The ethics and prudence of publishing paid content in blogs

Ethics and prudence of publishing paid content in blogsBloggers are influential nowadays, and where there is influence, there is money. Many bloggers want to monetize their blogs, and many marketers are happy to pay for exposure, so this looks like an ideal match.

In this post, I will examine the ways blogs are monetized and the ethical and prudential questions that arise from various forms of paid content in blogs.

Should blogs be monetized at all?

Adopting the stance that one should not be compensated for anything in their blog is a coherent view. I would consider it a very purist view that considers blogging an essentially personal and spontaneous activity, a conversation untainted by monetary concerns.

However, I don’t think there are serious ethical objections to monetizing most blogs.

Basically, the argument is that accepting compensation for writing something you would write anyway cannot be wrong.

I would also offer further arguments that blog hosting costs money, and time is money as well, so accepting payment for certain things helps cover these costs and may actually improve the quality of the blog, as you are able to spend more time on the blog instead of other work.

This does not mean that accepting bribes or being paid to promote junk is right. Quite the contrary, it seems that a moral rule that states that accepting compensation for writing something you do not believe in in your blog is wrong is quite valid indeed. After all, a blog is a channel for your opinions, and bending whichever way money is waved destroys the essential characteristics that the blogosphere is built on: authenticity and personality.

A potential counter-argument could then proceed along the lines that accepting money for something makes you more prone to accept money for other things as well. However, in argumentation theory this is regarded as a fallacy, slippery slope. In short, unless the causal chain from the minor action to the major action can be established, a slippery slope argument has no value. In this case, there does not seem to be good basis for the argument, as there is a clear and obvious line to be drawn between opinions you hold and opinions you do not hold. There just is no chance to err on that subject.

Disclosure is required by law, and by Google

Before proceeding any further, I must point out that when money or goods change hands, disclosure of this fact is mandatory both in the US and the UK. It is mandatory to clearly declare products received for free for review, paid-for trips, and cash payments.

Furthermore, Google has adopted the controversial stance that any paid links should be of nofollow variety or lead to intermediate pages that are blocked from search engines. Google considers this marking disclosure for search engines, and may penalize the rankings of both the linking site and the site linked to if paid links are not nofollow links. The other search engines don’t really seem to care either way.

Ways to monetize a blog

This is not a complete guide to blog monetization. If you want to make serious money with your blog, make a business plan. Rather, my goal here is to identify the types of monetization so that I can begin considering their ethical aspects.

Here is the list of types of monetization I can think of:

  • Selling your own products or services: subscriptions, consulting, speaking gigs, ebooks.
  • Selling advertisement space in the blog or its feed: various advertisement services (context-sensitive, selectable), direct advertisement.
  • Selling content: reviews, paid posts, paid-for guest posts, paid links.
  • Affiliate marketing: affiliate links.

Selling your own products or services

Well, this is quite straightforward. It’s your site, you hawk your wares. As long as you don’t lie about them, you’re pretty much good to go.

It should be observed that the traditional view of the blogosphere considers pure sales pitches inappropriate, and as a prudential matter too much self-promotion runs the risk of alienating your audience.

Spin is not an ethical way to sell anywhere, anyway, but the blogosphere is particularly sensitive to self-promotion. However, it is good to keep in mind that no one is going to find your products unless you mention them somewhere: moderate self-promotion is useful.

Selling advertisement space

The internet users of today are quite used to seeing ads all around. Many people block most of them with browser plugins, the rest just generally ignore them altogether. In a way, it seems futile to discuss the ethics of blog ads, as ads are seen as part of the regular internet landscape anyway.

There are prudential concerns, such as the number of ads to use, as turning your blog into a confusing patchwork of ads and original content is a sure way to alienate most of your readers.

However, this patchwork viewpoint raises a rather important point: your original content and the ads are both presented to the reader as part of the same experience. Therefore, if we assume authenticity and personality as the key characteristics of a blog, is it right to advertise products that you do not endorse?

In light of this concern, ads that you select yourself seem to be a more ethical choice than utilizing an ad service that places random ads, even if context-sensitive, on your blog. When you select the advertisement yourself, you can authentically endorse the product and the advertisement can be part of the relevant experience of your blog, even though it has to, of course, be declared as an advertisement.

