Microsoft has sparked another ethics debate for bloggers (or is it the same debate coming round again?). Either way, its a very familiar question to anyone working in tech PR: what's a review machine and what's a freebie?
Microsoft distributed new, high spec laptops to some 90 bloggers, so they could experience Windows Vista without needing to upgrade their own machines (presumably a fair number might also have been Mac users, so unlikely to give Vista a test drive). The basic pretext seems reasonable enough but it would appear that the essential Ts and Cs weren't made clear up front. Were the laptops a gift to be kept, or to be returned after a trial period? Should the bloggers disclose the arrangement, or not?
Whatever was intended, the blogosphere promptly cried 'bribe' and Microsoft has been obliged to back pedal. If you want to pick up the trail, BL Ochman launches in here although other comments were not so vitriolic. Indeed several of the bloggers have said they are happy to participate on these terms, here on TechCrunch's CrunchNotes. The story then crossed over into traditional media outlets with The New York Times running a piece.
The fact the PR agency handling the distribution of the laptops is Edelman (of Wal-Mart flog infamy) simply added fuel to the fire.
We have operated review or seeding programs for our own clients aimed at the media and, on a much larger scale, direct to end customers. These have ranged from software to mobile devices. Executing these programs well is no small task. You have to get the detail right.
If you ever choose to run such a program, here's some of the things that can trip you up: underestimating the time-consuming complexity of inventory control, issues like local or personal tax implications, recipient company gift policies, the need to accomodate language preferences, synchronizing with technical support, right down to which type of power plug to ship with the device. Any of these details - and a hundred others - can derail a program, deliver a bad customer experience and negate the value of the entire exercise.
Because of the scale of these programs we even developed a web based application to help us manage them, it can process device requests, control the inventory, synchronize with support, and gather feedback interactions. Also, the formal nature of this engagement makes the participants know they are in 'a program', rather than simply getting handed a freebie with no strings attached.
As a result of our experience, I tend to agree with Neville Hobson's summary of the Microsoft episode. Its far more likely to be a low level cock up in the execution of the detail, rather than a machiavellian plot to subvert the independence of these bloggers.
And, in the interests of disclosure, Microsoft is a customer.
Tags: Microsoft, Edelman, Wal-Martblogging, ethics