On buying wine bloggers. A call to resist the dark side

On buying wine bloggers. A call to resist the dark side

Once upon a time people drank their wine in peace, relying on word of mouth to find what they liked. Then the forces of darkness struck. Inventing powerful spells such as marketing, advertising and sponsored wine journalism they took control of the innocent wine world. But behold, a small army of light stood up to the forces of darkness. Writing truthfully, unbiased wine bloggers would save wine lovers from evil.

Good versus Evil, photo by Helico, licensed CC BY 2.0
Good versus Evil, photo by Helico, licensed CC BY 2.0

Good versus Evil, photo by Helico, licensed CC BY 2.0

Some may believe this, but a closer look at the wine blogging world will tell you it is not that simple. In fact, bloggers are now targeted by the forces of evil in the ways not too dissimilar to journalism before them. Are we aware enough to resist?

For many of us wine bloggers writing is a hobby, so the commercial aspect may not be as obvious to us as it should be. A little while ago "Wine Intelligence" advertised a study with the razzmatazz headline: Wine consumers wary of blogger recommendations. This was based on the claim that "1 in 5 regular wine drinkers" trust "independent bloggers" as source of wine information as opposed to 50%+ who believe wine merchants. Even if you take this at face value, I would argue that influencing 20% of regular wine drinkers is a success, not a sign of distrust.

With this growing influence also needs to come an awareness of us operating in a commercial context in which marketing companies will want to buy our voice. Accepting free tasting samples and invitations to tastings and other events is one thing. As long as bloggers are transparent about this and aware of the context I see nothing wrong with it. Pretty much since the start of the Wine Rambler we have set us clear rules for how to do this. Taking paid ads is something we don't do, but as long as they are clearly marked as such it is up to the visitors of a site to make up their minds about it. What about ads that are paid for but not marked as such though? Increasingly we receive email from marketing companies (usually sent from Gmail accounts) offering money for putting up content and links to their clients' websites. From the increasing frequency this happens to us and other bloggers I would assume that not all of us say no to such offers - otherwise there would be no point in agencies sending them. What I do refer to are emails with offers like this:

I have had a look through your website and we are very interested in submitting a guest or sponsored post with a link back to our client’s site. We have lots of experience in writing content and so the content would be 100% unique.

Usually, we say no to this straight away. The other day I got curious enough to reply, asking for details but also emphasising that we were not interested in adverts, sales pitches or any fake content. Despite making that very clear, this is what I got back:

My client is in the online wine trading industry. And though there would be a couple of link within the post it wouldn't be a sales pitch or marketing post. What I had in mind was a review of a few wines from the cabernet sauvignon grape.

So basically, this is a retailer paying bloggers to publish reviews of wines they sell (or at least wines similar in style to those they sell, if I try to interpret this in a positive way). To me that is an advert and should be clearly marked as such. It has nothing to do with "unique content" for a blog. If we want to be seen as credible, we have to resist this. An advert is an advert and has to be clearly understood as such.

Submitted by Robert McIntos… Friday, 08/04/2011

You have a valid point about wine writing needing to be transparent if it is to gain/maintain credibility, but I would like to point out a confusion in this particular article

This is not wine PR or marketing. Most proper wine marketing or PR actually genuinely tries to be positive (believe it or not)

This is not wine brands trying to get better reviews of their wines.

It is actually about search engine optimisation (SEO). The content they will provide will be poor, I agree, but within it will be carefully crafted links with keywords that drive search engine results for their target site up the rankings.

They don't care about your readers, only about directing unsuspecting wine fans using search engines to their sites. This is not about getting content to your site but to theirs.

I completely agree that this is something we must all agree not to accept, whatever the pay-off. The losers are all those we care about - our readers, the wines we write about genuinely and our own 'brand'.

Submitted by Old Parn Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Robert McIntos…

... but isn't SEO an aspect of PR? A good PR operation online would incorporate SEO — and the best links for sites to obtain, SEO-wise as well as visitor-wise, are those gained organically from trustworthy sites. In other words, those sites that would probably reject spammy, link-stuffed 'guest posts' in the first place.

Good SEO practice and good PR practice go hand in hand, I'd say.

Submitted by Robert Giorgione Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Robert McIntos…

Great response Rob. As always your insightful knowledge and experience is beneficial. The wonderful and positive advantages of social media is the ability to share all this knowledge. However, at the end of the day who really ends up as the winner in all of this?

Submitted by torsten Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Robert McIntos…

From the emails we have received so far it seems to me it is both marketing and SEO. Some seem to have a focus on content for something specific; almost all of them do want the links though, so in that sense you are absolutely right, Robert.

To me PR is a somewhat different animal and, even though I had good and bad experiences here, the approach is different - as Andrew and OldParn point out. PR want to develop relationships with you and convince you/influence you; obviously, they want your links too. SEO people don't care at all about you, they just want the link. If this is handled badly, it can actually backfire on bloggers as Google and other search engines punish websites that obviously sell out their links. So there is more than one reason to be very careful here.

