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PayPerPost: A Cancer on the Blogosphere, or Merely Semi-Sleazy?

Jason Calacanis has written a very tough piece about an operation called PayPerPost, a company that has gotten serious venture-capital backing for a “service” in which bloggers are paid to write about products — but are not required to disclose their financial interest.

We should generally abhor this kind of marketing. It encourages us to think the worst, not the best, about bloggers.

But is PayPerPost a cancer on the blogosphere, as Jason suggests? I’m less certain, largely because the company is doing in a public way what others are surely doing without bragging about it. If this outfit is cancer, it’s like a basal cell carcionoma, a less virulent form of skin cancer, easily handled and not normally dangerous; the really slippery operators are like colon cancer, which often has few symptoms until it’s too late. (We could take this metaphor further, but let’s not.)

The overall practice demands scrutiny, from other bloggers and from marketing/PR people who understand the value many people place on honorable dealings. We need to be exposing the people who take pay for play but don’t say they’re doing it. It’s not clear how we can find out who they are, but we all need to try.

Clearly this will require some of the “distributed journalism” or “networked journalism” or whatever we want to call it. I’d be interested in trying to pull together a project to do something like this, if other folks are interested.

Back to PayPerView and its methods. I wrote in PR Week a few months ago about a similarly deceptive operation, and what I said there applies here:

When I was in my 20s, I rented an upstairs apartment from a middle-aged couple. Not long after I moved in, they invited me down for a beer.

After a brief chat, they launched into a pitch to a) sell me home products; b) make me a salesman of the same products; and c) become a wholesaler myself.

It was creepy. So were they. I moved out quickly.

What bothered me, apart from the somewhat unsavory industry they represented, was their initial deception. They weren’t trying to be my friends. They were trying to sell me stuff.

This came back to mind as I read a recent story in BusinessWeek. It told of the campaign by Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s great consumer-goods companies, to recruit “buzz moms” as word-of-mouth marketers to their friends and acquaintances by engaging them in supposedly personal conversations. Why? Because surveys are clear that people trust personal recommendations more than advertising.

It was more evidence of a shift that is gaining velocity. Those who sell goods, services, ideas, and candidates must recognize that the world of TiVo, pop-up blockers, and increasing skepticism about traditional selling techniques requires a different way of seeing the marketplace. Which means, ultimately, that PR is the new advertising because conversation is the new PR.

But there is an honest way to have a conversation. As the magazine story noted, P&G didn’t insist that the moms disclose that they’re being rewarded for their efforts. In fact, the company said that it was somehow more in keeping with today’s style to let the moms make up their own minds about whether to disclose.

Reading this story made me less likely to buy P&G’s products, hard as they are to avoid. I don’t trust companies that try to fool people.

Buzz is great. Genuine buzz comes from those who truly care about something, not from corner offices.

I have news for the buzz moms and those who choose to be the corporate or political foot soldiers: If you are being compensated for this activity, tell me. A supposed friend who tries to sell me without such disclosure won’t remain a friend if I discover the deception.

Transparency is vital, not optional, in this new marketing relationship – and this is not simply about what’s ethical. Transparency is also smarter. You may never get caught pulling a fast one, but if you do, you will be punished.

I’m not saying advertising is dead, by the way. There will remain plenty of opportunities to sell things in the traditional ways for some time to come. Some buyers actually prefer to be passive consumers as opposed to active ones. And in highly targeted niche media, the ads can be as interesting as the journalism.

Meanwhile, the conversational aspect of marketing and image-making will continue to grow. PR folks will be helping their clients’ various constituencies in this way, and we’ll be relating somewhat differently to each other as time proceeds. It’s a messy process, true, yet also a valuable one.

It won’t work in the end, though, if the conversations aren’t open and honorable.

Will marketers listen? I wonder.

20 Comments on “PayPerPost: A Cancer on the Blogosphere, or Merely Semi-Sleazy?”

  1. #1 Dan...
    on Oct 9th, 2006 at 10:29 am

    Nice post.

