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Melbourne bloggers and the ethics of publishing sponsored reviews

| 20 Comments

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.

20 comments

  1. I’m not a big fan of pay per post. Advertising is ok but specifically receiving money for your credibility isn’t on.

    Google doesn’t favour pay per post too much either. If they catch on expect search engine trashings of a lot of these sites.

  2. I discovered this post by accident – thanks (??) for making mention of me, out of the many other Melbourne bloggers out there. To me, disclosure on your blog is important if you receive something for free as I believe for some people it may skew their review of the product/restaurant and the reader should know.

    The Menulog voucher was the first “freebie” I have received and at present, I am not on any PR’s list so I don’t get sent anything else. Had the service from Menulog being terrible, I would have not been comfortable lying and saying it was good because I got the voucher from them. I think it is important to be honest in your reviews or else it ends up being like paid advertising.

    I blog purely as an unpaid hobby as I have a career in a totally unrelated field. I don’t have a problem if someone wants to send me something for free and would be happy to do a review, so long as the company knows I will be honest. If readers choose not to read my blog because of this, then so be it. I don’t see how it should be any different to any other review I do where I have paid for the product. After all, I am only giving my opinion – readers should be encouraged to form their own. I do not have a large reader base and would not think that my humble little blog with my amateur photos and writing would ever be that influential to change/sway people’s views.

    I think being offered a free meal from the restaurant to review their restaurant is a different story. If they know from the offset that you are there to do a review and your review will end up somewhere online, I have no doubt your experience will better than the average diner and they will go out of their way to impress you (they are silly if they don’t). This then ends up as an advertisement, more than a (somewhat) subjective review.

    A lot of blogs I read have at one time or another accepted freebies. I think you will find that those that reject them are few and far between, compared to those that accept them. I personally do not change my view of them because they do.

    • Thanks for this great comment Rilsta helping to explain how you manage these issues. I think bloggers underestimate their influence. It may be subtle and hard to define or measure, but if you get hundreds of readers a day and you sound honest and sincere, then this suggests to me that many people find what you write to be valuable, and therefore it is likely to be influential.

  3. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for this post. Disclosure, transparency & ethics are particular interests of mine. I will share this post with my students and colleagues too.
    Also, I owe you an email!

  4. Interesting that you mention Menulog. I write on a communal pizza-focussed blog, and menulog recently left us comment offering vouchers for our readers – all we had to do was put a link on our blog to Menulog. They didn’t offer us anything – just wanted free advertising on our blog! We turned them down.

    For us the blog is a hobby, and accepting or soliciting any kind of advertising would be completely forgetting the point of it. However I understand it’s necessary for those who do want to make some money out of their blog, which is fine as long as it’s made obvious.

    • Interesting, thanks for the comment. That’s an underwhelming offer – you advertise something for nothing, and all you get is to offer a voucher for readers. I think bloggers who accept this deal have got nothing to gain and their reputation and independence to lose. The PR goon who came up with this idea should not be rewarded with participation, and I’m glad you rejected what is clearly a bad deal.

  5. I agree with you and Sarah – transparency is key. Readers value honesty and integrity and need to know that there is some authenticity to your blog, rather than just another PR tool.

    I like Not Quite Nigella’s PR page you’ve linked to above and will consider writing something similar, or perhaps a post on ethics. My blog has a business foundation which is supported by a no-advertising stance. I’ll happily support something relevant or worthwhile but have resisted offers for payment for posts. I can’t see that changing.

  6. It’s a very interesting time, isn’t it? A really good post. I got the menulog offer too. They need to smarten up their act if they want to persuade anyone – 10 minutes spent reading the blog they’re targetting would help a lot.

    I live in Canberra, which has a much less active food PR world (they’re all busy with the politics, maybe). However the one PR company list I was on haven’t contacted me since I reviewed their product (Pom juice).

    I don’t have a problem with commercial blogs, but I stopped getting the Gourmet Traveller years ago because of excessive PR event coverage, and find a dozen blogs featuring the same event dull, dull, dull. There’s only so many canape shots a girl can handle in a given time.

