The Stigma of Sponsored Blog Posts (& Why PR Pros Need to Step Back)

PR professionals have a history of attacking sponsored posts as unethical or bad for blogging in general. But where PR pros often go wrong is assuming blogging is, or should be, solely a PR tool. Here's why PR folks need to step back and reconsider their stance on sponsored blog posts.

Last week, Chris Brogan posted in support of sponsored  posts in content marketing. And while it may be surprising given my strong stance against companies like Molson, I think Brogan has it right. Here’s why:

There’s nothing wrong with marketing or advertising. Yes, I know, they’re our “evil twins” and whatnot. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with ethical marketing and advertising practices.

With full disclosure, that’s what many sponsored blog posts are. Sounds hypocritical given my past stances on companies buying bloggers’ opinions with free swag and invites perhaps, but it’s not.

My primary issue with Molson and others over the last year hasn’t been that they’ve given free crap to bloggers. Rather, it’s that they do it under the guise of good blogger relations. They focus targeting on general, broad-spectrum influence alone rather than legitimate reader interest. And those bloggers defending that behavior as just good blogger relations are lacking in ethics far more than ones who openly disclose sponsored relationships.

The Influence Factor of Sponsored Blog Posts

“But paying a blogger to post might influence their opinions,” you might say. One comment on Brogan’s post even outright equated sponsored posts to “buying opinions.”

What bullshit.

First of all that mentality assumes all sponsored blog posts are opinion-based to begin with.

They’re not.

It also assumes all sponsored posts are actually written by the blogger.

They’re not.

It also assumes that non-“sponsored” posts are unbiased to begin with.

They’re not.

Bloggers are in Business

I am sick and tired of PR and social media folks acting like tools exist for their purposes and their purposes alone. It’s bad enough PR folks are habitually late to the game, but once they discover a new tool, it’s like no one exists but them.

Yes, I understand the PR value of blogging. I understand the value of conversations and relationship-building. Blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard it all before. I teach my clients these things on a regular basis.

What I also understand is there are other motivations behind blogging.

Blogs have always been self-serving. Even using them in a PR capacity is precisely that.

Blogging is a significant part of my own business model.

I’ve monetized them in numerous ways (from contextual ads to my own product sales to, yes, sponsored blog posts).I can tell you with certainty sponsorship in no way guarantees positive opinions.

On the site where I offered them (a former small business blog), the bluntly honest content was often cited as the reason for wanting a sponsored review to begin with. People wanted honest opinions on how to improve their sites and products targeting members of my audience. And by allowing me to critique them publicly, they saved quite a bit compared to hiring me to privately consult and offer that feedback.

I’ll give you another example, also from a few years back. I ran a music webzine. We were always inundated with review requests. I hired reviewers to handle those for me.

We did offer sponsored reviews. Payment had zilch to do with the content of the reviews. Reviewers were paid the same, by me, whether a post was paid for by an artist or label or no one at all. In that case, the fee was solely for guaranteed space on the site and a quick turnaround. The demand was so high, they could otherwise wait weeks just to hear back about whether or not they’d be assigned to a reviewer.

These sponsored reviews were frequently used by artists and indie labels looking for last minute reviews right before an album launch when they didn’t plan ahead well enough. There were absolutely no differences between “normal” reviews and sponsored / paid ones in the terms of what the writers delivered–ever.

It’s just business. And not everything in business has to do with PR.

As a blogger you answer to your readers. If you’re able to work in sponsorships that don’t deter from their general experience, I’ve found they’re rarely bothered by it (unless they’re taking part in one of these industry-centered debates). In fact, they may very well find them preferable to other monetization streams. For example, a sponsored blog post relevant to the site can be better than heavy use of contextual or banner ads.

If you keep your audience happy, and you’re earning enough to keep you blogging (for those doing it as a business), then you’re doing something right.

What Constitutes “Sponsored Blog Posts?”

For those so adamant about (again, disclosed) sponsored blog posts being evil, or some such nonsense, I have to wonder what they consider sponsorship. (That’s especially given this is the same crowd that backs half-assed “blogger relations” efforts revolving around event invitations and free swag for coverage).

Being paid cash outright for posting is certainly sponsorship. Then I suppose posts with affiliate links would also qualify (I mean, you are potentially getting paid for that post over, and over, and over again, and those links are often placed within reviews where they only earn if you buy). There’s no real difference there in the motivation to post positive feedback for the sake of payment.

How about that free stuff? How about those special events? If someone gives you something with the expectation (or even hope) that you’ll post something nice about them (and let’s be honest–no one specifically targets bloggers in the hopes they’ll keep their mouths shut), I don’t think there’s a valid argument that would support freebies not constituting sponsorship.

Just look at the whole pseudo blogger relations rush targeting “influencers” instead of audiences. It’s all about wanting something in return.

Sponsored Blog Posts: Some Scenerios

Let’s think about two hypothetical blogs.

