Of marketing and mamas
I have an MBA, and I've spent some time in the trenches of corporate marketing. I have used the phrases "create buzz," "grassroots marketing," and "target consumer," and I may have put these words on a PowerPoint slide. From time to time, I may have said some things in which I didn't quite believe for the betterment of the company's profit margin. Ahh me! I am the enemy.
Or, I was [insert superstitious gesture here]. Since moving to the "content" side of the online media world sometime in 2003 (as a newish mama), I have become enmeshed in the ever-burbling debate about blogs, marketing, editorial guidelines, ethical standards, the power of disclosure, and where and how bias is appropriate. In 2008 I quit my full-time job and told myself that never, ever again would I promote any idea, product, service, or piece of writing I didn't believe in down to the soles of my soul.
It's hard to draw lines. They're so seldom neat around the borders, when looked at up close; and perhaps I've drawn them in Christmas colors in a world full of folks with red-green color blindness. Not for the first time, in a recent post a mama called us out, asking if we could refrain from writing about things for which we didn't pay ourselves, saying the freebie would necessarily taint our review. Asking us to keep the advertising in the upper left hand column; bringing to our attention the current debate about the FTC's so-called "mommy blogger" rules, a proposed set of standards that would require bloggers (moms and dads and childless folks too) to disclose if they've been paid to write a favorable post.
While there is much debate about the FTC's rules and the tactics of both mommybloggers and marketers who pitch to them -- I'll get to that -- let me just put this line in black: we at urbanMamas have never been paid to post about anything, and we have a strict and long-held policy that we will always disclose any financial payola with regard to a product, service or idea we've pitched.
That said, I can't with any certainty say we're not biased, nor can I claim we're not now, nor have we ever been tainted. We are tainted! Through and through. We're all biased. As I wrote in a comment, I don't believe the mere presence of a freebie is necessary or sufficient for bias; in fact, we may often be far more biased when we DO pay for services/products. Lots of research has been done on this; it's called "anchoring bias" in investing, a subconscious method of justifying our own wisdom and value system in paying for the item.
One of the most important areas of bias is our simple desire not to hurt feelings through criticism. When I criticized the now-thrice-departed Peanut Butter & Ellie's for its inattentive service and failure to have thought through the needs of parents with toddlers, I was surprised to get in return a number of emails and comments from those who were shocked I could criticize a business run by another mama. (But I paid for every bite! I swear!) And thus, I say this because it's true of me: we have a heightened sensitivity to the feelings of others, and can often take this to extreme; perhaps we don't want to hurt the feelings of the nice person who wrote this book we're reviewing, even if we can't stand the main character; or we don't want to injure the ego of the hard-working social media guy who "friended" us on Facebook; or to upset the upcoming job performance review of the PR rep who sent us a freebie. A lot of us are eager to please, and this could be our most vexing bias of all. But it's only the beginning.
Perhaps we're negatively biased against products our mothers-in-law have recommended (and here I generalize, to extend the judging). Perhaps we're against red meat because we were raised vegetarian; perhaps we're for almonds because we live next door to an almond grove. Perhaps we're biased to love a product because our friend makes it, or our cousin works in marketing there, or an actress we admire promotes it. Perhaps we're biased because of a prosaic obvious marketing reason: we like the commercials. It was product-placed in a TV show we love. Or a blogger we read has been writing, vidcasting, Facebooking, or Twittering about how great it is.
And here we get to the line-crossing. Whether or not MommyBloggerClassySupercool is being paid by a blog network company to do reviews of the Swiffer, or the latest fruity sweet organic yogurt in silly colors, it's hard to swallow lighthearted and obviously thoroughly commercial reviews of products on our favorite blogs. This is what I wrote about at length on a financial blog to which I contribute, a post in which I was thoroughly critical of a method of marketing I believe to be both ineffective and tedious and a shameful waste of time and effort (time, I might add, spent away from one's children; and here I swear that I do not judge anyone for working away from their children, but if they're blogs about being mommy, and you're spending all your time on the blogging-for-dollars and not with your children, isn't this an inherent conflict of interest, in the most basic biological sense?).
In the blog post I compared a certain category of mommy bloggers to the hosts of Mary Kay (and Avon, and Creative Memories, and all the other multi-level marketing companies for whom mothers are the chief sales reps) parties. I just don't like that kind of marketing; it's icky, it's using your friends and social network to make money, and often in a long-term percentage of earnings kind of way.
I don't believe -- I hope with every cell of my oft-too-passionate heart -- that we are not that sort of blog. What we set out to do was to provide something that did not exist for mothers (or fathers) in Portland in 2003: a non-commercial (by which I mean run independent of a corporate overlord), gentle, supportive place to find community, information, honest reviews of businesses and local issues, stories, advice. While we do accept advertising and the very occasional freebie, we do not accept anyone's input on how we should write about it or whether it's ok to be critical. And we never, ever, receive additional funds or payola from advertisers or any companies or businesses based on how many of you click on their ads or buy their products or mention "urbanMamas" at checkout.
We are all biased. And you are welcome to be personally critical of that bias when reading our posts -- I'll bet I'll always end every transportation rant with an analysis that life without a car is cheaper and more rewarding than one with a car; I'll bet that Olivia will always prefer cloth diapers; I'll bet that each and every one of us will determine that life with children is richer than life without. But please keep that, as much as possible, out of the discussion unless we've done something terribly unkind, or been blind to an important aspect of a discussion because of our biases.
And please trust me when I say that we agonize over each and every freebie and sponsor, we do not accept these lightly, we want the best for this community.