  7. The problem is that everybody knows me now. Even if I get someone else to book they know me when I walk in and I sometimes am sent freebies.

    I wonder if this means that I have lost my independence.

  8. or reviewing new dinner companions ;)

  9. Like many of the other bloggers mention here, I received an email from the food delivery place offering a $10 discount to readers who ordered from them. They did not personally offer me anything else.
    I put the details on my website (after checking that the offer was legit). I don’t see why I should say if it is a paid advert or not. I see it purely as something that readers can get – free advertising, if you will.
    Not sure if this makes me a sucker or something, but if you, the reader, can gain from it regardless, why not?

    • It was the advertiser that got the free advertising! You did some work to promote their product or service and got nothing for it. I call that being conned. It does seem that some bloggers have done this for no benefit, but the assumption from the audience is likely to be one based on rational selfishness. In other words, you would not do something like this for nothing, so you must have been paid something, which is not disclosed, which therefore appears to be less than transparent and honest. Ultimately, you could lose readers and reputation because you offered someone you don’t know free advertising.

  10. Good post.

    Something that doesn’t often get mentioned in these discussions is that Google occasionally bans blogs (and their access to Adsense) for paid links. If you’re going to accept these sort of deals from PR agencies in exchange for linking to a site, I’d be adding the rel=”nofollow” tag to all of your links to them just in case Google eventually catches wind of it.

    Or not linking to them at all.

    • This is a good point. From what I have seen, a lot of bloggers, even some of the most experienced and prolific, are mostly ignorant about how the internet works on a technical level. They have great SEO based on longevity of publishing, and don’t realise 1) their SEO could be even better and 2) they could lose what they have by making uninformed choices about advertising and linking. The 10 local news sites for Melbourne I have developed are designed to be ‘white hat‘ ie legitimate SEO as far as Google is concerned.

  11. I was actually thinking about this on the weekend as I saw a couple of posts on a blog which I rather enjoy. It is rather obvious that a few of her posts are advertising and I thought to myself that can I write about nice things about a product when I think it’s crap? Or even write anything other than ‘omg it’s crap’ at all?

    The conclusion is (and this is what I said to my husband) ‘it’s either business or pleasure, you can’t it have both way.’

    I mean I can trash Jacques Reymond if I damned well feel like it (which I did, haha, but now theyve gone and won restaurant of the year innit… that’s my luck – go against the public opinion whenever you can why dont you) but once you have that spotlight on you (and by spotlight, i mean people pay you) and so right now my blog is the hobby that I spend a lot of time and efforts on and I simply can’t imagine giving it up.

    and by giving it up i mean, not being able to write whatever i want to write about. and to be perfectly honest, i cant imagine anyone wanting to pay me enough money for that at the moment*

    * while we’re here, how come noone sends me free vouchers? is it me?

    • I have to agree Kat. Unless it turns into serious dollars, I can only see a lot of compromise for not a lot of financial return. I have no evidence to confirm it but the bloggers that got free vouchers seem to be those running advertisements from the same advertising distributor. I think there is a connection between the blogs, the advertising distributor and the marketing company. So if you’re not running ads then you’re not on the voucher list.

  12. when i first started my blog, i did think about SEO a bit and it has begun to pay off in terms of ranking (from what i see anyway) but really at the end of the day, the best SEO is to make sure you have good, honest content and that’s pretty much what i’ve been doing.

    i did have some sort of business plan for my blog at first but then i kinda realised i like it the way it is – with just me mouthing off about food in general. sure there are a hell lot of things i could do to make it better and edge it towards commercialisation a bit but again it’s business or pleasure.

    i spend about 1/2 hour on it every night and its just one of those things i enjoy doing. id definitely need much more time to spend on it if i were to commercialise it a bit more but i really dont have anymore time to spend on it.

    besides, its a lot of blood sweat and tears getting a sustainable (and we’re not talking hackjobs with intentions to last two months) income from a commercial website without having to resort to all sorts of trickery. to me, either do it right, or not at all. i have done a few pet projects in my time but this is really the first time it turned into something i really enjoyed doing. so im hanging onto that.

    but yes you are right about making uninformed sponsorship choices. it seems like a waste of efforts sometimes.

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