Paul Conley Links-In to Another B2B Ethical Debate

Photo: Steven RollBy Steven Roll
ASBPE President

B2B Blogger Paul Conley questioned the propriety of CIO magazine's decision to embed hyper-text links to the Linked-In profiles of the people and companies that are mentioned in its online stories. In his April 14th blog post, Conley likened the practice to providing in-text ads within the body of stories. Conley noted that he thought the LinkedIn embeds were "a pretty fun piece of functionality" and said that "in truth, such links may be of value to readers."

But Conley said he became concerned after the magazine's rank-and-file editors and reporters told him they hadn't been consulted about the decision. Conley said "by automating the links rather than giving control to editors, CIO has violated industry ethics."

Specifically, Conley noted that CIO's practice violated Paragraph D of ASBPE's Ethics Guidelines, which states as follows:

Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors. Also, advertising and sponsored links should be clearly distinguishable from editorial, and labeled as such, as should clickthrough pages, which may also contain the publication's editorial content, with appropriate disclosures provided. Such disclosure may include a "use with permission" statement or similar language. Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold. If an editor allows a link, it generally should not link to a vendor's Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader. [Paragraph D. revised, May 7, 2007, by vote of the Ethics Committee.]

At this point, the exact circumstances surrounding the involvement of the magazine's editorial department seems unsettled. CIO Editor-In-Chief Abbie Lundberg commented under Conley's blog post that she approved the use of the links. She added that the LinkedIn embeds "are not ads but a reader service, so I think that pretty much satisfies the [ASBPE] guidelines." In answer to other commenters on Conley's blog who suggested that CIO or LinkedIn were financially benefiting from the arrangement, Lundberg said "no money is changing hands."

While it appears that the events leading up to CIO's arrangement with LinkedIn may require more study, I think Conley has highlighted an important issue that is likely to become common place in the future. But the ethical considerations are not as clear cut as the case of embedding ads within the text of an article. Do the LinkedIn embeds influence the content of the story? To me, it seems like the embeds are in the content, but not about the content. It sort of reminds me of listening to a sportscaster give the "Bulova watch time" instead of just saying it's 9:30. Bulova got a plug, but the information is useful and the time's still accurate.

Of course, such arrangement would never work in a print format. Perhaps my inability to come up with a better example is further proof that publishing on Internet--with all of its emerging functionalities--is likely to keep providing us with a steady supply of ethical conundrums. Failing to condemn unethical practices would destroy our profession. Being too quick to condemn new practices would likely have a chilling effect on innovation.

I could see how--over time-- the accretion of these type of arrangements could eventually overshadow a publication's content and become highly annoying. Where do you draw the line between what is useful and what is distracting? One B2B colleague who checked out CIO magazine's site told me he thought the LinkedIn embeds makes it hard to get through an article and that he tends to find himself buried in the LinkedIn system whenever he clicks in.

Conley said in his post that CIO can remedy this situation by moving the links outside the story. I think that solution makes sense from an editorial standpoint, but I'm not sure that ignoring it would be an ethical breach.

Notwithstanding my own views on this matter, ASBPE's Ethics Committee will review this situation and we will amend our guidelines accordingly if we see fit.

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Comments:
Something that CIO did that was not addressed in Steve Roll's post, and something I pointed out several times, is that there were editorial links (other than the LinkedIn links) that take the reader directly to a company site, the landing page of which had content that was directly selling a product or service. As a reader you don't even know that is what you're going to see when you go to that link.

That, to me, and I believe in our ethics code, is not only not a preferred practice, but also is unethical. The editorial-embedded links in CIO in this case are certainly not transparent like the code calls for. Moreover, the landing page IS an ad. No way around it.

This is part of what's happening with CIO, just like the Intellitext links. Just a different format. This is very clear to me. Why is no one addressing this?
# posted by Blogger Robin Sherman Editorial & Design Services : April 16, 2008 at 5:31 PM
 
Personally, I don't see the problem with it as long as they weren't purchased and the story wasn't part of a deal (i.e. advertorial copy). I know that we - as journalists- have to walk a fine line between making sure we have not violated our ethical commitment to reporting the news while also making sure the bills get paid. It can be a terribly slippery slope, but this looks to me more like it was meant to be user-friendly rather than a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" agreement.

Definitely, it is a topic to bring about discussion.

Tonie, ASBPE DFW Chapter President
# posted by Blogger Tonie Auer : April 17, 2008 at 1:19 PM
 
Robin, I have to respectfully disagree ... I think what our editorial code says is that it is unethical for a link to be placed in a story IF it is put there by someone outside of the editorial department. If an editor feels a link is useful to the readers, that's fine. It's when links are put in there without the editor's knowledge/consent that we get into problems.

