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December 29, 2006

World Domination via Blog Marketing: Don't Hold Your Breath

Dean Esmay (who has a new book out, incidentally -- congratulations, Dean!) pointed to my Publicist Guidelines yesterday as part of a larger column about a recent Microsoft blogger publicity attempt, in which Microsoft and its PR company Edelman shipped off bitchin' new laptops with Windows Vista on them to a selected number of bloggers so they could try out the new OS -- and, oh, yeah, they could keep the laptops after they were done looking at Vista.

This incensed geek overlord Joel Spolsky, who accused Microsoft of trying to bribe bloggers, which in turn prompted Esmay to tell Spolsky to take a nice cold shower. Now Microsoft is taking the position that, uh, the bloggers should, like, you know, give back the laptops they were told they could keep, a position which, strangely, some of them find annoying. Some intend to keep the thing (or give it to family or friends) and others are going to auction it off.

There are two things here. First, Microsoft wasn't trying to bribe the bloggers, it was trying to overwhelm their tiny little brain circuits by throwing such sweet swag at them that the bloggers would explode with joy all over their blogs, and also mention Vista. Speaking as someone who spent years in the fetid swag pits of movie reviewing, giving away a computer as swag is excessive but not entirely outside the realm of publicity strategies. Excessive though it may be, I see it as basically harmless, as bloggers tend to be deliriously transparent about these things, and everyone with a brain larger than the size of a walnut is going to internally adjust their bias filters as soon as the blogger writes "Dude, Microsoft sent me this."

I'm more interested in Spolsky's cri de coeur about the evils of marketing in the blogosphere. Spolsky's main concern seems to be that Microsoft is corrupting the credibility of the whole blog world by its nefarious attempts at publicity. I'm not especially persuaded by this line of thinking, first because I'm not sure how Microsoft is acting differently than any other corporation trying to convince consumers to buy its latest product. How dare Microsoft try to generate conversation in its products! It's just a plot to get people to buy Vista! Well, yes. That's indeed the point.

Leaving aside the idea of Microsoft being pure, unmitigated evil that destroys everything it touches, Spolsky is falling victim of a series of misapprehensions. First to the misapprehension that the blog world has monolithic standards on anything, which it doesn't, second to the misapprehension that there was a halcyon time when the people who wrote blogs steadfastly refused the predations of commerce, which there wasn't, third to the misapprehension that the blog world, as a whole, has any measurable standard of credibility, which is news to me, and fourth to the misapprehension that blog writers ought to have some obligation to act in a professional manner or only write about particular things in a particular manner, which, believe me, they surely do not. If the blogosphere has a motto, it would be "You're Not The Boss of Me," and Joel Spolsky is just as much not the boss as anyone else. His ability to dictate the policies of the blogosphere end at the borders of his own blog.

Likewise, I think Spolsky is deeply undervaluing one aspect of the blog world, which is that the sheer mass and diversity of the blogoverse means that it's difficult for anyone to get away with much of anything. Microsoft decides to hand out free PCs; here comes Spolsky (and others) to complain about it. The result is that the publicity spin of the event is already out of Microsoft's hands and curving away in an unexpected fashion. This is how the blog world works, precisely because it isn't a monolith. Also, Spolsky appears to be under the impression that blog readers are stupid, and they don't recognize blatant publicity handwaving when they see it, and neglect to factor accordingly. In this he is just as far behind the times as the marketers who are under the impression they can somehow control the blog dialogue about a product by putting it in blogger hands.

Now, Spolsky should know this already because he nabbed the same Sprint phone offer I did, hated the phone, and crapped all over it. Spolsky worries that getting a nice toy will cause some bloggers to feel some sort of reciprocity toward the toy giver, but inasmuch as he himself stands as an example of how that doesn't work, I'm not entirely sure why he feels that other bloggers will fall into the trap he himself avoided, or why the blogger's readership won't see through transparent and blatant marketing for what it is.

