I’ve been following with interest the debate that Pam at Digging started and which Mr. BrownThumb responded to. When I first started blogging back in 2002, you were lucky to find business people who knew what blogging was, and the idea that they would find enough value in your blogging about their product to give you a free sample was laughable. So when I first started blogging, anything I wrote about I had either purchased myself or checked out of the library. My code of ethics was more instinctive than well thought out. I just imagined myself sitting down in the kitchen with one of my gardening friends, and thought about how I would describe a product to them. In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
If memory serves, it wasn’t until I joined the Garden Writers Association that I began to get “free” items. I never considered them entirely free; they came with the obligation, I felt, to say something about them. They were, after all, given as part of a marketing campaign. I now had to reconcile the expectations of my readers with the expectations of the companies offering review copies and samples. But my code of ethics remained unexamined and unarticulated–though essentially the same.
Time to write a disclosure policy
I decided it was time to make the way I handle review products and advertising explicit. With the help of the utility at DisclosurePolicy.org, I wrote up my disclosure policy. This website asks you questions, and generates a sample disclosure policy based on your answers to the questions. You can copy the resulting policy straight into a page on your blog, or make more changes first. (The generator is provided free by Izea. Izea owns Pay per Post, which I think is kind of ironic. Also, it was missing radio buttons in Firefox, and couldn’t get all the way to the end, but worked well enough to help me create my own.)
I wanted to make changes to the policy it generated, lots of changes. Some things didn’t seem to apply and others needed more explanation. It also got me thinking. Had I, in my past book reviews, made clear which books were free review copies from publishers? And while I indicated that I had gotten help from Mike Cherim, I didn’t come right out and say that I published the interview in exchange for that help. Not good enough by the standards of my own spanking new disclosure policy–which is why it’s dated, so you know when it took effect.
Some have suggested that we develop a blogger’s code of ethics for people to subscribe to. Myself, I feel like we have enough “police” around nowadays. Can’t we decide for ourselves what’s right for our blog? If you want to demonstrate that you adhere to professional standards, join a professional organization and state that you adhere to their code of ethics.
Frankly, there are so many gray areas in the blogging landscape that I don’t want to be the one drawing the line in the sand for anyone but myself–and even then I have trouble. Mr. Brown Thumb wonders what is the difference between Pay per Post and discussing a product for which you received a free sample. Not much, to my way of thinking. I investigated Pay per Post when it first came out, and I concluded that gardening products don’t have big advertising budgets, so the pay would be low, and most of the products would not be ones I’d be interested in trying, and I’d have more pressure to write a positive review, and–it just wasn’t me. But I didn’t dismiss it out of hand.
Very rarely am I sent a product out of the blue. When that happens, I don’t feel much obligation to review it. Most of the time I am offered a product to try or a book to review, and I must request it to get it. In that case, I do feel an obligation to review it but I always state in my request that I will be reviewing it as honestly and objectively as I can. Would the payment from a paid blog post (such as Pay Per Post) be greater than the value of the review products I receive? I really don’t know, and since I don’t blog for a living, I don’t worry about that.
Guest post versus paid content
Here’s another gray area: what is the difference between a guest blogger post and being paid to run someone else’s post on your blog (called paid content insertions or pay-to-play)? (Let’s assume that in both cases the relationship is made explicit.) The guest blogger may have been asked, or they may have been the one to suggest it, just as the paying poster would. The biggest difference for me, so far, is that I just wasn’t impressed with the websites of the few that have contacted me. But what if it had been Jeff Gillman, or Susan Wittig Albert, or Botanical Interests seeds? In each of these cases, I received not only free books or seeds, but increased traffic, which conceivably increased my ad revenue for that day. So was I paid, or wasn’t I?
Botanical Seeds sent me 6 seeds packets plus a calendar with the same botanical art as on their seed packets. Let’s say each seed packet is two bucks, that’s twelve dollars. Double that to cover the calendar and shipping and round it up to twenty-five dollars. What if Botanical Interests had come to me and offered to pay me $25 to run a blog post they wrote on how wonderful their seeds were? I would probably have said no. What if they paid me $25 plus let me give away free seeds? Well, that’s pretty much what did happen, isn’t it? Except I wrote about my own experience with their seeds and what I liked about the company, and they didn’t pay me in cash but in free seeds and a calendar (which I like, but wasn’t expecting).
But what if . . . ?
What if they had offered me $250 to run a post they wrote about how seeds get from the field to the store front, and all they wanted in return was one link to their website, incorporated into their byline? I happen to think that would be a very interesting topic for my readers, to learn how seed is harvested, cleaned, counted, and packaged on a commercial scale. I’ve been paid less money than that to write articles for regional publications, and they will pay me to copy and paste it into my blog software, and click on the publish button? This is a hypothetical situation, but one in which I would find it much harder to turn down.
Know yourself and know your worth
If you are contacted by a business, you can be sure they expect to benefit by whatever they are proposing. You have to determine how you would benefit–or be harmed–by what they are proposing. You need to be aware of what your blog is worth in terms of search engine results and traffic generation, and what would adversely affect that worth.
Most importantly, you need to understand why you are blogging. If earning money was the main reason I was blogging, I would be going about it quite differently. On the other hand, if earning money was of no concern at all, I’d pull all my ads in a heartbeat. I don’t feed my family from my blog earnings, but I do finance this site, all my gardening and other leisure expenditures, and my infrequent travels with the income I earn from advertising, writing, and blog consulting. For me, every time I receive an email solicitation I revisit these issues again and re-evaluate my motivations and goals. I value you, my readers, and don’t want to compromise the trust you’ve placed in me.