Silicon Valley 100 is a project by Auren Hoffman. I was lucky enough to make it on the list. The idea is to make a list of "connectors" and send them new gadgets and products to test. Newsweek just did a story about this. I think it is almost like an opt-in focus group. The obvious criticism would be these companies are trying to buy "buzz". The difference between this and some buzz creation companies is 1) it's not stealth 2) they don't tell you what to say. I checked with Auren and he says that we can write whatever we want about the products. When I get a product from Silicon Valley 100, I will state this clearly in any blog post that refers to it and will say what I think. I realize that the fact that we probably get to keep most of the products makes it a bit like bribery, but if it's crap, I'm sure most people will throw it away. I would be most interested in products that are still not on the market where our feedback could be incorporated in the product design. Then our feedback could be more constructive...

Anyway, I'd be curious on people's thoughts.

The first product is a brondell high-tech toilet seat. I told Auren, that this is one product that Japan is a world leader in. I blogged this before, but we have over 50% household penetration. The one in my house and in my office even has anti-stinky gas-gate like air filtration.

UPDATE: Just uploaded a 5 min 4.3 MB conversation with Auren Hoffman, the founder of the Silicon Valley 100.

UPDATE 2: Uploaded it to archive.org too. Maybe I should put my media files there instead since archive org does the file conversions for me too...

23 Comments

Hmmm, a clever way for them to get (nearly) free advertising in the attention economy. I guess the key question for you is... does this make your blog more or less interesting? One the one hand, it's a pretty direct form of advertising for products which the blogger does not have a purely personal interest in and which would not otherwise appear on his site. On the other hand, the blogger could find a way to use this to increase interest in him and his blog; perhaps by giving away the new gadgets as contest prizes after he's reviewed them, like Oprah and Letterman. The companies get publicity, the blogger entices more people to his blog, and readers get a chance at free kit.

Keep the toilet seat though. :P

We have the choice of getting a product or not and we even have the choice of not even talking about it if we get the product. Therefore, if I only blog about stuff that I think is interesting, I suppose it should make this blog more interesting. If I want to give it away after I review it would depend on the product. ;-)

It will be interesting to see if blog readers agree. Will bloggers continue to be viewed much like trusted "friends," who happen to get to comment on some freebies? Or will readers begin to see these blog entries as paid endorsements? And if so, will credibility drop to the level of Suzanne Sommers and her Thighmaster? At minimum, we are beginning to see bloggers turn into celebrities. These endorsements will effectively have the credibility or lack of credibility of any celebrity endorsement (in other words, high or low, depending on the reputation of the person.) Traditional media has long had to grapple with the separation of advertising and editorial. At times, those lines have become blurred. Now they are further blurring in the blogosphere as well.

Wayne, I would disagree that they are the same as celebrity endorsements. My reputation comes from being honest, not from being good looking or having fans that want to look like me. Also, celebrity endorsements are paid for and are scripted by the advertiser. We have a choice of writing something good, bad or not at all. However, as you point out, the readers will decide what they think, not me. ;-)

As you can see, I don't have any advertising on my blog, but I do 1) say things about companies I've invested in and 2) talk about products that I have received for free. I make sure that I am clear about disclosing this though. I used to disclose per post when I was writing about a company that I had an interest in, but someone mentioned that it sounded "boastful" so I mention this occasionally, or use the word "we" when talking about the company. For a full list of companies that I'm affiliated with see my wiki page.

Hi, Joi,
Not to say that celebrities don't have credibility, Joi, but such a list does essentially confirm the celebrity status of the bloggers on it. (I look at the definition of celebrity on onelook.com, and it seems to fit: "the state or quality of being widely honored and acclaimed." Whether celebrity has a positive or negative connotation, I am sure, is in the eyes of the beholder.)

The key question is how readers of yours and other blogs will see your writing on the products. As the Newsweek article noted, traditional journalists don't take these products, since they ARE considered to be paid endorsements (you are getting the value of the product itself). Taking a product, of course, does not in and of itself necessarily demean your reputation, but there are readers who will interpret it as breaching your objectivity. I personally am not one to cast a stone, since I don't think I have ever turned down a freebie... at least, not a good one... ;-)

W

Yes. I think the main negative element is the "A-List" connotation of the list. I think the notion of "A-List" or "celebrity bloggers" is a corrosive idea since that's not why I'm doing it and it amplifies the sense of exclusiveness.

As I mentioned before, I suppose the most ethical thing would be to return the item after the review. I think that's what many reporters do. I suppose that would be the real test. I would probably opt out and fail that test on many types of items if that were the test. I see people reviewing gadgets where they have to return them just as they finish entering their address books and customizing the gadget. I don't think I could deal with that. On the other hand, these reporters are being paid by magazines who are paid by advertisers so they have a different incentive to do this.

I suppose it depends on the product too. Book reviewers who receive free books or DJ who get promotional records aren't considered unethical are they? How about toilet seats? How about some bling bling. ;-)

Which brings up the issue of advertorials and whether there is proper separation between advertising and editorial (traditional publications have long had "special issues" where the sales reps can use planned topics in their pitches to advertisers), but traditional media has had longer to grapple with these issues.