I think Spolsky's big problem is that he doesn't like being seen as a dancing monkey by tech marketers and has decided not to play their games any more. This is of course fine; good for him. I support his lifestyle choice and wish him all the best. It should not imply that bloggers who are trying out tech doodads are being turned into zombie marketeers for the loss-leader price of a shiny new toy, or that, even if they are, their readers are guilelessly swallowing the lines these zombie blogger marketeers are feeding out. People aren't entirely stupid, and the blog world shows a startlingly robust tendency toward overall transparency. No one in the blog world, blogger or reader, gets gulled unless they want to.

Since Dean Esmay points to my publicist guidelines as an example of perfectly ethical blogger behavior when it comes to marketing, it's worth asking what I would do, if Microsoft asked me if I wanted the shiny new laptop with the Vista operating system on it. My first impulse is that I would ask if I could just get a copy of Vista Ultimate instead, because I already have several computers in the house, including the new one, which is more than Vista-ready. Also, as a practical matter, it's useless to talk about an OS without talking about the process of installing it, so sending me a computer with it already installed is missing the point. If Microsoft insisted that I take the computer, after I was done using it I'd probably give it to my daughter and then take the computer she's currently using and donate it either to her school or the local library.

Would this mean Microsoft is trying to use me? Well, duh. They're trying use me just as much as book publishers are trying to use me when they send me book to mention in the Whatever, or DVD distributors are trying to use me in my guise as a DVD reviewer. This is axiomatic. Moreover, I am trying to use them as well. Why did I start reviewing music when I was in college? Because I was broke and it was a way to get free music. In the late 90s when I seriously got into video games, I started up a video game reviewing site (Gamedad) because in addition to offering a service that didn't yet exist (reviews with clueless parents in mind), it also allowed me to get all the games I wanted at no cost to me. Today, I talk about books here on the Whatever and do author interviews on By The Way not only because I want to promote really excellent authors and books, but because -- much to the despair of my wife, who lives to fight clutter -- I also get tons of books coming my way, many of which I would not have known about otherwise (I still buy books, too, since I like giving money to writers I like. More clutter. More despair from my wife).

As far as technology is concerned, I am interested in it and do write about it, so being approached by any tech company to try out their wares just means I have more things to play with and write about. I'm not going to be corrupted if they don't their toys back because, honestly. My price is so much higher than that.

Posted by john at December 29, 2006 09:44 AM

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Mary | December 29, 2006 12:51 PM

Joey deVilla doesn't feel at all compelled to give back his PC either. But he strongly, strongly warns about trying to upgrade from XP to Vista and says you should get Vista pre-installed on your next computer instead.

John Scalzi | December 29, 2006 12:54 PM


"he strongly, strongly warns about trying to upgrade from XP to Vista and says you should get Vista pre-installed on your next computer instead."

A little too late for that with me, I'm afraid. And of course, that's exactly why I want to be able to write about the experience.

Mary | December 29, 2006 12:58 PM

Oh, good. I'll go get the popcorn.

MikeB | December 29, 2006 01:05 PM

mmmm - freebies... Just can't get enough.

Oh wait, I don't get any freebies. Well, one can dream. Maybe if I promised to promote their wonderfulness MS would send me a new laptop? Just throw it on the next dog sleigh guys, I'll catch it as they pass...

Nathan | December 29, 2006 01:14 PM

The one that's being auctioned off is up to $20,209 on ebay. Man, that must be one hell of a laptop!

dave | December 29, 2006 01:31 PM

If they give you a free laptop, take it, and auction it off on here with all proceeds going to say, child's play or somewhere useful (Steak at the Scalzi compound?). Nothing wrong with some easy Robin Hood style on the Whatever.

Paul | December 29, 2006 02:01 PM

I like Joey's take on it. He's happy to either give the laptop back, or give it away, after he's finished reviewing it, but he cautions that his review process could take an awful long time...

John Scalzi | December 29, 2006 02:03 PM

Microsoft's "you know you should give this back or give it away" thing sounds like a variation of the "the CD is the property of the record company" stamp that used to get put on promotional CDs. Technically, the record company could ask you to give back the disc; in the real world, it never ever happened.

Jeff | December 29, 2006 02:09 PM

re: Clutter

I'm with your wife on this one. We're still trying to figure out where to put all the stuff we got for Xmas that we didn't need anyway. Not that I'm ungrateful, but I think next year I don't want any gifts I can't fit in a shoe box.

