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  Deconstructing Marqui’s Adverblogging Antics  
Posted 2004-12-10 by Tony Walsh
I'm not saying Marqui, a Canadian firm forking over for paid mentions on certain weblogs, is a big fat liar. I'm not saying adverbloggers working for Marqui are a bunch of two-bit whores. I'm not saying either of those things because they are probably not exactly true. My relationship with you, dear reader, is based on trust and transparency. If other websites were so trustworthy and transparent, the internet would be made of billions of Casper the Friendly Ghosts.

I've been keeping an eye on Marqui recently because... well, frankly the firm's adverblogging scheme simultaneously amuses and irritates me. It amuses me because, despite the thick fog of marketing hype veiling its site, it is nothing more than an inexpertly-executed astroturfing campaign. It irritates me because all bloggers--paid for or not--now have their credibility under the microscope. One bad apple ruining the bunch, and all that.

Today I discovered that the situation is actually worse than I originally thought.

Never having thoroughly scrutinized Marqui's FAQ and Terms and Conditions documents, I took a closer look. I had originally thought that all Marqui is paying bloggers for is a polite mention once weekly as well as related fees for qualified sales leads. It appears that Marqui is, in fact, buying the endorsement of bloggers.

Marqui's Terms and Conditions [Dec. 10, 2004] state:

"...Marqui’s agreement to pay you to blog about Marqui and Marqui's services."

See, I thought a mere mention would be enough. I was wrong. Bloggers must blog about the product. That entails at minimum a purely factual statement of some kind. Which is technically "news." So bloggers are getting paid to make news about Marqui.

"It is our desire that acceptance of this agreement reflects your basic confidence in the product and that it serves as an endorsement on your part of the Marqui product."

Woah. So, bloggers taking Marqui's money agree that they endorse the company's product? Call me crazy, but that sounds like someone's opinion is being bought.

"However, Marqui places no limits on the content of your blog or the wording of the weekly mentions of our company or service offering, other than the limitations stated in this agreement."

Right. So "We don't limit what you can say, except where we limit what you can say." What constitutes a "limitation" is not expressly indicated, although some statements certainly appear to be "suggesting" how a blogger might want to blog about Marqui.

"Marqui will provide artwork to you for the Marqui mark you will display on your site...We reserve the right to send you new artwork or links and you agree to incorporate them in your blog in a timely manner."

Bloggers are obligated to run Marqui-related graphics on their sites. And they are obligated to update them as regularly as Marqui sees fit. Not only does that fly in the face of weekly mentions, it also seems a lot like... oh, I don't know... a banner ad campaign.

"We also will be providing you with standard messages and increasingly useful news and information on Marqui's success stories."

...and? If this officially-sanctioned messaging is optional, the document doesn't explicitly say so.

"We wish to receive feedback based on the traffic we see from your site and to accomplish that we may use special tags that better identify the sources of traffic."

Oh, so they want to track your site visitors, too. You know, like a banner-ad campaign.

"While Marqui wishes to give you the freedom to make any comments, positive or negative about our service, we retain the right to terminate this agreement if you include any material which is pornographic, abusive, hateful, obscene, threatening, or defamatory or which encourages illegal activities or racism or promotes software or services which deliver unsolicited email."

Fair enough. Except that we already know that no comments are allowed that would demonstrate non-confidence in the product. Because that's the basis of this entire agreement (as shown earlier in this entry).

"We look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with you, as well as to reading your blog each day. It is an honor to have your confidence and to help you dedicate more time and energy to your blogging through our sponsorship."

Translation: We'll be checking up on you daily, so you'd better make us some money. Good thing you love us, because we're the ones keeping your career alive.

Marqui's "Blogosphere FAQ" [Dec. 10, 2004] states:

"We're paying bloggers to blog for three months. Period. We hope they'll honor their commitments, because we're going to honor ours."

Actually, Marqui is paying bloggers to blog about Marqui, not simply to "blog." In fact, they have more than one commitment as evidenced above. Period.

"We put no limits on what these paid bloggers can say about Marqui..."

Uhhh... yes you do. Look at your own contract. I have to assume this was a mistake, otherwise this would be an untrue statement. And the relationship here is about trust and transparency.

I could go on, but suffice it to say I find Marqui's framing of its adverblogging scheme to be somewhat disingenuous, if not inaccurate. Cut down to the bone, the program pays bloggers to--at minimum--endorse Marqui and its services, by way of blog postings, and trackable dynamic graphical advertisements. How many bloggers can stand up and shout with unfettered pride "My opinion is for sale!"?

