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Do Malaysian bloggers think that blog advertorials need to be disclosed?

The recent plan by the American Federal Trade Commission to "Fine Bloggers up to $11,000 for Not Disclosing Payments" has got people talking about the ethical and legal aspects of paying bloggers for content, and apparently "Singapore's Media Development Authority is considering mirroring the U.S. government's new tough stance". There has been discussion on the NPR program 'On Point with Tom Ashbrook' (podcast here), a blog post by Dave Gilmor - A Dangerous Federal Intervention in Social Media; and in Malaysia it was discussed on the Digital Edge Podcast, a Twtpoll by @blogjunkie, and various tweets by various people (please tell me about more if you know of any, thanks).

It's important to distinguish between paid advertorials, and reviews of products or reports of events. For the former, the client vets and approves the final content, and only pays if they are happy with it. For the latter, a blogger may be given a product, or invited to an event, and it's up to the blogger to write what they want, if anything. Of course, most people tend to feel more favourably disposed towards someone who gave them something - but my research suggests that if a blogger does not like a product or event, they are more likely to just not blog about it, rather than blog something bad about it.

It can be a very cheap and effective strategy for a company: for the cost of a freebie, or by including a few bloggers into a product launch party, they might get some exposure to a few thousand, or maybe even tens of thousands, loyal readers who value and trust the bloggers' opinion. Particularly when this audience is typically less likely to read a newspaper, watch television, and so on. Even advertorials, which can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand (I estimate), are much cheaper than - for example - a full page newspaper ad (average cost, RM10K?), and the post will stay online too, rather than ending up in a recycle bin (hopefully).

My research so far has indicated to me that some advertisers explicitly require bloggers not to disclose that the post is paid for, but these seem to be a smaller minority. Most bloggers do disclose in some manner: some in a very obvious way - in the title or at the head of the post - and most in a more subtle way, giving the post a tag such as 'advertorial', 'pocket money', or something like that. Other bloggers say that they do not need to disclose, as their readers will know when they are doing an advertorial anyway.

In the myBlogS 2009 survey, I asked questions about disclosure, and the commercialisation of blogs. Here are some of the results.

The charts compare the responses by Bloggers (in pink; n = 356) and Readers (in green; n = 197); as well as the Monetisers - i.e. bloggers who try to make money from their blog (in orange, n=183) and the Non-Monetisers (in blue, n=173). If you see more on the right side, it means more agreed with the statement, and disagreements show up on the left; a peak in the middle means more were 'Neutral'. The more of a difference in their attitudes, the more of one colour you can see. You should also be aware that these graphs are not always directly comparable - because the scale on the y-axis changes sometimes.

There was a “Not applicable to me" option too: rather than including these responses in the graph, I've put them on the side in order to let the graphs show the trend of those who did address the question. Most of the time, the amount is only one or two percent. It's impossible to know why, when asked an opinion, people answer “Not applicable to me" - it suggests that either they don't understand the question, that it doesn't address their experience, or maybe that they have no opinion.

malaysian blog survey attitudes disclosure
Here we can clearly see that most think that advertorials should be disclosed. The “Not applicable to me" answer was 4.4% for the Monetisers, and 10.4% for the Non-Monetisers (for some reason I couldn't get it on the picture). The high number for the Non-Monetisers suggests that some read the question as referring to them, rather than being a general opinion.

But anyway, there is a clear preference for disclosure; though there are more than a quarter who are neutral, suggesting that they believe it's up to the blogger to decide. The Monetisers are (unsurprisingly) the most likely to sit on the fence on this one.

What may be the impact of bloggers doing too many advertorials?
malaysian blog survey attitudes commercialisation
There is a tendency for bloggers and readers to think that blogs are too commercialised, but the readers seem to be less worried about it than the bloggers - this may reflect the fact that bloggers may have been around longer, and thus seen more changes. Both Monetisers and Non-Monetisers see the commercialisation as excessive, the the Non-Monetisers feel more strongly about it.

malaysian blog survey attitudes commercialisation
They may even stop reading particular blogs. But the results are not clear-cut here - there are a large amount who answered “Not applicable to me" - especially amongst the readers.

