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The FTC’s policy has not been without its detractors. Some of the controversy surrounding the new rules centers on the distinctions between social and traditional media as well as regular bloggers and celebrities. Although disclosure must be made in social media, the guidelines do not address the practice of accepting free products for review by mainstream journalists (Davis, 2010). Furthermore, although the guidelines require that celebrities disclose the receipt of free products, an FTC official later indicated that celebrities may not have to reveal such a relationship based on the assumption that consumers often understand that celebrities receive freebies (Davis, 2010). Furthermore, other forms of communication that occur within social media, such as YouTube videos, Twitter tweets, or Facebook wall posts, are not specifically addressed.
Growth of blogging
The growth of blogging may have occurred in part because of the lack of trust in institutions and a preference for a personal network of individuals who can be trusted (Edelman/Technorati, 2006). The most effective bloggers are experts in their own fields and proficient in building relationships with peers who contribute to the conversation (Edelman/Technorati, 2006). However, many A-list bloggers emerged from the ranks of average people and offered a flair for portraying everyday experiences to which their audiences can relate.
The Edelman/Technorati Blogger PR Survey found that 22% of bloggers write about a product, company, or a company’s employees about once a week and about 16% write on one of these topics more than once a week (Edelman/Technorati, 2006). Over 70% of bloggers would like to receive product samples from companies in order to evaluate the products and then blog 138 about them. Of these respondents, many have either never been contacted by public relations representatives (48%) or received a contact less than once a week (31%). However, almost 10% are contacted about once a week, almost 6% are contacted more than once a week, and over 5% are contacted daily (Edelman/Technorati, 2006).
One group of bloggers that wields considerable power among both marketers and influence over consumers are “mommy bloggers,” also called “mom-fluentials” by marketers.
Mommy blogs can be traced back to the mid-1990s when blogs served as a place to connect with other moms or relay stories of raising children (Sotonoff, 2007). As the Web population expanded, mommy bloggers got more sophisticated, attracting book deals, free merchandise, allexpenses-paid trips to factories, and advertising dollars (Sotonoff, 2007).
As Smudde described, “Successful and effective public relations is ethical and dialogic, creating candid, open, simple, and clear messages to manage perceptions of an organization and seek feedback from the environment” (2005, p. 38). Blogs provide a way for an organization to have a dialogic relationship with consumers by fostering discussion and feedback, a relationship that can be compromised by unethical behavior. Several highly-publicized missteps have been made as public relations firms and marketers learned how to effectively use blogs. In an effort to protect the industry, organizations like the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) are educating public relations firms and marketers about appropriate behavior in social media.
During the past several years, public relations firms have started creating blogger relations programs as a way to build relationships with key bloggers. The benefits of blogger relations include an opportunity to prompt conversations among consumers, higher rankings on search engines, and relatively free publicity (Hart, 2006). Blogs are also capable of fostering two-way communication, the goal of many public relations efforts (Baker & Green, 2005).
Microsoft, Nokia, and General Electric are three examples of companies that have worked with bloggers to build support and awareness for a product or service. Microsoft contacted bloggers prior to the release of the Xbox game system (Barbaro, 2006). General Electric met with key environmental bloggers before investing in energy-efficient technology (Barbaro, 2006). To promote its N-series smartphone, which was released in the fall of 2005, Nokia sent 50 phones to tech-savvy bloggers who frequently post on mobile phones (Hart, 2006).
Blogger relations programs are employed not only in the tech industry, but also for many consumer products. When Procter & Gamble realized that Web users were talking in blogs and chat rooms about Mr. Clean AutoDry, a product that had not even been launched, the company sent AutoDry kits to bloggers and asked for feedback. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with 80% of bloggers recommending the product. When the product was launched, product awareness was already 25% among consumers and 45% among car lovers (Oser, 2004).
Even the entertainment industry has embraced bloggers. Movie studios will often provide bloggers with deleted scenes or gossip in exchange for promotion of a movie or DVD release (Hart, 2006).
Reaching consumers through social media
on social media sites at least once every few months (Razorfish, 2009). The study also found that those in the consideration stage of a purchase decision were more likely than those in the awareness or action phase to be persuaded by the “social influencers” who are active in social media platforms.
Social networking users are also receptive to product information. Research has demonstrated that users welcome opportunities to view advertiser profiles on social networking sites, with particular interest among 18- to 26-year-old users (37%) followed by 27- to 40-year-old users (31%) (Li, 2007). Daily users tend to be the more interested than weekly or monthly visitors in seeing advertiser profiles with almost half of all adult daily users and a little more than a third of youth daily users expressing interest (Li, 2007).
Furthermore, social networking members tend to tell friends about products (50% of adult users and 67% of youth users), while an even higher percentage of those interested in advertiser profiles are likely to tell friends about products (61% of adult users and 77% of youth users) (Li, 2007).
This research study content analyzed the 15 “Mom Approved” blogs of Nielsen’s Power Mom 50 to understand how mommy bloggers reacted to the revised FTC guidelines. The analysis determined whether they posted a reaction to the FTC guidelines, whether they proclaimed support for or criticized these new policies, and the practices they use to indicate endorsement. In addition, interviews with mommy bloggers were conducted to explore why and how they have responded to the FTC rulings and to see if themes of trust, transparency, and credibility are prevalent in their answers.
