Writing at the intersection of motherhood, feminism and my Latinidad

29 July 2008

The problem with the business of mommy blogging

Blogher has come and gone. The swag has been taken, sorted, trashed or given away. Trinkets and real useful items emblazoned with corporate logos weighed down the shoulders of Bloger attendees. While I did not go myself, there was no lack of swag posts in the momosphere. Last year I gobbled up as much as I could and even made a swag care package for Amy. This year the swag appeared to have jumped a notch or two. One team of mommy bloggers even road tripped their way to Blogher complete with a hybrid Chevy Tahoe and a list of corporate sponsors, including CBS News which got current mom blogger BFF Katie Couric to tape a welcome message for Blogher. As I find myself deeper and deeper in this blogging thing and as I get more and more emails for products and promotions (NOTE: Stop emailing me at my work! That's what the contact me link is for!), I make myself stop and consider the ramifications.


No, I don't think that mommy bloggers are any less smart than techies, music reviewers, or anyone else who blogs and gets freebies tossed at them like we're at a sporting event. I do think that the speed of the mommy blogger boom and the intensity of the swag has been overwhelming for many of us.


Let's take the Blogher Mom Roadtrip moms. I use to write with them and know that they are all intelligent women. I also know that the powers that be over at SV Moms aren't out to do anything sinister. That's why I think it's safe to make them my case study.


There was buzz before the road trip was announced in certain blogging circles that a car company was trying to find the right audience for the offer. I wasn't privy to those conversations, but when I mentioned the road trip to a friend, they nodded and knew it was coming. "They just needed to find the right niche." Add in Zune, Weight Watchers & Six Apart as sponsors and the cross-country road trip appears to have paid for. Yet before they even set out to pay their first toll rumors began to swirl that they were mere shills for the sponsors. On July 10th Jill Asher blogged a huge disclaimer/fact that the moms involved were not given any guidance/rules on how to blog the trip.

…what you won't see blogged from this road trip is detailed information or opinions about the gear our sponsors have provided to make the trip happen. Instead, we've asked our bloggers to simply chronicle their experiences, the good, the bad, the funny, the plain weird. They can mention our sponsors, but they don't have to. For example, we had a question from one of our bloggers today: can she just say, "I got in the car," or does she have to say, "I got in the Chevy." We told her car is fine.

As I said, I know these women and know them to be honest; especially since many of them are also professional writers. They aren't the stereotypical wide-eyed PJ wearing mommy bloggers. Yet because they were going on a sponsored road trip, their integrity was questioned.


I believe that happened precisely because we are not dumb. We, as a society, as a blogosphere, are leery of corporate sponsors. Even if we get them ourselves, we know sometimes they come with strings or gentle suggestions. I know that at some of us are reluctant to post a bad review of a book, restaurant or product for many reasons. First is the backlash that the company or marketing agency won't tweet us again. Next is having no desire to be "mean" to something someone put a lot of work into, especially books. Another reason is that some of us know too well how much power a small post can wield. Yes, even a blog like mine with a small audience can post a bad restaurant review and bring the chef to his knees. A few of us had this convo at last year's Blogher. One woman got emails from the owners asking her to remove the review! I wrote a bad review many moons ago and the manager offered to give my husband & me a free meal to let us judge again. No, I never took him up on it.


I agree with Diane Farsetta at WIMN's Voices (where I also blog) that I'm not totally sure if this type of partnership is problematic. I do find it problematic that marketers who are getting paid big bucks have figured out a way to get moms to do their work for them. Rather than spend thousands of dollars on an ad buy, they are ship off a few freebies with an information sheet chock full of talking points.


The NYTimes covered Blogher and many bloggers were not happy with the placement (in the Style section where almost all women-centric stories live) nor with the description of women bloggers:

[Blogher] has since evolved into a corporate-sponsored Oprah-inflected version of a '60s consciousness-raising group. … many women at the conference were becoming very Katie Couric about their belief that they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts at, say, Daily Kos, a political blog site. Nor, they said, were they making much money, even though corporations seem to be making money from them.

