Commentary: Blogger Compensation

All opinions expressed herein, unless otherwise noted are my own.  They do not represent the opinion of other PRBC bloggers, affiliates, etc. – NB

Payments to bloggers are one of the many “Blogger” issues that has been coming for some time and last week came to a head around “Mommy Bloggers” at the evo ‘11 conference when conference sponsor, Aveda, through their Director of Global Communications, Evan Miller, clarified their position on engaging with bloggers.  Since I wasn’t at evo and didn’t want to misphrase or mischaracterize anything coming from Aveda, Mr. Miller clarified by email.  In short:

Since Aveda began working with bloggers in a PR capacity it has abstained from compensating them with cash payments. Aveda has offered bloggers compensation in the form of gift cards, product and salon/spa services. Aveda’s Digital Marketing team has conducted, on occasion, more extensive campaigns with bloggers in which it has compensated via monetary payment.

Just to be completely clear, again – this was merely a restatement or clarification of Aveda’s position – not a new position, and not a change from old policy.

If that’s the case, then why even bring it up at evo – a conference “Presented by Mom It Forward and Today’s Mama”? Essentially the Lion’s Den of so-called “Mommy Bloggers.”  Mr. Miller continued,

“I was asked by evo organizers to talk about best practices for bloggers when working with brands. Since it’s something Aveda has always practiced, and other brands seem to follow suit for product review-type/one-off blog posts, I felt it apropos to mention that bloggers shouldn’t always expect monetary compensation from a brand, although some type of compensation can be requested. Some brands do it, some don’t. Aveda is one that doesn’t compensate with money for PR purposes but does provide in-kind compensation. But I believe it’s something that — especially a newer blogger — should be aware of.”

This PR guy and Twitter user got dragged in upon expressing support for the brand with a tweet to the @aveda account of “Don’t back down on your blogger position. It’s a big fight but one worth having.”

This caused some frustration – including some asking ‘Why is it a fight worth having?’

Let’s rewind a bit and remember how blogging got its start.  You, someone who had specialized knowledge or interest in something, decided to write about it. If it was worthwhile you’d sign up with a banner ad service to drive some revenue to your bottom line.  You wrote because you were passionate about the topic and wanted to share your knowledge or questions with your tribe.

Some realized their opinions were respected and sought to be journalists even going so far as to attempt (and getting some level of success) at using Journalist Shield Laws to protect sources.  Blogs had become the new newspapers. As there are “news” journalists there were “news” bloggers. As there are feature or long-form writers we got a parallel track in the blogosphere.  And, as there are those in the mainstream media that covered reviews of technology, food, beauty products, etc. so we also got blogger-reviewers.

The value journalists provided is that we, the people, were always guaranteed (if we trusted the publication) that the reviews were unbiased. Industry standards developed – journalists couldn’t accept gifts from companies or their representatives (AP ethics guidelines even putting down a rule about the value of gifts that could be received).  The journalist’s paycheck came from an independent source (traditionally advertising and editorial departments were run separately) and if there was ever a whiff of impropriety someone raised hell – either the public or an ombudsman if the paper had one.

The system ensured that freedom of the press was free from private interference the way the Bill of Rights ensured it was free from government interference.

It was also why any time an editor of a publication hinted that an advertisement might get them better or more coverage it left a bad taste in the PR practitioner’s mouth (and at least for my purposes the answer was usually no, or “we’ll pass your ad information along but that’s not an area we handle.”).  There were, in short, journalistic standards that the public could trust.

Somewhere along the way it became practice to compensate bloggers — in cash.  Yes, above and beyond what might be needed to actually review a product, they wanted payment.  Theoretically because they provided a service that the brand took advantage of and should be compensated from that brand.

Here’s the thing – payment, any payment, tarnishes (even if only in appearance) any sense of impartiality one might have about the blog and blogger.

So here are the two real bottom lines here:

First the ethical question –

a) Are you journalists? That is why the issue is “important.” On the one hand we have bloggers who want journalistic rights – rights journalists have gone to prison to protect.  And on the other hand we have bloggers who, essentially, want to put themselves out as the ‘blog team’ (akin to a street team) for brands.  Both have a place, just hold yourself out to be one or the other.  Taking a step back, it may just be time to come up with better verbiage for what each blog editor/publisher wants to be – journalist or marketing platform.

And now the practical question –

b) Are you worth the ROI? It’s a question every marketing person has to ask themselves. Is a specific outlet, sponsorship, etc. worth the return on investment to pitch? That question can take many forms – financial, goodwill (reputation), time and/or headache spent on a project, etc. etc.  At the end of the day a decision has to be made and some programs get cut.  Major brands pull out their marketing programs from certain geographies or platforms all the time.  Compare the news, features (which frequently come from PR pitches), and advertising on AM radio vs. FM radio vs television vs. PPC ads in search engines.  For more on this topic, please see this excellent post from Social Media Explorer by Jason Falls.

At the end of the day, a marketing program that involves blogger compensation will be worthwhile for some brands and not for other brands.  That’s their choice as a brand to make. Any huffing and puffing done after a policy statement has been made that even hints at revenge or retribution simply sullies your own brand and makes clear what you’re in “this” for.

Comments for this post are open.  Not every comment will get a response and responses may very well be delayed (as I’ve got a regular 9-6 job).  Inappropriate (ad hominem attacks and the like) will be deleted and comments that demonstrate that you did not actually read the blog post will be lovingly mocked or poked at.