    Please check my siglink for context, but I’m curious whether you would include indirect financial gain in your pay-for-exposure research. The elite bloggers have a very lucrative, nuanced and complex method for profiting from the exposure they provide on their blogs. Examples include PR exclusives, product, dinners, conferences, panels, recriprocal linking and influential party invites. One juicy PR exclusive or key panel is worth thousands to an elite advertiser-connected blogger. Sure, some elites are paid in cash, but in a world where undisclosed traffic/influence can be worth significantly more, I find it curious the ‘professional bloggers’ are taking issue with WAHMs, college kids and part-time bloggers getting $5 for the time/effort/hosting of drafting/editing/publishing a blog post.

    Are you proposing an exercise in intimidating the citizens who are taking control of citizen media from the established elites, or is it a true quest to uncover widespread payment for exposure, in its most lucrative, prevalent and indirect forms? I hope, for the future of citizen media, you’re considering the latter.

    Keep up the great blogging!

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Oct 9th, 2006 at 10:32 am

    I’d hope it goes without saying that my goal is not to intimidate anyone; I’ve spent the past several years trying to help get the blogosphere better accepted.

    What I’m looking for is transparency. Without disclosure — of all kinds in all arenas — we are lacking vital information that we need.

  3. #3 Anna Haynes
    on Oct 9th, 2006 at 11:42 am

    > “We need to be exposing the people who take pay for play but don’t say they’re doing it. ”

    Simple – everyone who’s willing to disclose, take one large step forward.
    (IMO, individual expose’s are not a recipe for progress)

    the way I’d [suggest that someone else] do it – get some smart diverse people together (in someone’s blog comments?) to hash out a good, simple, effective disclosure template (something like the Dubner Oath, but worded as an “I pledge to…” rather than an “I swear I have never”); “brand” it, so that it’s ‘owned’; make it structured enough that it’s “automate-able”, so that – for ex – blogs that have it enabled have some clearly visible indicator, and show up differently on technorati etc.

    Then spread the meme by suggesting that each person willing to “enable” the disclosure, do so and then subsequently “tag” 10 other blogs with a request to do likewise.

    But I think that, as with ISO9000 certification, Pledge v1.0 should be very simple and not very restrictive; its goal would be to make progress relative to where we are right now, not to attain Disclosure Nirvana in a single stride.

  4. #4 Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Peru: El Banco Financiero Listents to the Blogosphere
    on Oct 9th, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    […] Of course the power of bloggers to use their medium and reputation to review products carries a double-edged sword. Some might ask if Solis was made a pawn by a brilliant marketing campaign by Banco Financiero. Or worse, that he had some personal benefit to gain by recommending the product. […]

  5. #5 Dan...
    on Oct 9th, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Hey Dan: I couldn’t tell from your answer whether you understood my question. The elites have larger, more nuanced/complex ways of getting paid for exposure. Is your goal of transparency better served by chasing down citizens who get $5 for their time/effort/hosting bills or monitoring elites who use indirect payola methods worth thousands more to swing public opinion by the thousands. The more we level the playing field for citizens to drive citizen media, the more chance we have for changing the world for the better. Sound crazy?

  6. #6 Dan...
    on Oct 9th, 2006 at 2:56 pm

    Dan: After re-reading your post and comment, I’m confident we’re on the same page.

    I want to bring as many voices, cultures, opinions and perspectives to this medium as possible, even if some carry on conversations differently than I do. Travel has taught me that my norms aren’t the universal truth and individual freedom outweighs governing forces trying to dictate the rules. Thus, I err towards education instead of criticism (when I can control myself ;-))

    Thanks for all your efforts!

  7. #7 Seth Finkelstein
    on Oct 9th, 2006 at 8:59 pm

    I call it the “democratization of payola”. I think the core of the dispute is if “We need to be exposing …”. I mean, it’s a tawdry bit of subverting the social for the marketing. GOT IT! Agreed on that point. Bad. But, from down on the bottom of the blog food chain, it’s not all that clear it’s so different in *effect* from the consultants and A-listers who do a different type of subverting the social for the marketing (“markets are conversations”, anyone?). And that the main reason such people are up in arms is that the lower-class exploitation poisons the well for the higher-class exploitation. That such crassness threatens the perception distinguishing the Web 2.0 guru from the Amway pitchman. Remember, “transparency” is not a magic bullet that cures all problems, a conflict of interest does not go away just because it is disclosed.

