Blogs: A whole new medium for payola

In the latest WebProNews, Sharon Drew Morgen wonders if blogs are a new communication tool or a marketing avenue:

Most people are using their new-found recognition to offer up their best: their interesting opinions, their hidden theories, their creative thoughts. Certainly the passionate and opinionated now have a venue to vent.

But others are using the blogging world for fame and gain – and we have no way of knowing the difference between opinions and sleaze.

She comes down pretty hard on the new wave of buzz marketing companies:

Isn’t there something wrong with this picture? If every aspect of the web is fodder for manipulation and abuse, who do we trust? How do honest people compete in this environment and scrupulously manage their marketing or web or competition challenges?

Ultimately, she takes a strong stand:

I, for one, will never trust a blogger’s recommendations again. And that’s a shame, because there is really some innovative, exciting information on the net that I would never have learned about in any other way.

I know Sharon Drew, and I understand her frustration and lack of trust.

But what about industry analysts who charge customers and investors for their reports, and then turn around and charge vendors in the industry to consult with them? And guess who ends up favorably in the reports? It’s a huge problem, which has been written about extensively by those brave enough to make a stand. In fact, a whole cottage industry has grown up around providing hedge funds and other institutional investors with direct access to front-line sources largely because of this problem (IMHO). The investors don’t completely trust the analysts, so they get direct sources themselves in addition to the analysts.

The same is true of industry magazines and journals. Many automotive industry and computer industry publications have been accused of showing favoritism towards their largest advertisers in product reviews, especially in multi-product reviews in which they pick a winner. That’s why Consumer Reports exists.

And television? Don’t get me started! Or what about radio payola, that became such a scandal in the 1950s?

It really boils down to a very personal level of trust, and that gets built up over time, and by word of mouth. For example, I partner with two or three vendors in the social networking space, and am working on deals of some sort with several others. And I write about them, too, but I say what I think, whether I have a relationship with them or not. David and I have both been openly critical of particular decisions by people who are our clients/sponsors. But I won’t let someone specifically pay me to write about them favorably, without disclosing that.

My point is that all media is potentially suspect if it takes money from both sides of the fence. This has been going on for years. Blogs have just provided a new medium for it. And just because a media outlet is getting advertising money doesn’t mean it’s unreliable. It’s something to be mindful of, to be sure, but not a reason to single out blogs.