The art of blog: credibility is in the eye of the beholder

Pink_eye Mark Stelzner roused some passions last week with a great blog post discussing how some traditional media are highlighting the need to regulate bloggers with possible "conflicts of interest".  For example, Workforce Magazine's online article discusses the impact of controversial HR bloggers, such as Cheezhead's Joel Cheesman.

At the heart of the debate are the issues surrounding which industry entities are more credible for regaling information to the marketplace.  My take is that

everyone has potential conflicts of interest, and blogging has leveled the playing field across industry entities (journalists, consultants, analysts / marketeers, vendors and buyers). 

While, in the past, analysts and journalists ruled the roost when delivering controversial and impactful information to the world, the new crowd of industry bloggers are taking their share of the spotlight, once they have successfully leveraged their industry network into a social-media setting.  And while there is a real case to be concerned about the odd manipulative blogger furthering their own specific agenda, my take is that we're in a new media world, where bloggers are earning trust and credibility over time with their respective audiences.   Let's be honest here – every corner of the industry is potentially conflicted – here are some examples:

1. Magazines which sell advertising space to vendors adjacent to favorable articles that hightlight their products and services.  This has been commonplace for decades;

2. Analysts that produce case studies, or favorable write-ups, of their paying vendor clients (gasp!);

3. Consultants that take money from vendors for consulting or research work, and still run vendor-selection evaluations that involved those from whom they take money (shock! horror!);

4. Vendors which leverage compelling rose-tinted content to sell their own products (how could I dare suggest that?);

5. Buyers that have been influenced by their own past or present vendor relationships and lack a broader view of their industry (c'mon… we've all seen this). 

Bloggers are appearing from all these five mediums, and it doesn't matter so much what they do for a day job – what matters is the credibility and style with which they deliver their blog-talk.  For example, when I began this blog, I worked for a management consultant, and since switching over to the analyst world two years' ago, have seen very little difference with the audience regularly visiting here, or the tone of debate.  If anything, working for a reputable analyst brand can sometime hold you back from far-reaching opinions, if you're not always backed up by some sort of datapoint.  

Most successful bloggers today seem to be coming out of consulting businesses (for example Deal ArchitectHuman Capitalist, Inflexion Point, Software Insider and SpendMatters) than any other business.  The next challenge is for some of the leading minds in vendors to use the blog-platform more effectively to air industry issues, not to mention experienced practitioners.  If anything, vendors are the least conflicted, as you know exactly what their agenda is.  When dealing with other entities, their agendas are not always so obvious, and you just have to roll with your own trust of the writer.

All-in-all, the judgment over the credibility of a blog is tied more to that individual airing his/her views, as opposed to their day-job. If a blogger is judged to be overly-biased, or obviously conflicted, other bloggers are always quick to point this out and challenge that blogger's credibility.  Credibility is in the eye of the beholder, and bloggers who've earned their chops put theirs' on the line every time they post.

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20 Comments

  1. Naomi Bloom
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Phil, as a consultant who has done work for many often-competing vendors, end-users, and private equity firms, as well as a sort-of analyst (it all depends on what hat I’m wearing, and I always make that very clear), I agree entirely that integrity travels with the person, not the position (you can see the HRM object model lurking inside this comment), just as do all other work-related qualities (aka KSAOCs)that people may possess. With my own blog getting ready to launch late Oct/early Nov (yes, it’s a fair question as to why I’ve waited this long, but let’s hold that for another discussion), I’ve been thinking a LOT about the conflict-of-interest discussion you cite above, and I think there’s a very easy solution. All spoken/written/graphic/video/etc. content, regardless of publication medium, should come with the kind of warning box you see on so many drugs: ABSORB THIS AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION. THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES OF COMPLETENESS, CORRECTNESS OR APPROPRIATENESS TO YOUR INTENDED PURPOSE OTHER THAN YOUR EVALUATION OF THE WRITER AND MEDIUM’S INTEGRITY.

  2. Posted September 19, 2009 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Naomi,

    What an excellent suggestion. I will set an example with this disclaimer on my side-bar:

    http://fersht.typepad.com/the_outsourcing_bloghorse/independence-statement.html

    PF

  3. Posted September 19, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    To be honest, credibility is earned with time and effort. If someone manages to put advertising into useful content, then it is not a bad thing, as content is still there.

    Credible bloggers create credible content that is interesting and useful to their readers. People who do blogging for living can not afford this scenario. They have to post many times a day, keywords, optimization, promotion etc. takes way too much time to have a good content. So, probably, people who do blogging just to share info or express themselves but not to earn living from it should be more credible. Just my opinion though…

  4. Posted September 19, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Can you define “credible”? By definition most bloggers write/comment on an issue which is already out there. I slightly disagree with the response by Mkrtich Laziev, that “credibility” comes over time.

