In the murky annals of “advertorial” — the blurring of clear lines between independent editorial matter and advertising — the dustup over Federated Media’s campaign on behalf of Microsoft’s “People Ready” slogan will rank as a minor affair. But it’s a useful flashpoint for looking at a central divergence in perspectives on blogging.
Federated Media, John Battelle’s ad network for high-traffic blogs, gathered a constellation of star tech-and-biz pundits who are part of its network, got them to offer comments on the theme of Microsoft’s campaign, and assembled those quotes on a Web site. Valleywag cried foul. FM refers to the technique as a “conversational marketing campaign”; the approach is really the Web equivalent of a magazine advertorial. Advertorials — including advertorials that involve a publication’s editorial staff — have been around a long time, and while they can be abused, they are hardly cause for deep moral indignation, as long as they are clearly labeled (FM’s is) and not trying to confuse readers.
On the other hand, if you run advertorials, I think you make it much harder to present yourself as the leader of any kind of business revolution. When advertisers ask for an advertorial, they typically want to confuse readers; they’re admitting that traditional ads aren’t working for them, and they’re asking for the editors or bloggers to lend an ad a bit of the content producers’ credibility — or at least ability to attract readers’ attention. This is fundamentally an old-media game.
FM and others working at the edge of new-media business models argue that they’re helping advertisers and marketers “join a conversation.” Maybe so. But the best conversations aren’t plotted by ad buyers; they’re spontaneous.
Ironically, of course, it’s the conversation about this ad campaign (Mike Arrington defends the ad, Om Malik retreats from it, Dave Winer says the bloggers may be “clouding their integrity”) that is attracting multiple posts –including, yeah, this one — and landing the controversy at the top of sites like Techmeme. So maybe FM and Microsoft knew exactly what they were doing. Maybe Nick Denton and Valleywag are in on the deal, too! (No, no, of course not: joke.)
What I find interesting in this debate is that there remains, nearly a decade into the history of blogging, a philosophical divide: Some see blogging as simply a young format for media business — and, like Federated Media or Valleywag’s owner Gawker Media, building ad-based publications on blogging platforms. Others stubbornly continue to see blogging as a uniquely new creative endeavor that puts bloggers in direct touch with readers, cutting out media-biz middle-manning. Anyone in the latter camp is going to squawk at the arrival of the blog-advertorial — not only because it’s corrupt to them, but because it’s old hat.
The people at Federated Media are smart, and I’ll give them credit for trying out new ad approaches in a not-obviously-corrupt way. If this one doesn’t work, I’m sure they’ll keep trying. But I’m skeptical of the introduction of what are, essentially, magazine-biz norms into the blogosphere. Because eventually that road ends with blogs becoming independent online magazines, and I’ve been at that game long enough to know how hard it is.
UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis — whose blog is repped by Federated Media — weighs in at length, concluding:
It’s the bloggers who must make these calls. That’s because advertisers will be advertisers; they will try to push for more integration with us (and we should beware taking that as flattery). And sales people will be sales people; they will try hard to get the sale. So we bloggers are left, inevitably, with the need to say no.
[tags]federated media, advertorial, microsoft, people powered, blogging[/tags]
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