The ethics of sponsored posts and how to deal with them!

This topic has been under discussion in various forums. On one side bloggers look to earn more and more from their blogs, on the other side, a need is felt that bloggers should be more transparent and ethical in their pursuit of money. One particular way of revenue for bloggers is sponsored post and this post tries to share my thoughts on how to bloggers and readers can go about it. Should bloggers not do it at all? Or should there be a disclaimer in every post? How can reader find out if it is a sponsored post and so on…
Fact check 1: You can’t do without sponsored post.
I hope you agree with me on this- else no point reading this post further. For all mediums- be it television, print or online, what end consumers (readers) pay is either zero or pittance. Most of the revenue comes from brands who give advertisements or sponsor the programs. Same for blogs- readers don’t pay and there’re expenses involved in running a blog and getting content for it, hence monetization becomes important. Thus for blogs also revenue from brands usually forms a significant portion. When brands offer to pay, they would want every pound of flesh they can extract. So they need visibility, traffic, ROI etc and can’t be expected NOT to have a say on how the post is drafted and published.

With that set, focus should be on what is the right/ethical way of doing sponsored post.

Many people believe that sponsored post should come with a disclaimer upfront. Few bloggers add a category/tag for such posts for easy identification, while others give subtle hint with lines like “This is done in association with ABC brand” while most bloggers do not give any disclaimer or hint- either because they don’t want to or in most cases, brands insist that there shouldn’t be any such indications.  If you feel that is very bad, consider this- You watch IPL match with several ads within an over- can you ask BCCI “Play your ads before and after the match so that I get an uninterrupted match watching experience?” Newspapers have half their pages filled with ads- can you ask Times of India- put all your news in first 20 pages and the ads in last 20 pages, so that I can throw away the ad portion and read only first 20 pages. The answer would be No. If an ad has to be successful, viewers/readers should view/read it, which is very unlikely to happen voluntarily, so every possible circus needs to be done to force it on them or trick them to read it. Otherwise the whole purpose will fail. Why would brands pay if blogger gives a disclosure in the very beginning because of which 90% of readers will skip right away without even reading first para? This may sound harsh, but this is the truth on every medium, blogging no different.

We are all used to get content for free. There was a Paid Radio station- WorldSpace, which would offer ad-free music. People had to buy a receiver, pay a subscription fee to enjoy ad-free music. But WorldSpace didn’t get much support in India and had to shut shop. We are doing well with free to listen FM stations that play ad between every 2 songs.  Similarly there are magazines which are paid but very few. Trying to convince readers to pay a small amount every month, in exchange for ad-free high quality content is something no blogger seem to have tried so far. As a reader, I am sure most of you would prefer to save those few rupees hence occasional sponsored post shouldn’t bother much.

As a reader, what should you do? How do you protect your time and interests?
I would suggest below guidelines, but feel free to use your discretion and judgment

How to identify sponsored posts? There is no sure shot way if not declared by the blogger, but below indicators usually suggest a very high probability of the topic being a sponsored post.
  • Same topic is being written about my multiple bloggers, with only minor variations within a short span of time (example- during a car launch or phone launch etc brand may pay several bloggers to write about the product)
  •  Posts lacking any personal touch/experience and out of sync with regular topics covered by the blogger
  • Posts that excessively focus on a specific brand and its products/services and attempting hard to push you into buying/registering etc without any mention of possible limitations/drawbacks or comparison with competition etc
  •   Other seemingly commercial contents without any declaration/evidence that blogger has personally tried that product/service/activity
Sponsored posts could be of different types, having different objectives and different kind of impact on readers. Below are the 4 major categorization I could think of.
#
Objective
Details
How to detect
Impact
1
Link building
Brands only need a link or two, usually content doesn’t matter much
Need to scan the article for clickable links, need to check source to see if it is dofollow or nofollow- Usually not worth it, ignore and proceed

Some bloggers allow guest posts (paid/ unpaid) which usually has a hidden agenda of link building.
Google will penalize blogs selling links

No real impact on readers, assuming links are given from an article of same quality/usefulness as rest of the posts
2
Press Release
Standard Press Release issued by brand for publication by media
Usually you will figure out before you finish reading first few paras. Several bloggers writing same/very similar stuff is also a giveaway
Press Releases usually contain only 10% useful information, rest junk data. If blogger is not eliminating useless data and dumping entire PR as is, it is waste of time, nothing else
3
Campaigns
/Contests
To draw more users to sign up for a campaign/ contest etc
Will have a sign up link/widget or participation instructions towards the end
These could be actually good for readers, assuming campaign is interesting and rewards are attractive. Decide if you wish to participate, else ignore.
4
Product/ Service promotions
Will explain why a product/ service is best and more importantly why should you spend your money to buy it.
-Brand and Product names usually appear multiple times throughout

No mention of any drawbacks/ limitations/ possible improvements what so ever
 
Product image/ graphics supplied by brand, not clicked by blogger

Posts usually end with why you should buy one and how
If the product/service is possibly related/useful to you then these are not bad. If totally irrelevant, ignore

If there’re false / misleading info bring it to attention of blogger and see if he/she corrects it.
I am not covering product reviews or FAM trips here- in these scenarios assumption is that blogger gets first-hand experience of the product and then writes his/her fair review. Sponsored posts are usually without much of a personal involvement.

