Gloves off: Is paid blogging ethically sound?

Paul Rand?
President and CEO, Zócalo Group; President-elect, WOM Marketing Assn., 20 years in marketing,?PR and WOM?

Is paid blogging the equivalent of paying someone to be your friend or the next big marketing movement that your brand can’t live without? Maybe it’s both.?

In my professional role and in my board position at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (where I also lead the association’s Living Ethics project), I’ve heard intransigent arguments on both sides.?

Quite simply, the issue seems to be whether it is acceptable and/or ethical for brands to pay bloggers cash (or a cash equivalent) to write about them? No one seems to debate that transparency and disclosure, as outlined in the WOMMA Ethics Code, is essential. And there seems to be little or no dispute over the widely accepted practice of giving bloggers free products or services to try and review.?

But paying for reviews on specific products (as opposed to paying reviewers to analyze a category of products) is creating a rift that has been likened to the early days of e-mail marketing vs. e-mail spam. ?

As Google works to prevent their search engines from recognizing paid blogs, other marketers are actively building portfolios of bloggers who eagerly review products for payment.?

So, should paid blogging fit into your marketing mix? I’d suggest letting the debate settle out before you risk your brand. There’s another straightforward and unassailable solution: Learn what your customers and brand advocates love about your brand and make it easy for them to share it – without being paid. ?

Sharon Swendner?

President, .Com Marketing, 20 years’ experience in strategic marketing and management?

Controversy surrounds a practice many marketers use — hiring paid bloggers as a cost-effective means to boost search engine optimization and produce relevant user-generated content.?

Paid searches have long been an industry standard. However, search engines like Google maintain that paid blogs should not influence search results, despite the fact that most users cannot distinguish between paid and non-paid results. ?

It is important to note that most paid bloggers are thought leaders. The reputable majority are given keywords and products to include, but are not told what to write. Readers base their opinions on the quality of the discussions, not whether authors were compensated by checks, free tickets or trial products. This is very similar to paid editorial columnists who write for daily newspapers. We don’t question their viewpoints simply because they are paid. ?

Most bloggers are paid in some way, so how can a search engine distinguish the difference and penalize one over the other? Furthermore, if the business model of search engines revolves around paid results, how can they claim that paid blogging is any less credible than paid keyword searches — their primary revenue source??

Bottom line: We all pay one way or another. So why should the “800-pound gorilla” be the primary organization defining marketing strategies and turning a profit in the search world? There is a place for paid blogging, and I strongly believe that it should remain a viable tool in our Internet arsenal. 


Rand advises caution around paid blogs, and suggests transparency.?Swendner backs paid blogging, but doesn’t address that paid blogging is not clearly noted, like paid search. Neither addresses the new role blogs play in consumer decisions. If marketers cannot agree on blog best practices, the FTC will legislate.?

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