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Rory Cellan-Jones

The business of blogging

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 29 Mar 08, 15:39 GMT

Has the blogosphere sold out and become just one big corporate playground? And have the very people who used to sneer at “MSM” (the mainstream media) been captured by big business – one of the charges they used to fling at their old economy rivals?

Three straws in the wind set me thinking about this. First I met a company which boasted of employing what they called a “digital marketing consultant” to hang out in the blogosphere spreading the word about their company. Then a friend dropped by and told me about his new business – writing blog posts for corporate executives too busy or inarticulate to do it themselves. And finally I’ve been hearing about the eagerness of some bloggers to accept freebies and trips from big companies

The digital marketing consultant is James Whatley, who has been taken on by the voice-to-text company Spinvox, in his words, “to listen to the web and encourage conversation around Spinvox.” But in a previous life he was “whatleydude”, a blogger about the mobile phone world, and he still uses that persona in his new role.

When he came in for an interview for the radio package I’ve compiled on this subject, he was engaging and enthusiastic about his work. Whatleydude insisted that he was always completely clear about his corporate role, as he went about his blogging activity, which also encompasses a whole range of social web services, from Twitter to Jaiku to Flickr.

“It’s openness and authenticity which is paramount,” he told me. His value to Spinvox, he explained, was that he was a genuine blogger who understood the etiquette of the blogosphere.

Then my friend Mark popped round. He is an experienced technology writer and consultant, and has just come up with a rather smart new business – “ghost” blogging. He showed me a recent post, apparently the work of a senior manager at a technology company but written by Mark after a conversation about the ideas he wanted to express.

He thinks this is a growth business: “Every company wants to be seen on the internet and most managers don’t have a lot of time.”

But a veteran blogger Tom Coates, whose plasticbag.org site has been around for eight years, told me this was a laughable approach because it lacked authenticity: “The value of having a blog as an executive is to have a conversation with the people who use your products, to be part of the community and to talk honestly. To have it ghost-written is utterly pointless.”

Mr Coates has railed against the tidal wave of PR material now landing in blogs, putting a sign on his site saying ”This is not a brothel” and promising that he will never write about anything on the suggestion of some company. He is realistic enough to accept that corporate blogs are here to stay – but wants honesty and authenticity to be the watchwords of those who participate.

But how honest can you be about, say, a technology firm if they fly you round the world at their expense? Earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas I was bemused to find a large team from one UK gadget blog, staying at one of the big hotels on the strip.

How had they afforded it, I asked one of the team. “Oh, we’re on the XXX press trip," came the explanation, naming a major electronics firm. Now, as far as I can see, the blog in question didn't give said manufacturer an easy ride, but I also couldn't spot any disclosure on their site about how their coverage had been funded.

In summary we've got bloggers switching seamlessly between personal and corporate roles, we've got blogs which might seem personal but are written by someone else, and we've "independent" technology bloggers who are happy for the technology firms to pick up the tab for their trips.

I know, I know, many of you will say this has all been happening for years, and the mainstream media are just as guilty of conflicts of interest. But there's still a tendency to see the blogosphere as wonderfully authentic and free of spin compared with the old media. Is it?

Comments

In my role as "social media strategist" I see too often, businesses who feel the need to join the blogging party but have neither the ability nor the understanding of how to jump on board.

As such, there are plenty of bloggers out there who, as bloggers, seem to think they hold the key to this new world.

Simply being able to blog does not however, mean that you know how to create a relevant, coherent and ultimately, successful blog strategy.

Equally, understanding the blogosphere does not mean you know how to operate on behalf of any particular business with any kind of integrity or even be in a position to advise on the organisational or moderation structure of business blogging.

I think the harsh reality is that for those businesses that don't blog, they don't understand it and either pay someone to do it without integrity, or simply do not do it at all.

Those businesses that understand it are already doing it perfectly well themselves - and don't need "blog consultants".

NB: I am available to do all of the above with total integrity and several years' experience BTW ;-)


I think blogs are like any other medium: you should check why something is written before you start reading. I always like to find out who a blogger is and why he writes what he does. A corporate blog is still valuable even if it contains PR speak- it allows a journalist to contact someone for PR quotes and shows the public face of the company. I agree with Tom Coates: a blogger should be honest if he takes the corporate shilling or relies on press releases. The advertorial feature in a magazine is similar: it is written to sell a product but states this at the top.

Interesting article. I am involved in several dot-coms at the moment and and have won the founders round with regards to blogging about their progress. Whilst I agree that it's slightly bizarre to have companies having outsiders writing about 'insider' topics, blogging is a fantastic way for companies to engage with consumers. One company I am working for is even turning its blog into a whole spin-off site and using it as a valuable source of extra revenue, and what company would turn down the opportunity of easy cash and exposure?

  • 4.
  • At 09:29 AM on 30 Mar 2008,
  • Ian Kemmish wrote:

There are three ways to blog:

1) as an independently wealthy individual doing it for amusement. Such blogs would be insightful and entertaining, but I've never yet seen one. (Wendy Carlos's homepage is close, but isn't a blog.)

2) as a blogger who is transparently subsidised by the organisation he works for. Like you.

3) as a "veteran blogger" cross-subsidised by advertising. Subsidy is never good for the customer, and subsidy derived from carrying advertising has the side-effects of irritating readers and pushing up the prices of the advertised goods in the shops.