    Pre-emptive rebuttal: The point is not arguing that transparency is meaningless, but rather that exploitation is a far more complex matter.

  8. #8 Amy Gahran
    on Oct 10th, 2006 at 5:52 am

    Payola has a long, rich history in all kinds of media — even word of mouth!

    It also can be difficult to prove.

    For instance, if an organizations sends a blogger or journalist a product to review, is that payola? Maybe. What if they get a lousy review? What if the journalist is transparent about the fact that they were sent a freebie?

    What about book reviews? Publishers often distribute free review copies to news orgs and individual reviewers.

    What about organizations who offer indirect compensation (such as, say, free attendance at a conference) not just for advertising, but for the hope of influencing/increasing coverage of and opinions on issues or events such as political hot-buttons, etc. That’s what “press passes” are really about.

    This is a pretty complex issue. Pay Per Post is only one small part of it.

    – Amy Gahran

  9. #9 Dan Gillmor
    on Oct 10th, 2006 at 9:18 am

    Amy, complex indeed — and getting more so. I have no objection to sending a book to a reviewer (and we certainly sent out enough, with no apparent effect, to US newspapers); but I don’t care for the practice I’ve heard of some reviewers then peddling the books on eBay. So I guess I’m arguing that some things cross the line, and that we should be fairly clear on what they are. So is there a way we can collectively bring to bear some intelligence (in several senses of the word) to flag the troublesome stuff?

    Seth, I’m mainly arguing that transparency is better than nothing. I disagree that the main reason people are bothered by PPP and things like it is a competitive one. Also, the financial *effect* of honest hard work that earns a good payday may be roughly the same as, oh, robbing a bank. I wouldn’t put those activities in the same category in any other way. (And, no, I’m not comparing this to the situation at hand in any direct way.)

  10. #10 Dan...
    on Oct 11th, 2006 at 3:11 am

    Dan: I think this small comment thread highlights the dangerous balance between personal freedoms and mob rule.

    You are fine with compensating writers with a book, whereas others (including me) feel that is just another, more prevalent, form of payola. There are thousands of similar ways elite bloggers are compensated every day, beyond cash.

    In the same breath you talk about actions crossing “the line” and flagging “the troublesome stuff”. Who decides where that line is and what that troublesome stuff is — especially in a multi-cultural, multi-socio-economic and multi-modal world — the people who are at a level in their professions to disguise their payola better than the masses? You, me, a tiny fraction of the internet’s citizens who aspire to speak for everyone?

  11. #11 Paul Elosegui
    on Oct 11th, 2006 at 9:42 am

    Social spam is worse than email spam

  12. #12 Amy Gahran
    on Oct 11th, 2006 at 10:58 am

    Personally I think in all aspects of conversational media, whenever you’re not completely transparent, it’ll come back to haunt you. It’s nearly impossible to hide any relevant information, and it’s too easy for someone else to say things about you (true or false) and have that be findable online.

    It comes down to: Know yourself, and know your core community. What are you willing to risk, and what are they willing to accept?

    I figure if you’re going to stick your neck out and start publishing online, complete transparency is the safest strategy. Any level of obfuscation or concealment carries risks. Personally, I think it’s up to each individual to decide which risks they’re willing to take. Payola entails risks. So does blogging under a pseudonym. Or accepting a press pass.

    It’s all tradeoffs. But in my book, if you’re not transparent, you’re asking to be “outed” at some point — and that’s rarely fun or convenient.

    IMHO, of course :-)

    – Amy Gahran

  13. #13 Contentious » Transparency vs. Payola: Weighing Risks
    on Oct 11th, 2006 at 11:50 am

    […] Over at the Center for Citizen Media blog, I’ve joined an interesting conversation concerning the thorny issue of payola in online media. See: PayPerPost: A Cancer on the Blogosphere, or Merely Semi-Sleazy? by Dan Gillmor. […]

  14. #14 Dan Gillmor
    on Oct 11th, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Dan, mob rule has nothing to do with anything we’re discussing here.

