As traditional publishing continues to experience lay-offs and lower ad revenue, the mommyblogger demographic has grown and flexed its opinion-leader muscles, as evidenced by the recent Mom 2.0 conference. People who weren't paying attention to us as writers a few years ago are scrutinizing us now. In fact, it seems we have our own Forrester report.
In this report, analyst Sean Corcoran recommends that marketers add "sponsored conversations" with mommybloggers to their overall repertoire. I haven't read the entire report, but I'm assuming "sponsored conversation" means "give a blogger product and ask that they blog about it" as opposed to "sponsored content," which means "put my logo above your blog post or somewhere in the middle so that when people read your post, they see my logo without you commenting on it."
I'm trying to decide if a sponsored conversation is different from a product review and, if so, if there are different rules. Product reviews have been around in media for a very long time. Magazines have done them for years. Consumer Reports built a brand around their outstanding product reviews. But what the heck is a sponsored conversation, and are they something we as mommybloggers want to have? (I know I am killing some of you with the word "mommyblogger," but Forrester used it, so I'm going to use it to maintain a common nomenclature. Also, I can't think of anything else that succinct.)
Jeremiah Owyang, also of Forrester, lists blogs who have sponsored conversations and includes BlogHer for its conference swag.
I'm a little befuddled at that inclusion, because while BlogHer does do product reviews via its members, conference swag is just ... conference swag. There's not necessarily an understanding between blogger and sponsor that this exact item will be discussed in a certain place within a certain time period. If the product is unique or useful enough, it'll make its way organically into blog posts or onto Flickr, but there's not the same agreement that a review blogger makes when she agrees to review a product. Also, I've been to all sorts of conferences in my professional career, and they all have swag. Swag in and of itself is not worthy of being included in this discussion, as it's not unique to women or to mommies.
Regardless ... here's the thing. Magazines and newspapers that do product reviews comply with journalistic standards, which require full disclosure and transparency about the reviews, the relationship of the parent company of the periodical with the parent company of the product being reviewed, etc. A journalist who's not completely transparent is a journalist who will not be working long. There's an ongoing discussion in the blogosphere and the marketing community about whether or not product reviews should be full-disclosure, journalistic reports or (and I say this respectfully) whether bloggers should just print the press release.
Marshall Kirkpatrick of Read Write Web points a gentle finger at mommies who want a piece of the action as well as his swag-receiving, professional-blogging colleagues:
Admittedly we say this from a position of privilege, as professional bloggers. Shouldn't everyone be able to get a piece of the action? We are sympathetic to this position, but can't help but feel like it's a morally ambiguous argument. Other than marketing bloggers, it seems that much of the "Pay Per Post" crew is made up of "mommy bloggers." Who would tell a mom with a blog that she doesn't deserve to make a buck, too? It's easy to be high minded about writing as an art when you make a comfortable living doing it.
Well, then maybe it is. I don't think anyone is arguing against mommybloggers being able to turn their personal blogs into money-making entities, or even that mommybloggers should turn down an Amazon gift card to road-test something they might have bought anyway out of curiosity. The issue isn't whether or not mommies should make money or whether mommies are qualified to do product reviews or have sponsored conversation, the issue is transparency. Just say you're doing a review, say you received money to attend the amusement park -- say you didn't pay your own money for whatever you're talking about, so that other people can decide for themselves whether they want to spend theirs.
Transparency is the holy grail of the publishing world. Oprah led the book world in an outcry a few years ago over James Frey's "memoir," A Million Little Pieces. We weren't mad because he wrote a good story -- it was still a good story -- but because he led us to believe it was a true story. The same outcry applies when a blogger's readers find out she didn't actually use or like a product she gushed about on her blog in exchange for something of value. Ick, ew. But so easy to avoid.
Reviewing products is a legitimate service best offered by bloggers. If one of my friends, blogger or otherwise, told me she thought I would love a pen that writes upside down and in rainbow ink, I would trust her even though I'd never respond to that ad in a million years. I would and have given products a second thought based on someone I respect liking them. That purchasing influence is what mommyblog reviewers are offering, and that credibility and value proposition is what mommybloggers must work so hard to protect.
Some mommybloggers are actually paid bloggers, trained as writers, who apply journalistic standards to their writing. They may also do product reviews. I don't think that's the group we're arguing over here. Mommybloggers are attractive to marketers for our ability to persuade, but it's a risky proposition: lose your credibility, and you'll lose your swag.
We can all and we should all understand how to reveal pay for play and understand that accepting a product for review or a trip to a conference doesn't mean you can't be objective about the brand offering it. You can uphold your own product reviewing standards when talking to marketers. As Liz Gumbinner once said at BlogHer, "You're not just your own editor, you're your own publisher. You decide who gets space on your blog."
There are rules. You can't review a product or a destination or a conference without experiencing it. I have no patience for marketers who try to trick mommybloggers into writing positive things without giving the blogger any touch-see-hear-feel exposure to the product. I have turned down several blog tours from prominent firms because they were asking bloggers to write positive things about a product that they wouldn't send to the bloggers. Writing about something you haven't experienced creates an ethical dilemma: If you say it's great, what if you're wrong? What if you really wouldn't have liked it had you seen it or used it? And if you say it's great and you don't really know, you're hurting your credibility as a reviewer and as a writer in exchange for a $25 Amazon gift card.
I'm not saying every mommyblogger needs to go to J-school in order to be taken seriously. Pay attention to transparency, and for the most part, you won't hurt your credibility or your checking account. In order for blogger reviews to work, people have to be influenced by the blogger's opinion. The more authentic you are, the more people will trust you, and the more they trust you, the more they'll trust your review. Review something that's great and everyone's happy -- the marketer gets a positive review, and you get a product you'll love using and recommending to your friends.
The debate regarding journalistic standards for bloggers is far from over, and it's not just about mommybloggers and dish soap. Journalism and blogging can be different things, or they can be the same thing. The media industry hasn't coined a great term for the citizen journalist or the professional blogger that clearly differentiates those who are conforming to journalistic standards and those who are chronicling their lives for fun and posterity and may even exaggerate for comic effect.
I believe in the future the industry will come up with some sort of seal you can put on your blog to indicate you are conforming to journalistic standards, much like the seals e-commerce sites put up to indicate they were protecting your privacy and security. I actually wish such seals existed now -- it would make doing research much easier.
Blogging isn't going away. We can't put the genie back in the bottle. Publishers are already facing the problem of sorting and selling community-generated content. Hearst is putting column inches up as a prize for the fittest citizen journalist. That's great, but are bloggers ready? According to the 2009 Media & Entertainment Predictions report from Deloitte, it's hard to monetize community content in its current format without a nice, editorial scrub, which insinuates that bloggers are essentially amateurs who are creating more and more content as the publishing industry produces less and less. The media industry is experiencing an unprecedented sea change that hasn't yet settled out.
Kirkpatrick goes on to say:
Bloggers are replacing mainstream media and we believe that the community as a whole has the same kind of obligation to inform the public at large about those topics that we're dedicated to covering. Objectivity may be something we're transcending, but that doesn't mean we have to swing so far the other direction that we become cheap tools of corporate interest.
My friends, if we want to be on the paying side of that sea change, we have nothing but our blogging reputations to fear.
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