John Scalzi | December 29, 2006 02:12 PM


Yeah. That and the fact that I'm incredibly difficult to buy for (because if I want something I go out and buy it) are the reasons I tell people not to feel obliged to get me gifts.

Cassie | December 29, 2006 05:57 PM

I'll be glad to take some of those books off your hands. Or, if you've got a spare drum set, I have a daughter who needs one. Anything to help Krissy out.

Charlie Stross | December 29, 2006 07:17 PM

Dang, I wish they'd sent me a laptop.

I'd have blogged about it all right! Just as soon as I got Linux and a web connection running on it.

Hal O'Brien | December 29, 2006 07:58 PM

"(A)s a practical matter, it's useless to talk about an OS without talking about the process of installing it, so sending me a computer with it already installed is missing the point."

While there's a percentage of the marketplace for whom that's true, it's about 5%. That is, 95% of copies of Windows come pre-installed on new computers. (I would think the Mac percentage would be even higher.)

So, to use a variant of your words, I approve of your lifestyle choice, but you should be aware it ain't by no means universal. :) And, "as a practical matter," sending it pre-installed matches the experience of the overwhelming majority of users far more than sending the disk.

Michael Rawdon | December 29, 2006 09:04 PM

My mind is still too busy being amused by sentences in Spolsky's post such as "These gifts reduce the public trust in blogs." and "[I]t pisses in the well, reducing the credibility of all blogs."

John Scalzi | December 29, 2006 09:46 PM

Hal O'Brien

"So, to use a variant of your words, I approve of your lifestyle choice, but you should be aware it ain't by no means universal. :)"

I weep for these people, their lives are bereft of such joy!

Hal O'Brien | December 30, 2006 01:06 AM

"I'd have blogged about it all right! Just as soon as I got Linux and a web connection running on it."

Yeah, Charlie, but you're one of the 50 people on the planet for whom that works the first time. The rest of us have to watch the install fail about 7 times, then switch to a different computer to ask online for help, then be told to learn how to write device drivers because, "It's not supposed to install cleanly on that proprietary stuff," then...

"Linux: Supercomputer jocks around the world say, 'What do you mean, "Arcane"?'"

J | December 30, 2006 01:11 AM

Hey, if I ran a non-fansite blog, I could get all the swag I want from whoever wanted to give it to me. However, the bottom line is, in my opinion:
1. Apple is better than Microsoft. whether we're talking Computers, Laptops, or MP3 players.
2. There are certain albums I just won't like.
3. There are games that I just won't like.
4. The PS3 is a crappy system. The Wii rules.
5. I don't care whether my car is American or otherwise.

So, even if I were to get swag, I have set opinions already, and swag won't give me stronger opinions to the person giving it to me. And I think most people are like this. So swag away. Its harmless.

Hal O'Brien | December 30, 2006 01:54 AM

"I weep for these people, their lives are bereft of such joy!"

As someone who's bought two used computers in the past week and then scrubbed 'em myself, I'm with you.

But then, as someone who's also worked the frontline phone and email queues for a globally known software firm {cough}, I also know (and am humble to know) I am not The Demographic.

Roger | December 30, 2006 05:10 AM

I don't have any problem with microsoft handing out freebies as a promotion. I have a problem with people reviewing a system, well anything for that matter, without disclosing the freebies that came along before the review. But that's a matter of disclosure. hey, if people want to give me free gifts in the hopes I'll use it and promote it I'll take them anytime. If I write about it then I'll mention how I got it.

Steve Buchheit | December 30, 2006 07:18 AM

Shocked, shocked I am to hear that computer/tech companies use swag for promotion.

Luis Villa | January 1, 2007 08:59 AM

I'm not entirely sure why [Joel] feels that other bloggers will fall into the trap he himself avoided...

When trying to read Spolsky's tea leaves, it is good to remember that:

  1. He usually thinks that he is smarter than everyone else.
  2. When not (1), it is because he thinks everyone else is as smart as he is under the relevant circumstances.
  3. He is one of those rare people who may actually be as smart as he thinks he is.

This smells like (1).

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