The Outline, an often forgotten but exciting web publication, exposed a widespread practice at publications such as Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Huffington Post and Forbes, wherein freelance writers were taking payments in exchange for favorable coverage. It doesn’t surprise me — when publications pay as little as $25 per post; the freelancers are going to be wide open for exploitation by marketers. But the problem is much larger and insidious and goes beyond these payola like tricks. The whole ecosystem of information is highly compromised, thanks to a need for cheap page views, fast.
The sad part is that tomorrow or the week after, we will move on. It will soon be forgotten, and the digital marketers will be back in the swing of things. We will never ask the question — why is this happening. So, to understand the why, let me share a story from recent history. ***
In the early aughts, when I was writing my original blog, I was introduced to Robert Young, a former News Corp executive, and a repeat entrepreneur. He was a great fella and fantastic person to talk about the emergent social media landscape. And during our email exchanges and phone calls, we came up with many ideas to write and focus on, to help start a meaningful discussion around social media and this new ecosystem.
One day, I asked him, why don’t you write on my blog and do it as a guest post. His ideas were fresh and his writing, while wonky was very similar to mine. So he became a contributor to the site and looking back, it was a great addition to my blog. If you read his stuff today, you can see why. Daniel Breninger was next. Sometime later, I invited my friend Allan Leinwand to contribute his thoughts to the site. The roster of contributors grew — and we called them guest posts.
They all had one thing in common — I would personally discuss these ideas with the contributors, and edit these posts so that they were in keeping with the editorial voice, and there were no embedded marketing messages. I wanted my readers to read the thoughts of their fellow readers. It was less about page views, and it was more about sharing ideas. It was also a break from my style of rapid-fire blogging. We were better because of it.
Over time, this experiment grew and grew, but with time, the guest post started to bring less value. Corporate communications companies began to send more of these bylined pieces to us, and it caused a lot of frustration among our team.
The Huffington Post essentially was built of such bylined free, cheap content. They were garnering so many easy pageviews that others in the media business started to imitate them, including our friends at Techcrunch. Why? Because the content didn’t cost them anything, it was plentiful. It helped with search engine optimization, and it kept people coming back often. This enabled a cottage industry of “thought leaders” and “influencers.”
All checks and balances were gone — Forbes being the most egregious example of them all. It was even shocking to see it at a publication nurtured by the all mighty Jim Michaels. I was part of Forbes.com founding team, and I can tell you, nothing hurts more than to see them cheapen their values and their brand. Today’s guest posts are nothing but self-serving PR. Like I said last night on Twitter, “Can we agree that when you want free content as guest blogs, you get free crap.
The chase for cheap page views to arbitrage against advertising dollars is the real reason everyone at this mega page view factories willingly embraced this trend towards free content, which in turn left the whole experiment open to abuse. If you generate a lot of page views for these sites, you aren’t going away, because, in the end, it is all about page views.
This isn’t going to end because the publications are still trying to pump out as much content, get as many falling dollars and prostitute themselves in the name of growth. Marketers will keep pushing their clients and making them influencers. They will add credibility to fake news. Nothing will change up until the time the advertising model moves away from page views and clicks.
As a parting thought, the only thing I was shocked to read that in some instances of such nefarious activity slipped through the checks and balances at Fast Company, a publication I have written for in the past. Given how rigorous they were during their fact-checking process, it is hard to imagine that editors condone this behavior.
December 6, 2017, San Francisco