Your point about book reviews was spot on and got a good chuckle out of me. (I DID say I wouldn't cast a stone, didn't I?) When I review a book for a national circulation newspaper like CSM, I get both a check and a copy of the book. (Much to my wife's chagrin, I tend to keep them instead of selling them to the secondhand booksellers downtown.) In other instances, I write the review solely in return for a copy of the book. Does it hurt my objectivity? Surely, there are some people who might think so, though, like you, I would argue not.

Now, if only someone would send me a Sony U71 or OQO...

W

I'm just a bit disturbed by the word "penetration" being used in conjunction with toilet seats...

Maybe the SV100 was looking for gullible people who believe any preposterous thing marketing people say, like that washlets have 50% market penetration. The last Japanese government white paper I translated said their surveys indicate that about 30% of Japanese toilets are traditional squat toilets. 50% market penetration of Western flush toilets is still a relatively recent event.

Distributing products to commentators who have established their own credibility to garner their public reaction is no different than sending a book to the New York Times Review of Books. It is intelligent marketing and a service to potential customers by offering them the opinions of people whose values they know. I only wish I were on the list.

Agree with the DailyKos principle -- a blogger doesn't need to be neutral, they just need to disclose.

Cool, now we, webwriters have our blogsearch toolbar - http://blogsearchengine.com/blog/index.php?p=123 !

Reviews of these products would fly well in the gadget blog, if you still have it.

Charles. Let me consult my source on the 50% washlet penetration figure and get back to you.

The Newsweek story says, "Hoffman is scouring the industry for interesting stuff to send to his eager group of early adopters. He says he will consider anything: books, gadgets, software, even interesting food."

Here y'go, Auren:

http://search.ebay.com/ca420

But if you get a product and it sucks, or is just ok. Are you doing to write that? Or are you just going to not say anything?

You lose credibility if you only ever say good things, and say nothing about the bad. Tell people the NEXT product you will be getting. Then once you've had a play. ALWAYS say what you think. Even if it's just "This product is the same as all the others. Nothing special" doesn't have to be a review.
But allow the readers to always know.

Good point Rowan. If I opt into something, I should probably write SOMETHING. I will disclose that people send me a lot of random stuff that I don't blog about.

So, will you 'nofollow' the links that are being paid for?

I was surprised at the vehemence I have read in some of the negative reactions to this program. Do I detect "freeness envy"?

Ever heard of an "Expert Witness?" They are people who testify in US court cases about a wide variety of topics which often can make or break a verdict in a trial. Problem is, they get paid for their expert testimony, which often turns out to be contradicted by another "Expert Witness." Ask any US lawyer how easy it is to find an expert witness that will agree with just about anything the lawyer wants them to.

What if a company offers multiple free products to someone. Lets say 4 free products from a major electronics manufacturer. And what if 3 of these products are not actually new releases on the market, say a flat panel TV, a DVD player and a hot audio system. All three of these products are currently being offered and are popular, they are just new model numbers of previously market proven products. And now say that the last free product is something brand new that has not been established as a market leader yet. Well an "Expert Witness" would know exactly what to do. They would disclose that it was a free product evaluation, give it a positive review and keep the other three products for free without disclosing that.

I think that without a formal disclosure system and real transparency, this kind of Free Stuff in exchange for publicity system, will be corrupted. When it is, some people will say that it was a good idea in the beginning, but I do not think so. I think it is a bad idea and will create a lot of confusion. Some people like Joi will try honestly to offer their opinions, others will not. Also, multiple companies will probably start doing this and early on, people will not know which ones are for real or not.

If this kind of thing were audited, it would protect the consumers. If not, it is only a matter of time before someone exploits the loop holes.

So you and a select few others get a few new toys to play with, and gush over them in places like this.

How very nice for you. Thanks for sharing. And of course, for rubbing it in our faces.

Also, there's absolutely no chance that these *gifts* will influence your opinions in the slightest...right? I mean, true their *just* review samples, given to a select group of movers and shakers to evangelize...I mean, evaluate.

I don't know whose egotistic naivetee is greater, that of Auren Hoffman, or that of the author of this "article".

Joi, go right ahead. I have been on both sides of this debate: as a marketer who gives away product as well as a focus group member who gets schwag to try out. In the end, it's up to the readers (as you point out) whether they feel you are compromised. I can say from personal experience, however, that while the companies definitely would *like* positive word from you, the fact that they are not telling you to write, much less what to write, means they are FAR more interested in what you tell them, rather than what you tell others. Currently, I handle marketing for a large nightclub (and have done bar marketing for over a decade): just because I can get free Bud Light whenever I go to a Bud-sponsored show doesn't mean I'll tell my customers and friends that Bud Light is anything else but crap.

As for "Anonymous" post 21, that's the perfect example of "Freeness envy" that Pat mentions. Be honest, review positively and negatively, when you have time. And returning the item doesn't change the situation I believe. You got to play with it as much or as little as you wanted. If you feel "compromised" I believe you're compromised from the second you touch the item, but that's my opinion and, again, I think you're fine to do it in the first palce. If you like them, keep them. If you dislike them, there's always regifting for the holidays.

o

Regarding Washlet penetration in Japan:

The penetration rate of Washlets in Japanese households is in the article, "The Globalization of Markets Revisited" in a book entitled "The Global Market" (John Quelch and Rohit Deshpande, ed) published by Jossey-Bass in 2004. The data was adapted from Economic and Social Research Institute, Cabinet Office (2003). The penetration ratio in 2002 was 47%, so I am assuming that by 2005, it has climbed over 50%.

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