Sponsorships. It is the factor in many conversations on blogging that often divide the blogger from the journalist, the self-proclaimed ethical writer from the so-called non-ethical one, the true professional from the opportunist. It is the thing that allow elitists to define themselves as being better, not only in character, but in skill and creativity. The number of sponsorships, or paid content, or brand partnerships a blogger aligns themselves with is enough to open them up for criticism and skepticism from those looking to set themselves apart, push themselves above, and pursue credibility and worth in a space overwhelmed with online content and contributors.
It is also, and will always remain, an issue worthy of discussion and review. Worthy of observation, measure, and control.
Accountability is good, not only in blogging but in all areas where the opportunity to benefit from public perception and attention exists. Readers, who we hope become consumers, should be clearly informed and aware of the factors that led up to the blogger’s and writer’s ability to deliver the experience that could influence the reader’s purchasing power.
FTC regulations are a good thing, though I would also argue that they are unfairly balanced and inconsistent in their restrictions and rules among publications (blogs versus print media). I welcome the questions, conversations, and even conflict over the topic of sponsorships, because all of these help those of us looking to improve, be it in our writing or in how we do business.
What I find intolerable, however, is how sponsorships have become a way for others, including other bloggers, to measure another blogger up, how it is used to judge whether or not their work merits credibility or worth.
Some people will say they don’t accept sponsorship. Not all bloggers have the same goals, nor the same means to achieve them.
It could be that a blogger, and I will focus on travel but it applies to pretty much any niche, just blogs for the sake of blogging and nothing more. The desire or need of financial gain or assistance is non-existent for them. But it is not equivalent to a badge of honor.
“I don’t accept sponsorships,” is no more honorable than, “I am here thanks to the sponsorship of XYZ”. It doesn’t make that blogger any more credible, any more worthy of your trust, nor that much better of a blogger/writer.
For many bloggers, myself included, direct sponsorships and paid partnerships equate with what most print media calls their sales and marketing department. And you might hate or ignore the ads in your favorite magazine or the commercials that interrupt your favorite television show, but the truth is without them these things would not see the light of day.
Journalists like to say how these things are beneath them. How they “can’t” accept such things because it conflicts with their ethics as writers and puts to question their content. It is a conflict of interest. Truth is, they don’t have to accept it because, in addition to getting a paycheck for their articles, the other work has all been done for them by their employer. Those paid assignments to Bora Bora and the latest hotel opening in Indonesia didn’t just randomly land on their queue. They often follow a trail that can be traced as far back as the sales associate in the company reaching out for paid advertising dollars that not only help to keep the publication afloat, but also their jobs. All of their jobs. It influences not only the writing assignments, but also the marketing and public relations focus for that quarter, as well as the design layout and ad space discussions that take place long before the publication goes into print.
Sponsorships, paid partnerships and ads, are not new in the world of publication, and journalists have not been free of its influence. The only difference is that as bloggers looking to sustain their site, businesses, and content, we are having to balance it all ourselves directly.
If you enjoy reading the travels of Mega Awesome Travel Blogger Extraordinaire and look forward to their photography, feedback, and knowledge, you might also have to come to terms with the fact that this blogger has to pursue sponsorship to make it all possible – unless, of course, the blogger is financially well-off, is living off some sort of trust fund, and doesn’t need the money to achieve the goal. Though, even the most wealthy bloggers I know would rather not spend their own money if they can avoid it. (Note: Let’s not confuse this topic with a recent trend of bloggers requesting to be paid by a host who is inviting them on a press trip, to be on that press trip – a ridiculous notion which changes the entire nature of what a press trip is. I am not talking about that nonsense which is often not disclosed as the for-profit business partnership that it is which does bring up a lot of questions about ethics in my opinion).
So, is the blogger only as good as their sponsorship? No. Their opportunities may be. Their ability to obtain unique content may be. Their ability to access certain experiences and story angles may be. But, they can still be horrid writers/bloggers. They can still lack skills in marketing and social media. They can still be terrible people to work with and difficult press to manage. They might not deliver. They might not be worth the investment. They might be ruled by their desire for more and put aside their ethics and transparency to please the “client” even if it means deceiving the reader.
But the beauty of social media, and something that isn’t as easy to do with print media, is that you can tell. You can tell over time if the blogger believes what they are telling you. If they are being honest and fair. If they are genuine in their message and story telling. You can tell, regardless of how they got to where ever they may be, destination-wise and career-wise, if what they are sharing is not only real and true but also informative and valuable.
There are bloggers who are incredible writers and storytellers who would rather do so without the effort it takes to have to balance contract negotiations, brand strategies, and seasonal marketing topics. There are bloggers who would rather not sit in conference calls negotiating fees and rates, deliverables and editorial boundaries. And though some may argue that those choices influence the quality of the writing/blogging, I would argue that if it is lacking in a sponsored scenario, the potential for quality (and manage a business successfully) was never really there to begin with.
Thus, let us put aside these altruistic beliefs that sponsorships somehow are to blame for a writer’s/blogger’s inability to be a good story-teller or whatever the opposite case may be. Because it isn’t true. Journalists are being forced to embrace social media and blogging, and having to understand how to sustain their creative livelihood without the financial backing of big media corporations. Anyone choosing to sustain themselves through blogging is having to learn these lessons fast.
For many of us, the goal is simple: we want to tell a story and we want to inspire. But we also have to run and operate a business – or at the very least, be able to feed ourselves, our families, and sustain our home. I can’t tell you that I wouldn’t write or blog anymore if I had no financial support from clients and freelancing jobs. I didn’t always get paid to write, and I love it no more or less than when I started. But I can tell you that having financial resources makes it that much easier to do.
Say what you will about sponsorships, but not all bloggers function under the same code of behavior or beliefs. The best of us will disclose our partnerships, because you deserve to know, but we will also be honest in our experiences, and if we are really any good, you will enjoy what you read and want to read some more. If we are really lucky, it will be enough to inspire you to take on the world with the same zest for life and courage as we have. For many writers and bloggers, the reward is not in the money, that just pays the bills. The true reward and the reason we keep doing it is in knowing that we can cause change through our stories. That feeling is something no amount of money can buy and is what pushes the best of us to work on being better.