Friday, July 5, 2019

Summer Repeat - The Social Contract of Social Media

This first ran about three years ago.  Since that time it has become crystal clear to me and others that there is less and less of such a thing as a free press when it comes to watches.  How do I know this?  In addition to this, and my day job as a social worker, I also represent a handful of brands in North America.  In this role I am often reaching out to my colleagues in the Fourth and Fifth Estate, and more often than not, it becomes readily evident that unless some sort of an "accommodation" can be reached, they are not going to cover it.  This is particularly striking when I consider the way that some of these folks used to bemoan the fact that they couldn't get any ad money.  Suddenly they are sending replies like - "oh, sorry, we won't be covering this one".  This is code for - "I know that this brand has no budget and you will not be sending me any cash, so I guess we'll see each other at BaselWorld".  One of the larger outlets ran a piece bemoaning the rise of the "influencer" and how unfair it was that the influencer (not the honest, fair-minded watch reporter writing about the unfairness of the influencer getting a piece of his pie) would insist on coin of the realm in exchange for coverage.  And curious to relate?  When I sent over a press release to this "honest broker" of horological news, their business manager sent me a rate sheet.  No other reply except, essentially, PAY ME BITCH!  And this was the type of money that isn't usually negotiated without the aid of a loaded pistol ; )

In fairness to the "fair haired" weasels out there, it takes two parties to make a corrupt system.  The blogger/writer/influencer that has their hand in the brands pockets, and the brand who willingly hands over the money, then cries "we're a small brand and don't have any advertising money" when approached for honest, above board advertising from people who are ready to cover them without a fee. So just how honest could the coverage really be that you are being hose-fed from the big outlets?

So let's re-heat this one -

Shamelessly borrowed from the world-wide info web
The Social Contract of Social Media 
This post has been on the shelf for nearly a year, but it seems time to air it out.

For most of us who write about watches in the digital arena, we don't do it for money.  True enough, our blogs might have advertising - such as this one, but by and large that is where it begins and ends.

Blogs, and blogs that have evolved into online magazines started out life as an alternative to magazines that more often than not were constrained by the need to drive advertising revenue.  It opened up a whole new world where people would tune in with the hopes of getting some viewpoints and opinions that were not fueled and channeled directly through the marketing arm of Richemont, LVMH or the SWATCH Group.  And perhaps more importantly, it did not cost the reader anything.  It was free to read, and you didn't have to drive to a book store or news stand.

But then another interesting thing started to happen -
The number of people checking out these alternative watch sites began to far outstrip the number of magazine readers.  And suddenly real analytics were possible!  And even more suddenly what had been a vehicle to promote a decidedly niche product to a clearly more niche market became a mechanism to subvert the role of independent writer and pump favorable content directly in front of this now much larger audience via an electronic delivery system.  In other words, payola arrived in the watch world.

For those of you not familiar, here is a definition from our friends at Urban Dictionary -

Bribery made to a dj in exchange for promotion of an album or single. Derived from the words 'pay' (give money to) and 'victrola' (a record player).You'd need to offer some serious payola to get your song played.
And that opened up a whole new paradigm.  Wonder how an online magazine or blog with multiple writers can afford to provide salaries and benefits for so many people, with no visible ads?  Ever wonder why a brand that has never seen the light of day on that blog suddenly makes multiple appearances?  
And then things took an even darker turn.  The way things are supposed to work for a brand is:
1.  You draft a press release regarding a new brand or product
2.  You spend time and/or money putting together a list of blogs, magazines, etc.
3.  You send it out and, for the most part, the blogs will run it.
Now a quick peek behind the curtain - 
The way that it should work is that the blogger will review what they receive, and if it interests them and they feel it will interest their readers, they will run it.  In some instances, if there are personal or professional differences/ conflicts, etc., with the brand,  then the blogger might not run the release.  In addition, if the blogger has managed to alienate the brand through their writing, then it is entirely possible that the brand's pr/marketing team will pull a Donald Trump and refuse to communicate with them or send them press updates.  This is to be expected and I would say, fair enough.
Now it seems that with the owners of several of the blogs, "horological interest" is measured in terms of payment.  And to be clear by payment I do not mean advertising agreements, a watch received in barter for advertising or marketing or even simple good will.   I mean just what I am saying - payment required and received in exchange for coverage.
So what has now become standard for some of these outlets is that a rate sheet is sent to the brand manager or pr representative, not unlike a take out food menu:  
  • To do a review  of your watch will cost you X.
  • To announce your new brand will cost you Y.
  • To REALLY pump your watch or brand will cost you Z.
Simply put, a fair amount of what you read in some of the bigger blogs and online magazines has been bought and paid for.

Now again, in fairness, if a brand supports a blog or online magazine with advertising, it is not unreasonable to expect coverage - in fact I believe that there is an implied social contract between the blog and the brand that requires a certain amount of coverage. 

Moreover, many bloggers do contract work for brands.  But that is a very separate matter that precludes "air time" on their blog or online magazine beyond the normal coverage.

But, and it's a big but, when a blog or online magazine requires payment in exchange for any sort of coverage, well then it is no longer what can even remotely be thought of as fair and impartial.  

Because there is another contract that is more than merely implied.  It is the social contract with the writer and the reader.

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