A few weeks ago, professional blogger Kevin Dixie received a strange proposition: a US‑based company offered to buy from him 30,000 reviews for a new iPhone application at $1 per review. Positive reviews, needless to say. Moreover, the marketing company proposed to extend the deal for 30 applications, about 10 to 20 times a month. A huge potential windfall for Kevin Dixie — who declined the offer. This British entrepreneur living in France created two specialized consumer products reviews sites: FuelMyblog, and its recent offspring FuelMyApp.com launched in September.
In both cases, the idea is the the same: a casual blogger from the network writes whatever review he or she wants to in exchange for a free product. The item can be an electronic appliance worth a few dozens of dollars (sterling pounds actually, the company is UK based) or it can be a trip worth a thousand dollars. The brand pays FuelMyBlog 25£ ($40) per review, that’s how Dixie makes its money. (The process also results in those brands getting higher Google pageranks). With the explosion of the iPhone applications business, Dixie decided to roll out a dedicated site based on the same idea: the blogger purchases the app, tests it, writes a review and FuelMyApp reimburses him for the price of the application via its PayPal account.
I met Kevin Dixie last week at the Eurovision’s NewsXChange conference in Malta. Although I found his little system quite clever, I told him I couldn’t help but feeling queasy about the flexible ethics involved. It’s OK to get a free brand new disposable razor for a test, but staying a week in a resort for free and expecting a true and honest independent review is a totally different story. Having lived and breathed journalism for twenty five years, I don’t buy the idea of freebies being compatible with independent reviews. It is actually a question of degree. Getting a book or a CD from a publisher is OK because it’s only a $20 item. Getting a $200 software product, or a $500 weekend for free and expecting a balanced review is questionable, to say the least.
I happened to live in a country where entire segments of journalism — I’m talking of mainstream media, here — are corrupt. I could tell countless stories of reporters covering the auto industry who call an automaker’s PR department of to get a car for a weekend escape with their girlfriend, or who are flown to Tunisia to test a new model (four days, five star accommodation); I know a journalist, working for a major women magazine, who is so deluged with free stuff that she has to organize a private sale twice a year to clear her closets; I know sports reporters who feel “so close” to their beat that they refuse to explore controversial chemistry or money issues; I know tech reporters who are literally warehousing software and computer games and who have not bought a single PC in ten years.
Of course, many an editor tried to take action against such practices. At 20 Minutes, we attached a set of rules to the working contract; those rules stated what was acceptable and what wasn’t. A book sent by a publisher or an invitation by a source in a not-too-expensive restaurant was fine, but an iPod or the test-drive in Tunisia was not. Although I could not guarantee this system has been 100% foolproof, I think it performed reasonably well. (In one instance, I had to fire a freelance tech writer who kept calling PR to request computer games for alleged tests, but resold them on eBay).
Fact is, medias are increasingly subject to a soft form of corrupting pressure by merchants. For example, as news outlets cut costs, many yield to the temptation of press junkets. And PR firms or in-house flacks are happy to fill the gaps, in a pure and disinterested way, of course. For the same reasons, a greater number of technology reviews are provided by lowly-paid freelancers instead of staff writers who are supposed to be paid enough money to be clean.
No wonder why PR, marketers, and others intermediaries are now lusting for the blogosphere. Think about it: thousands of blogs, most of them written by penniless amateurs, not bound by any ethical rules… It’s a dream come true for the flack crowd. Blogs represent a new playground in which to buy influence. Actually, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (Womma) estimates that such spending has grown form $300m in 2003 to $1.54bn in 2008, and is expected to reach $3bn in 2013… Beside the blogs, there are also all the spaces dedicated for reviews such as the iTunes Store. “The more positive reviews you get, the higher you rank, says Kevin Dixie. Then, for a costly paid-for application that could translate into hundreds of thousands dollars in revenue, spending big for positive reviews is worth it. Because of this, says Dixie, the App Store review system cannot be trusted. In many cases, the first five reviews have been paid for”. (On this topic, see JLG’s take below).
This context of suspicion led the US Federal Trade Commission to issues a directive forcing bloggers to disclose any conflict of interests, a 81 pages document titled Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (full text here). Violating these rules could bring a $11,000 penalty. Good idea, perhaps, but poorly executed. The blogosphere and many professional technology sites erupted in anger, saying this directive was impossible to enforce. The FTC had to back down (story in Business Insider), explaining that it won’t actually fine any blogger, just fire a shot across the bow for the most blatant cases. The other main argument against the ukase was its unfairness since Main Stream Media (MSM) were not subject to the same rule.
Well, two things here.
First, whether anyone writes a blog post or a column for a MSM, I believe he or she owes readers the same disclosure. It can be pretty simple such as mentioning any kind of relationship the writer may have to the subject. By the same token, any writer should refrain from writing about a company with whom he or she has any business. These rules should be a bare minimum of commonly accepted practices. After that, the ecosystem ought to take care of the rest. I bet readers will be good at sorting the good from the bad. Some blogs — or review systems — will fall into the fishy, corrupt category, other will emerge as trusted brands. For that matter, there is no shortage of trusted sites and reviewers on the internet; they range from pure players such as TechCrunch, ArsTechnica, Gizmodo, CNet, ReadWriteWeb, or DPreview (for digital photography), to MSM writers such as Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg (see his profile published by Wired in 2004) or New York Times’ David Pogue. Both are “brands” in their own fiefdom and are paid accordingly.
Second point: this will ruffle some feathers among digital libertarians but, clumsy as it was, I think the FTC directive had the merit of shedding light on unacceptable practices plaguing the blogosphere. Furthermore, I think some version of the FTC guidelines, in the form of non-enforceable recommendations, should be considered by the European Union as well. The blogosphere is a fantastic space for free expression. It should be kept transparent and free of deceitful content.