A non-commercial view of a social media “community”


The U.S. Federal Trade Commission enacted new rules, effective yesterday, calling for bloggers to disclose any connection they have to an advertiser, including both sponsored posts and free products received for reviews or endorsements.

So here’s where I stand —  I don’t have ads.  I will not do paid endorsements.  Period.

I have had the opportunity to go the commercial route, and making money is probably the ultimate aim of most (all?) bloggers.  So I thought this would be a good opportunity to open up a little about where I think {grow} is heading and why a commercial stratey is not part of the picture:

  • I have come to really care about the people on {grow}.  It is awkward for me to sell things to my friends.
  • This has not been a blog for a long time.  It’s a community.  This is a place where people don’t just connect to me, they connect to each other.  I don’t want sponsored posts in the middle of that. In fact, where I could have ads at the top of the blog, I have posted your comments!
  • I don’t think I could write what I want to write without having the advertisers in the back of my mind.
  • At this point in my life, it’s more rewarding to create an authentic learning, helping community than to make a few bucks off of it.   Once in a while I sense that this space makes a small difference in somebody.  This is better than money to me.

You’ve heard me say time and again that bottom line, social media is all about the money. In an indirect way it is for me too, so don’t peg me as Mr. Altrusitc quite yet!  A blog helps me enormously as a teaching tool in the classroom and also shows to my business clients that I practice what I preach.  But at its core, I do believe {grow} is destined to be different.

To make this little experiment work, you need to be active — yeah, I’m talking to YOU!

  • Please, please, please jump in. Comment and debate and joke around.  Let everybody know you’re HERE!
  • Reach out to others in the community and help when appropriate.  We’re all in this together.
  • By re-tweeting posts, you’re inviting others in your audience to join the party, which adds to the richness and diversity of the content we’re developing together.  When the community grows, we will all benefit.

So what do you think about this social experiment?  It’s really been taking off, but what can we all do to make it even better? Or, do you think this is just dumb and I should take the money! : )

P.S. The day after the rule took effect, this is how social meda blogger Jason Falls started his post:

As I’ve indicated before, content ranking and analytics service Postrank is a sponsor of Social Media Explorer. One of the benefits of that sponsorship is one post per month about them …

As I’ve said several times, Jason is one of my favorite bloggers but man, that is a gig I would NOT want to maintain!

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  • Mark — Great thoughts, writing and authenticity, as we’re conditioned to expect from you.
    I think your decision not to advertise is the right one for you. I don’t advertise on my blog, either, and don’t think I ever will.
    Here are a few more thoughts on advertising within social media, a post I wrote yesterday in response to Mashable’s “Twitter Ads Are Evil”: http://blog.mixmobi.com
    — Lisa

  • Carla Bobka

    Thanks for your honesty in what Grow stands for, Mark.
    I would argue that many blogs aren’t out to make money-although there is clearly a large contingent that are. Many bloggers started as a way to ne heard. Oppty steps in, combine with unemployment somewhere in your family income stream (or the threat of it) and the option for a new independent revenue stream catches a tailwind.

    Back to the rules. The new rules are reinforcing old ones: truth in advertising.
    Let’s see who else is gutsy enough to put their position on p1, instead of buried in their profile.

  • Mark

    Thanks for the comments, ladies. As far as the goal of many bloggers being “money,” I guess I am projecting my own experience. There is an enormous, frenzied industry built from helping people monetize blogs. As I got into blogging myself, this was quite an amazing insight! For awhile I planned to go this route too — and really could have done it well — but then something happened. I fell in love with my audience. I look forward to seeing you every day. You’ve become my new cyber brothers and sisters. I would feel really cheap dishing out sponsored posts to you guys. There is no way I could write the same way with the impact on advertisers and a goal of driving revenue constantly in the back of my mind. So, I’m less wealthy, but happily liberated!

  • Dan Levine @schoolmarketer

    Mark, I think the path you’ve chosen is a good one. I think whatever works best for each blogger and his or her goals is wonderful. I’m just glad everyone’s required to be authentic and honest from here on out. Sad that it has to be mandated, but that’s business I guess. Here’s hoping folks take it seriously.