And that's just what gets my goat. That so many women, especially mom bloggers appear to be drowning in free samples for their review blogs, yet don't seem to be swimming even in the kiddie pool when it comes to cash flow. Well, unless you're Blogher who just signed a deal with NBC & iVillage to the tune of $5 million. No word yet on where that money will end up. And for the record, the women who put Blogher together deserve a good cash reward…yet so does every review blogger out there. For many of us, this is a business and we need to start acting more like businesswomen not grateful for the crumbs that are thrown at us (myself included!).


Farsetta reminded us that Anne Elizabeth Moore chides us all, bloggers or indie punk folk, that when we shill for companies for free swag or a flat-fee that does not add up to at least a certain amount an hour, we are underselling ourselves.


My mother use to remind my sisters and I that we were a reflection of the people we hung out with so to be careful. I think the same idea can be said about those we partner with on reviews and sponsorships. And because of this, we shouldn't be too hurt when someone questions our integrity if we're tooling around in a free car with free $5/gallon gas and blogging about it – Even if we aren't dropping the make & model name every chance we get. "I'm getting into my Toyota Prius. Wow. My Prius windows are dirty! Time to wash the Prius…"

10 comments:

Excellent points. I'm relatively new to this too, and still finding my way with reviews and giveaways. You've given me a lot to think about. So far, I haven't come across something free that sucks. I think that the pr firms are smart enough to put things in front of us that they think we'll like, so really just getting something to appear is an endorsemnt. But when I am sent something for review that I don't like, I'm going to feel like I'm slapping my pr contacts in the face.

Well, as one of the moms aboard the trip, I had no idea our integrity was being called into question--at least not publicly! So this was quite an eye-opener to me, though I'm not surprised it's being discussed. Here's my take.

First of all, it seems like there are two questions/concerns being presented in this post. The first is, are mombloggers being used by ad companies, and don't we deserve compensation for doing the job of the advertisers? My answer is maybe, and it depends on the context. I don't do a lot of product reviews, though I'm constantly given free stuff. If I'm very impressed with a product or service I may find a way to work it into a story I'm writing, or, if I'm really REALLY impressed, I may blog about it. I don't expect and would not want any compensation for such placement because that would put me in the position of being both PR and journalism at the same time with the same products, which IMO is bad, bad, bad. Were I being compensated to promote a product as a paid spokesperson, that would be different, but then a) I wouldn't be writing about it for my journalistic outlets, and b) I would disclose that information. I think it's very dangerous ground to start talking about being "compensated" for shilling products unless the people shilling those products really understand the difference between being a journalist, being in advertising/PR, or being a spokesperson; and I fear that too many bloggers are simply clueless about this. My personal stance on taking freebies is that if a company wants to send me stuff, they're taking a calculated risk: there is a very good chance that they'll get nothing out of it at all (and I am absolutely upfront about that). They might even get a bad review. I make no guarantees.

In my work as a writer I am usually called upon to do one of three different types of writing work: journalistic, advertising, or advertorial. (There are also custom publications, which act as an advertising vehicle for products/stores; the articles aren't exactly advertorial, but they aren't true journalism either. They are there to support the ads) In freelance writer circles it's fairly common to do a blend of the different types of writing gigs(because it can be hard to make a living from journalism alone, particularly as a freelancer) and generally, the opinion is that DISCLOSURE is what keeps it all on the up and up.

That brings me to the second question/concern you seem to be posting here is: Are mom bloggers being fairly compensated for their work? And to that I'd say--for the most part?--no, no, no. But are we all really treating this as a business? Should we be? And do we really know what we're selling in the first place?

On the Mom Road Trip, all the road trip bloggers *were* fairly compensated for their time beyond a free ride. So how could we keep our integrity intact while getting paid? Simple. Disclosure.

On the Mom Road Trip site it was made very clear that the trip was sponsored, which makes it fall into the "advertorial" camp (since it wasn't straight advertising, but rather, advertising wrapped around editorial). However, I'd say that our model was less like traditional advertorial in that we weren't actually required to mention the products in any specific way. Maybe as these kind of partnerships take off, there will be even more hybrids created (heh...heh...I said "hybrid", and GM didn't even pay me to!) and it's easy for lines to become blurrier and blurrier. Again, the way to keep them honest and fair is disclosure. We were writing as women having a good time out on the road; we did not position ourselves as journalists. On the other hand, we were not required or asked--EVER--to write a certain way about our experiences, and there were products in the car that I never mentioned at all because frankly, I didn't think they deserved a mention.