My guess is that they don't see it as an issue because they do not see the commercialised aspect as a deciding factor, but instead look to other qualities of the blog when deciding to continue to read it or not. For example, they will keep reading an interesting commercialised blog, as compared to a boring but non-commercialised one.

"Too commercialised" is clearly a subjective position - one person's excessive commercialisation is another's acceptable amount. Whatever the degree of perceived commercialisation, the answers suggest a common perception of something that corresponds to a preferred 'ideal blog'. The following question gives some insight into that:

malaysian blog survey attitudes blog motivation commercialisation
These suggest that readers and bloggers perceive the intention behind the blog to be important.

This reveals an important point about blogs, as compared to other media: it would be surprising if people were to - for example - say that a television channel should not be founded in order to make money. But a blog as a medium is expected to be something more like a person; a blog is a a social medium that people integrate into their social life. In general, people do not like someone who only interacts with other people for financial gain, and by the same measure, they don't want to read blogs that are done only to make money. This ties in with other results from the survey showing that people expect a blogger to honest, and hope to learn something about the blogger as a person (The 'ideal type' blog?). In this sense, the perceived personality of the blogger 'bleeds' into the blog.

In turn, this is why a blog can be so valuable to advertisers. The blogger who is able to successfully integrate their brand/product/service into his/her social performance, is also able to launch that brand/product/service into a meaningful relationship with the readers. The brand/product/service 'bleeds' into a social network, recreating it to a certain extent in its own image.

malaysian blog survey attitudes commercialisation change style
malaysian blog survey attitudes commercialisation change content

What is the difference between style and content? It was not defined in the survey, but I felt that it would be clear enough to bloggers and blog readers - the style is what is often referred to when explaining how one blog differs from another. There are many blogs with similar content - make up, events, rants, cars, politics, whatever - but the way in which is written, the visual presentation, the photos used, the interaction with the readers, are what make up the style of the blog.

An advertiser may supply content, and a brief on how to present the product, but the advertorials are explicitly done in the style of the blogger, that's what they're paid for - thus some readers will say - 'OK it's an advertorial, but I like the way it's done'.

Overall, there's a clear belief that being paid does influence bloggers. But less for the style than the content, which makes sense.... A blogger who messes too much with his/her style risks losing readers.

malaysian blog survey attitudes commercialisation change

but the extent of the change is not seen as vitally important. Unsurprisingly, the Non-Monetisers are more concerned than the Monetisers.

malaysian blog survey attitudes commercialisation change

To finish off, this is an interesting comparison. The Monetisers were asked a similar question about themselves, and about others. Clearly, they believe that others are likely to do change, but not themselves. This suggests that they are aware of pressures and temptations that lead in that direction, but feel that they successfully resist them themselves.

• Yes, a clear majority definitely think disclosure is desirable.
• Commercialisation is seen as having an effect, and although there is general trend to see it as a problem, there are also many who are not bothered and a significant minority see it as not being a problem.
• The motivation of a blogger is important; more importantly, if that motivation is mostly financial, s/he has to be able to avoid showing that.
• Monetisers are aware of the possibility of being affected by advertising opportunities, but see it as affecting others more than themselves.

... I can't think of anything else now, all ideas, feedback, and comments are welcome :-)


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goingkookies on :

Very well written post but a tad too long.

However, content is really good and something to think about.

I, for one think that if and when a blogger is being paid to write a review or is given a freebie ie products or hotel stays etc to blog a review, they should make a disclaimer and state it clearly.

It is only fair as other fellow bloggers will read it and assume it is the blogger's unbiased opinion. =)

JunJunRiko on :

i like ur idea bout this post. but i thought that the analysis (ur discussion) was kinda confusing and not straight to the point. the graphs are really confusing, it'll be best if u used statistic bar charts instead of graph.

didn't really get the result of your whole post, but i like the idea of u trying to analyze blogging for everyone. =)

just my 2cents. :-)

eugene on :

Briefly glance through... Excellent analysis. Very important distinctions made. Good points of social image 'bleeding' through blogs.