  • OK, OK….I’ve been struggling with a response to this for a while now. And, I promise to keep it short!

    Mark, I deeply admire and respect you (as well as the other members of the Grow community). We’ve had this ongoing discussion about advertising, marketing, ROI, authenticity etc, etc for a long time. But, this time I think you’ve really hit it!

    It’s not about advertising!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    It’s about the return you gain from sharing. Whatever that return is doesn’t matter, but we all have one (or more) in mind.

    You are gaining a specific (likely commercial) return as a result of this blog, so are the rest of us. But not through “in your face” promotion and sponsorship.

    Who asked if this is the end of the social media purists?

  • Mark, Steve D stole my post! Just kidding. One of my ongoing concerns about social media is the replacement of professional journalism by blogs. There is an implied (if frequently misguided) sense of independence in journalism that isn’t possible in blogging. So, when a blogger does a sponsored post, this is a realization of bias; how can you be independent if your income relies on being paid by the subject of your post?

    Of course, that exposes in me an unwarranted idealism regarding journalism. And a dim view of anyone’s ability to be objective when the cash starts to flow…

    My own blogging, nascent at this time, is about walking my talk and experiencing the tools and techniques, as well as providing an impetus for me to roll out of bed and do something constructive… 😉

  • Karl

    I still think we are far away from showcasing social media as a new form of communication based on engagement. As much as people would try to “control” it, that is not how it works. Your blog is an example of a great communications tool to teach and provide useful resources. Keep it up. Its the new way of doing things to build your community and then ask your community if they are interested in a resource you created.

  • Mark

    @Steve — I am a poster child for the non-advertising, non-in-your-face benefits of social media. Building meaningful connections with people like you has been a highlight of my year, which will far out-weigh the bucks in the long-term.

    @Sean — blooging vs. journalism — you are opening up a whole new hot button for me. Probably need to do some blogs on it. I actually started as a journalist (on a typewriter!!) and so have a special place in my heart for the sacred importanance of journalism and both the threats and opportunities presented by blogging. I hate when bloggers pretend to be journalists and I hate when bloggers hide from their public responsibilities by saying they are not journalists. Unfortunately it takes SEC laws to address these problems.

    @Karl — thanks for the kind words. Like you, I’m excited by the potential of “engagement communications” and where it will lead for us all.

  • I think what interests me more is how this will effect the big names in blogging, the Robert Scobles and Chris Perillo’s of this world… should make for some interesting reading over the next few months.

    I have to admit that I have many to secure a couple of sources for review copies of DVDs for my humble little blog but I was always clear up front that my reviews woulod be honest even if the DVDs were supplied to me free of charge.

    I would love to have the money to buy all the latest and greatest DVD releases but sadly blogging is my hobby, not my livelihood, and I am not making huge fees for conference speaking off the back of being a blogger. Which is a whole other debate, for all the ethical debates about sponsored posts, some people are making obscene amounts of cash from billing themselves as ‘an expert’ when as we all know the real experts are not blogging, they are doing on a daily basis 🙂

  • I must be the square peg in the community roundup because I’m the one who gets stuck with the cynics conch. Worse than this, I’m the one who has to pay just to be here.

    It’s like I stepped into a Dali painting of melting wallets because I’ve become so accustomed to paying for everything, and to hear that others are “getting paid” to do this stuff is a little much.

    Seriously though, if the only reason why someone would want to talk about you links to some form of kickback, what’s to stop them from answering the call of a competitor? Besides, no one watches ads on television or listens to them on the radio anymore, and I don’t expect that trend to be any different online.

    I’d pay just to not have to see another ad.

    And yes, it is pretty self-evident that I have some spendthrift issues 😉


    P.S. Great stuff Mark!

  • Agree with you entirely on sponsored posts, Mark. Even with required disclosure, “sponsored conversation” simply cannot be authentic — ever. If you take money to write about anything, I won’t read it.

    On the other hand, if I had enough readership or clout to attract $$ from advertisers, I might consider allowing ads in the side panels my site — but those ads would never be allowed to influence content. Similar guidelines served the mainstream media for most of the 20th Century.

    But in the end, the best blogs are like this one. They attract niche audiences of people who care about a topic and like to talk about it. And over time, they build community, and eventually we all meet for a beer.

