On Sponsorship, Freebies, and Advertising Standards in a Blogger's World

In the Twittersphere I have seen a vast amount of commentary on bloggers receiving sponsorship, free race entry, promo or free goods, or anything that may come under the umbrella of 'brand work'. Public opinion seems to stretch between thinking that this means not a single one is trustworthy, to blithe indifference. I decided to write a post voicing some thoughts. I haven't been overwhelmingly involved in brand work, so I'd love others to chime in too. 

Bloggers Are Just Out for Money

Much of the chat I see implies that bloggers cannot be trusted, that they are a product-grabbing bunch who will plug anything for a freebie. Certainly, there are pockets of bad bloggers. In any industry, you will find these people. They are the people who buy merchandise at Seawheeze just to sell it at massively inflated prices, the people who will wear any shoe for just one photo and swear blind that it changed their life. However, for the vast majority this is not true. Firstly, blogging is a poor way to make money. Yes the top 5% make a killing, the rest make near-nothing. Those who take on review pieces and not sponsored posts (myself included) don't really make anything, although you could argue I've saved some money on shorts. 

Yes, yes getting free things is nice. It really is. If I had never worked with Sweaty Betty I would still have bought items- the skirt and bra I bought myself, and definitely the Gait Run Shorts because they are so beautiful. However I would have certainly bought less because of the expense. That's no secret. I, and many many other bloggers, would never accept a free product that I was not interested in - riddle me this, why would anyone want a product that was crap just because it was free? Additionally, I have yet to be disappointed by a product I was gifted, but I would be explicit about it if it was. I have commented on issues with brand pieces before (for example, size up in SB summer-wear, because they run very neat). I know there are bloggers I can trust to review products honestly. What drives this trust for me is good disclosures, constructive criticism, and low overall percentage of brand work in their blog.

Sponsored posts are a whole other beast. I did see some tweets a while back, suggesting that asking about costing is poor form. Have to say I disagree with that. Blogging, like many things, takes time effort and money. For the big bloggers some posts are therefore worth actual advertising money. If they can't speak to each other, and assess what are essentially the market rates, they have no idea if their rates are feasible or worse laughably low. Personally, I don't do sponsored posts (not big enough, don't like the idea of only being able to be positive, can't be bothered with the tax implications). But so long as they are marked I don't begrudge anyone who does. Its an industry; so why shouldn't they discuss fair price for work?

As to what money you are willing to accept... that is naturally at the discretion of the blogger. Yesterday, there was a really interesting discussion between UK fitness bloggers around a charity that was offering sponsored posting. This is an interesting quandary- would you personally accept money from a charity? The immediate reaction mostly seemed to be no. However, charities do have advertising budgets, if they feel blogs are an effective medium then why should they not spend part of this budget on bloggers? Is it somehow more ethical to pour it into a large Ad corporation? Bloggers also tend to be dramatically cheaper than traditional media. What money/products you are willing to accept should also be with a thought to your readers. One comment pointed out that they would think less of a blogger if they found out they had taken money from a charity. Many readers will think less of you if you share irrelevant products, or products that have been widely slated whilst you give them a glowing review. 

Standards Should Be More explicit

I completely agree that standards should be more explicit. My personal standards are to mark any post where I collaborate with brands as 'brand work' in the labels, explain somewhere in the body of the post what I received and what the company expected of me in return, and I now also mark all tweets or IGs mentioning the product/project as #brandwork and #freebie (if I received a free item).

