Influence peddling

I started writing this blog about six months ago for several reasons.

The main reason was to document and share some of the hikes I've taken. I thought my experiences might be interesting or even helpful to others.

I also thought this blog would be a chance to see the world of blogging firsthand. In my job I spend a lot of effort keeping track of trends on the Internet, but reading about them and being a part of them are two entirely different experiences.

One trend I saw but didn't expect to happen to me was attempts to influence what bloggers write.

Much has been written about companies trying to use bloggers to spread the word about their products. (For an interesting discussion of these practices, read a post J.D. Lasica wrote a few months ago.) Public relations companies have figured out that some bloggers are gaining a large audience, so they've tried to make use of this audience to sell products.

This goes beyond simply buying ad space in a blog to asking the blogger to write about the product or even endorse it. You might argue that's good marketing. But there are serious ethical issues involved. Sometimes the bloggers don't disclose when they've been paid or offered some other kind of perk for what they've written.

It doesn't surprise me that this happens. What surprised me was how quickly these p.r. people found me and my little, low-traffic, no-influence blog.

In March I received a message from someone who identified himself as an online organizer for a non-profit advocacy group.

"I work with Environmental Action, and this morning we kicked off Our Online Rally to Save the Forests."

Okay, harmless enough. I wasn't being offered anything, so had I written about it I wouldn't have crossed an ethical line. I wasn't offered any benefits for my words. The message I received was little more than a news tip.

The next day, I received an offer from the social network site, Gather.

"I recently came across your travel blog and I thought your postings were great and your approach to travel blogging is really unique. I wanted to reach out to you with an opportunity to enhance your readership and web traffic, and a chance to win a 7-night Mediterranean cruise!"

A little flattery doesn't hurt, though it's a stretch to call this a travel blog. But was this message an offer to influence me to promote the site?

Probably not. I was being asked to contribute content to the site. Yes, a contest was offered as an attempted inducement to to write, but the writing was not to be on my site and I wasn't asked to blog about Gather.com.

Soon I got wrapped up in other things and never wrote about Environmental Action or submit any writing to Gather.com. I didn't think much more about them until a few days ago I received a similar message.

"I’m writing to tell you about a new web site and a contest that might interest you and your readers."

With this there was a difference.

"Bloggers who visit the site, use it and blog about it can enroll to win an all expenses paid trip…"

I checked out the site and even registered to use it. It's an interesting social networking/Google map mashup site geared for outdoors enthusiasts.

Though I didn't enter the bloggers contest, I wouldn't have had a problem with it if I had and then blogged about the site, so long as I made it clear I was entering the contest.

So why didn't I blog about it?

Had I discovered the site on my own or if the p.r. person had sent me a message pointing out the new site, okay. Blog away.

The thing is, I can't control whether or not other bloggers who received the same offer will disclose their participation in the contest.

So my only recourse is to draw the line where I can, and that's to not write about the site at all. (Well, okay, I mentioned it, but I didn't say the name of it or provide a link to it.)

I fear this sort of blogger-baiting will become more and more common. Or at least the offers will become more common. As bloggers, we need to recognize our words have value and influence, and not do anything to compromise our credibility.

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2 Responses to Influence peddling

  1. Dan Stafford says:

    Hey – I’m the fellow who emailed you about the forest rally – I do a decent amount of blogging (and assisted blogging) myself, and I agree with your thoughts – I’ve done face-to-face community organizing for a little over a decade now (enviro work), and am terribly excited about the grassroots opportunities afforded by blog, and the blog community.

    I want to clarify – my mission is to get the message out there to like minded folks, because while it’s true that a small group of dedicated people can change the world, a large group of dedicated people can change it better and faster.

    Hopefully, my request didn’t turn you off – I think EA is doing some great work, as are you.

    PS – We’re not looking for money from you – just working to spread the word.

  2. cutter says:

    Dan:
    I hope you didn’t misunderstand. I had no problem with the message you sent me. As I intended to say, what you did was nothimg more than a news tip. It didn’t turn me off at all. I’m sorry I didn’t follow up with a blog post. I intended to, but just got too busy.

    Tonight, I took a closer look at the EA site. The blog provides a nice aggregation of what’s going on the environmental movement. I’ve added the RSS feed to my reader so I can keep track better.

    Feel free to keep me posted with what’s going on. These are tough times for “our side” and I’m happy to help when I can.

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