The reason why I did not restrict myself to SEO here is that there are several approaches to doing SEO. Bloggers exchange blog roll links. Some companies buy text adds with links relating to the same keywords. Both are plain approaches that everyone should be able to understand. And then there is the "genuine content" approach that actually pretends to be something it is not. Interestingly, I found that most content that was offered to us was about topics like "hot wine trends of 2011". After receiving yet another of these I was no longer surprised why so many generic postings of this type show up all over the internet.

Submitted by torsten Friday, 08/04/2011

I am aware that people sometimes use the terms PR and marketing interchangeable, and at least in the very olden days when I worked for a PR company - and later when I did outreach in academia - we cared about SEO too. Having said that, I did deliberately not use the term "PR" in my original post as I do see it as very different from what the companies do who send us and other bloggers these emails. From the fact that we don't have adds etc. on this blog but that we have accepted invitations from PR before (and will continue to do so) you can come to a conclusion about where we stand on this.

There are also issues to discuss about the more subtle dynamics between PR and press, but this is really not what I was after. For me PR has nothing to do with buying links and/or content in the way I described.

What I am concerned about is the practice of buying links disguised with so called "unique content". This can be pure SEO or also involve disguising what should be an advert as original site content. We were approached with content that was clearly about selling a specific product through fake reviews and not just placing a link with the right keyword, so for me it goes beyond SEO.

Submitted by Alison Dillon Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by torsten

Yes I realise that was not what your original post was concerning, I guess I was just taking up the point on Wine PR made by Old Parn, going off piste if you will whilst trying to defend the honourable Wine PR's out there :-)

Submitted by Old Parn Friday, 08/04/2011

In reply to by Alison Dillon

Had no intention to imply that PRs were dishonourable; just that those who seek to influence their targets more subtly are more effective. The pros. I spend my whole day job (design & copywriting) trying to influence people — so certainly don't consider this a dirty pursuit. Because, like you, I believe I'm selling a good product.

That said, I'm under no illusion that it's my job to go all-out to influence my target audience in the best way I can. My point was that the best way to influence people is certainly not to send spumy 'guest posts' — and that people who do that kind of thing are the unprofessional, crappy side of PR/SEO/whatever term you care to bestow upon it!

Submitted by Tom Lewis Monday, 11/04/2011

A lot of interesting comments here, but the key issue is about transparency and avoiding conflicts of interest.

A conflict of interest occurs when one's personal interests come into conflict with one's professional responsibilities - clearly there is a conflict of interest for the amateur blogger if he or she receives product to review and does not indicate that fact anywhere. Agreeing to add in paid-for content (i.e. a link or a specific wording) is just taking it a step even further.

So, conflicts of interest are best avoided. However, the general principle where they can't be avoided is that they should at least be disclosed so informed judgements can be made.

In the end, it all comes down to that old chestnut; honesty is the best policy.

Fore more details on this, see my article here:


Submitted by Miss Bouquet Tuesday, 19/04/2011

In reply to by Tom Lewis

I started my wine blog to write what I wanted to about wine. For the freedom of talking about and presenting wine in a way that I hope will get people talking more about wine. If I declared which yawn-worthy wine trade tasting I tried it at or that a wine PR had asked me to sample wine from one of their clients then it'd turn off anyone trying to get wine-enthusiastic before they'd read past the introductory paragraph. Everyone has a different reason for blogging and the implication that as a wine blogger I should adhere to some unwritten rules make me wonder whether I should consider taking the term blogger off my site.

Submitted by torsten Wednesday, 20/04/2011

In reply to by Miss Bouquet

To me this is about context. If you look at wine reviews in newspapers (print or online) you would usually assume that the writer has received free tasting samples. Blogs come in many different formats though, are financed in many different ways and have different purposes. Personally, I would not need/want a disclaimer on every single page, but I am more likely to trust a blog that provides some (credible looking) information on what it is about, how it is financed/resourced etc. The same applies to any other source I use.

Submitted by Tom Lewis Thursday, 21/04/2011

In reply to by torsten

I completely agree Torsten - if a blogger tells me that I should try a wine, I might be inclined to give it a go based on the description.

If I learn that the blogger was flown out to the winery, given a personal tour of the vineyard and cellars, a sumptuous dinner on the terrace and several cases of the product to take back, I might feel a little different about their recommendation.

If I then find the blogger had not bothered to disclose that fact because they had deemed it "too yawn-worthy", I would have serious resevations about their integrity.

I exaggerate to make a point, of course, and in the real world of course, the more likely scenario is simply that they got free entry to an event or a bottle of the stuff to try, but the point remains - the most reliable reviews will indicate whether the product reviewed was bought or a sample.

Needless to say, I always indicate this in my reviews.