As bloggers have become an increasingly popular target for PRs, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish adverts from content. In the UK, critics accuse bloggers of failing to disclose the true nature of sponsored posts. Is it possible to maintain the character of a reliable blog and turn it into a successful business?
A survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine last year found that 57% of women in the UK turn to fashion blogs for inspiration. The most popular blogs attract many young readers, making them appealing to advertisers and PR professionals. SE Smith, writing in the Guardian, said: ‘When bloggers review items, readers are forced to ask themselves whether the blogger is doing so independently or if compensation is being offered’, highlighting that influential bloggers often means influenced bloggers.
According to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, it must be clearly stated if content is sponsored and paid for by PR or advertising companies. Nik Thakkar, a fashion creative and the writer behind pop couture blog KARL IS MY UNKLE, is one of many bloggers approached by PR professionals every day. As Thakkar works very closely with brands, there are occasions when he has partnered on branded content.
He said: ‘Transparency is key and forms the basis of the story for the post. It is clear what is partner content or something that I have involvement in on a creative level. In the body of the text, I would specify the relationship that I have with the brand so that it is fully transparent as to how each party is being rewarded.’
A Norwegian marketing experiment illustrated how influential bloggers can be when used in promotional campaigns. Fruit brand Chiquita wanted to introduce its new smoothie to the Norwegian market but was faced with limited availability of space in Norwegian grocery stores and a small marketing budget. Four so-called rosabloggere (pink bloggers) were chosen to head the campaign, using the slogan ‘Choose Fruit’.
The rosabloggere, namely girls aged between 13 and 25 blogging about their daily lives and wardrobes, are dominating the Norwegian blogosphere and generating huge incomes from PR and advertising.
In order to take ownership of Chiquita’s campaign, the bloggers were trained to become healthy role models and taught how to answer their readers’ dieting questions. They were also supplied with pictures, videos and a smoothie-related quiz. Despite heavy competition, the national distribution of Chiquita’s smoothie increased by 70%.
Mainstream Norwegian media regularly reports on how the pink bloggers can make up to £70,000 a year from sponsored posts and adverts. Although the exposure of personal income is frowned upon in many countries, it is accepted in Norway, where you can discover how much your neighbour makes and pays in tax every year via a simple Google search. Norway might be a unique example, but it could prove that greater openness helps blog readers understand the proportion of advertisement and PR material that are used in blogs.
UK blogger Ian Brown has never included a paid advertorial on his blog Diary of a Fashion Mister. ‘I think that a lot more goes on behind the scenes than consumers are necessarily aware of. Even if money doesn’t exchange hands, bloggers are courted and gifted generously in exchange for favourable coverage,’ he said.
Although readers are relying on bloggers to provide them with trustworthy information, Smith underlines that bloggers are also people trying to make a living rather than ‘institutions from whom readers expect means of self-support’. So where do you draw the ethical line?
‘I think PR is valid and a great resource for bloggers. Information about the latest launches is essential to keep one’s finger on the pulse of what’s happening,’ Brown said. ‘There is no shame in receiving remuneration for one’s efforts, providing one creates authentic and engaging content that resonates with people.’
The Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman, an independent administrative body appointed by the government, published an online guide for ethical blogging as an attempt to protect readers from being misguided by sponsored content. The Ombudsman has also set an ambitious goal of removing all unmarked sponsored content from newspapers and blogs by the end of 2013.
An official framework guiding UK bloggers on advertising and the use of sponsored content is not currently in place. The Advertising Standards Authority, an official body to which consumers can complain about inappropriate advertising, does not have the legislative power to implement change. As the business of blogging grows, there’s an increasing focus on full disclosure. After all, people deserve to know what they are reading.
This is a guest post by Ingvild Vetrhus. Ingvild is a researcher who works with CisionPoint‘s Danish and Norwegian journalist information.