Marketers Should Be Wary of Forbes' Sponsored Blog Model

PR Society Chairman-CEO Says Communications Transparency Is Productive, but Confusion Sows Distrust

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Gary McCormick
Gary McCormick
The first paid blog that Forbes has started running among its staff's own blogs has set off debates over whether consumers will be able to tell the difference. The paid blog is flagged with a "Forbes AdVoice" label and other indicators; Forbes said last week that the blog is clearly distinguished from editorial. But now the Public Relations Society of America argues that its similarities to Forbes' editorial blogs could do a disservice not just to consumers but perhaps to participating marketers as well.

Recent fracturing and upheaval within the media industry have been a boon in many ways for marketers looking to create new opportunities to expand their brand's reputation within a specific market or audience sector. Unfortunately for consumers and conscientious advertisers and marketers, numerous gray areas of ambiguity and potentially unethical practices lurk within and must be considered.

Forbes' website has taken this evolution to an unfortunately nefarious state with the recent debut of its much-hyped AdVoice paid sponsor blog platform.

Acting as a quasi-advertorial blog residing alongside's journalists and bloggers, AdVoice has elicited howls of concern and derision (rightly so) throughout the publishing community about ethical implications that arise when paid advertiser content is placed within an online format that looks, feels and reads eerily similar to a publication's editorial content.

In the case of AdVoice, Forbes has not gone far enough in clearly making the distinction between sponsored and editorial content. Despite flags aimed at helping readers understand that distinction (e.g., an AdVoice label at the top of each sponsor's blog; a note about connecting marketers with Forbes' audience; a "What's This?" link for more explanation; and a box providing a bio for the marketer, not a Forbes staffer), AdVoice still looks and feels too much like objective editorial content consumers have come to know as free of bias and advertisers' self-motivated interests.

The model represents a disturbing trend in how information in the digital age is produced and presented to consumers.

As the foremost organization representing public relations professionals -- many of whom will be called upon to help write paid posts or advise executives about them -- the Public Relations Society of America, also known as PRSA, has an obligation to ensure that public relations professionals, working on behalf of clients and employers, fully informs the public of any motivations or biases behind the messaging they receive in every medium. Transparent public relations is productive and will continue to advance our profession's value, while public relations practices that might confuse or mislead consumers will sow distrust.

Print editions of magazines have provided sponsored advertiser content for years, but it has traditionally been labeled "Advertising" to delineate it for the reader. That distinction doesn't denigrate the content's value, but clearly outlines the genesis of the material and its potential bias.

We should be as transparent and supportive of readers' rights to know the motivations and biases behind content in the digital world as we are in print.

Before engaging in one of these new sponsored content models, advertising and communications professionals should consider the following:

  • How much involvement will the media outlet's ad team have in helping companies develop and place content?
  • How will the sponsored blog content be differentiated from editorial posts?
  • Where will the sponsored content reside? Will it be completely separate from editorial posts, or like AdVoice content, contain links that direct a reader back to editorial content?

An AdVoice blog from business software marketer SAP is housed within the same layout and design format as standard blog content, even going so far as hosting links directing a reader to Forbes' editorial blogs. For the average reader, this reads like an endorsement from Forbes for one of its advertisers, rather than cleverly devised messaging from a sponsor.

Professional communicators, advertisers and marketers have a responsibility to provide the public with pertinent information regarding the motivations and sponsorship of content they create. PRSA's Code of Ethics states that professionals have the obligation to "reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented," and that, "open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society."

In both regards, AdVoice and many other digital sponsored content platforms fail.

Paid blogging platforms such as AdVoice no doubt present intriguing opportunities for marketers looking to expand their brand's influence and reach in the company of vaunted editorial partners. But the model still has a long way to go in addressing numerous ethical dilemmas before fully delivering on its promise.

Gary McCormick is chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

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