E-commerce blurs lines of integrity

It didn't take much to get Amazon.com to back off its plan to charge book publishers for special editorial attention -- just a recent front-page exposé in The New York Times.

Many of Amazon.com's customers were horrified, thinking that the ostensibly independent staff recommendations on books may have in fact been disguised paid advertising.

For its customers, one of Amazon.com's virtues is its sense of community, a virtual meeting place for book lovers to trade opinions and learn about books -- much like the café/leisurely browsing strategy adopted by the major brick-and-mortar booksellers in an attempt to capture the personal feel of old-time bookstores in an era of megachains. But as soon as those opinions seemed to be up for sale, the whole proposition was threatened. Suddenly, Amazon.com seemed to be no more than a marketing catalogue. And so customers had no reason to be loyal to the online bookseller. Even if customers thought the others were no better than an apparently untrustworthy Amazon.com, anger about being deceived could still drive them to alternatives. It didn't matter that Amazon.com officials said the plan wouldn't affect the staff's recommendations. The seeds of doubt had begun to sprout, making anything Amazon.com officials said questionable.

Amazon.com isn't the first company to run up against that thorny issue. Consumers are used to being bombarded with ads and marketing pitches. That's why review-oriented publications have such power -- they are usually the independent place for consumers to turn to for buying advice. When I was executive editor at Macworld, company after company told me how many hundreds of thousands -- even millions -- of dollars in revenue our product reviews could add -- or deny.

So it's natural that companies seek to add editorial content to their operations. People trust it. That's why bookstores offer staff recommendations, hospitals and medical chains run feel-good advice ads on television, online computer stores provide generic how-to-decide stories and so many financial and real estate firms pump out informational newsletters.

But that strategy works only if customers believe the information to be independent.

Sure, you can fool buyers for a while. Indeed, some search engines have successfully sold their top results for specific searches, so you get a skewed response based on who paid to get in your face if you have certain interests. But wait till consumers realise that and stop trusting a major search engine or two.

Look at the questions that Walt Disney has faced since acquiring the ABC and ESPN networks. The entertainment programs with thinly disguised Disney World ads are merely annoying, but when ABC News gets questioned -- as it has been -- on whether it now pulls punches in its reporting, that causes long-term damage to its core value proposition. The Microsoft/NBC alliance that created the MSNBC cable channel and Web site raised similar concerns about its technology coverage and programming.

In the online world, it's harder to see such disguises. Who would know if an online travel agency was skewing price results based on airlines that paid it for the privilege? Or if a financial advice site was skewing its recommendations for sponsors? Or a news site was running product news based on who advertised?

Successful print publishers have long had to grapple with such editorial integrity issues, and they have a set of accepted standards to reinforce them. That's why editorial-looking ads have disclaimers on them and why most publishers separate ads from editorial content mentioning them.

Still, not all publishers follow these standards. And on the Web, where the visual difference between an ad and independent editorial content is often nearly nonexistent, it's even easier to use fake editorial content to fool your customers.

Tempted? Just remember that short-term approach is likely to kill your brand and good name. And your competitors will still be there.

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