Is The Blogger Only As Good As Their Sponsorship?
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.
Great post — A few thoughts in no particular order (since this is a comment and not a post)…and when I say "you" I mean the general you, here:
There are, of course, different types and levels of sponsorship. If you accept a sponsored post, that sponsorship affects the subject matter of the content on your site–it may be a topic that fits, it may be quality, but it is definitely affecting the content.
When you accept an item for review, I think you can still be honest…but I think that most bloggers will pull some of those punches. They will try to be more objective and balanced, or suggest to the company that maybe they shouldn't review the product, rather than write a funny post about how truly terrible the item is (which they might do if they had just bought it themselves). Also, I think we are more inclines to review items right out of the box when we receive them from companies…as opposed to allowing ourselves time to really "live" with the item…though, personally, I have occasionally updated reviews when an item fell apart after a few weeks. As you said, there are some things I could not do without sponsorship…I couldn't compare 5 mid-priced double strollers without receiving at least three of them for free. And I think something like that adds more to the conversation than simply reviewing one stroller…since I have a hands' on basis for comparison.
Then there are press/blogger trips and trips with sponsors, which is more on-point for you (in the specific "you"). I think that taking a self-designed trip with a sponsor or sponsors is a great way to bring your message to your readers. Sure, you might have to include some sponsor-messaging, and you have the "review problem" (which isn't necessarily a horrible thing, as discussed above) when actually reviewing the particular hotel, etc. — but we still get to read about your whole trip, what you chose and why, how you planned it, what you would recommend, etc.
The trips set up by resorts/theme parks/and tourist boards have an added issue with the "review problem" — the perks that regular travelers don't receive. We recently visited a water park completely on our own dime. And one thing that really hit me was the constant costs of everything–you paid for parking, for getting in, for lockers, no outside food or drink, special passes if you wanted those, and so on. I didn't know this until later but a local friend of mine had recently been invited to the park for the opening of a new ride. She was comped everything, including a cabana… We both enjoyed our experiences and were honest about them when writing…but there is no way she would have understood the regular experience of just constantly digging into your wallet and seeing the costs add up or trying (and failing) to find a table in the food court with an umbrella.
I don't think it is a matter of "ethics" — but the separation of editorial and business is a nice luxury…but it is one bloggers can't really afford on the level that a national print publication can. It is too bad because I find blogger travel write-ups generally more in depth and informative and authentic.
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Thanks Candace! I see it more as a matter of experience than an ethics one. No one, NO ONE, likes to have the very uncomfortable conversation with a host (for press trips for example) or a brand about their faulty product or the bad experience. It's so much easier of course when everything was great, and I get more questions about how to handle negative experiences then anything else because it seems that simply talking to your contact is too simply and too uncomfortable of an answer for it to be true. It would seem to some that not sharing the bad or negative would be a better route than actually emailing or calling and discussing it with the brand. For traditional media the solution was a simple one: just write a negative review and leave it to their editor to deal with whatever the response would be. We are accountable to so many people, not just our readers but to those whom we work with. It never serves a blogger well to be dishonest in their review, even if it pleases the client, because it catches up with them and the discredit can ruin the business. But throwing a brand under the bus shows a lack of skill as well, not to mention a lack of courage. We must have the courage to stand by our truths, even if it doesn't please everyone, but how we handle that has a lot to do with our ability to, as you said, successfully separate the editorial from the business.
For me the main difference comes down to I think I have a more irreverent voice when I am on my own dime (at least about the product/services I am reviewing)… As you say, there is a need to be honest…but to also not throw sponsors under the bus. That need to be fair to the sponsor is an added pressure that can make a blogger resort to a more objective, just the facts, voice. Still honest, still useful, but possibly not as funny or fun for their readers. It is a balance, though, as you say–sometimes it is worth sacrificing a little humor for an opportunity to bring an exciting experience to your readers…sometimes it isn't. And sometimes you can have the best of both worlds (like when your sponsor is just a small part of the experience). Each blogger has to decide on a case by case basis and then the readers can decide what does or does not interest them!
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I agree. Being very factual is exactly what many journalists have to adhere to on a daily basis. It could be why blogging isn't as serious to some – because it is "fun", which is exactly why it is not the same. But this approach is pretty standard in the guidelines editors give their writers: stick to the facts, don't use adjectives that would influence the reader in one way or another (such as "it was bad" or "it was great") and never write in the first person. We have the luxury to be completely honest AND factual and more often then not, a lot more fun to read.
I have to say it…I am so glad that you have written this piece! It can be such a touchy subject, but you have dealt with it so well. Thought I would weigh in with a few thoughts! (sorry it is so long – there is a little passion behind what I am saying!)
