PepsiCo Sponsored Blog Backfires on ScienceBlogs

Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Just as advertising and corporate sponsorship keeps many print publications on our shelves, so too it keeps the wheels of the internet turning. More and more websites are integrating advertising platforms and negotiating sponsorship deals with big brands to ensure they’ve the cash to keep their online show on the road. However it’s often a fine line between making your website attractive to potential advertisers and maintaining the integrity of the site to ensure that you don’t alienate your website visitors.

One such website that has crossed that line is ScienceBlogs – one of the largest online communities dedicated to science.

This week ScienceBlogs got in to bed with PepsiCo, launching a PepsiCo ‘sponsored blog’ – Food Frontiers. However after just two days up and running, the blog was pulled. The result negative PR for PepsiCo and ScienceBlogs unleashing the wrath of their online community. So what was the problem?

Lack of transparency:

Firstly, the network didn’t flag the planned corporate sponsorship with its bloggers…the people behind the sites success and those responsible for it’s year on year growth. It didn’t invite opinion on how this could be best managed.

Then when the blog launched, PepsiCo’s role wasn’t clearly flagged. In fact a sidebar note stated: “All editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors“…no mention of PepsiCo’s sponsorship.

No doubt realizing the error, ScienceBlogs changed this note to read: “This blog is sponsored by PepsiCo. All editorial content is written by PepsiCo’s scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs. All posts carry a byline above the fold indicating the scientist’s affiliation and conflicts of interest.”

Impinging on the site’s credibility:

ScienceBlogs has had sponsored blogs in the past without all the hullaballoo that has accompanied Pepsi’s sponsorship. Shell sponsored a blog called “Next Generation Energy” and GE sponsored a blog called “Collective Imagination” without issue. However in both cases ScienceBlogs provided editorial oversight and both blogs had some independent, credible bloggers writing for them who were not employed by the company.

ScienceBlogs has built its reputation on the quality of its content. Bloggers have complete editorial control over their content and in exchange the network places advertising on the blogs, giving the bloggers a small percentage.

The Pepsi Food Frontiers blog is written by PepsiCo’s R&D team and they had total control. Posts were not clearly flagged as sponsored or advertisements, there was no prominent corporate logo and so the passing reader was not clearly informed that these posts were sponsored.

The result? Blog binned after only two days!

The networks long time bloggers felt that ScienceBlogs and PepsiCo were capitalizing and jeopardizing on the reputation which they had helped to build.

So Adam Bly, Founder and CEO of ScienceBlogs wrote yesterday that the PepsiCo blog had been removed:

“We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.”

However this may be too little too late as many of the top bloggers on the network have packed up their posts and will be going it alone.

The ironic thing here is that the idea from PepsiCo was a good one in terms of enhancing the brands reputation and engaging with consumers in a new way. A quality blog, giving insight into what a multinational corporation like PepsiCo were doing behind the scenes is likely to have been well received. There would be genuine interest, with the debate around topics like obesity and diabetes raging, in how companies like PepsiCo were modifying their R&D process or developing new products to meet the changing consumer demands. It’s a pity that the opportunity to put a face to this brand and give genuine insight into their motivations and corporate culture amongst a core community has been missed because of a mismanaged online sponsorship. That said the Food Frontiers blog will live on in some form on their corporate website.

And so Adam Bly is left pondering…olive branch to bloggers outstretched:

“How do we empower top scientists working in industry to lead science-minded positive change within their organizations? How can a large and diverse online community made up of scientists and the science-minded public help? How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage?”

So how do companies successfully get involved in online communities?