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Time for blogosphere to get real about church and state

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the fuzzy acceptance of "conversational marketing" is leading to confusion among blog readers. Isn't it time to set down clear rules of the road?

As they are wont to say back where I grew up, Chas Edwards is a stand-up guy. Full disclosure: Chas is a former CNET colleague who left the company more than a year ago to become the publisher of Federated Media, which has become ground zero in the storm over "conversational media."

So it is that Chas has now published his thoughts on the affair under the heading "Does relevant advertising mean selling out?"

But first a brief recap: On Friday, Valleywag reported about a site tied to a Microsoft ad campaign where several online publishers and venture capitalists lent their support to Microsoft's "People-Ready" advertising slogan.

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Church and state
Should bloggers adhere to a strict line between advertising and editorial?

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That triggered an outpouring of conflicting opinions in the blogosphere. . In a similar vein, Jeff Jarvis had it right when he headlined his comment on the situation "Buying their voices."

"So ultimately, this is a cautionary tale for all bloggers who take ads: You must set your own boundaries and not let them be pushed. When you do--whatever those boundaries are--that is the very definition of selling out."

I think Jarvis' is a cogent summary of the problem. It won't make a difference whether we're talking about "new media" or "old media." Without boundaries, there's going to be trouble in River City.

Uber-blogger Robert Scoble didn't agree and asked why it's OK for Leo LaPorte to endorse products for radio commercials but not Michael Arrington. Leo responded shortly thereafter, saying he wasn't crazy about doing ads on radio.

"First, I only do ads for products I myself use and recommend. I'm pretty picky and reject many sponsors for that reason. My recommendations are sincere. Second, radio is a medium where hosts have always done endorsement spots going back to Arthur Godfrey and Paul Harvey (in the U.S. anyway). It's a significant form of income for radio announcers. If I weren't to do them, radio wouldn't pay well enough for me to do it. I consider podcasting a similar medium. I don't do ads of any kind on TV or any other medium because it's not as much a part of the culture."

True to form, the ever-lovable Arrington told his critics to go "pound sand" and for good measure called me an idiot. The guy was truthful about at least one thing: he is out to make a buck. And if you can't understand the difference between advertisement and editorial, then you must be in cahoots with those meanies at Valleywag.

But Om Malik had a more nuanced appreciation of the imbroglio and suspended GigaOm's participation in the campaign.

"Would I participate in a similar campaign again? Nothing is worth gambling the readers' trust. Conversational marketing is a developing format, and clearly the rules are not fully defined. If the readers feel a line was crossed, I will defer to their better judgment."

Now back to Chas Edwards. He makes a very interesting point about the early days of tech magazines and how readers reported spending as much time with the ads as they did the editorial content.

"And that's not because IT professionals are so dumb they can't tell the difference (please!)--it's because ads that work hard to join the conversation, to be relevant to participants in that conversation, are more valuable than generic ads that attempt to interrupt the conversation and steal your attention for half a minute."

At the risk of showing my age, I recall that era very clearly. At the time, I was working at Ziff-Davis, which then was the world's preeminent publisher of technology titles. But the company's success wasn't predicated upon promoting advertising as part of a "conversation" with readers. The big secret is that Ziff-Davis sold black boxes.

Black boxes?

That's right. Picture a diagram with one box labeled "editorial" on one side and another box labeled "advertising" on the other. In the middle, was a third box--a black one--labeled "reader/customer". The assumption was that the double attraction of first-class edit complemented by first-class advertising would naturally carry the day. And it did--at least until the Internet happened. But there were very clear lines of demarcation between editorial and advertising.

That's not at all clear from the Federated Media site, which offered bromides on how respective authors summoned their "people readiness."

Again, Chas:

"Did readers get confused by what they were looking at in those ad banners? Well, Cisco did something similar last fall, around their "Welcome to the Human Network" campaign. A dozen leading tech and business journalists affiliated with FM wrote their own definitions of "human network" that they let Cisco use in ad banners on their sites."

The danger, as my colleague over at ZDNet, Dan Farber accurately notes, is that this is a very slippery slope. We can choose to talk around the core question and pretend the church-state division doesn't really matter as much in the age of new media.

Arrington doesn't agree there was problem and maintains the entire controversy was manufactured by Valleywag.

"The main thing I'm pissed off about right now is that they pulled all the ads, which mean we're taking a revenue hit. We're running a business here, and have payroll to make. We run ads to make that payroll. Those ads have now been pulled."

There will be other ads, Miguelito. But the blogosphere still needs to resolve the unanswered questions raised by the flare-up surrounding conversational media. Full disclosure of editorial advertising policies are minimum requirements for any site pretending to be serving its users. There's been a lot of noise since the start of the weekend, but I'm not sure we're any closer to agreeing on the answer.