Small Business and Pay to Play: Just Say No

by Ken Mueller on July 9, 2012 · 20 comments

$620 in 31 twenty-dollar bills.

I picked up a regional magazine in the doctor’s office the other day and saw a special section with a list of the “Best Places to Retire” in my area. I flipped through and as I was perusing the list, I noticed something interesting in relatively small print at the top of the page:

Special Advertising Section

So, instead of a list of the “best” places to retire, based on any sort of ratings, the only criteria to getting on this list was being able to pay for a full page “feature” on your place of business. So while readers might think they are getting a list of the “best”, they’re getting a random list of ads. In fact, some of the facilities listed might actually be really bad. And some of the facilities excluded might be great, but weren’t included because they didn’t want to pay.

I see this all the time.

I have friends who run a coffee shop. They were approached by another regional magazine about being in a “competition” for best coffee shop in the magazine. Then they were informed that the more they paid for the “feature”, the better their chances of prime placement and winning. Thankfully, they passed.

And then there’s the regional business magazine that holds conferences on technology and other aspects of business. I noticed that one of the seminars on social media one year was being done by a company that really doesn’t do social media. I inquired about speaking or presenting a workshop or being on a panel. Turns out you have to pay in order to speak. In other words, whomever wants to “advertise” their services in the guise of a workshop by paying, is the one who gets to present. Those businesses that pay to attend the conferences are never told this. You think you’re getting information and advice from the best of the best, handpicked by the publication. Instead, you’re getting whomever decides to pay for the privilege of speaking. What bothers me about this is that this is a publication that covers business news in the area. If they do this for their conferences, what does it say about their editorial judgement? I was told that the events and editorial content are completely separate, but in the back of my mind, there is still that little nagging notion…

And on and on it goes. I’ve had similar issues with our own local chamber of commerce, despite being told that they aren’t a closed organization. I see it online with blogs and “organizations” that rank and tout the best in certain industry sectors, but only rank those that pay to become members. I’ve even been approached about “paying” to have people share my blog on their Facebook business pages, not to mention the emails I get almost daily about being paid to include “strategic, relevant backlinks” in my posts.

No, thanks.

I do my best to steer clear of these types of deals, and advise my clients to do the same. Yes, the magazine I mentioned at the top did note that it was a “special advertising section”, but the title was still very misleading to readers. I believe in full disclosure, and not in a veiled or hidden way. We talk about transparency and authenticity, and I think we owe it to our readers and others to be open about who we’re in bed with from a business perspective.

Pay to play is the old way of doing things. With the Internet and social media, this kind of thing doesn’t fly anymore, or at least it shouldn’t. If we don’t disclose these types of things ourselves, someone else will do it for us. This is the sort of thing that can be embarrassing, at least, and can escalate into something worse.

What experiences have you had with the “pay to play” thing? Do you see it in your local, or even online, community?

If you don’t see the comment section below, I apologize. Having some plug-in issues at the moment, but hope to have it worked out soon.


Previous post:

Next post: