Honesty in Marketing and Blogging

By , August 1, 2009

Online marketeers should pay attention to two recent legal developments:

  • Earlier, on June 21, 2009, the FTC announced that it will investigate and monitor whether bloggers are improperly publishing comments and reviews without disclosing payments from companies (“FTC plans to monitor blogs for claims, payments“).  This “consumer-protection” effort shows serious misunderstandings about journalism and the First Amendment, but more attention will definitely be focused on deceptive practices.

The issues are not simple, and unfortunately some merchants misunderstand the problem.

First, it’s easy to get caught.  Competitors and citizen-journalists are everywhere, increasingly skeptical of reviews and commentary, and increasingly capable of tracing the origin and authorship of “anonymous” or “pseudonymous” writing.  But this is the “wrong focus” for discussions on this topic, because ethical marketers don’t need to worry about “getting caught,” if they’re doing nothing wrong.

Instead, the “right focus” should always be on proper strategies to serve our clients.

I think I’ve “tuned in” to this issue because for over past decade, I have urged many clients to consider creating or sponsoring “captive affiliate” and/or “stealth affiliate” web sites.  A “captive affiliate” is a web site which provides information or services which are “complementary” to the client’s business, and which are clearly owned or “sponsored by” the client.  A “stealth affiliate” is similar, but the client’s ownership and control of the site iis not disclosed. When I’ve discussed this with clients, I always make clear that a “stealth affiliate” web site can never include “reviews” or “endorsements” of the client’s business, because that would be a deceptive practice.  I won’t work with deceptive or unethical clients.

Usually, the idea for a “captive or stealth affiliate” starts with a statement that starts, “somebody ought to create a web site about….”  Sometimes, there are existing some sites but they are poorly written, or they’re confusing because they’re written for a specific audience.  Sometimes, there simply aren’t any web sites on the subject.

I speak up when the client moves from “somebody ought to …” to “maybe we should ….”  First, I remind the client that the business must not lose focus — if the company plans to sell widgets, it doesn’t really matter that there’s a great opportunity for someone to create a separate web site about “101 uses for a widget” or “understanding the differences between widgets and fromitzes.”  Then, I’ve sometimes suggested the option of creating or commissioning a separate web site to meet the need that the client has identified. (I usually also suggest a third option: encouraging someone else (perhaps an existing affiliate) to create the web site.)

But I strongly emphasize that neither a “captive” nor a “stealth affiliate” should ever include a review or endorsement.  A “captive affiliate” (with the sponsorship disclosed) might contain language and images which favor or support the client’s mission and business, but a “stealth affliate” would always need to be scrupulously neutral and objective.

Some of my clients have created “captive affiliate sites.” Sometimes, the ownership is clearly visible on every pagel; on a few sites, the ownership is “not prominent, but adequately disclosed.”  I actually don’t believe that any of my clients has ever created a “stealth affiliate site.”

This summer’s developments have let me to reconsider the concept of a “stealth affiliate,” in part because of the risk of “over-reaction.”  But I probably should have abandoned this advice several years ago, after I realized that most of the stealth affiliate sites that I encountererd “in the wild” were deceptive.  Over the past decade, I’ve discovered dozens of “stealth affiliate” sites — where the ownership or control is concealed, but I become suspicious because of biased language or factually-unsupported endorsements, leading me to do some research and eventually uncover the site’s true ownership.  I’ve discovered only a few legitimate stealth affiliate sites (although by definition, a legitimate stealth affiliate site should not trigger my suspicions).

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