Contributors to Popular Websites Have Taken Payments for Inserting Brands Into Stories

Jon Christian, the Outline:

[…] Interviews with more than two dozen marketers, journalists, and others familiar with similar pay-for-play offers revealed a dubious corner of online publishing in which publicists, ranging from individuals like Satyam to medium-sized “digital marketing firms” that blur traditional lines between advertising and public relations, quietly pay off journalists to promote their clients in articles that make no mention of the financial arrangement.

People involved with the payoffs are extremely reluctant to discuss them, but four contributing writers to prominent publications including Mashable, Inc, Business Insider, and Entrepreneur told me they have personally accepted payments in exchange for weaving promotional references to brands into their work on those sites. Two of the writers acknowledged they have taken part in the scheme for years, on behalf of many brands. Mario Ruiz, a spokesperson for Business Insider, said in an email that “Business Insider has a strict policy that prohibits any of our writers, whether full-time staffers or contributors, from accepting payment of any kind in exchange for coverage.”

There are a couple of different kinds of writers that, according to Christian, took payments in exchange for mentioning or linking to brands in their articles. Some publish to “contributor networks”, which are blogs hosted by major publications but not edited by them. TechCrunch used to have one of those, but they shut it down earlier this year because they noticed an increase in posts that they “strongly suspected were ghost-written by PR”, which should come as no surprise. These contributor networks tend to be filled with self-promotional garbage. I don’t understand what positive effects a contributor network has on an established publication, but it seems like it’s trading away hard-earned authority for cheap traffic.

The more insidious acts Christian profiles are those from writers ostensibly creating articles where a brand pays for very subtle placement:

Yael Grauer, a freelancer who’s written for Forbes and many other outlets, says she’s gotten as many as 12 offers like Satyam’s in a single month, which she always rejects. Some are surprisingly straightforward, like a marketer who simply asked how much she charged for an article in Slate or Wired. Others are coy, like a representative of a firm called Co-Creative Marketing, who heaped praise on her writing before asking whether she could get content published in Forbes or Wired on behalf of a client. Another marketer offered Erik Sherman, a business journalist, $315 per article to mention her client’s landscaping products in Forbes, the Huffington Post, or the Wall Street Journal — though she cautioned that the mentions would need to “not look blatant.” Sherman declined, telling the marketer that the offer was “completely unethical.”

You’d probably expect this kind of thing to be pervasive in Forbes’ contributor network, but if a similar offer were accepted by a writer for an esteemed imprint like the Wall Street Journal, it would undermine your confidence in that publication overall — especially since it’s a business publication, as opposed to something more general-interest.

For what it’s worth, even I — writing at a fairly tiny site — receive offers like these a few times every week. I have never accepted any of them, of course.