On the Federated Media/Microsoft incident

Well, the intertubes are abuzzing this morning about this incident involving Microsoft and Om Malik in particular. The problem being the FM has provided Microsofts ad campaign with some small blog posts by their star bloggers for Microsoft’s People Ready campaign. Check out Valleywag’s initial report and the ensuing hubbub.

Normally, I probably wouldn’t post much about this, but something caught my eye, read Arrington’s response to this. Let me pull a couple quotes:

The ads in question are a staple of FM Publishing – a standard ad unit contains a quote by the publisher saying something about something. It isn’t a direct endorsement. Rather, it’s usually an answer to some lame slogan created by the adveriser.

Let me reiterate. It’s an ad unit. You know what goes on in ad units? Advertising.

I find this part to be the most irritating. You know what generally doesn’t go in ad units? Text that is not an endorsement of the product. If there’s text in an ad unit and it is on topic, generally positive and is a quote by someone respected you know what? All of every single person who reads that ad will assume that it is an endorsement. There’s no one out there who says, “Hmm.. that probably isn’t an endorsement, it’s probably an advertiser neutral beginning of a conversation about whatever this campaign is.”

And being insulting to the advertising in this post doesn’t actually make it any better, if anything it makes it kind of worse. So you’re trying to help out something lame by expressing something positive instead of how you actually feel about it? Great! If Arrington doesn’t understand that, he’s less smart than I thought (and I thought he was very smart) and if he does believe it and posted this post he’s a lot less ethical than I thought (which I actually had no thoughts on till today).

And then I read Neil Chase’s post on it – he’s a VP at Federated Media and he tried to use the blogger/web2.0 card. Wow do I hate that card.

Welcome to the birth of conversational marketing.

It’s making people like you and me, who came from the world of traditional newspapers, have to learn about three-way conversations. We have already witnessed the evolution of the two-way conversation among authors and readers that is replacing old-fashioned one-way journalism. Even our old employers (yours at the Financial Times, mine at The New York Times) are now actively bringing their readers into two-way conversations.

So the next step, naturally, is for marketers to want to join the conversation. It can be done in ethical, responsible ways, and FM’s authors are among the first to figure out how to do it.

Ooooh, right we’re to stuck in our pre-web2.0 ways. I see a three way conversation. Gosh, I was really mired in my old journalism thinking. Wait, what? No, it turns out that maybe there are ways for advertisers to get into the conversational mix. But it turns out that if the publishers (i.e. Om Malik in this case) get their quote (without any caveats) right inside an advertisement, no matter what it links to, that isn’t any kind of new paradigm, that’s good old advertising 1.0. And it’s problematic no matter how you try and address it, that will be read by everyone as an endorsement.

You don’t get a free pass just because technically you didn’t actually say “Microsoft totally kicks butt” in the ad. You don’t get a free pass just because technically the writers did not get paid (they got paid for the fact that their quotes make the ad more successful and Microsoft will continue to advertise, perhaps at an increased CPM). There’s no free blogger pass on this one.

There may be a way to have this three way conversation but it would involve a lot of talk and explaining in some fashion. It would need to clearly state that such a thing was not an endorsement but an advertising extravaganza. I’m sure there’s a way to do all that without it being cheesy, there’s a lot of big brains out there working to figure it out.

At the end of the day, people need to make money and they need to try things to make the online dollars come in. In my opinion, this event was pretty minor and doesn’t actually adversely affect my opinion of the folks involved, I’d seen the campaign before and been mildly annoyed by it, but let it go. My problem really is the outrageous defense of the action. It’s all about this new paradigm where if you’re a blogger these days it seems to come with some kind of crazy hubris, one aspect of said hubris exempts you from any of the standards of ethical journalism that came before.

I’m just saying.

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