    I would re-phrase that as “readers/followers” come over time. You could have a conspiracy theorist blogger with a massive readership and still not be “credible”. “Credibile” is a matter of analysis & opinions and back-testing of their published content or followed actions over a significant period of time (e.g. Nouriel Roubini, Guy Kawasaki, etc.):

    http://www.rgemonitor.com/blog/roubini/
    http://blog.guykawasaki.com/

    Ashish Thakur

  5. Ajay Prabhu
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Credibility is a slippery thing – what is credible to one person can be seen as suspicious to another. What builds credibility in one blog might not necessarily add to it in another. I want to also mention that in my experience each of the points that I make in the following posts don’t tend to lead to credibility alone but rather when they come together they add to it. So in my assessment for one to be credible blogger – 1. Longevity, 2. Knowledge of blogger, 3. Design, Communication (mostly writing) skills, 4. Participation levels (creating a brand).

    Ajay Prabhu

  6. Posted September 19, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    The ones that are credible give full disclosure hence the importance of Trust Agents over sponsored conversation. We as a human race tend to try to organize, categorize and pidgin hole everything. Many of these personas and the roles they play have many overlapping qualities. Bloggers who have been doing it for a long time had being doing it because they were passionate about a specific niche and built a following over a long period of time before the money, the downfall of traditional gatekeepers, and before buzz terms like personal branding and social media became popular. This is why Chris Brogan is one of the most popular and sought after bloggers turned consultant to turn a passion into a successful business. Robert Scoble is the same way. He rose to popularity because he criticized the company he worked for Microsoft to make the products they had better.

    They are real. They give full disclosure. They are transparent. They understand the money comes later and is not nearly as important as the message and public perception. The average consumer is smarter and more value added saavy due to cross referencing provided my new media resources thanks to the speed of the information super highway. It has broken down the traditional gatekeepers and probably creating new ones at the same time. The bloggers that start off with sponsored conversation and advertising don’t last long unless they can continue to constantly put out compelling content which is usually why the money comes calling. Credible bloggers are “organic.” As soon as a organic and transparent bloggers who have built up a following start trying to make more money than the market value their followers will notice and be turned off and they advertising investments start to look for the next hot hand. It is human nature and a cycle.

    I have written in more detail about this in a series of blog posts here:

    http://mashingthenet.com/2009/03/19/making-cents-of-it-all-part-i-executive-summary/
    http://mashingthenet.com/2009/03/25/making-cents-of-it-all-part-ii-history-lessons-learned/
    http://mashingthenet.com/2009/03/30/making-cents-of-it-all-part-iii-currently-speaking/
    http://mashingthenet.com/2009/04/03/making-cents-of-it-all-part-ix-future-trending/
    http://mashingthenet.com/2009/04/08/making-cents-of-it-all-part-v-the-gatekeepers/
    http://mashingthenet.com/2009/04/12/making-cents-of-it-all-part-vi-adapting/

    Christian Adams

  7. Posted September 20, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I think that the *most* credible bloggers are the Enthusiasts who started writing about something because they cared about it and no one else was doing it. They bring insight, analysis, they may even bring objectivity, although not always, and sometimes integrity.

    Those blogs are the ones that become the nexus of a conversation, not the ones that are artificially created to promote.

    Cheers,

    Erica Friedman

  8. Posted September 20, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Phil, Great discussion. My take: Social media is more about exchanging opinions and experiences, and less about reporting facts. I’m not too worried about readers mistaking one for the other. Most of us develop the ability to discern one from the other early in life.

    Warranties and disclaimers are great. But let’s play truth or dare: who publishes them and who reads them? Those who ought to, or those who are already quite clear?

  9. Posted September 20, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    @Barbara: Good to hear from you on here. While most of us all agree with you here, there’s definitely been some issues with industry analysts pushing out their opinions over personal blogsm and many successful analyst-bloggers have moved on from their analyst-stables in recent months.

    Do you see the traditional analyst firms becoming more comfortable with analysts having personal blogs in future, or is this like oil and water?

    PF.

  10. Debbie Brown
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Agree with many above comments. Some of us have been together in this industry many years. 10-20+
    The readers are interested. The readers absorb, weigh and reflect on the information. What I love about the current forum is the open exchange and speed of trust that could lead to forward progress and inspired thinking by all.
    Nothing wrong with that (opinion).

  11. Posted September 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Phil, thanks for the mention.

    Not sure about the consulting background in the constant. I am eclectic in what I read – some analysts, some investors, some CIOs. To me confidence (with appropriate sarcasm), willingness to call BS when needed, at least 1 “aha” every few posts are important – I can read facts and drivel any days in press releases, most media articles etc.

    As I wrote last week, tech spends 1 trillion a year in sales and marketing. There’s so much around, that we cannot help smoke our own exhaust. We need bloggers who blow away some of the spin not add to it…

  12. Posted September 20, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    @Vinnie: the sourcing/services industy is mainly dominated by consultant bloggers…IT is more of a mixed bag of pundits. Agree on the need for blogs to provide the gas-mask for the industry though :)

  13. Posted September 20, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Phil, I can’t help but comment first on the irony here: You were one of the first successful blogging analysts to change analyst firms! So, you helped analyst firms prepare for the situation.

    Firms aren’t all that bothered about influential blogger-analysts departing for greener pastures. Analyst execs worry about who’s going to steal their clients and IP, not who’s going to walk away with blog fans.

