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You may have heard of the Wellsphere blogging controversy (if not, here’s one take on the issue, and here’s another from a different perspective). In a nutshell, Wellsphere went to bloggers in the health world and asked them if they could syndicate their blog entries on the Wellsphere website. In exchange, Wellsphere promised no cash, but additional readership and hopefully, traffic back to the blogger’s blog.

This is neither a stunning nor original business model in the Web 2.0 world. In fact, it’s pretty par for the course. Web 2.0 (and Health 2.0) are predicated on a simple premise — you provide the content, and we (the company) will find a way to monetize it. Whether you’re PatientsLikeMe, DailyStrength, or Facebook, the model is the same. In fact, Dr. Val Jones, who ranted about the practice in her blog entry linked above, is familiar with this model first-hand when she worked as the Senior Medical Director for Revolution Health. Revolution Health’s mantra was “Health 2.0” — an informational website with a healthy dollop of encouraging users to put all of their health information on the site, contribute posts to the site, etc. and expect nothing back in return (except whatever “good feelings” one has for sharing all of that information with the world).

So I had a difficult time understanding the upset in the blogosphere around this business model, which is at the very core of the Health 2.0 movement.

Until I read Dr. Val Jones’ comment in this thread which crystallized the real problem for me.

The problem isn’t that bloggers didn’t read the terms of service before they signed on (which is often a problem when dealing with hundreds of non-laywers, but is also not the company’s fault). It’s not even that Wellsphere found a way not to shut down before running out of money, allowing itself to be acquired by HealthCentral (itself, a website full of syndicated content and content produced by writers and editors who make very little).

It’s the manner in which Wellsphere marketed its offer to have copies of bloggers’ posts appear on its site. Bloggers were wooed to accept the Wellsphere offer through a set of seemingly personal emails from the head doctor over at Wellsphere, Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD.

The emails, it turns out, were full of flattering comments about the author’s blog. However, they were fake — form letters sent to every one of hundreds of health bloggers. All with the same flattery and appreciation for the author’s writing. All of which was pure marketing schmaltz on Wellsphere’s part.

Brilliant marketing, in its own way, had they not counted on the inevitable — bloggers comparing notes on how they came to blog for Wellsphere. Which is inevitable in this connected world, something apparently the oblivious management at Wellsphere hadn’t counted on.

Everyone wants to feel special. Everyone wants to feel as though someone else has taken notice of their efforts and not only acknowledges that to them, but gives them an “award” and title for their work. I mean, that’s a pretty amazing feeling. If you’ve ever been the recipient of a reward in real-life for some accomplishment, you know how that feels. To leverage that feeling (or to put it more bluntly, to manipulate that feeling) suggests people who had little concern for the value of the people they conducted business with. And as you know, a business is only worth the value of how it conducts its business. If they do so with shallow lack of regard for ethics and integrity in one set of relationships, it’s likely a reflective across a wide range of relationships they have with their employees, business partners, etc.

Wellsphere was, at the end of the day, psychologically-savvy marketers who knew how to appeal to bloggers’ universal need — to be read and appreciated for the blogger’s writing. Is this wrong? Yes, of course it is, if you have any integrity or concern for the people you’re trying to woo to contribute to your site.

Had anyone with a smidgen of ethics considered what they were doing, they would’ve put a halt to it long ago. Now its in HealthCentral’s hands, and I wish them all the luck because whatever goodwill Wellsphere might’ve had at one time, it’s just been burned.

Disclosures: I also worked at Revolution Health for a time, have worked with HealthCentral in the past, and although I joined Wellsphere’s network for a short time, I wasn’t active in it.


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