The Federal Trade Commission has new guidelines that will require bloggers to disclose when they’re being compensated by an advertiser to discuss a product. If you read them, you’ll see that most of the language pertains to advertising, so for now, you’ll have to read between the lines. The guidelines don’t define a “payment,” for example, and don’t specify what incentives other than cash must be disclosed to readers. See this Cnet story for more.
This is old territory for me, a former magazine editor who made and enforced rules about reviewing. Ethics rules have existed for years but are hardly uniform. At my magazines, I thought I knew which reviewers received and returned which products, but I probably never had the whole picture. I hired a full-time editor whose job was to sift through press releases and write up products. He often hid from me the expensive gifts companies sent him during the holidays. At another magazine, I inherited a severely underpaid staff accepting tons of freebies as compensation, then never running the stories. I reorganized the department, paid them what they were worth, and got rid of that system.
One critical difference is that all the reviewers and writers were professional freelance writers and employees paid for their work. But most food bloggers aren’t paid. Perhaps some feel that freebies are justified, that they’ve earned them somehow. In July at the BlogHer conference in Chicago, Liberty Mutual surveyed 175 bloggers on responsible blogging and found:
- 98 % believe it is acceptable to receive a free product.
- 87% believe it is okay to write company-sponsored posts.
- Most mentioned transparency, disclosure and honesty as key caveats to receiving free products and writing sponsored posts.
According to Business Week, many advertisers have turned to the blogosphere as an inexpensive way to get publicity, offering cash and products in exchange for glowing reviews.”Bloggers are cost-efficient,” says Sean Corcoran, an analyst at Forrester Research. He titled a recent report “Add Sponsored Conversations to Your Toolbox: Why You Should Pay Bloggers to Talk About Your Brand.” That’s right. Some companies pay bloggers to write about products in their own blogs, and according to the survey, 87% of bloggers think that’s fine.
I decided to do a little research of my own, and contacted a few top food bloggers to ask questions. I was a little shocked when I spoke privately with a blogger whose “star is still ascending.” She said she gets so much free stuff that, were she were to write about it all, she would never need any other content. Ford offered her a free Mustang convertible for the weekend if she would just take a photo of it and put it in her blog. She declined — only because she was too busy — but another blogger took Ford up on it. (Hint: If the other blogger thought about having to disclose this by writing “Ford gave me this free car for the weekend in exchange for a photo” maybe she would have passed.) Marketing people have offered the blogger I spoke to free restaurant meals, free hotel stays, and hundreds of dollars worth of free food and kitchen equipment.
She says she only writes about things she likes. The reality is that, like restaurants, most products and foods fall into the gray area between poor and excellent. I think it’s her responsibility to talk about the gray area, and to occasionally slam a product when deserved. Maybe she’s afraid that if she does so, the door will close on the freebies. If so, her priorities are skewed. What should matter most is her relationship with her readers. She has to earn their respect, then keep it.
I also researched whether guidelines on product reviewing exist. The Food Blog Code of Ethics talks mostly about reviewing restaurants. It says only this on the subject of products: “If we receive an item for free…, we will mention so in our review.” Two blogging groups have adopted self-regulatory guidelines not for bloggers but on how marketers should work with bloggers. That’s a good start, but who says they will care. Here are my seven recommendations specific to food bloggers:
1. If marketing people offer you products, have a policy. Some bloggers refused to accept anything, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Take only what is appropriate and relevant for your blog. (Ex. a Mustang is not food related.) Don’t promise in advance that you will write about the product or experience. Do not succumb to pressure. Do not accept products where strings are attached.
Here’s what one top food blogger said. “I always say that I will not guarantee that I will mention the product on my site and do also not want to be contacted afterwards if I will mention it on my site. In that respect, I only try to deal with companies that “get it”, who don’t have pr flaks that just want to hassle me endlessly. Most quality companies either have good pr teams or I deal with the owners themselves.”
Assume all products (not consumed) should be returned, unless the marketer says to keep it. Have a policy about what to keep. For example, at the New York Times, reporters are not allowed to accept anything worth more than $25. Would you really feel right about free monthly coffee for a year, for example? I wouldn’t.
2. Ditto about free trips. Don’t go if it is not relevant to your blog, but do go if it’s something you need to learn. Again, don’t promise anything. Here’s an email a top food blogger sent me. “I have accepted trips, but not to review a place, but for educational or social reasons. For example, Kingsford Charcoal sent me to “grilling university” in Arizona for a weekend. I didn’t know how to grill, but wanted to learn. After I got back home I bought a gas grill, a kettle grill, and started grilling and experimenting. Wait a minute, they gave me a kettle grill (I asked for one), but that was 3 years ago. If this were today, I wouldn’t have asked for the grill. I would still accept the trip if I thought I could learn.”
3. If you do write about products and trips, be honest with your readers. You have only your reputation. Disclose when a company sends you a product for review. It doesn’t hurt, and it makes you appear ethical and upstanding. Otherwise you look suspicious. Ex. A food blogger Twittered about a particular resort. I wondered why she mentioned it by name. Did a company send her there for free?
4. If you don’t write about products, don’t take them. This seems obvious, although I heard that a well-known food blogger accepts products all the time and never blogs about them. What is that about? Her mailing address isn’t on her blog, so she is telling marketers where to send the bling each time? Yes, some marketers are eternally hopeful and will keep sending product when it’s clear there’s no outcome, and they get what they deserve. But it seems greedy to keep taking it. Do not take products you don’t write about or want just to give them to friends as gifts, or even sell them.
5. Don’t always love everything. It makes you look like a shill, and after a while readers won’t need to read the post to know what you wrote, because it’s always a rave review. Plus, it looks like you can be bought. Read restaurant reviews for examples. Most of the time, they are positive, but with pros and cons. Every once in a while, a reviewer slams a place. They won’t slam a mom and pop shop, but if an expensive restaurant opens with tons of hype, reviewers will let them have it if the experience doesn’t match up with the cost. Be balanced.
6. Be clear about product sections on your blog. The Amazon store is self-explanatory. I like that. But other listings are more coy. If you’re going to list products in categories like “Shop” or “Recommends, ” your readers won’t know whether it’s code for “Someone gave this to me for free and now I’m writing about it.” Make clear whether the company sent you these products, or whether you discovered them on your own. Readers have a right to know.
7. If a company pays you to write about their products, disclose it, every time. I don’t like the idea, but at least it will be honest. For example, one food blogger wrote about a product and company, saying they were a “client and sponsor.” Cool. She gets my respect.
Reviewers represent their readers, not just themselves, and certainly not the companies they review. They are guides to tell readers whether it’s worth their money and time. As a blogger, you are a guide for your readers too. Protect your readers and respect them. Without them, no marketer would be interested in you.
Now, what are your thoughts? If you’re a blogger, do you take issue with these points? If you’re a blog reader, do you care about ethics?