It's not hard to see that I reckon that "veteran bloggers" are the least useful of the three and wouldn't really be missed. Two days ago I even found a blog which - without my consent - added pop-up advertising links to keywords in a comment I had added. Needless to say, I won't be going there again!

I have to say I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of someone ghost writing a blog post on my behalf.

I'm a director of a small search marketing company and we have a company blog and encourage everyone in the company to blog. As directors we blog when we have time and something we feel is worth sharing.

What we like about blogging is that the reader hopefully gets some useful information but most importantly they gain a more honest insight into the mindset of the company than they would by reading our more formal written material. Can someone ghost writing achieve that?

Thanks to social media sites an unknown person can start a brand new blog and be getting hundreds of thousands of visitors within days. This brings not only power but a huge responsibility for bloggers to ensure what they write is correct.

I've been caught out a couple of times this year by companies threatening lawsuits against me based on articles published on my blog, after the first time I invested in some insurance to protect me against the threat of defamation suits but most amateur bloggers are still at risk from this sort of practice.

Blogs are just like any other medium in that they rely on return readers to boost traffic. A blogger who is too complimentary of a brand will soon be discovered as a shill. Avoid blogs with the comments turned off: they don't want dissenting feedback, which isn't going to help sell a product.

I think Ian Kemmish's list is incomplete. I would also add blogging to show your skills. As a journalist student, I write about the news every day to improve my online writing skills and demonstrate I follow what goes on. If I was sponsored by a corporation I can guarantee that potential employees would not be impressed. Maybe blogging will improve when people blog to improve themselves and not their wallet.

One of the sites I run is a "watchdog" site, keeping the local transit authorities "honest" (well, relatively where possible).

It's also an information site about those services, so it allows those authorities to submit press releases and news for publication - Which we usually go ask them annoying questions about afterwards if needed :)

Allowing them to push their information is part of why we have the access to execs to ask those annoying questions of that we do.

Hopefully I avoid the trap of "undeclared conflict of interest" that *does* exist in many blogs, because we clearly state the information we publish coming from those authorities did so.

Ghost writing a blog is stupid, IMNSHO. If it's an exec's blog, then they should write it, else it's no more "honest" than Hansard.

The advantage is, if such things are discovered, confidence in the blog (and the people/company involved) goes down. Bloggers discovering such masquerades tend to gloat over the discovery ... Makes you wonder if doing it is worth the "price" of getting shredded by everyone when they're caught.

Ian @ 1: Sounds like you're describing SmartLink, a plugin for blogs that allows for auto-contextual links to popup in a .js powered dHTML box.

They're relatively popular, but you might like to add to your annoyance at having your post cross-linked the fact SmartLinks are impolite enough to be inaccessible :(

I thought it is good practice to let everyone know if you were on a sponsored trip and by and large bloggers follow it. If not, it does blur the line between 'authentic' and plain old media style reporting.

I have to be honest, as much as I do see the issues surrounding ghost blogging and employing consultants to infultrate social netowrking sites, I would love to do it for a living.

I think there is a genuine need for ghost bloggers and I am sure in time it will become an extension the traditional PA role.

I have seen freelancer work for blog commenters etc I think there is far to much money in blogging for it to remain completely orgainic.

In the words of Byron "I blame the parents"

;o)

The whole point of a blog is that it is personal and individual - either the blog as a whole or the individual posts. Having a blog ghost written just to promote a company or product is of course misleading but its hard to see how this can be prevented. Companies will see having a blog as just another way of promoting their products.

  • 12.
  • At 12:36 PM on 31 Mar 2008,
  • Ironbath wrote:

Come on! For one minute did you think that we didn't know that your blog was written by some media studies student on placement at the beeb, while you lay on some exotic beach sampling the latest technology at the expense of a multinational trying to curry favour!

I have been blogging for six years. In that time, I've seen in the last couple of years a shift from personal blogging to more business focussed blogging. Through my job as a web designer I have set up a number of blogs for clients. They hardly ever get used as the people who we hand the reigns over to aren't as passionate about their company as the guys at the top so updates are infrequent.

However, the biggest change in the blogging world is that now there's more money in it. It's amazing how many "make money online" blogs there are out there (which in my mind are worse than corporate shill blogs), and there are companies out there who will pay you to post about certain items. I offer banner advertising on my site as a way to recoup some of my hosting and beer fees, and I usually thank my sponsors for doing so. Once I blogged about a computer game a company sent me, but I did it under full disclosure. As a blogger I believe in trust (plus I wasn't really "selling out", as I often review computer games on my blog for free - it'd be different if it was something like insurance services, as a lot of "paid posts" are), so if you are able to post objectively and transparently about proucts you've recieved, then you should be okay. Truth be told, many people aren't.

Interestingly, it's going into other social media sites: one of the people I follow on twitter got offered $20 to post a tweet on their company!

  • 14.
  • At 05:47 AM on 01 Apr 2008,
  • selina howells wrote:

I agree with everything you've said, and I'm glad you said it. It's worse in other sectors by the way, like beauty products. Can I ask you a question, please? Why didn't you tell viewers about the press trip and the expensive hotel when you featured the blogger you refer to at CES on the BBC? As I recall she was featured as a 'blogger' period, so in your own small way you were exploiting the assumed honesty of blogging to make your report look underground, authentic. I'd also like to ask why you couldn't find a real blogger to interview. Will you promise next time not to feature the blogging equivalent of a tin of Heinz Farmers' Market soup?

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