The first is an informational tech blog run by an authority in the niche, and it generally consists of news and advice. The second is solely a commercial blog which revolves around product information (mostly reviews) to help readers make buying decisions.

Let’s look at the role sponsored posts might play, and how there’s no one size fits all answer to the question of their ethics. Assume equal popularity / readership.

Sponsored Blog Posts on an Authority Blog

Most of Blogger A’s posts have nothing to do with product reviews. However, once in a while when something new comes out of interest to his readers, he tests it out. Sometimes he buys the products himself, sometimes he tests them out in-store or through publicly-available trials, and sometimes he gets his hands on them through a friend.

Now let’s say Company A is releasing an anticipated gadget of some variety. A company rep is familiar with the blog, knows the readers fit within their target market, and they like the authority style of reviews the blogger writes up. They decide to send him a pre-launch “toy” to see if he’ll review it. He agrees. He writes a balanced review like those his readers are accustomed to, and he discloses how he received the item. No money changed hands, but you would be hard-pressed not to call that a sponsored post. Instead of giving him money, the company simply saved him from potentially spending that money himself later in exchange for that early authority review.

Is there anything wrong with this kind of sponsorship? I don’t think so. It’s disclosed. It’s honest. The readers know the blogger’s style better than anyone else, and they’re big boys and girls. They’re fully capable of deciding if they trust that review when making a decision of whether or not to buy.

Sponsored Blog Posts on a Commercial Blog

I’m referring to this blog as a commercial blog, even though there may not be direct advertisements on the site–being paid in merchandise is still being paid.

This blog posts very little other than product reviews. In fact, they actively solicit freebies from companies interested in reaching their audience through a review. They rarely, if ever, actually purchase review materials just because they think something would be of value to their audience. They’re more likely to accept a more poorly-targeted item for review if it’s given to them for free, regardless of the interest their audience might have in it.

We’ll say this blog was originally designed to specialize in software, hardware, etc.–computer-specific gadgets and tools. Blogger B is contacted by the same company that reached out to Blogger A for a review of their new gadget (let’s call it the next iPhone alternative). They don’t hesitate to accept.

The review does disclose that item was given to them, and they also make an attempt to write a balanced review. However, unlike Blogger A, this blogger doesn’t have any real expertise in this type of gadget (meaning their review would likely carry less weight with the company’s specific target market).

Is there anything wrong with either of these examples?

While I personally would never read Blog B, because I would find the constant sponsorship and greater interest in free stuff over readers to be obnoxious, I still don’t see anything inherently wrong with either blog as long as things are disclosed. I mean if the readers are sticking around, they know what they’re getting into, and they have the ability to leave at any time if they feel their trust was betrayed.

Yes, if their approach to reviewing changed for sponsored reviews vs non-sponsored ones, I would say there’s an ethical dilemma. Yes, if they failed to disclose any kind of sponsorship it would be a problem.

In the end, it always comes down to the individual blogger’s ethics. My actual opinions could never be bought–not with cash, not will affiliate earnings, not with free stuff. Can yours?

If you don’t like sponsored blog posts, that’s fine. Don’t host them, and don’t read them. More power to you. That’s between you and your audience and what’s acceptable in your blog’s niche. But don’t make blanket judgments that all of anything is automatically “bad” just because it doesn’t fit within your own goals within your specific profession.

Criticize if you have valid points, yes. But try to put them in context. Sponsored posts come in many forms, from completely honest reviews to sponsor-provided advertorials. Don’t judge them all collectively.

As for Brogan, while I don’t personally support content marketing in a network type of environment (where middlemen companies facilitate paid posts), I know many others do. So to them, good luck with it. I hope they find a way to keep on benefiting everyone while keeping it honest, and maybe they’ll eliminate some of that sponsorship stigma in time.

Jenn Mattern is the owner of 3 Beat Media, a 3-prong business where she offers consulting and freelance writing services (predominantly for small and mid-sized online businesses and creative professionals). Through this business, she also runs a variety of online properties and manages a small publishing brand.

Jenn has over 20 years' experience in PR and marketing, specializing in digital PR and new media (blogging, social media, SEO, thought leadership publication, and related areas). She also has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor, with 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing / development experience.

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7 thoughts on “The Stigma of Sponsored Blog Posts (& Why PR Pros Need to Step Back)”

  1. I fail to understand the fire-breathing opposition to sponsored blog posts. Did bloggers take some vow of poverty and sign blood oaths to refrain from any contact with the commercial world?

    Are blogs that print ads centimeters from editorial copy somehow exempt from this outrage? Obviously, readers have enough intelligence to sift through the writing and understand when a viewpoint is overly influenced by sponsorship.

    If people think blogs should be devoid of sponsored posts, they must also think we can stuff the genie back into the bottle. The question isn’t whether or not we should have sponsored posts, but how best to present them.

  2. Ironically, well actually not that ironically, I was put on to this post by Chris Brogan.

    It’s a good read, if a little ranty (but I like a good rant, it shows passion!), but it had me nodding my head in agreement throughout.

