Australian food bloggers are organising themselves into a coherent media entity that can engage with advertisers, marketers and food industry public relations representatives. In recent weeks I’ve seen several examples of what I suspect will soon be a flood of sponsored, paid for or otherwise commissioned reviews from Melbourne food blogs.
This is an unfortunate but necessary reality. The effort to publish quality content on a regular basis takes time, energy and does incur costs (for web hosting, cameras, etc). It’s reasonable for bloggers to seek some return on their investment of time and effort. As bloggers replace enthusiasm with financial gain as their motivation, their sites will evolve.
I am interested in the intersection of inspiration, creativity, commerciality, independence, ethics and professionalism that shapes what blogs and websites are and how they develop. Having chosen not to accept advertising, as a publisher I’m a curious observer of the commercialisation of Melbourne blogs.
As an audience member, I wonder if social media or citizen journalism will survive as an amateur activity, or whether commercial concerns will intervene to homogenise and undermine what audiences find unique and worthwhile about blogs.
Rilsta at My food trail has reviewed a home delivery service (it appears to act as an online intermediary between users and takeaway restaurants by allowing you to order online, book home delivery and pay for your order) and the meal she ordered. She discloses in her review that she used a $30 voucher given to her to order the food, so we know that this is a sponsored or commissioned review.
Mark at I just ate it has reviewed the same service. He does not disclose whether he bought his meal with his own money or not, but explains that he discovered the service “about a year ago”. Like Rilsta’s review, Mark’s review was published in August 2009. This is not a coincidence, but evidence of a new marketing strategy. More August examples are here, here, here and here.
I find it interesting that these last four blogs promote the service without explaining why. Yes, it enables them to provide a discount to their readers, but what is really in it for them? Like Rilsta, did they receive free vouchers, or have they been offered some other incentive?
Claire at Melbourne Gastronome recently wrote a series of posts about her travels to the Gippsland region of Victoria, and in each post she discloses that she was sponsored by a government tourism agency and a blog advertising distributor (whose advertisements now appear on many Melbourne food blogs, including Melbourne Gastronome, My food trail and Tomatom). Claire also specifies that her travel and accommodation were paid for, but that she paid for most of her meals.
Disclosure is good. Disclosure signifies honesty and transparency and helps build trust. As I explained in my previous post a beginner’s guide to blogging ethics and strategy, I don’t draw attention to myself in restaurants or tell them who I am in order to get free meals. When Eileen from Brunswick St restaurant Yume offered me a free meal, I publicly declined and explained why. I acknowledged this again in my subsequent review.
I agree with Ed from Tomatom that “I do prefer to visit anonymously and to pay my way.” Ed makes his ethical policies and his commercial focus (he is a freelance journalist) clear in his site, and the commercial focus of other sites like I eat I drink I work is also clear.
Is the level of disclosure provided in the above examples sufficient? Does being paid to write something influence the outcome of the review? Does it encourage bloggers to reduce the impact of their negative impressions? Does it encourage them to write about things they would not otherwise write about, and which they are perhaps not necessarily interested in?
Depending on their level of professionalism, these are issues that some bloggers may not even have thought of. Others, like Not quite Nigella (Sydney), have a PR policy.
I neither envy nor resent bloggers pursuing different business models to drive their sites. They are free to make their choices as I am to make mine. However, I do think that the commercialisation of some blogs may create a division in the Melbourne blogging community.
For example, those who remain non-commercial, like me, may no longer allow our content to be reused by our former colleagues. Our Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia Licenses will not allow it.
Conflicts between non-commercial and commercial publishers may increase. Bloggers who change from being non-commercial to commercial will have to take copyright and intellectual property issues more seriously.
I am curious about the evolution of new and social media and the social, cultural and psychological forces that bind writers and readers, creators and audiences. It remains unclear how audiences will respond. Will they accept seeing (more) advertisements on their favourite blogs?
Will they continue to trust their independence and authenticity if they feature commissioned reviews and promotional posts as well as reviews inspired by the individual likes and interests of their authors?
Will audiences tolerate reading about the same banal promotion on five of their favourite blogs? Isn’t that as boring and predictable as reading the same stories at theage.com.au and news.com.au? If a blog cannot offer me something I cannot get anywhere else, why should I read it?
I offer no predictions about the financial success of these ventures or the social success or failure that may result from disrupting or altering what blog audiences have enjoyed in recent years. I will be watching with great interest.