The New York Times had a very interesting little story today about Wal-Mart.
It turns out that the giant retailer has been enlisting bloggers: "feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters."
Lots of companies have been taking advantage of the blogosphere to announce new products or build excitement about an existing product. With so many people cruising the Worldwide Web, blogging in order to market or influence opinion is a natural outgrowth. It's called viral marketing and Wikipedia defines it as "marketing techniques that seek to exploit pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through viral processes similar to the spread of an epidemic. It is word-of-mouth delivered and enhanced online; it harnesses the network effect of the Internet and can be very useful in reaching a large number of people rapidly."
According to the Times, what's different about Wal-Mart's approach "is that rather than promoting a product--something it does quite well, given its $300 billion in annual sales--it is trying to improve its battered image." Additionally, some of the bloggers assisting Wal-Mart have not been divulging where their information came from.
One of the pro-Wal-Mart bloggers, Bob Beller, provided the Times with emails received from a Wal-Mart "consultant." It appears that some of Beller's fellow bloggers have been copying the messages word-for-word without disclosing the source.
As the Times conducted interviews for this story, bloggers revealed that they'd been contacted "after they wrote postings that either endorsed the retailer or challenged its critics." The company reps offered to provide "exclusive news" that might attract visitors to the websites.
As readers of this blog know, I have posted four blogs on Wal-Mart in the past month. No one claiming to represent the company contacted me. I guess I wasn't sufficiently pro-Wal-Mart.
The Times interviewed Glenn Reynolds of www.Instapundit.com, one of the Internet's oldest blogs. He said that "'even in the blogosphere, which is renowned for its lack of rules, a basic tenet applies: 'If I reprint something, I say where it came from. A blog is about your voice, it seems to me, not somebody else's.'"
The really interesting thing to me in this story is not what Wal-Mart is doing. Frankly, I have no doubt that other retailers and groups are doing exactly the same thing. This is probably a sign of things to come. As more and more companies realize the potential offered by the blogosphere, there will be a natural evolution from the free spirited, grafitti-style postings to targeted, for-pay scribblings.
Readers of MSM (mainstream media) are somewhat protected by the journalists' code of ethics. When a reporter accepts compensation for a story, that code demands that he reveal the conflict of interest. There was a recent dustup in Washington when it was disclosed that the Bush Administration had been paying for favorable stories.
The problem with the Internet is that the "rules" are informal. We are going to hear about more and more stories like this as those informal rules are tested.
In the meantime, it truly is a "buyer beware" world. Readers of blogs need to educate themselves on issues and not simply parrot something they've read online. Without knowing the source, they risk becoming "germs" spreading the viral marketing bug.