I would not have shot the GM promo video if I didn't actually love the vehicle. We all did, and I wasn't paid to say that! On the other hand, I admit that as somebody with no newsroom experience, I was shocked when I learned (after the fact) that news stations would actually pick that up and run it as NEWS. That is a huge failing--but that's not my failing, or SV Moms' or even GM's, who is simply doing its job of putting out the message it wants to get across. Maybe I'm naive, but I've never believed there was anywhere near that level of line-blurring in the magazines I write for...but if there were, then I'd honestly rather just do paid spokespersonships from here on out. At least then, it's all out in the open.

Either way, that example illustrates to me that blurry lines and ethical snafus between PR, advertising and journalism has been around a long time and goes far beyond mom blogs. On the other hand, so far there is no standard for the blog world, and to some extent we are in some ways making up the rules as we go. In a magazine or newspaper there is supposed to be a separation between advertising and editorial so that they aren't influenced by one another. But each blogger becomes, in some respects, her own mini-publishing industry with no advisory board or staff or, necessarily, education or experience to guide her ethics. So who sets the standard?

Personally, I believe that the question of compensation and integrity have to be separated out into very different discussions. If we are (and I'm not convinced we all are, or all should be) looking at our blogs as businesses, then we need to be very clear about what it is we're in the business of doing first, and then make sure that it's clear to both our readers...and ourselves.

Hopefully this has been clear. I've been interrupted about 120 times in the last hour...

Interesting points on all sides here, and while I'll admit straight up that the bizarre correlation between mommy blogging and product mentions has me already worried about integrity, it's true that we have to fit the rules to the game: Mommy bloggers review the free stuff they get. OK. We'll start there.

My first concern is with the notion that nothing free sucks. Which is often true. As an opinion-maker (if not journalist) it's important to keep in mind that the audience for your opinions of this "not sucking" include the economic realities of their lives. When you forward something as great if free, are you weighing the cost of the thing to others?

Of course, if you're already concerned about slapping PR contacts in the face, well, clearly, you've already allowed your integrity to be violated. Not this this is unusual: it happens. It's also something you can change. Should be easy: realize they're getting more from you than you are from them, and strive to be more genuinely honest in your reviews of what they send (assuming you want to continue doing this work for them).

As far as disclosure balancing concerns for integrity, I'm not sure it really works that way. I think on the reader end, it should, and I too would like to believe that it does. However, embedded journalists in the Iraq war offered few objective facts that might allow us to question the legitimacy of the invasion: somehow the level at which people--writers--buy in to sponsorships erodes integrity anyway. I'd also forward that the entire move toward word-of-mouth marketing has already accounted for potentially negative product reviews, and promotes full disclosure--and yet is still a highly prized mode of advertising product in use by marketers everywhere.

I'd add, finally, that it's important to consider all product mentions as advertising you deserve to be compensated for. You better believe those free products are being paid for out of the companies' marketing budgets, and that they're using your work as marketing. Why on earth would you not take advantage of that, considering your substantial investment of time and energy on their behalf?

But these issues are just starting to be addressed, and little vocabulary exists with which to discuss them. Check my book Unmarketable for a start (libraries exist! no need to buy it!), and eventually I'll continue the conversation at http://www.antiadvertisingagency.com, where I've been writing on these issues and other related matters.

(and great post, Roni!)

"I'd add, finally, that it's important to consider all product mentions as advertising you deserve to be compensated for."

Unless my blog were being used as merely an advertising vehicle and that were made very clear to my readers, OR, unless I entered into a transparent spokespersonship agreement with a specific product/company I valued, I would be extremely uncomfortable with paid product mentions. That said, I am accustomed to a magazine model in which accepting payment for mentioning a product in an article would be completely unacceptable, so that's where I'm coming from.

The fact is, we don't all run our blogs as businesses, and those who do don't all have the same goals or approaches to our businesses. I use my blog as a calling card, a way to promote my paid writing work, and a way to talk about my life and other topics that I may not be able to find another outlet for. I don't make money directly from it, and don't have any immediate plans to. What I think is missing from the discussion about blogging as a business is acknowledgement that you can blog for free as a calculated business move.