Image from the ASA site: https://www.asa.org.uk

Advertising Standards Agency states (quotation marks for direct quotes):
  • "A blogger who is given money to promote a product or service has to ensure readers are aware they’re being advertised to".
  • Bloggers should report PRs or companies that ask bloggers to advertise without disclosing.
  • Bloggers cannot falsely present themselves as consumers (can get you into trouble with ASA and the Trading Standards Office).
  • "It is perfectly legitimate for a blogger to accept payment in return for promoting something in their blog". 
  • "The rules don’t prohibit PR companies sending free gifts or samples to bloggers in the hope of receiving a positive review."
So: 
  • Bloggers MUST state if something was paid to them (monetary, or otherwise) for positive posting or information/promo posting, and must mark the content as an advertisement. 
  • Bloggers do not have to say it was an advert if the product was gifted without money and without a guarantee of a positive review or even a review at all. However for best practice I always would ("Product was gifted by the company in exchange for an honest review"/"Product was gifted by the company with no requirement of review or posting", are usually my words of choice). If you see a product on my site, and i haven't said anything, I bought it. 
  • The ASA currently has no guidelines I can see on affiliate linking. Again, I would say it is best practice to warn followers of exactly what they do, either by specifying in every post or by linking in every post back to a header page that describes how you use them. 
People do look to bloggers for advice and guidance (whether they are a good group to look to is another question). That makes fairness and openness pretty crucial qualities when it comes to products. Everyone has had that sinking experience where they lose faith in a blog because its suddenly full of things you know they didn't buy, which are suspiciously their, 'new favourite things'. If you know a blogger that isn't disclosing I'd have a word with them first. If they persist? Well there is a report button on the ASA site, you can go use it. 

Explicit Standards Means You Must Give Bloggers More Respect

If you see bloggers write with authenticity and correct disclosure, then you have to lend them the same respect you would give magazines. There is an air of, "they don't deserve it", about the criticism I hear. Bloggers work very hard at a hobby that they may never receive any real comeback on. Why? Often just because they love it. Furthermore, bloggers are in fact an excellent marketing strategy. It is no wonder that brands love using them. They can give massive reach, with a more real voice, for much much lower amounts of money than conventional advertising would require. They also hit their target population spot on- in our case, people who care about exercise and fitness. People who care enough about it to read all around in their spare time. 

Advertising Will Be Shallow in Some Ways

Brands care about reach. Its natural and obvious that they will be interested in social media, number of followers, page hits and so on. Depending on what and how they are promoting their product, they may care more about loyal readers or more about simple page clicks. I am well aware my reach is less because I am up north. Londoners have far greater reach in sheer population numbers, and in numbers of the social media-using population to be advertised to (lots of young professionals about down south).

Brands also care about the aesthetic of both the person and the blog. My blog isn't very glossy. I am okay with the flat out truth. I also may get some promo opportunities due to being 25 years old (26, crikey!) and blonde. The super-photogenic will end up with many, many more brand opportunities. Many bloggers could be models. Those people are advertising their product as well as a magazine would do without the model, make up artist, photographer, or any ad cost anywhere near as high as a magazine would cost. These bloggers have cut out every middleman, essentially.

Brands also care about attitude. There is a world of difference between reporting, "the shorts are beautiful but I would size up", and "they are cut stupidly small, that stinks". One gives constructive feedback, and useful information for anyone looking to purchase the product. The other is a scathing (and childish) recrimination. Again, if I could not find anything redeemable about a product, and 5 straight negative points, I would write that.

Freebies are Morally Curious

Free items are actually morally very difficult. And in classic me form, its all psychology. At its most basic it seems above board- bloggers are gifted items (kit, race entries, food supplements and so on), either with the expectation/requirement of a review, or with no expectation or requirement to post. They are allowed to write exactly what they thought, in the format they want, with words straight from their own keyboard. It sounds great. 

However, such a scenario has a lot of implicit pressures. Firstly, anything free will seem a little better- there is no disappointment associated with having to pay for it. It's like how free food tastes better. Its also exciting to get lovely things boxed up, like a gift to you. It feels like a present. Its difficult to focus and realise that more than anything, gifting things is a cheap form of advertising. That's not to say you can't develop lovely relationships with brand staff- if you are both passionate about a product it unites you. However, those relationships could also influence what you write. Its very important to stop dead whilst writing that review and focus- would you buy that, if it were your money? If you HAD bought it, what would have disappointed you? Even if the item was sent with no expectation, chances are the blogger will post about it. It'll at least be an instagram post. It's like a little bit of compliment fishing. And because its not an actual post, even less bloggers will disclose that it was free (or will use ambiguous language like, 'Recieved a lovely wee parcel from Brand Name!', where you can't tell if they bought it or not).

