In recent months, a number of Inc.com writers have received a novel pitch: an email from someone describing himself as a "digital marketing consultant" or "SEO marketing expert," offering hundreds of dollars in exchange for mentioning or linking to a client's website in one's posts.

The writers receiving this indecent proposal aren't Inc.com staffers. They're columnists--outside contributors to our publishing platform. We vet them, coach them on the basics, and, after three months, they post directly to the site without prior editing. Any problem posts are flagged and reviewed. Some regular contributors get paid on the basis of how much traffic their posts draw; others write less frequently, and for free.

Inc.com is far from the only news site with an outside contributor network. Forbes, where I worked previously, has one too. So do Fortune, TheStreet.com, Entertainment Weekly, and plenty of others. Inc.com has around 350 contributors in its network. Forbes, Fortune, and Huffington Post all have networks in the thousands. 

The economics of digital news become tougher every year, and we're all seeking the same payoff: the traffic boost from having so many new writers on our site. While Inc.'s experience with our contributor network has been nearly overwhelmingly positive, editors at sites that have such platforms concede that potential for risks exists.

We know about these pay-for-coverage schemes primarily thanks to Inc. columnists who have received these come-ons and alerted our editors. "Hi [contributor], I wanted to reach out to you and see if you would be interested in mentioning / linking to several of my clients in your upcoming pieces on Inc.," read one such email forwarded to us. "I could arrange to pay you $200 via PayPal for every post published live with link intact. If you are interested, there are about 10-30 orders per month I could give you." (Inc.com had several columnists whom, we strongly suspected, had accepted such invitations to sell mentions to marketers in their articles. They're now ex-columnists.) 

Another email issued from an account that, when plugged into Google, turned up a spreadsheet of websites and prices. Behold this à la carte menu for fake news: a post on FashionFlu.com will cost you $120; on BuzzFeed.com, it's $250; on KillerStartups.com, it's $400. Inc.com comes in at the premium end, at $1,250. The compiler of this list did not reply to an email asking to discuss these offers.

Rather than wait for marketers to come to him, someone claiming to be an Inc.com contributor thought to advertise his services on rent-a-writer platforms like QualityGuestPost.com and PeoplePerHour.com. "I have guest posting privileges on the Inc.com. I will write and publish a post there with a backlink to your website, using your anchor text," reads one listing. The cost: $697 per post. The anonymous writer, who is based in Nigeria, also  advertises affiliations with Forbes, the Huffington Post, and Engadget. He did not respond to a message seeking comment. 

When we contacted QualityGuestPost.com to let them know about this issue, a helpful person wrote back asking if we wanted the listing removed or if we preferred a cut of the action. We opted for the former. (We learned about these listings from a different Inc.com columnist.) 

Whenever we see our editorial real estate being advertised in this way, we contact the site proprietor to let them know it's not allowed. While it's easy to find agencies that claim to traffic in this sort of thing, it's harder to tie them definitively to individual infractions. Many have websites advertising their ability to "get your brand mentioned by contributors to Forbes, Inc., Huffpost etc." When asked directly about paid-link placement, they will deny it's among the services they offer.

"It's a very clear violation of our ethics policy, and we will terminate our relationship with any columnist found to have done this," Inc.'s editor, Jim Ledbetter, told me when I asked him how we handle this kind of scam. "I don't have any reason to think that it has occurred more than a handful of times, but any behavior like this is a violation of the trust Inc. has with its readers."

"There are ways to police it," he added, "but I'd rather not make those public." 

Other news organizations cling to more or less the same formulation. A Huffington Post spokeswoman said, "We consider this a clear violation of our terms, which prohibit commercial content and require contributors to disclose any conflicts of interest. We suspend the writing privileges of anyone we catch doing it." A Forbes spokeswoman said its guidelines for contributors forbid "using the Forbes.com platform and the Forbes name to promote a company or service." Forbes has made it clear in the past it will terminate contributors who sell mentions in their posts.

It's not just a matter of publishers' rules not being respected. The practice of paying for mentions without disclosing it runs counter to guidance the Federal Trade Commission has issued to publishers, marketers, and advertisers. The agency has outlined rules for paid endorsements by celebrities and social media "influencers" as well as for "native advertising," which mimics the appearance of editorial content. In cases where those rules have been violated, such as one that resulted in a settlement with the department store chain Lord & Taylor, the FTC's policy has been to hold the advertiser responsible.

Because contributor platforms are still a relatively new phenomenon, it's unclear exactly how they fit into the FTC's framework. Paying for mentions on them could be construed as either a form of product placement, an endorsement, or a native ad. In any case, federal law considers anything that misleads a "significant minority" of consumers to be a deceptive advertising practice.

We believe brands going behind our back in this way is indeed deceptive, and Inc. has filed a formal complaint with the FTC concerning these practices. As for now, we'll continue to hew to our zero-tolerance policy for such shenanigans, and we'll continue to be vigilant in policing such infractions.

Published on: Jul 29, 2016