Tag Archives | Blogging

Why the FTC's guidance about blogging product reviews is wrong

Today, the Federal Trade Commission issued new guidance about product reviews on blogs and on testimonials in advertising. The rules are scheduled to go into effect Dec. 1, 2009, and they have disaster written all over them.

I’m going to be writing here as if I thought the FTC really had a role in this area, even though I largely don’t. But even if we accept the FTC’s role as proper, we’re left with some big questions [that apparently didn't occur to the FTC]:

  • How is a blogging reviewer different from a print-publication reviewer?
  • Why is the FTC issuing guidance on a largely journalistic matter [blog reviews] in conjunction with guidance on an advertising matter [the use of endorsements/testimonials in ads]?
  • What happens when a newspaper or magazine writer wants to blog about a book or product the publication received?

Michael Hyatt posted this link on Twitter, and it’s a great summary of a lot that’s wrong with the FTC legislation.

My big complaint here is that [as I said recently about the privacy legislation rumored to be coming in Congress] the FTC doesn’t actually have a clue what it’s talking about. Check out the interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. The FTC is assuming that say, a book sent to a newspaper writer and a book sent to a blogger come to fundamentally different ends [both the physical book, and the review that results from it]. They seem to think that somehow, providing a review copy to a blogger will more predispose that person to writing a favorable review than would the same publisher providing a review copy to a printed publication.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

Hey, FTC. Let me catch you up on a couple of realities. I’ve worked in both print and online media over the last 20 years, and I can explain this pretty easily.

1. Publisher sends a book, CD, whatever to publications and bloggers.
2. Sometimes, people in the mailroom, or the blogger, say, Hey, cool! A free book! That’s the end of that.
2a. Sometimes, the writer at the publication or the blogger looks at the book and says, What a waste of paper! and tosses it in the recycle bin. And that’s the end of that.
2b. Sometimes, the writer [print or blog] actually reads the book and writes up a review. I can assure you that at no time does the writer ever say, Well, that book sucked, but they did send it for free, so I’ll give it 3 stars instead of 1. Writers are a pretty cynical lot.
3. The book comes to one of two or three ends, generally: It gets donated in a large lot to the writer’s favorite charity, often after collecting dust for years on the writer’s shelf. Or maybe it gets sold on eBay. Or perhaps the print writer hands it to an assistant who, in turn, probably sells it on eBay.

Some serious outcomes here that I think are ripe for a court case — if not a favorable court decision. [Please, do not assume the courts are any savvier than the FTC or Congress.] Why is the FTC treating bloggers different from print journalists? I don’t think there’s sound reasoning behind that.

And if bloggers can be considered journalists, wouldn’t they be afforded the same First Amendment protections that presumably have kept the FTC from ever attempting to regulate printed product reviews?

I have more thoughts, but I’ll stop here for now. We’ll see what else happens over the next few days.

Comments { 0 }

Blogging: Technology or communication?

I was talking with a client today about using blogs and other social media functionality. We quickly ran into a distinction in our conversation — though we might talk about using a blog [or a community, or whatever] in conversing with customers, and we might use the same tools on a private corporate network, the point and the end results would be completely different.

I’ve been waiting for years for us to get to the point where blogging is the technology — like paper, or the telephone, or TV.

Just like paper lets you print and share your ideas and images in a physical way, blogging lets you share your ideas and images online. Ideally, it lets you broadcast those ideas via related technologies like feeds, or via email.

So, the technology here is practically beside the point. Yet we often spend our days discussing the technology.

The point is sharing ideas. When we’re not focusing on how best to communicate, and what to communicate, we’re missing the point.

Comments { 2 }

Blogging ethics: Where do you draw the line?

I’ve come across a couple of interesting posts in the past few days, both related to the ethics of blogging. I struggle with how to frame the issues, because I think there are two different definitions of blogging:

  • Creating a personal or professional journal online
  • Using blog software to power a website that may have one or many authors

When most people think of “blogging,” I believe they’re thinking of the former definition. And when I think about the ethics of these two issues, that’s where I believe questions come into play. However, I think more and more, organizations are discovering how the latter definition benefits them. But to be clear, that’s not what I’m talking about today.

Last week, Forrester came out with a report recommending the practice of “sponsored blogging” — basically, marketers offering payment or goods to bloggers in exchange for product reviews, etc. ReadWriteWeb writes how they’re sort of against this practice. They attempt to make a distinction between cash payments, products, and other offerings — and to define how advertorials fit into the whole mess.