    I have no issue with bloggers earning from their blogs, as long as they’re honest and the quality stays good.

    We all have our own agendas for blogging, as does a client that might contact a blogger for sponsored post.

    Achieving both goals doesn’t necessarily mean anyone has to compromise. Clients know a blog has achieved a target audience by identifying with them, why would they want to change or influence that for the sake of an ultra positive review rather than an honest one.

    Equally a good blogger will see a sponsored post as what it is. The opportunity to do what they already enjoy but receive something in return.

    I’m all with you on the support of honest sponsored blog posts.

    Thanks for the interesting read!

  3. I was also directed to this post by Chris! I agree with your points but think one things was lost in the argument: The very reason this is so controversial is that, unlike TV commercials for example, blog posts started out as genuine opinion articles (by definition) and, as a result, garnered a level of trust not possible in a commercial. With that trust naturally followed influence and where there’s influence, there will be brands paying money to harness it. Therein lies the controversy. As you point out, the debate is whether readers are being misled by this. Of course, exhaustive and convincing full disclosure generally renders the argument moot but there are plenty of bloggers not fully disclosing (presumably because they feel it lessens the effectiveness of their message).

    I am a fan of the natural market place. Let these non-disclosing blogs be exposed and readership suffer. Things will generally take care of themselves esp. with posts such as this one to help clarify things.

  4. do our readers/visitors even care about this issue? is there some blog-reader forum where they’re all ranting about their favorite blogs taking payment for posts? somehow, i don’t think so.

    i’m not saying this isn’t an important issue, but i’m of the opinion that we’re (bloggers) all making it out to be more than it is.

  5. Michael – I don’t know that blogs started out as genuine opinion articles so much as just being more personal. They’ve transitioned from personal journaling to educational / informational resources to marketing / PR / communications tools.

    The whole pay / free stuff issue really isn’t new or unique to blogging at all – think anything from good ole payola to authors sending out review copies to traditional review outlets. It’s old hat, “new” tool.

    If anything, I’d say blogs by their very nature are far more transparent. Bloggers tend to be themselves more than they might be if they were working under an editor with a more traditional publication. They also often post frequently. In other words, readers are given a heck of a lot of insight into a blogger’s true style, and it’s not that difficult to spot when something changes. It’s harder to mislead your blog’s readers than some people seem to think.

    You’re right in that blogs involve (and require) a certain amount of trust. But it goes back to readers getting to know those bloggers. For instance, if I posted a “glowy” review of pretty much anything on NakedPR, my readers probably wouldn’t know what hit them. They might instantly wonder what the motivation was. It just isn’t how I write here for this particular audience. On my writing blog however, my reviews are always pretty well-balanced – the good side, the bad side, whether I get behind the product or not. Again, they know my style. With that comes trust – they know I’ll always include something constructive rather than just saying “hey, this rocks, buy it.” The reviews are designed to help them make their own purchasing decision. Only with the trust do you really earn significant money anyway – that’s when people want to pay you decent money for space and when people don’t care if you include an affiliate link. Screw them over once, and you screw over your earnings for good. So it’s never in a blogger’s best interest to be influenced by a payout.

    Sorry for rambling. In the end, I think the inherent trust is still there for any serious blogger (obviously not on the splog side). It just comes down to the individual blogger’s ethics and whether or not they allow their opinion to be influenced by goodies or green – whether or not they can keep that trust. It’s relationships 101. Trust isn’t always earned up front (people give you the benefit of the doubt), but if you’re full of shit, you’re not going to keep it.

    Gretchen – Honestly, I don’t think many readers really care about the issue. Many have no idea what a sponsored post is to begin with (just because we’re well-versed in blogging and online business doesn’t mean the bulk of readers in each niche are). And that’s kind of my point – it really is a non-issue for any even remotely ethical blogger, and not worth the criticism the issue gets.

    What I find amusing is seeing PR folks talking about the unethical nature of it all, as though their motivation for blogging (or advocating blogging as a solution for clients) isn’t just as self-centered. Businesses they advise aren’t getting into blogging for the hell of it. They’re doing it because there’s something in it for them (additional reach within their market, the ability to gather real-time feedback, the fact that blogs are excellent tools for demonstrating authority status, etc.). Who’s to say those benefits don’t influence a blogger, what they write, and how they portray things just as much as cold hard cash? In the end, trust is important to any blogger looking for results of any kind, and readers are certainly capable of deciding whether or not they trust the source.

  6. Interesting. I post jobs for writers and I don’t post the sleety ads that want me to post for say funeral homes in my own blog about writing. Sure I could make up something and earn a pittance. But that’s a whole different category than the reviews I do for affiliate income – and I disclose, every time I think, that if you buy I earn a nickel or whatever.

    I’ve also been paid to blog for corporations – to pitch their stuff on their blogs.

    Disclosure is always the key… leading a transparent life is so much easier than not.


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