I'm not privy to who put the links there, but I wanted to at least make that distinction.
# posted by Blogger Paul J. Heney : April 17, 2008 at 3:31 PM
 
Robin,

I guess you're referring to the links in the CIO story that go to Google's page describing Google Apps, the Google Premier Apps page, and Salesforce.com's Force platform page, etc.

I see no problem in linking to company landing pages simply for reader reference; those pages may be the most up-to-date and succinct explanations of the product or service that the story refers to. Perhaps no story existed on CIO.com or elsewhere that explained the product or service as well as the company's own page (and would be pretty much guaranteed to contain the most current information). Another alternative would be Wikipedia, but any Wikipedia page on those products or services would most likely have been written by the vendor, anyway -- plus have the disadvantage of being easily hackable, maliciously or otherwise. Sure, the vendor's purpose of those landing pages is to tout a product or service, but they arguably represent the best source available on that particular product/service. I don't assume the links to them are paid for. I don't know that readers in general would. I suppose you could make a case that such links should be avoided to eliminate even the appearance of being paid ads, or that publishers should include disclosure statements on their sites so readers know what their linking criteria are.

As you note, in that particular CIO story that Paul Conley linked to, sometimes a company name or reference isn't linked to that company's site but to a list of CIO's articles about the company. You're right, it would be nice if the reader had some idea where each link would go. But title tags that appear when you mouse over the link, giving a brief explanation of where the link goes ("Google Apps landing page" or "previous articles about Google Apps," for instance), would be a good solution that would allow editors to link to the most relevant source.

Martha Spizziri
Web Editor/Boston Chapter Vice President
ASBPE
# posted by Blogger Martha Spizziri : April 18, 2008 at 11:40 AM
 
Of course, it's a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours agreement." The press release and other materials say as much.

And the links are inserted by technical staff. Not editors.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : April 18, 2008 at 12:11 PM
 
I've written about this on my blog at http://tinyurl.com/467lec
I believe my post responds to all of the issues raised here, with the exception of Robin's, which is not about the LinkedIn APIs but about regular links that lead to vendors' sites. Others here have answered that one quite well.
As to the anonymous poster at the bottom, while the APIs are indeed coded by our technical staff (they're technically more complicated than a regular link) the companies that get the treatment are selected by the editors. - Abbie Lundberg, Editor in Chief, CIO
# posted by Anonymous Abbie Lundberg : April 20, 2008 at 6:45 PM
 
OK. One person calls the embedded editorial company link editorial, a service to the readers. Another calls it an advertorial, and I just come out and call it an AD.

If one person thinks it's editorial and another an ad, or gives the impression that it is an ad, why not go the cautious route and just not link to that particular page. Link to a more substantive page (hey, I know, the home page), not one that screams at you to "buy me" and might want to collect demographic data about me, etc.

Ads, by the way are a reader service, too. So that argument does not really hold.

And just because an editor choses the link, doesn't make the choosing correct.

Lastly, if everyone disagrees with all this, how can you disagree with the principle of transparency that we have in our "Practice" guide. Tell the readers where you are taking them and what they will find there.
# posted by Blogger Robin Sherman Editorial & Design Services : April 23, 2008 at 9:33 AM
 
Robin,

It's important to point out that the issue you raise (i.e., the propriety of linking to third party websites with advertising content) is entirely outside the scope of Paul Conley and my blog posts about CIO's recent practice of providing links to people's LinkedIn profiles.

As long as you're speaking for yourself, you are free to interpret ASBPE's ethical guidelines however you wish. But it seems the net you are casting would cover most B2B as well as consumer publications.

Steve Roll
President, ASBPE
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : April 23, 2008 at 11:15 AM
 
I realize the primary thrust of the Conley post and your comments involve LinkedIn.

But my comments are not "entirely outside the scope" of Conley's blog.

Conley states near the top of his post "CIO magazine, which is owned by CXO Media, a unit of IDG, is adding links to editorial copy without the approval of editors."

The "adding links" line refers to the LinkedIn links, but I was expanding the discussion to include other editorial-embedded links that are questionable because they link directly to "ad-like" pages.

I asked why nobody was talking about this issue at the same time since both types of links occurred at the same time in the same CIO articles.

I see nothing wrong with raising this very related issue. It is something the ethics committee, of which I am a member, should also look at. I raised it because I thought it might be overlooked.

And, yes, I am only speaking for me as everyone else on this blog is only speaking for themselves. That was clear in my comment on the Conly blog.

Finally, can you clarify what you mean by "But it seems the net you are casting would cover most B2B as well as consumer publications." My caffeine hasn't kicked in yet so I am unclear. I was at a Springsteen concert late last night. What a incredible performer.
# posted by Blogger Robin Sherman Editorial & Design Services : April 26, 2008 at 4:16 PM
 
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