I'm STTTRRRREESSSSSEEEDDDDDD... back to work now, after taking a break to read your blog.

eugene on :

BTW. Left something on your table for both you and your wife... :-)

julian on :

goingkookies - Thanks, agree about the length, but let's just say I'm getting warmed up to produce 100K words on blogging within the next year :-)

I agree that readers do expect a blogger to be honest, more so perhaps than the MSM.

JunJunRiko - thanks for the feedback, much appreciated! I'll look into bar charts next time.

My basic point is that most bloggers and readers prefer advertorials to be disclosed, that blogs are based on the principle that a blogger shares a part of themselves with others, and people expect that what is shared is honestly what the blogger thinks and/or feels.

Eugene - Thanks for the encouragement :-) And you're almost there! Keep it up!!

Niki Cheong on :

I thought this was rather interesting. Thanks for this Julian.

What I enjoyed most was seeing how bloggers saw themselves. Considering that, presumably, a large number of those who responded to your survey are not getting much money (since I believe the pool of bloggers who earn money from their blogs is not very big).

I'm looking forward to your 100k! :-D

julian on :

Hiya, sorry for the delay in answering... been traveling, need to post about that too...

Anyway - glad you liked it.

You're right re money - the figures were:
66.7% < RM100/month
14% RM101-499/month
3.2% RM500-999/month
6.5% RM1,000-2,000/month
2.2% >RM2,000/month
and 7.5% 'Others' (these were all less than 100 a month, and one who had made RM10K in about 18 months - av 833 per month)

Niki Cheong on :

Nice stats. Can you share how big your sample was?

julian on :

Sure - actually you can see the numbers on the charts, a bit small though, where it says n= ...

Anway: the total sample was 553 completed surveys; total bloggers (as opposed to readers only) was 356; of which monetisers were 183 and non-monetisers were 173

You can also try searching for 'myblogs2009' in the search box on the right to see other posts about the results from the survey.

Mical on :

I am very glad to see these useful and important post.

julian on :

You're welcome, thanks for the visit.

Cj on :

Wow! Hell of a good write up! Commercial blogging is not an issue as far as the contents are informative and entertaining... We have to give the blogging community a break... everyone needs a break once in awhile, ie. to make some buckkkksss!

Good blog!

julian on :

Thanks. Advertising is a model that's accepted in all media, so why not in blogging too.
Disclosure is the point though. Perhaps the closest parallel to a non-disclosed advertorial would be the plugs in movies, TV (think the Coca-Cola cups in American Idol), etc.

Niki Cheong on :

You're right, although it is important to point out that product placements in movies etc is non-intrusive. And TV is a passive medium in that you sit back and absorb whatever is there.

Blogs, and many other forms of Internet-based mediums, is pro-active.

I don't think blog advertising is a bad thing, but needs to be handled delicately to not alienate your readers.

julian on :

But the ideal blog advertorial is non-intrusive too - when the blog post 'incidentally' concludes with or mentions the product.

I agree re. the passive/active aspect. Particularly if someone accesses blogs via a reader, then they can scan and only read those that look interesting. And many will enjoy leaving comments too.

Niki Cheong on :

I don't think blogs are reactive in that most advertorials are hard sell. So if you're reading a post, it's all about the product, it's not like the product is a by the way, just happen to be there kinda thing.

That said, there are some clients who have been very progressive and are happy with the non-intrusive posts - like just wearing a T-shirt in a photo etc.

I just think that we have more of the former than latter. :-)

wans on :

Detailed article and very thorough analysis, my guess academician or scientist. Agree with your conclusions
•disclosure is desirable-transparent->responsibility.
•commercialization - tax free.
•motivation - national awards, best/worst blogs.
•monetize - win-win situation.

julian on :

Thanks, and I'm trying to be an academic :-)

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