The Balance between Money and Credibility

“I love YOU, but I really hate your URL shortener. It makes me feel dirty—and not in a good way.”

The comment came via Twitter direct message from Adele McAlear in reference to Adjix, the URL shortener I use to fit long URLs into Twitter’s notoriously concise 140 character-long messages.

Adjix is an ad network that pays you to shorten links, which is essentially “a cross between Tinyurl and Google Adwords.” When a reader clicks on an Adjix-shortened link, they are redirected to the URL you input, with an Adjix-generated ad at the top of the page (example). People who use this shortener earn $0.10 per 1,000 unique link views and $0.20 for each click-through on an ad displayed with their link.

Since I started using Adjix in August of this year, I’ve posted 90 links and made $0.70. It’s been a fun experiment for me, both in terms of tracking click-throughs, which the service does for you, and in terms of learning how to generate some extra cash on Twitter. Its main appeal for me is that I don’t have to pimp anything I wouldn’t normally put out there, I’m essentially getting something back for doing what I usually do: sharing interesting things.

What I never considered is how my followers on Twitter felt about this.

A BLOGGER’S GOTTA EAT!

Blogging can be one of the most thankless things to which a person can devote himself. Whether you’re chronicling your adventures or imparting information within your industry, you’re a person who has to eat and pay bills.

As someone who loves what I read on your blog, I feel it’s my moral obligation to support you. If that means taking 2.5 seconds to scan the ads on your blog after reading your post and commenting, I’ll do it. And I’ll click, too, if something catches my eye. It’s how I say “thank you.”

I didn’t think finding creative ways to make money blogging was a revolutionary concept until this weekend when my stream on Twitter exploded with a controversy over a sponsored post by Chris Brogan, the respected social media adviser.

FULL DISCLOSURE

Brogan writes about how businesses and bloggers can forge strong ties by creating valuable content on social networks. He’s basically the go-to guy when it comes to anything relating to new media.

He’s also on the advisory board for IZEA, a company in next-generation marketing. Per the IZEA blog, bloggers that sign on with IZEA do not receive payment, but they do have options in the company.

Working through IZEA for Kmart, Brogan received a $500 gift card to shop ’til he dropped and blog all about it, as well as another $500 gift card to offer readers who participated in a contest at Dad-o-Matic, where this sponsored post appeared.

Writing for IZEA requires disclosure, meaning that bloggers who are pimping a brand for them have to say up front that they got something out of the deal. Brogan’s piece at Dad-o-Matic (titled, “Sponsored Post-Kmart Holiday Shopping Dad Style”) opened with the following statement: “This post is a sponsored post on behalf of Kmart via Izea. The opinions are mine.”

Simple enough, right? Wrong.

LET THEM EAT CHEESECAKE!

“Bloggers should be able to make money and find synchronous opportunities that work for them. What was off-putting is that Chris benefits by writing an overall favorable review and a prominent one at that,” Damien Basile wrote in response to a post by Geoff Livingston, CEO of Livingston Communications, which puts out The Buzz Bin, a blog about marketing, buzz and PR.

Basile has long respected Brogan’s work and position in the industry, but he had beef with how Brogan handled his part for the Kmart campaign and was very vocal about it. I chased him down earlier tonight to get a handle on why he’d become such an active detractor.

“It was never about how much he profits,” Basile told me on Gtalk. “What is up for discussion is the perception that he may be in a position of conflict and that is enough for me to question it.”

Basile doesn’t feel Brogan’s initial disclosure is sufficient. He thinks Brogan’s ties to IZEA should have been mentioned right on that post, in the event readers did not know he was on their blogger advisory board and held options with IZEA.

“Maybe it was a misnomer to call him a journalist,” Basile reflected. “I do recant that later, but my point was bringing up integrity. Integrity is for everyone. Just because we’re in new media doesn’t mean there are new standards. Truth is truth. Everyone deserves to know the full truth.”

I’m with Livingston and Brogan in disagreeing with Basile that a blogger is a journalist. We could learn a thing or two from them, yes. I’m not a reporter any longer, but I have the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics up on my wall and it’s never too far out of mind when I blog: 1. Seek the truth and report it, 2. Minimize harm, 3. Act independently, 4. Be accountable.

A blogger may employ these tenets, but a blogger is not a journalist. Journalists have fact-checkers, ombudsmen, editors and publishers, those mighty gatekeepers of information. Journalists are expected to be unbiased. Perhaps most importantly, newsrooms and advertising departments are separated.

A blogger, on the other hand, is often a one-man show. I write the content for my blog, I fact-check, I edit, I publish. You know that saying: a writer who edits her own work has a fool for an editor. Quite right.

That’s not to say a blogger has no responsibility. A blogger has a big responsibility to his community: to provide valuable, quality content.