The FTC guidelines could lead to a backlash for marketers and public relations practitioners, as some bloggers may completely reject free products and services in an effort to appear objective and retain reader trust. Other bloggers may create special sections for reviews and sponsored posts, thereby separating commercial content from editorial. An exploration of the consequences of these new guidelines is necessary so that marketers and public relations practitioners can continue having mutually beneficial relationships with bloggers.
In recent years, public relations research and practice has acknowledged the importance of relationship management. As Wilson (2001) explained, “corporate success in the 21st century will be based on the quality of the relationships built.” As relationship theory has emerged as a legitimate paradigm, much attention has been paid to trust, which has been identified through research as a key component of the relationship between a public and an organization. Hon and Grunig defined trust as “one party’s level of confidence in and willingness to open oneself to the other party” (1999, p. 19). Broom, Casey, and Ritchey (1997) examined properties of communication that defined organization-public relationships, such as trust and openness, and predicted relational outcomes. Ledingham and Bruning (2000) discussed trust in the context of their relational approach. Hon and Grunig (1999) included trust as a dimension in the measurement of relationships. Kelleher and Miller (2006) found that communicated relational commitment—a concept derived from demonstrated committed to the relationship, a communicated desire to build a relationship, and an implied future of the relationship, among other factors—positively and significantly correlated with trust, satisfaction, commitment, and control mutuality. Although research has identified the components of favorable relationships, less emphasis has been placed on the actual practice of relationship management (Chia, 2005).
This study will attempt to explore the practice of relationship management between bloggers and their readers as well as between bloggers and marketers or public relations practitioners In a joint report by Edelman and Technorati, Richard Edelman described trust in major institutions as being on the wane. As Edelman wrote, “This steady wearing down, a result of the deluge of scandals in the traditional power centers, touches every facet of society, including business, government, and the media” (Edelman/Technorati, 2006). The 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer found that a “person like yourself” ranked fourth behind an academic or expert, a financial or industry analyst, and an NGO representative in terms being a reputable source of information about a company (Edelman, 2010). A “person like yourself” ranked higher than a CEO, government official, and regular employee. Ratings for a “person like yourself” had been on the rise, more than tripling from 20% of respondents in 2003 to its peak of 68% in 2006 when “person like yourself” received the highest percentage of “extremely credible” and “very credible” responses (Huba, 2006). A similar question from the 2010 report found that 37% of respondents found conversations with peers to be extremely or very credible sources, ranking fifth behind analyst reports, business magazines, conversations with employees, and radio news coverage (Edelman, 2010). Corporate communications, TV news, newspaper articles, and advertising were some of the sources viewed as less credible than conversations with peers.
Some of these regular people—people who did not traditionally have a voice—are becoming the new influencers through the use of blogs.
The reason many bloggers can successfully plug products and services may be the high level of trust they have engendered among their readers. A 2006 study by Burson-Marsteller found that 92% of mom-fluentials believe they influence the purchase decisions of their family, friends, and coworkers as compared to 62% of regular moms. Also significant was the difference between the percentage of mom-fluentials who perceive they try new products before their peers (89%) and regular moms (59%) (Burson-Marsteller, 2006).
Another industry study, Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project which focused on blogger responsibility and blogger reactions to the then-proposed FTC guidelines, found that 98% of influential bloggers surveyed at the 2009 BlogHer convention found it acceptable to 141 receive a free product from a marketer (Anonymous, 2009). Transparency, disclosure, and honesty were mentioned as considerations when writing a post about a sponsored product. The survey also found that 84% of respondents cited honesty as an important quality for a blogger, followed by transparency (66%) and reliable sources (56%) (Anonymous, 2009).
Research has demonstrated that credibility of the source is an important factor in the effectiveness of persuasive messages (Austin & Pinkleton, 2006). Credibility is defined as the extent to which the source is perceived to have relevant expertise and can be trusted as having an objective opinion (i.e., trustworthiness) (Ohanian, 1990, 1991). Attractiveness is a third dimension of source credibility. Of the three qualities, Ohanian found that only source expertise significantly impacted purchase intention with a celebrity endorser. In the case of bloggers, as the information is transferred from an organization to a blogger, the blogger then becomes the source.
Other studies have looked more specifically at relational trust in the realm of blogging.
Blogger credibility has been linked to relational trust, a concept that has been found to be an antecedent of a favorable organizational relationship (Yang, 2007). Relational trust has been conceptualized as having three dimensions: competence, dependability, and integrity (Ki & Hon, 2007; Yang, 2007). Competence is defined as the ability of someone to complete his or her tasks and obligations (Huang, 2001). Dependability refers to a person’s likelihood to perform in a predictable and consistent manner, and integrity is defined as a person’s unwillingness to ignore his or her ethical standards to achieve an objective (Hon & Grunig, 1999). Transparency, defined as perception of the willingness to share ideas and information freely and honestly, has also been added as a dimension of relational trust (Yang & Lim, 2009). Jahoonzi (2006) argued that public relations gain a deeper understanding of transparency.
Most studies of the applicability of blogs to the field of public relations have examined corporate blogs. For example, Sweetser and Metzgar (2007) examined the use of corporate blogs during organizational crises. Kelleher and Miller (2006) studied the human voice in organizational blogs. The present study is unique in that it examines external bloggers who are the target of blogger relations programs.
Bloggers bear not only a legal, but also an ethical responsibility to their readers by being transparent about relationships with companies and honest in their reviews. In turn, public relations practitioners and marketers have an ethical responsibility to allow bloggers to operate in this manner. As Smudde noted, “Ethics and public relations, then, are bound together as organizations make choices about what and how to communicate with their environments.