What best to do when you spot a sponsored post as a reader?
  • See if it is possibly relevant/useful to you. In many cases it could be. If not, ignore and move on.
  • See how frequently a blogger is publishing sponsored posts or the % of sponsored posts. If it is low- like say only one or two out of 20-25 posts seem to be sponsored, I suggest you ignore them and move on- just the way you would skip an ad in YouTube or ignore an ad in a newspaper. But if some blogger is doing it repeatedly- say 8 out 10 posts are sponsored and not at all adding value, then it might be best to stop reading such bloggers. While sponsored posts are critical for a blog/blogger’s survival, no sensible blogger would overdo it. If a newspaper is 90% ad, 10% news, no point buying it. But if it has enough good content and some ads, then we learn to live with that, as it is helping newspaper owners to keep the cost of each copy low.
  •  Check if there is any deception in the sponsored posts- if it is only passing some correct information (such as details of a product etc) then it doesn’t do much harm. But if the post is trying to lie or deceive you into doing something you’d never do, then you should be careful (Example: Saying “Here’s a new phone, which has these cool features and seems to be reasonably priced” vs “This is the best phone in the world, better than iPhone, DSLR, music system, X-box and a laptop put together- you should stop whatever you are doing, buy it today itself or else you will lose big time”) While sharing commercial information/promoting a brand is fine, knowingly lying/misleading or tricking the readers is not acceptable.  Bloggers should do some minimum due diligence on the brand/sponsored post to ensure that information is correct to the best of their knowledge.
Of course bloggers need to careful with what kind of sponsored posts they entertain. These days most bloggers and brands/PR agencies take lots of effort to try ensure that sponsored posts are as interesting/useful as possible- but since they always have a commercial motive, there is a limit to how interesting/creative it can be. Anything totally irrelevant to the theme of their blog, anything that misleads/tricks readers, brands/products known to be very unreliable/poor quality etc should be avoided. Include disclaimer where you can/required, if not at least be sure to do some due diligence and ensure you don’t upset your readers beyond recovery. Always give more and more original/interesting/useful content to compensate for occasional commercial content you might be publishing. Never overdo sponsored posts (I guess 10-20% is acceptable, but use your discretion). Also read Prasad's post on how to kill your blog in 10 steps.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic. If you are asking personal questions be sure to use a verifiable identity. I may not respond in public forum to anonymous users asking personal/sensitive questions. Thanks for your understanding.

Disclaimer: Personal opinions only. Not binding on anyone. Please use your discretion.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Shrinidhi,

    I appreciate your effort on this post but I do not agree on the examples that you have mentioned - newspaper ad, FM ad, etc. In newspaper ad, I am assured that the ad is sponsored by the company but if the content of the newspaper itself was sponsored by a company, then I will not rely on that newspaper anymore. The same goes to blogger or YouTuber, if you are recommending a product, then we believe that you have done some analysis and concluded the same. If not, then your trustworthiness might come down over a period of time.

    Of course, your effort and time needs to be compensated, whilst we don't mind ad popping out in your blog here and there but not your content. This is just my opinion.

    Vignesh

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  2. I completely agree with you and your thoughts. As a blogger we have to be more responsible on what we share and how we share. Point noted sir ji ☺

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  3. @Vignesh- Thanks.

    Even in newspapers nothing comes marked as an ad.. it is mixed with the content for maximum reach. By the look of it you will figure out that say bottom half of the page is ad.

    There are many stories where brand pays for an ad and gets additional pages of coverage- like interview with principal or featuring the school etc. In movies often brands are silently featured. Bloggers do some analysis (or must do) before publishing sponsored post and ensure that post content doesn't mislead readers and represents truth. No compromise on that part.

    There're 3 parts in a sponsored post- information (these are the products and its features), recommendation (this is relatively better, worth considering) and call for action (go buy/register etc). Usually first and 3rd part are straight forward- information on its own is harmless as long as it is true, action is obvious and readers are smart enough to decide if they want to buy or not. Second part is where lots of care is needed- both from blogger's perspective and reader's perspective. Bloggers should ensure that their recommendation doesn't mislead readers.

    @Swati- Thanks

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  4. Indeed a thought provoking post and I like the scientific manner in which you explain the concepts and many thanks for mentioning desi Traveler

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  5. Thanks for the supporting words Prasad ji.

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  6. As usual a very interesting post with some analysis and thoughts going in. In my opinion, to be honest to your readers, you should declare it.

    I agree, we bloggers should not overdo it. I write sponsored post only once in 3-4 months.

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  7. @nisha- thanks for your comments. Yes, declaring is the best thing to do, but most of the times brands resist that idea as readers will completely skip the post resulting in very poor ROI.

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Appreciate your efforts and interests to comment. Comments may be moderated due to increased spam. Will ideally respond to comments within few days- Shrinidhi

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