“How do you think Brogan should have done it?” I asked Basile. “Put up front: ‘Chris Brogan is a member of the IZEA advisory board and has options in IZEA’?”

“The word ‘via’ is very vague,” Basile responded. “It just tells me ‘its way of’ and the link to IZEA was to their main site [as opposed to information about Brogan’s association with the company].”

“How should it have been phrased?” I asked again.

Because this isn’t really about Chris Brogan or IZEA, you see, and to zero-in on that would be to make this a witch-hunt and what have witch-hunts ever gotten us? Nothing. No, this is bigger than that. This is the internet doing what it does best: self-correcting. Let’s not tear down, let’s build. Don’t like how someone does something? Tell me how to do it better.

Finally, Basile replied: “‘This post is sponsored by Kmart for IZEA. I am on the board of IZEA and receive equity options for being on it.’”

There is a valuable lesson here and it goes further than well-worded disclosures, debates about what makes one a journalist, or whether money invariably destroys a blogger’s credibility. As I said before, a blogger has a responsibility to his community. Mob mentality or not, I’m ultimately in accord with Basile: it’s about perception. The perception of your readers matters.

It doesn’t matter if your community thinks you did one thing when you really did another. It’s folly to stand by and call them stupid. They might be stupid, but perception is reality.

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

We should care because social media is about community. Brogan addressed several of the issues raised by his post in comments on blogs as well as in his own blog. That goes a long way.

It may not be enough for others who are disillusioned by the fact he is working with IZEA, but it’s responsible and in the end, all you can do is listen, address concerns as you best can and learn from the experience.

I CAN SEE RIGHT THROUGH YOU

Darren Rowse, my one-man resource when it comes to making money blogging had a series a couple of years ago about credibility and blogging. His series closed with transparency:

I don’t mind bloggers getting something for themselves out of blogging but what does bother me is when I see bloggers attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of their readers by not being honest about their true motivations. Credibility comes when people trust that what you are saying is truth and when there is a lack of truth the consequences for a blogger can be significant.

Transparency also comes into play when you make a mistake or need to apologize for something you’ve done or written. The way bloggers admit to mistakes and rectify them says a lot about their character.

In taking on Adjix, I was experimenting. But I never disclosed the details of my experiment. In fact, very little on my blog speaks about what I’m doing here and why. This needs immediate rectification, which I vow to undertake.

For now, the short of it is: I make some money via another experiment, this one with Google Adwords, but outside of that, no one pays me for any content, including the features. However, my blog does serve me indirectly in that through it I have landed gigs contributing to other web publications and ghost-blogging.

HOW MUCH IS INTEGRITY WORTH?

I found myself asking this question earlier this evening as I chatted with Adele McAlear, head of McAlear Marketing, who’d first objected to my use of Adjix.

“My real problem is not that I have to look at a banner or text ad, or that you’re making money from it,” McAlear told me over Gtalk. “It’s that the URL doesn’t show the true URL of the page you’ve sent me to and this makes linking a pain. It makes me not want to link to you at all, or re-tweet, etc.”

This was a definite downside to the use of Adjix, as retweets are the currency of Twitter. I explained to McAlear that in the Adjix banners, there’s an arrow on the far right that you can click to reveal the true URL.

“I didn’t know that about the arrow,” McAlear told me. “I don’t click on anything that looks like an ad because I never know what I’ll get and where I’m going to be taken.”

Coming from a web-savvy woman, that said a lot. How many other readers didn’t know how to get rid of the banner? Was I short-changing myself for the promise of a quick dime?

“Aside from linking, there’s perception,” McAlear went on. “I think you are a great writer, you have a great handle on social media, marketing, and how all of this works but, yet, this type of URL shortener reminds me of spam. To me, it kind of cheapens your personal brand.”

There it was. She’d said the key word: perception.

“It comes down to balance,” she said. “What your readers and followers on Twitter expect versus what Adjix gives you. I have no issues with anyone making money but there are different ways to do it.”

Integrity versus $0.70. Sure, I could make more if I devoted myself to better employing Adjix. But is it worth it?

Do you make money blogging? Is a disclosure enough to keep yourself from losing credibility? Have you ever unsubscribed from someone’s blogs because they wrote a sponsored post? Your opinion matters whether you’re a webcock or just a reader. We’re all the web. Tell me how you really feel.

UPDATE

December 16, 2007, 5:28PM: In an excellent display of what tuning in to user perspective is all about, Joe Moreno, President of Adjix contacted Adele McAlear after reading this post to let her know that based on her feedback, Adjix has changed the arrow on banners to a simple hyperlink that says, “Remove ad.”

Kudos, Adjix. This is what the web is all about.

Of possible interest:

12.16.08 • posted in: blogging for pay