    Your comparison of book reviews to what your client, PayPerPost, is doing is not a solid one. The time commitment to read a book is considerably greater than mentioning a product in a blog item, for one thing. I don’t regard getting galley proofs of a new book as compensation of any kind. My compensation when I wrote reviews was getting paid — by the publication — for the time it took to read the book and write the review.

    What’s troublesome is the idea that it’s fine to tout products for money without disclosing the financial arrangement. Defend the practice if you want, but we’re far, far from being on the same page.

  15. #15 Dan...
    on Oct 11th, 2006 at 6:32 pm

    My bad. If you believe that payola goes away if the payee has to work a bit to receive it or because they also get paid by an employer then we’re not on the same page — it’s all payola. My points have nothing to do with defending payola. In fact, I am drawing a broader definition of payola than you are — including the most prevalent, lucrative forms used by the elites such as free books, free passes, free product, exclusive PR etc. that are worth thousands of dollars.

    More than that, I am making clear that in a multi-cultural online world built on free expression you will find people drawing the line at a variety of places — and the elites typically have more power/influence to distract from their own practices. I’d be amazed if we disagree on that point.

    I’d love to cooperate on a long-term disclosure solution that scales from personal chat blogs to personal/biz blogs to probloggers, but we’d need to agree that citizen blogger freedom is fundamental and all forms of compensation are fair game to disclose. I’ve already reached out by email and hope we can do something together.

  16. #16 Seth Finkelstein
    on Oct 12th, 2006 at 3:33 am

    Dan(G), my argument is that for anything beyond small stuff, transparency is woefully insufficient at best, and can be an excuse at worst (as in, sure, A. Lister is set up to make a zillion dollars from XYZ, but he’s *said* that, so, no problem). The arrangements where venture capitalists give a piece of a deal to academics strike me as *far* more of a problem than the microscams of cheap PR. The reaction seems to me to have an element of attempting to gain a moral high ground which isn’t so evident (and inversely, and somewhat amusingly, the counter-argument is a kind of claim that big crooks justify small crooks, everyone’s got some sort of hustle going on, etc.)

    Related, have you seen this post? It may be a bit too narrowly focused, but I think it brings up other aspects of the issues here:

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/10/a_glass_house.php

  17. #17 Dan Gillmor
    on Oct 13th, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    Seth, no I hadn’t seen Nick’s piece. Very very interesting piece.

    I’m not sure that disclosures remove the problem in every case, but at least they give the reader the opportunity to reflect more on the source. I agree that if VCs are giving academics $$$, there’s a problem especially when we don’t know about it.

  18. #18 THE IDENTITY GANG / Get a real job
    on Oct 16th, 2006 at 8:28 am

    […] Dan Gillmor on Jason Calacanis on PayPerPost: I don¹t trust companies that try to fool people. […]

  19. #19 Evil Genius Chronicles » PayPerPost and the Race to the Bottom
    on Oct 16th, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    […] Later: I wrote the above before I knew that this subject was such a tempest in a chamber pot. I was talking only about the specfic scumbaggy case above, but Doc Searls hates this idea in any form. I don’t know that I agree with his take or that of Jason Calcanis. I’m closer to where Dan Gillmor came down. Really, how is taking PayPerPost money any different from doing something like the Darren Rowse approach of blogging a subject specifically because it will generate good Adsense revenue? How is this different from Hugh MacLeod shilling for nice suits and wine? Why is one more cynical than the other? […]

  20. #20 seamonkeyrodeo » Archive » Blog Money Influence
    on Oct 17th, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    […] The Ugly: PayPerPost If you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks you may have missed the discussion of PayPerPost’s business model that’s been spreading like kudzu: just to pick some names you might recognize, Doc Searls, Dan Gillmor, Jason Calcanis, Jeremy Wagstaff, Dave Winer, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington have all weighed in of late. Or you could just check Technorati. […]