The understand the comment about the experience of a "comped" blogger experience vs the person who pays, but I do not see that being any different for a journalist. They have the added benefit of a constant pay check to sit on or an expense account to cover costs, and that is no different than the blogger, and both experiences are different than the person paying for their family to attend. I approached and tried to work with an adventure outfitter who bluntly told me that I was no Globe&Mail. To think that the journalists from major publications are not treated differently would be foolish unless they are there under a different name. I am sure the authors of major features splashed across a few pages of the NYTimes are not there incognito!
I have grappled with the business of blogging, how sustain myself in this developing market and while maintaining my ethics. I hope to maintain a site of integrity, but press trips and junkets will be a necessary part of it. Beyonce gets paid millions to say she likes a shampoo or a soft drink…I may get a complimentary cocktail while reviewing the food at a restaurant, and generally, I am paying for the food! I am not a wealthy person and I pay for most of my own experiences – but I deserve to be paid for my work (free drinks don’t pay the mortgage or any other life expenses!) It is a profession that is evolving, and hopefully, as time wears on, those who act with integrity will rise to the top, and those that don't, will slowly disappear….but that is how it is in all industries. I have watched unethical people rise to the top in corporations only to fail once they have gone too far.
I have had some amazing tips from my fellow bloggers, and love when I get comments or emails from people who have read my site and followed a tip, review or been inspired to try something new….I feel a much deeper connection to the blogging world than the newspaper world these days….the interaction with bloggers is more real. The Globe&Mail or NYTimes is not accessible or accountable to what I read in their print media. To me, they have become the glossy magazine of travel writing – nice to look at the pictures, but I am never going to afford the fancy trips on their pages just like I am not going to afford the $1,500 shoes that jump off the pages of a women's magazine!
Everyone has to make a living – it is a fact of life. Running a blog costs money and takes time. I put blood, sweat and tears into my articles like so many others do, and if it takes advertising to pay the bills, so be it. My ethics will still rise to the top and you will not see a positive review for a bad experience.
Thanks for this article – I look forward to reading more of the comments as they come in!
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Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts Anita! I agree with so many of your points and wish you continued success in your career. Never let the "no's" slow you down.
Thanks for posting on this topic. This is somewhat off topic, but I've recently pursued a partnership that fell through. Has this ever happened to you?
Okay, back on topic, as a newbie blogger, my primary purpose is to share my passion with the masses. Recently, I've looked into ways to monetize the "volunteer work" that I do. I can definitely see how sponsorship and maintaining a subjective opinion about sponsored services is a slippery slope. Overall, the commitment to our readership ensures that the right balance between subjective versus objective reviews will be met. Even when on my own dime, I want to ultimately promote a business that is trying to meet a consumer need. I think a balanced review is best for the both the reader and the sponsor.
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I agree. It takes skill to effectively, eloquently, and successfully manage the balance part. And as not every blogger comes from a journalism, media, or writing background, the learning curve can be different from blogger to blogger. That being said, though the business skills can be learned, being a good writer is not as easy, and sponsorships have nothing to do with that. The more money you get, or don't get, doesn't really make you one.
And to answer your question: of course! I have had partnerships fall through. I have had ideas being stolen and not credited to me once used. I have been overlooked for opportunities and been told no. It happens to all of us, and for many of us, rejection can be the greatest motivator to want to improve our skills for the future Yes to come.
I started blogging because I love to travel and I wanted to share that love with others. Luckily, I have a day job that takes me around the US and sometimes to other countries which helps out with content for my blog. When I am not traveling, like during the summer months, it is harder to find content. I think it is okay to attend events and trips sponsored by travel organizations in order to have content to share. If you have no new content, people would stop coming to your site. I, however, think it is necessary to give your true opinion of what you liked and disliked and not try to whitewash everything. Unfortunately, companies don't always value your honesty. I used to write reviews another blog, and I attended a show with my family that I didn't care for. It was the second one by this company that I attended. I gave the first one a glowing review because it was good. When the blogger told the company that I didn't like the show, they asked for my feedback, but they never invited me to a show again. I know that they have continued to do blogger events. It bothered me for awhile, but I wouldn't want to tell someone to spend money and then they have a horrible experience. They wouldn't trust me or my opinions anymore.
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Thank you for your comment. I am sorry you had that experience, but consider it their loss, not yours. Integrity goes both ways. You cannot successfully work with a brand or agency or even other media who doesn't stand by and support your values as a creative. It just doesn't work. Plenty of bloggers will step in and do what they must for the promise of "more opportunities". They won't stand by their principals and the promises they made to themselves and their readers if threatened with the potential of being rejected for their truths. This is often not a sign that the person is "bad", but rather lacks the necessary skills and courage needed to manage a business. As I said, some bloggers would rather not deal with what it takes to balance the business and the editorial, some bloggers don't know how. It isn't for everyone and that's ok. But, if you do decide to take on the business aspect of it, that is a part that comes with it. The courage to say no when it's not a good fit and when your ethics are challenge and not encouraged. Them not contacting you again sounds more like a blessing to me than anything else.