ChasNote

11 March 2006

Can Authors Acknowledge Advertisers & Still Be Credible?

A VC author Fred Wilson, whose site is a member of FM's network, recently took Sonos onto his site as a sponsor, and then -- gasp! -- he told his readers all about the deal (Fred's post). The sponsorship includes 120x600 ad banners as well as a "sponsored by" wrapper around Fred's "In Heavy Rotation" music list. Full disclosure: As FM's sales guy, I'll get paid commission on the deal.

Pamela Parker, in a story for ClickZ, honed in on the fact that Fred asked Sonos to send him their product to try out, and he promised his readers he'd blog his thoughts after he does. "But what if he finds it crappy?" Parker rightly asks. Since Fred himself accepts (or declines) any prospective ad campaigns before they run on his site, and since his site is so closely aligned with the brand of Fred Wilson, I'm guessing he'd be honest, if polite, and not accept future business from Sonos.

A point that ClickZ did not pick up is that Fred gives away his ad-sales revenue. From Fred's post: "Most of my readers know that I donate all the revenue that this blog generates to non-profit organizations and the money that Sonos pays for this sponsorship will go to FM, who will take their cut, and the balance will go to good causes. I am not doing this for the money." That policy, it would seem, puts Fred in a fairly unimpeachable position with respect to talking openly about advertisers on his site.

But the broader question is still open: Can journalists talk openly about advertisers on their sites without breaching the trust of their readers?

My post congratulating Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin on her transparent review of an advertiser's service (ChasNote 12/14/05) received some spirited feedback. (Thanks for writing, my spirited friends!) It seems to me, though, the answer is yes. If a cable network loses credibility with a viewer, that viewer has hundreds of other choices one thumb-click away; if a website does the same, that site's readers have millions of alternatives, listed one after another on Google results pages. Technorati indexes more than 30,000,000 weblog sites alone. If a site stops delivering on the promise that attracted readers in the first place, it couldn't be easier for those readers to abandon the site. And as reader-authors (them bloggers) and other online publications find less credible content at that site to which to link, the Googlejuice dries up, and it becomes harder for new readers to stumble upon that site. Among those 30,000,000 blogs there are undoubtedly a bunch of bad apples and squirrelly journalists. But all 30,000,000 of them are up against a self-policing system that may, in fact, have more teeth than old-school editorial committees.

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