I do weekly book reviews on my blog. (I would do them more often if I had more time to read.) I'd been doing them for months before I was even aware that a lot of other bloggers were being offered - or soliciting - books for review. That had never even occurred to me; I was just reviewing books I bought for myself, and eventually read. Clearly, I was naive about the blog/marketing connection - and I could have been spending a lot less on books :-)!

But there's the rub. I'm being offered review books now too, but I only accept them when I'm honestly interested in reading them, and my post will be honest too - about my opinion AND about the fact it was a free review copy.

I'm really not all that comfortable with the whole swag/sponsor factor. If I accept these things because I have a blog - and the blog's the reason I've been offered them in the first place - I feel responsible to write about that, and mention how I got these things.

I think this has become a big discussion topic this year, and we'll keep talking about it for awhile.

I wanted to just clarify one thing I said--when I say I receive "lots of freebies", I don't mean that I actively solicit them. They're in the swag bags I get when I go to certain parties; often, they show up at my door unannounced and unrequested. When I do receive an offer for a sample, if it sounds like something I may reasonably find myself using/liking/writing about, I'll accept it, but again, there are no guarantees and I don't feel obligated in any way. My obligation is to myself and my reader--not any PR company.

Veronica,
I am stunned since you do know me and the other writers you did not fact check before writing this post which is filled with assumptions and flat-out inaccuracies. Until reading your post,as Meagan stated too, I was unaware my integrity was being widely questioned. My integrity is what I base my entire life's legacy upon. I take it being called out on the carpet very very seriously. Please call me at your convenience; 618-558-4326
Sincerely,
Devra

wow...thanks for the comments all.

MF - I love your perspective on this. And perhaps that's where we differ...I don't see my blog as journalism. I do see that blogging can be journalism, but I see my blog as more of my opinion/soap box.

And thus, I see the conflict btw seeing bloggers as journalists & bloggers are marketers/PR peeps. When the 10 pm news does a "piece" on which mascara is best, I don't find that news rather as advertising. I guess that's how I see reviews on blogs. THUS, why I still don't have a "Ad-Free Blog" button on my site.

Devra...I did call you & left a voicemail, so I hope we do chat soon. BUT...I apologize if you think that I was calling your integrity into question..I was merely reporting that it seemed that others were. I saw the twitter posts about "haters" and other such during the road trip and esp since Jill did post addressing questions of integrity. I don't question yours, MF, Jill's, or anyone associated with the road trip's integrity...which is why I thought it was the best example. I know you all aren't looking for the best way to shill for Chevy, but had the opportunity present itself.

There's a big difference btw those two. I myself will shill for books. I admit that. Just like Florinda, I'd do more book reviews if I could find time to read more books.

For comparison's sake, it's nice to keep in mind that there was a day, in journalism, where any brand names in any article necessarily took the piece in the reader's mind out of the realm of commentary and moved it into the realm of advertising. This sense has been lost now to contemporary journalists, whether online or in print or on TV--wherever. (And, you know, it's not an entirely bad move, I admit. It did get a little confusing.)

But this wasn't a move that benefitted journalism--it only benefits the producers of the goods or services mentioned. And while it eventually became easier for journalists to just refer to "Oreos" instead of "popular sandwich cookies", the fact is that the same exact articles can always be written without brand names (and should the article be negative or watchdogging, therefore the impetus for mentioning the brand would not be promotional in any way, but intended as a warning, it's just as easy to refer to the company by name and not the product, which more recent findings indicate may benefit from the promotional nature of even negative commentary.)

I think it's perfectly fine if some choose to run their blogs like businesses, and some don't. But I also think it's important to establish your rights as a cultural producer on your own terms, and at least be aware that the work you may be doing for free benefits others greatly--not only in terms of the money they fail to spend on someone else to complete it, but in the long run too: in the establishment of a culture where the unchallenged norm is not compensating women for their labor.

I actually don't see my blog as journalism either, but I tend to see issues as somebody who's often had to straddle the fence between journalism and advertising to make sure she's got her ethics intact. And actually, I think people should be free to do whatever they want on their blogs. But I do prefer when it's clear to the audience.

One other thing that's confusing me about this issue...what's being called into question, exactly (not by you personally, Veronica, but in general)? Is it our integrity--i.e. we're selling out, being unfairly biased--swayed by swag, even subconciously? Or our business sense--i.e. we are selling out for too little? Those two things almost seem mutually exclusive, and yet, they both seem to be in question.