This is an area where transparency solves a lot of problems. I started writing many years ago on the college newspaper staff, and we had drawers and drawers full of CDs and tapes [yep, I'm old] from record companies, and books from publishers. In the media industry, that’s not viewed as a free benefit — those are review copies. Music and book publishers know that most media outlets won’t review items unless you give them a free copy to try. [Consumer Reports has long stood out in this field: They purchase everything they review and don't even take advertising.]

I think most of the so-called “mommy blogging” reviews fall into this category. Here’s the critical question for me: As a reader, which would you rather read — an unsolicited product review, just because the blogger loves/hates the item so much they can’t help but say so, or a review prompted by the company sending the item to the blogger for the specific purpose of reviewing it?

I fall on both sides. For tech items, I enjoy knowing about people’s personal preferences, but when I need the details, I go to CNET, Consumer Reports or some other site where I know I can count on the pros to walk me step-by-step through my options. For parenting and kid items, I’m much more likely to take another mom’s personal recommendation.

Whatever your deal is, being clear about it is critical to establishing trust with your readers.Whether I’m reading a magazine, newspaper or online, it helps me as a reader to evaluate your statements if I understand the source.

Which leads me to my next link. Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and a prolific blogger, writes about ghost-blogging: Hiring someone to write your blog for you. If you’re unclear at all on why this is wrong, head right over to read Michael’s post — which he wrote himself, just like he does for all his posts.

Here’s where things start to get fuzzy for me, though. I don’t think ghost-writing is wrong. But ghost-blogging? No way. I’m trying to reconcile that in my mind. I think it partially comes down to this:

Blogging is a personal medium. And online, we don’t have a lot of clues to help us decide whom we can trust. So at the very least, if you’re going to write online, you have to start by doing the work yourself. You have to be a real person with a real name. And you can’t hire someone to be you.

Hiring someone to write copy for your website? Super. [Call me, let's talk.] Hiring someone to write your speech? Absolutely. But when your name and photo are all we have to go on, you need to be the wizard behind the curtain.

It all comes down to the same principle: transparency. Be who you say you are. It’s critical currency on the Internet.

Comments { 3 }

4 tips for your business blog

Let’s say you’ve decided to jump into the blogging world, on behalf of your business. Maybe you’ve even signed up for WordPress, Blogger or another platform already. What do you really need to know?

Here are four tips for getting off on the right foot with your business blog.

  • Have a plan. Plan what you’re going to say in advance. You don’t have to write your posts days ahead of time and re-edit them over and over — that’s not worth the effort and will probably require more time than you have to spend. (Certainly, do use spell-check on every post, and if you tend toward careless mistakes, have someone lined up to be your proofreader.) But you should spend a few minutes at the beginning of each week brainstorming about topics. Then, you’ll be ready for the rest of the week. If you don’t have something more newsworthy to say each day, choose one of your pre-planned topics, bang it out and move on with your day.
  • Schedule time for blogging. If you don’t set aside time in your schedule every day (or every other day, depending on how often you plan to blog), it will be too easy to let blogging fall by the wayside when you get busy. Related: When you have extra time, write a couple of evergreen posts you can use on a really busy day. After you use one, be sure to replace it in your files with a new evergreen post…because you’ll be busy again soon.
  • Don’t be vanilla. There’s almost nothing worse than a boring blog. Show your customers a peek under the hood — how things work at your place. There’s no need to expose more than you’re comfortable saying in public, but tell the stories that make your organization so interesting, and so worthy of your customers’ devotion. (Check out the Zappos blog for an example of a company sharing behind-the-scenes insight, along with great info for customers on products and sales.)
  • Keep your mouth shut — sometimes. Each organization will have a different threshold for how much is too much. Know where your line is before you (and especially before a member of your staff) starts blogging. Will you blog about personnel changes? Bad news? Only good news? Employee gatherings? Training? New products? New clients? The more focused you make your blog before you start, the easier it will be later to make decisions about tough topics. There are few right answers about what to say and what not to say — except in areas where you’re subject to legal liability or government regulation. (Some tips on thinking through legal issues at SmartBlog.) Just keep in mind, your blog is a very, very publicly accessible marketing tool. That doesn’t mean you can only speak in happy talk. It does mean you should think through what you’re saying, and understand the consequences.
Comments { 0 }