When you let an external service display random advertisements on your blog, you cannot genuinely endorse them, and as such they work against the core characteristics of what a blog is. This discrepancy can be settled only if you consider advertisements an external part of the blog and not really part of the same experience.

Selling content

There are many ways to sell actual content space on your blog, and the different ways to go about this have very different consequences.

Reviews. The general stance seems to be that it is fine to have received the reviewed product free of charge, but not fine to have received money on top.

I can only reiterate my earlier argument that accepting compensation for writing something you would write anyway cannot be wrong. Ethically, it makes no difference if you receive money for a review or not. In fact, if you get paid to do it, you may even be able to make a better review, as you can spend more time making it.

However, as you are legally obliged to disclose that you have been paid and people have no way to verify whether the payment has affected your judgment, it is often impractical to pay for a review beyond providing the product itself.

Paid posts and paid-for guest posts. The same considerations that apply to reviews apply here as well. Accepting compensation for writing something you would write anyway cannot be wrong, so paid posts are all good ethically as long as the opinions are your own.

However, if the purchaser wants to have a say in the content, the situation changes radically. This is not a tenable situation, because now the purchaser is, in effect, inserting direct advertisement that does not look like an advertisement. Even if we take the stance that anything goes in the advertisement areas of the blog, because people know what to expect, including pure ad content into the posts themselves is highly misleading even if the post is labeled as sponsored.

Paid-for guest posts are no better, they are pure advertisement in an area where the audience expects authentic content.

Here, again, we encounter the problem of proving that the posted opinions are completely your own. It is, nonetheless, important to distinguish that this is a prudential consideration, not an ethical one.

Justin Goldsborough and Stephanie Schwab have both discussed whether partnerships, rather than paid one-off posts, may help establish trust. However, as can be seen from the comments to their posts, the issue remains controversial.

Paid links. Once again, the same considerations apply, accepting compensation for writing something you would write anyway cannot be wrong.

However, I really don’t see a viable future for paid links that are properly disclosed and nofollowed. Why would anyone want to pay for them? Individual paid links in the middle of a blog post are rather unattractive to people, and if they are nofollow links, they are also useless for search engine purposes.

Undisclosed dofollow links, on the other hand, are definitely attractive as they are likely to be clicked by humans and will improve the search engine rankings of the target site. However, they are also obviously unethical because they are intentionally misleading.

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing has spread like wildfire, it is all over the blogosphere.

Affiliate links seem to be well-tolerated by people, and they are commonly used whenever mentioning any products that can be bought from a store or manufacturer that has an affiliate program.

From an ethical point of view, affiliate links are fine as long as you do not mislead people in order to get them to purchase products through your affiliate link.

Implications for bloggers

What does all of the above mean for a blogger?

  • Remember disclosure, and for goods too, not just money.
  • If it is your opinion, you are in the clear ethically. Prudence is another matter, because it is not always possible to prove to others that you are being honest.
  • Widely accepted practices include accepting free products for review, affiliate programs, clearly marked ads, and moderate promotion of your own products and services.
  • Be careful with paid content. Perhaps long-term partnerships will become the norm, but so far paid content is quite controversial.

Implications for marketers

What does all of the above mean for a marketer working on blogger outreach?

  • Remember to mention that disclosure is needed, and for goods too, not just money.
  • Do not offer your own content for a blog post. You can offer it for an advertisement that is not published as a post.
  • If you want to get a product reviewed, go ahead and offer it for free, no strings attached. Also offer materials, such as photos and specifications, but not a ready-written review or a sales pitch.
  • Consider long-term partnerships. Keep in mind that they are still quite controversial.
  • It can help to create a relationship first, and bring money to the table later on. A history of commenting on blog posts can also help achieve acceptance from the readers of the blog (or ruin it completely if you are too pushy).

Anything still missing?

Paid content in blogs is a large and hotly debated subject. What do you think about it, or some part of it? Are ad services A-ok even though they push ads to products you may not endorse into your blog? Is there a way to bridge the gap between ethical behavior and proving you are honest?

Photo: Images_of_Money on Flickr (cc)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Tornio, Finland, but work globally. Google+