Photo: Steven RollBy Steven Roll
ASBPE President

B2B Blogger Paul Conley questioned the propriety of CIO magazine’s decision to embed hyper-text links to the Linked-In profiles of the people and companies that are mentioned in its online stories. In his April 14th blog post, Conley likened the practice to providing in-text ads within the body of stories. Conley noted that he thought the LinkedIn embeds were “a pretty fun piece of functionality” and said that “in truth, such links may be of value to readers.”

But Conley said he became concerned after the magazine’s rank-and-file editors and reporters told him they hadn’t been consulted about the decision. Conley said “by automating the links rather than giving control to editors, CIO has violated industry ethics.”

Specifically, Conley noted that CIO’s practice violated Paragraph D of ASBPE’s Ethics Guidelines, which states as follows:

Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors. Also, advertising and sponsored links should be clearly distinguishable from editorial, and labeled as such, as should clickthrough pages, which may also contain the publication’s editorial content, with appropriate disclosures provided. Such disclosure may include a “use with permission” statement or similar language. Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold. If an editor allows a link, it generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader. [Paragraph D. revised, May 7, 2007, by vote of the Ethics Committee.]

At this point, the exact circumstances surrounding the involvement of the magazine’s editorial department seems unsettled. CIO Editor-In-Chief Abbie Lundberg commented under Conley’s blog post that she approved the use of the links. She added that the LinkedIn embeds “are not ads but a reader service, so I think that pretty much satisfies the [ASBPE] guidelines.” In answer to other commenters on Conley’s blog who suggested that CIO or LinkedIn were financially benefiting from the arrangement, Lundberg said “no money is changing hands.”

While it appears that the events leading up to CIO’s arrangement with LinkedIn may require more study, I think Conley has highlighted an important issue that is likely to become common place in the future. But the ethical considerations are not as clear cut as the case of embedding ads within the text of an article. Do the LinkedIn embeds influence the content of the story? To me, it seems like the embeds are in the content, but not about the content. It sort of reminds me of listening to a sportscaster give the “Bulova watch time” instead of just saying it’s 9:30. Bulova got a plug, but the information is useful and the time’s still accurate.

Of course, such arrangement would never work in a print format. Perhaps my inability to come up with a better example is further proof that publishing on Internet–with all of its emerging functionalities–is likely to keep providing us with a steady supply of ethical conundrums. Failing to condemn unethical practices would destroy our profession. Being too quick to condemn new practices would likely have a chilling effect on innovation.

I could see how–over time– the accretion of these type of arrangements could eventually overshadow a publication’s content and become highly annoying. Where do you draw the line between what is useful and what is distracting? One B2B colleague who checked out CIO magazine’s site told me he thought the LinkedIn embeds makes it hard to get through an article and that he tends to find himself buried in the LinkedIn system whenever he clicks in.

Conley said in his post that CIO can remedy this situation by moving the links outside the story. I think that solution makes sense from an editorial standpoint, but I’m not sure that ignoring it would be an ethical breach.

Notwithstanding my own views on this matter, ASBPE’s Ethics Committee will review this situation and we will amend our guidelines accordingly if we see fit.