In the past I’ve been hesitant on this blog to criticize the actions of other agencies and how they handle blog programs, even egregious examples like fake blogs being setup and other clear violations of the playground rules. It might be out of a sense of decorum – that it’s simply bad form to lay into a rival – or because should I screw up in the future I wouldn’t want to be dragged over the coals by those folks. I’m not sure what the reason is but it’s not something I’ve been anxious to do.
I feel the need, though, to chime in on the current situation involving Edelman and Microsoft. Microsoft, through a program setup and executed by Edelman, sent free Acer Ferrari laptops pre-loaded with the new Vista operating system to various bloggers. While it seems that some bloggers were contacted in advance asking if they were interested in getting the mailing others were surprised to find a laptop on their front porch (scroll down to Update #2 for Scott’s recounting of this). Whatever the case, it does not appear that either Edelman or Microsoft were requiring any positive coverage out of this. Certainly they were hoping for it but there doesnot appear to be any “If you don’t love it we’ll sue you” sort of language in any of the communications I’ve read.
Where we start to get murky is in the fate of the machines. To keep it, return it or do something else seems to have been the dilemma most bloggers were wrestling with and it’s this point that I think caused some of the imagined outrage. The email that Michael Arrington reposted at CrunchNotes makes it clear that what the bloggers did with the laptops was completely up to them to decide. All Microsoft asked was that they be notified of that decision when it was made. I certainly applaud Scott Beale’s decision to auction it off and donate the proceeds to the EFF but am disappointed that the guy was basically pressured by others into feeling bad about getting a gift. Scott did nothing wrong here. He disclosed that he got a machine, where he got it from and certainly didn’t sugarcoat how he’s not usually a Windows guy but thought this was still cool. He was open and honest and got hammered for it.
Some seem to think that it was Microsoft/Edelman’s responsibility to hold a gun to the head of the recipient and force them to disclose everything about how they came to be in possession of a new Vista-loaded laptop but I disagree. Disclosure is always – ALWAYS – in the hands of the media. Some unscrupulous marketers (and I’m not accusing Edelman or Microsoft of this) will always try to buy a good review by wining and dining influencers, reviewers and other opinion makers. It’s the ethical standard of those opinion makers that dictates to what extent they disclose any incentives they might have received.
Since I’ve been at MWW Group I have advised on many occasions that clients send products to bloggers to review, sample or otherwise check out. In fact we’re working on a significant program along these lines right now. Doing so is no different, at a basic level, than handing out free cookies to commuters outside a train station. You’re trying to influence that person’s opinion and, if things go well, they’ll share that opinion with others who will also be moved. This is just bigger because it’s an expensive laptop and not a package of cookies. But it’s the same motivation on the part of the marketer.
There were some mistakes made, or at least some glaring omissions in the planning and follow-up process that I think have contributed to the backlash. First, it’s unclear whether this is coming from Microsoft or Edelman. That’s a problem since, to my mind, there needs to be one person or group handling this. That prevents the confusion that will come from multiple figures thinking they’re in charge, something that can lead to contradictory and confusing messaging. It’s exactly that confusion that likely led to the second problem, which is this email to Marshall Kirkpatrick telling him the best thing he could do would be to return the laptop.
What strikes me most is the deafening silence from Steve Rubel. While I certainly don’t expect Steve to chime in on everything Edelman does, he’s in a unique position to clear up some of the misunderstanding and confusion that’s come up. Instead, he’s declaring this, that or the other thing “dead.” I implore you, Steve, weigh in on this. You’ve shown a willingness in the past to cover Microsoft “as a blogger” so I don’t think it would be out of bounds for you to take an opinion on this simply “as a blogger.”
As I mentioned, MWW Group is working with a client on a similar program in the near future. So, to wrap this up, I’m asking for the community’s input. Right now the program has three major points of initial contact with the bloggers we’re reaching out to: 1) What’s your address, cause X wants to send you something; 2) Here’s what the program is, please opt-in/out and 3) The actual product being mailed. So in these communication points how much do we need to pressure the blogger to disclose what they’re getting and why they got it? Right now there is some basic language there about how there’s no requirement that they blog about any part of this, we just thought they’d be interested and please let us know how it works out. Do we need to go further in the interest of avoiding any appearance of impropriety?
I’m interested to hear what everyone thinks. Feel free to leave a comment, email me at chris-at-mww.com or IM me at mmmthilk. I’d love to put up a follow-up post with everyone’s email or IM reactions but, of course, will be sure to get your permission before doing so.