of interest or advertiser relationships. Can opinions be bought? Many of them can, but they will soon be worthless.
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