The blog world isn't fair. While bloggers have a wonderful way of ferreting out the truth when someone's being less than honest, they also have a way of occasionally placing blame where blame doesn't belong. Case in point? This week's fuss over Microsoft and Edelman, their public relations firm. What did these two companies do to earn the disdain of bloggers? (Ok, Microsoft already had it...but I'm talking about with this specific incident.) Amazingly, they did nothing wrong at all, other than perhaps failing to exercise a little common sense.

See, Microsoft, like many companies, has realized that popular bloggers are a great resource for spreading the word about your products. With that in mind, they teamed with Edelman to put together a list of top tech bloggers. They then sent those tech bloggers a top of the line Acer laptop (valued at around $2000) preloaded with Windows Vista. Obviously, Microsoft was hoping that the bloggers would use the system for awhile and then write up a review of the new Windows OS. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fact, it's a technique that I encourage companies to use for promoting their products.

So where did they go wrong? Well, apparently they did not require full disclosure from the bloggers. As a blogger that does write reviews (both here on Search Engine Guide and on my parenting blog, The Lactivist) I make it a point to always disclose whether I'm reviewing a product that I've purchased or one that has been sent to me by a company requesting a review. With that in mind, few companies have ever sent me a product (even a high end one) and stated that I MUST disclose the "gift" as part of my review. I imagine most of them don't even think about it.

Here's why it's an issue.

Brandon LeBlanc, one of the bloggers that Microsoft sent the laptop to wrote in his review that he had "traded in" his old computer for the new laptop. That's not exactly an accurate statement, now is it? Since some of the other bloggers DID disclose the source of the laptop, it didn't take long for readers to figure out what was going on.

The backlash was swift. Readers and other bloggers cried foul and claimed that Microsoft was trying to bribe bloggers into earning good reviews. One of LeBlanc's readers commented that "...unannounced, secret gifts look an awful lot like bribes."

To his credit, LeBlanc quickly owned up to the semantic error and apologized to his readers:

I intended to fully disclose where this laptop came from and its purpose in a upcoming post which was going to discuss the laptop in greater detail after a few days use. Also, being that it was Christmas, I was a bit swamped. As readers have pointed out, I should have disclosed where it came from the very second I posted about it and for that I apologized. Perhaps I was a little too excited. I take full responsibility for this mistake.

Despite the apology, LeBlanc, and Microsoft have been lambasted for the free laptops. Unfortunately, many bloggers and blog readers seem to believe that ANY product sent for free, even if for review purposes is nothing more than a bribe. (Makes you wonder if they think Tech TV, CNet and other well known review sites purchase every product that they review.) While the real issue here should be the "white lie" told by the blogger when he originally mentioned the laptop, it has instead become a raving commentary about bloggers' beliefs that a company they hate anyway is trying to pull a fast one.

Too bad for Microsoft. Is it fair that Microsoft is taking the blame for what someone else did? Not really. Could they have avoided this problem by requiring full disclosure when a blogger mentioned the laptop? Perhaps. Unfortunately some companies aren't going to be able to win no matter what they do. That said, companies that already have somewhat compromised public images probably need to be extra careful when it comes to passing out freebies.

So what do you need to learn from this example? A couple of things.

1.) Know your audience. Who are you trying to reach when you send out products for reviews? Are you going after an audience known for being skeptical and ultra-critical? Or are you aiming for an audience that doesn't even think twice about the source of the product? Microsoft, knowing how they are perceived in the industry, could have simply offered up a limited trial of Windows Vista, one that would expire in 30 days or 60 days or whatever. Basically, they could have sent something that would allow the review to happen, but that would have no monetary value. Or, they could have sent the system that they did and simply required that the entire system be returned by a certain date. By considering your audience and how your actions might be perceived, you can plan a campaign that has less chance of resulting in ill-will from bloggers.

2.) Require full disclosure. While it's been my experience that very few companies do this, there's something to be said for requiring full disclosure from a blogger before sending a product for review. This holds true whether you are sending a low-ticket item or a high ticket item. It's always a good idea to make sure that the people reviewing your product are up front and honest about where it came from.

3.) Know the blog. This is an essential one that I often talk about in my viral marketing sessions. Some bloggers scoff at ALL product freebies, whether you've required full disclosure or product returns. Basically, there are bloggers out there that will view any product as an attempt to "buy" their positive review and that will publicly lambaste you for even trying to get them to review your product. That's why it's a good idea to spend some time reading a blog before you approach them about reviewing your product. Search their archives to see if they've done any other product reviews. Get an idea of their general personality and posting style. Read through the comments section to see what the general tone of their reader responses are. Yes, it takes time, a little time is worth it if it helps you avoid the negative publicity that can come from a single critical blog post.

The blog world is a complicated one. Bloggers walk the line between being your neighbor next door that knows a lot about a topic and being real journalists that are required to adhere to journalistic integrity despite having never taken a class on the subject. That's why as much as it's a good idea to start diving into the blog world to promote your business, it's also a good idea to move slowly and cautiously until you gain some experience interacting with bloggers.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

January 3, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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