Panera Bread has pulled its SheKnows.com ads in connection to a click fraud -styled controversy that’s badgered the women’s content site in recent days, Adweek has learned. The move comes after blogger Jim Romenesko  published leaked memos last week that revealed SheKnows.com editors Joanie Segall and Alicia French encouraging the site’s writers to repeatedly click on sponsors’ ads. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based website said the editors had wildly misinterpreted a company performance mandate and then acted in a rogue fashion.
In an email sent to as many as 19 staff writers on June 7, Segall wrote that the site wanted to improve clickthrough rates for its ads. Later in the note, she said, “But we can help everyone out a bit if we get in the habit of clicking on any ads you see alongside your articles, on the site, in your section, ANYWHERE. Our advertisers are the reason we all have paychecks each month, so it’s important that they’re happy. Literally all you have to do is click on the ad—you don’t have to stay on their site for a certain amount of time and don’t have to buy a thing. Just click! Click 100 times if you want to!”
On June 20, French singled out Panera Breads’ ads, stating in an email: “We have a big sponsorship from Panera, specifically in the healthy cooking section. If you see it, click it! We want to keep them around.”
In an email today, Panera Bread spokesperson Linn Parrish said, “As soon as Panera was made aware of this issue, we immediately pulled our advertising from SheKnows.com. Panera is strongly opposed to practices of this kind.”
According to a letter issued by Kyle Cox , president of SheKnows, a division of AtomicOnline, Segall and French have been suspended while threatening “immediate termination” if any other employees engage in the disingenuous ad clicking suggested by the editors.
SheKnows.com spokesperson Whitney Ashley in an email yesterday characterized the situation as internal communications gone awry. “This was an isolated incident carried out by well-meaning, yet overzealous [editors who have] been disciplined appropriately,” she said. “Requesting that people click on advertisements is not only against our stated company policy, but it is contrary to how we operate our site and work with our advertisers.”