As with all A-list controversies, the vitriol surrounding a Microsoft sponsorship of several Federated Media tech bloggers over the past three days is a bit irritating and overblown. But it’s also totally fascinating, and an important one for marketers to watch. That’s because the entity that’s incurred the most damage here is not Mike Arrington, Nick Denton, Om Malik or John Battelle, but Microsoft, which had sought to affiliate its “People Ready” tagline with influential tech writers and wound up the object of derision in the comments sections of TechCrunch and other sites across the FM network.
Background for the uninitiated: Before the mess, FM implemented a campaign for Microsoft that involved the creation of ad units and a microsite where FM bloggers weighed with their thoughts on “people ready,” Redmond’s primary ad slogan for its business products since last year. The campaign fell into FM’s “conversational marketing” bucket, touted by John Battelle since he founded the company. In form and execution, it closely resembled sponsorships FM had already created for Cisco and Hakia. (I wrote about the Cisco effort in the background to this story.)
John Battelle nemesis and “conversational” curmudgeon Nick Denton was the first to cry foul on ValleyWag, calling FM and its bloggers so many shills for Microsoft, and the fiasco spiraled quickly. Everyone’s weighed in. CNET picked up on it, and Mike Arrington promptly attacked CNET. Om Malik, an FM author, issued a rapid mea culpa. Jeff Jarvis damned the enterprise. Fred Wilson came to its defense and called Nick Denton “old school.” The inevitable satirical site appeared. And on and on. Finally John Battelle tried to put an end to the crisis (and it is a crisis for FM, which stands to alienate Microsoft and its network sites) by urging FM bloggers to more strictly disclose their affiliations with such campaigns. That outraged Mike Arrington all the more, who lashed out at everyone involved and suggested he wants new ad representation. Arrington questioned why anyone ought to disclose that content appearing inside an ad is sponsored content.
The disclosure discussion really was a red herring in the whole debate, but that doesn’t make Arrington correct. The real question is whether it’s alright for a journo-blogger like Mike Arrington to endorse a company or slogan by contributing statements directly to an online campaign and accepting payments for those statements. I’m no digital media ethicist and so wouldn’t venture an absolute judgment on People-Ready-gate. But speaking only as a reporter for ClickZ, I’d be very uncomfortable writing copy for an advertiser as part of a campaign scheduled to appear on our site. Standards for bloggers may be totally different, but it seems likely to me the tech writers in FM’s network share my concern about maintaining objectivity and the perception thereof on their sites.
Right or wrong from a blogger ethics point of view, the risk to advertisers is clear should audiences reject experimental conversational strategies. Things can get negative very fast. In the case of this Microsoft campaign, many bloggers and commenters appear to feel that what FM and Microsoft were engaging in was not innovative marketing, but an advertorial in disguise.