  • I’m of two minds on the subject. My roots in social media run pretty deeply in the vein of community for community’s sake…and I think that once you start thinking of your blog as a business, or a business asset, it changes fundamentally how you write. And usually, not for the better.

    But then I think back to the first forum that was my training ground in social media and online communities, and I remember it was part of a website designed to promote an author and his books.

    And the community site that I still admin is on Ning, and is supported by ads. No one has ever complained about the banner that sits in the sidebar.

    And I’ve seen some bloggers whose constant hawking of their own consulting services or information products detracts so much more from the experience of reading their blog than a simple 125×125 ad would.

    I respect your decision. But I understand why there is a diversity of opinion on the matter.

  • I guess to each his own. Disappointed to see Professor Sledzik say he’d never read something that was sponsored, but if that’s how he feels, that’s his right. I don’t fault anyone for their opinions on this matter, but I see it as not black or white. You can whore ads all over your site. You can not have them at all. Or you can do what I’m trying to do: Force the advertisers to provide something of value for their opportunity to get in front of my audience other than just an ad.

    Postrank gets the ad in the sidebar on SME. But I’ve asked them to let me show off their technology to provide something useful that my audience might find valuable. This week’s post – Top 25 Environmental Blogs – is a list that many PR folks (read: SME readers) would find extremely valuable. And because it was done with technology that Postrank doesn’t yet have out there, it was exclusive (yay me). Still it shows off their technology and gives people a look at what their tool can provide.

    My only rules for advertisers are that they provide some value to the readers (like data, free tools, research, etc.) that I can share with the audience in the monthly post. AND their tool, solution, product, etc., has to be deemed by me as relevant to my audience.

    This gives my readers information they should find useful or interesting, provides the sponsor with interest and exposure and provides me with a revenue stream for my efforts.

    And if that makes me a bad person, well, I guess I am a bad person. I think it makes me someone pushing advertising to be smarter and more relevant to the audience.

  • Dan Levine @schoolmarketer

    @Jason You’re right, absolutely to each their own. They key for me is transparency and I’m glad for the new regulations. This way we know when someone’s writing from the heart or from his or her wallet. Big difference in how we interpret the post and what we take away from it.

  • To Jason:

    Like Mark, I’m a regular follower of SME and appreciate your contributions to this community — and your tolerance of differing views. This post (from last April) should show that I see both sides of sponsored conversation: http://tr.im/Gx99

    But in the end, I see sponsored posts in the same light as I view advertorial in the mainstream media. Even if the information is objective, the sponsorship leads to the perception it is not.

  • Here, here Bill. Agree with you. Jason, thanks for being transparent. And Mark, thanks for the community space to opine!

  • Mark

    @ Bill meeting for a beer sounds really good right now. Thanks for your words of wisdom too : )

    @Kat Thanks for the balanced perspective. I believe this is the first time you’ve commented here? Thank you for jumping in and making the community so much richer.

  • Mark

    @Jason First, sorry to make you the lightening rod for a general issue (again). I guess that comes with the territory when you have so many fans.

    I don’t buy into this stuff about you taking on advertisers for a higher purpose like “forcing” them to add more value. Your advertisers are your customers. You are not going to force them to do anything. You are there to serve those customers very well and then take their money. There’s nothing wrong with saying that.

    If I had to re-name this blog, I’d call it The Capitalist Pig Dog Blog. I like helping people grow and make money, so I don’t think you need to apologize one bit or explain anything. You’ve built a large and loyal audience and you’re leveraging that for commercial gain. You’ve found a way to monetize your community and feed your family. Excellent.

    But there is a downside that has been articulated by some here. Like Bill, if I see a sponsored post, I read no further. The trust evaporates on the spot. This will be a self-regulating economic force. Sponsored posts will get less attention and community engagement and advertisers will respond by moderating their expectations and probably what they are willing to pay. It’s The American Way.

    Or perhaps you will find the secret sauce to walk this tightrope and make everybody happy. Then, I will just copy whatever you do and claim it was my idea in the first place. : )

    In any event, I still think you’re the man and hope you become a rich man too, my friend. I am so appreciative of you putting it all out there for us and contributing to the community.

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