The bloggers in Marqui's pocket, of course. And so begins the further decline of public confidence...
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Comment posted by Mel
December 11, 2004 @ 1:09 pm
Excellent post, Tony. I happen to be a fan of TOS analysis (Orkut and Multiply produced some really fine ones!). I think you've answered a lot of the questions people have about paid blogging by going through the TOS point by point. I'm amazed at how few people read TOS's - or read them carefully. I think a lot of us just get so excited about a new tech that we just want to start using it right away. I'm guilty of that although I would never characterize myself as an early adopter. but this is definitely an early adopter problem to just dive in and start swimming. And this is why you have so many famous early adopters joining these things at the beginning (like Orkut), giving the service/tech cache (in both senses of the word) and inspiring newbies to start using it. Authority/status goes a long way. It's an endorsement. If Joi Ito is doing it then it must be good!!! you know? But there are other reasons they're there - like that they were invited (or possibly paid).

And this brings me to the issue of transparency. This is critical if you want to have any integrity as a blogger. I think politics comes into this as well. If you're a right wing corporate loving bottom liner than getting paid for blogging will appeal to your natural instinct to free market economics. But those of us on the left instinctively (and correctly, IMO) question that motivation. I don't see this paid blogging thing catching on with leftist bloggers. Or if it does I think they will only shill for organizations they passionately support (like A lot of them are already supporting these organizations through ads or banners but NOT being paid. That's an important distinction. Additionally, shilling is different than advocacy. A very big distinction.

Another thing is audience. If I got paid to blog I'd lose my small but dedicated readership. They wouldn't respect what I had to say. So I'm a believer in transparency.

Perhaps you could create a little graphic that says "shill free blog" or something ... put up some code and other blogs could put that up. If other blogs are going to shill then maybe those of us who don't should indicate that we don't. Might even result in more readers (who are looking for blogs that are not commercially motivated)?
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 11, 2004 @ 1:35 pm
I have a love/hate relationship with legalese. It's the strange opinion some people espouse that the language "doesn't really mean that," when it either clearly does, or could easily be interpreted that way. Truly transparent language needs no interpretation. Favourite TOS examinations of my own include Orkut and the empire (now expired).

I'm not enthused by the idea of disclaimers, but thanks to businesses like Marqui, I'm now forced to distinguish myself from paid bloggers. I wonder how many things I will eventually be obligated to disclose. Being a "fan" or even an "evangelist" for an idea, product, individual or entity used to just be part of blogging (just like "zines" were once "FANzines"). I don't think I'll go much further than the mainstream media in terms of disclosure. Stating my political bias, for example, is probably not in the cards. I'm as unbiased as the mainstream media (subtext), and since they have no political leanings, neither do I. We'll see how all of this pans out.

I recently became aware of a weblogger who has put together a "Coalition of Unpaid Bloggers." I'm not crazy about the name nor the graphic badge. I'm not sure I'll be openly advertising my unpaid status, but it's something to think about. I guess I object to having to make the distinction because it almost contributes to calling the integrity of all bloggers further into question.
Comment posted by Eric
December 12, 2004 @ 12:02 am
Tony, the Coalition idea was meant as a device to stimulate discussion about the types of disclosures you mention. I'm sure the final answer(s) will evolve into something much different than this rather crude initial suggestion (although we do have a better graphic now!).

It was inevitable that we'd come to this point, and it's equally inevitable that the blogosphere will figure out a way to deal with it. CUB is simply one of the first shots across the bow.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 12, 2004 @ 11:47 am
Thanks for dropping by, Eric. I am all for discussion about paid blogging, and if the CUB helps lubricate blogger brains, then viva CUB! :) I am wrestling with idea of decentralization as it pertains to concerting a group effort, and whether or not a blogger group effort can be or should be formalized. And of course the focus here (unpaid vs paid blogging) is the reason why orgs like CUB exist-- in my experience with groups, I have found that the focus can sometimes suffer due to the dynamics and processes of operating a group.

I'm happy to see any discussion take place about ethics in blogging, but for me the issues are much more complex than paid vs. unpaid. At this time, I am wrestling more with "how much disclosure is enough?" and I intend on researching existing material on this subject from the world of traditional media (why reinvent the wheel?).

Looking forward to actively participating in this emerging phase of bloggery.
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