    When you think about it, you didn’t become influential because you blogged. Your influence resulted from using a mix of channels. You blogged in conjunction with one-to-one customer and industry relationships, private consultation, emails, phone calls, newsletters, webinars, forums, speaking appearances and so on.

    As for overall analyst exec comfort levels with analysts blogging – I’m not hearing many stories now from analysts who would like to blog but are not allowed, not even at the notoriously risk-averse analyst houses.

    I do see a great many risks and questionable behaviors with analysts taking up microblogging – Twitter. That’s a channel to watch.

  14. Posted September 20, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    @Barbara: I am honoured to be associated, even marginally, with the onset of analyst blogging – I just like the ability to communicate with the world in a manner and style that suits me :)

    If I was CEO at AMR, Gartner, Forrester, et al., I would enforce all my analysts to run personal blogs and brand themselves to their respective industries. I would even make part of their bonus tied to their social media presence. I cannot understate the impact having my own personal blog has had in developing my own ecosystem.

    Twitter? I can only see it bringing everyone closer together. A great interaction-enabler and social community tool. Social media is just GREAT – right everyone?

    PF

  15. Posted September 20, 2009 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Phil, I’m not a fan of any forced-march approach to social media. One reason is experience so far, the other is my sweet skeptical nature.

    History: The everybody-jump-in approach came closet to working wiht Jupiter, but they didn’t allow comments on the blogs. Gartner’s effort turned blogs into another piece of its corps channels around research and events. Where has it worked?

    Worry: It’s a short hop from “everybody blog” to monetizing some or all of the blogs via sponsors.

  16. Posted September 21, 2009 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    @Barbara: I’m not a huge fan of the corporate-controlled blogs. The minute you slap a corporate brand on a site, people are far less comfortable to let loose with their views, and – as and you quite rightly point out with the Gartner example – the blog becomes more of a corporate messaging vehicle.

    My take is that most of the successful analysts today have good social media skills and presence, and they should use these chennels to brand themselves.

    However, I would encourage them to use personal blogs as opposed to corpoate-controlled ones, as this is forcing them to take a stand on issues and have a POV. The biggest complaint I get about analysts today is that many lack a POV… of course, blogs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the job of an analyst should be to get their views across to a mass audience, and not a very small controlled number, if they want to be viewed as a real influencer in the marketplace,

    PF

  17. Erwin De Baetselier
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I am not shocked by the above statements. After all, from newspapers, and television stations we all accept that they are linked to political parties and that their information is somewhat colored.

    The “well informed person” consults different sources to build his own opinion and exactly so should we deal with blogs. Even rose-colored product highlights can give you an idea of what’s in the shadows.

    It would certainly help to know the blogger’s allegiance but most of the time it is plain obvious.

    Erwin De Baetselier

  18. Posted September 22, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I think the most important issue — besides having “the goods” in terms of knowledge, relationships, etc. to write an informative blog — centers around credibility and objectivity. I’ve always aired on the side of being overly disclosive around client relationships or conflicts of interest. This is something which is not as transparent in either the traditional trade media or publishing world.

    Going forward, I’d suspect that analyst firms will face a challenge in terms of keeping their best talent. On the one hand, they’ll need to let their analysts promote their opinions and thoughts to a broader audience through social media — both to build their reputations as well as to solicit ideas and start conversations. And on the other, they’ll need to make sure they compensate them highly enough to stay.

    Personally, I liken what I do to being part-consultant, part-analyst and part-columnist. Having been both a consultant and analyst in a former life, I can say I’d sooner rather be an analyst again than opt for a life on the road. But there is no way — now five years into my blog — even if I wanted to become an analyst at a firm, that traditional industry economics could support the book of business I’ve been able to build on the blog (not to mention the other work I do outside of it). This is a shame, because I think there is merit in the analyst model, especially practitioner advisory, but more and more, independents with deep domain knowledge will realize they can double or triple what they used to make previously while also — and this is key for me — maintaining greater control over their travel schedules and actual time spent in the office (vs. working from home).

    Of course it takes an entrepreneurial type to go out on their own, but I do believe we’ll see more of this (just as we saw in the 4 recent defections from Forrester).

  19. Kiana Peake
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Intersting…most of your answers are from other bloggers…..

    As a non-blogger and person who is pretty close to hating the entire blogosphere, here’s my $.02:

    I grew up on the newspaper and the evening news. It is difficult for me to say that anyone and everyone who writes an artice to be credible. my history reflects getting my information from people who received journalism/english degrees and had instant crediblity.

    So, I would say: How much do you know about your topic? If I go to and HR blog it is usually written by HR professionals with at least 10 years of experience.

    Kiana Peake

  20. Posted September 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    There have been many studies about this and no matter who blogs the level of trust always fairly low. There is always the issue of not knowing who is the news source. The more your readers know about you, the more you can build your trust levels with them

    Jeremiah Owyang blogs about blogging trust all the time. I recommend checking out his blog for some good information on this topic:

    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog

    Matt

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