Overall, brand work is a tricky beast. My basic advice is to develop your own moral code, based mostly on your assessment of your readers and what you are personally comfortable with. Disclose clearly and succinctly, be honest and open in reviews, and decide where your personal boundaries lie. Be one of the good guys. I will continue politely (and privately) reminding people to disclose.

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How do you feel about sponsorship, freebies, and advertising in blogging? 


14 Comments:

  1. Great post! And highly interesting.
    I love reading reviews from bloggers as the blogs are read tend to like the same stuff I read so the reviews are generally very relevant to me. I like hearing "real world" thoughts on things, rather than an advert.
    Sponsored posts? Nope. Unless it's something I'm really interested in then I won't waste my time reading it. A couple of my favourite bloggers do sponsored posts but I still won't read them. I don't hate them for doing it as I can easily ignore the post and I know that's how they're earning their living.
    Lots of big American bloggers (forgive the vast generalisation here) do annoy me though with pseudo sponsored posts. Posts that are sneaky with affiliated links and overly positive reviews for things because they have a partnership with the product and they're not up front about it. I don't want to read a fake advert, you know? And it is very much like "well I'm a partner so I need to be super positive about this" and so you don't get a constructive review.

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    1. Thank you!

      Yeah I'm the exact same as you- like a review, unmoved by sponsored posts, actively appalled at non-disclosure. I haaate the pretending not to be sponsored/not to be a freebie. I also hate, hate, hate the vague disclosure, "thanks so much to the place for having us!". Lady, I think what you're trying to say is : "thanks for the completely free holiday in exchange for this blog post!"

      Thanks for your comment Anna!

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  2. This is a great post! My blog doesn't have enough reach/I don't care enough to reach out - so I haven't got any freebies through that way. A sticky area for me is that my boyfriend (works in PR) gets free excursions and stuff and occasionally brings me along, and I sometimes write about what we do on my blog. Do I need to disclose that? (I usually do.)

    I occasionally have affiliate links, but I make sure I don't have them in every post, and I have a disclaimer in every post that does. I also only affiliate link to things I like. That's a pet peeve of mine - bloggers that say they don't like something, but affiliate link it anyways.

    I'm appreciative of gear reviews especially. At this point even magazine reviews are basically paid advertorials, so the more reviews I can read the better. I have a few gear sites that I trust, and a few that are only good for gear specs.

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    1. Thanks Tahoe!

      I don't think the ASA have any comments on the BF angle but you're right to include it in case- shows your readers you can be trusted (and also shows you know how lucky you are!).

      I'm with you on the AFs for things they didn't like- you hate it, but are still happy to make money from it?!

      Completely agree, magazines seem to now only write about what they DID like, which makes it v hard to ascertain which products are no good!

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  3. Great post- well written and interesting to read.

    I rarely get freebies. Instead, I spend a large portion of my own disposable income on fitness fashion. Why? Because I love it.
    My blog basically loses money :) but it's a fun hobby that I love to do.

    I follow a lot of blogs on bloglovin and if I see "sponsored post" I usually just "mark as read" and move on. Run, Eat, Repeat is one of the WORST where I barely read what she writes any more because its so inundated with sponsored items....

    Anyways, I think your blog is very authentic and I appreciate your "non-London" perspective of the UK!

    I also think that your blog is actually very glossy. I am always drooling over the gorgoues sceneries you share!

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    1. Same. I spend a lot of money on fitness gear. Way more than on normal clothes. But they're gorgeous and I use them too. I'm not sure my blog loses money- I'd still be doing the things I write about/paying for them without a blog- but it defs doesn't make any!

      Run, Eat, Repeat is sadly a wash out of sponsored posts on irrelevant (sorry) things. I mean, cereal? Really? I used to read, now I don't.

      I'm glad you find me authentic - I try to just be me, warts and all! It helps for the scenery to be surrounded by all these smashing mountains ;-).

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  4. Oh my goodness.
    You know some of my less ‘publically discussed’ views on this topic and therefore I whole hearty agree with everything you say in this post. I personally, have no problem with bloggers receiving freebies or items for review and I also have no problem with them being paid to review an item.
    I understand that it’s hard work to produce a review post, especially if a photoshoot for the product is involved – For example it took my partner and I an hour to get two ‘usable shots’ of me in an outfit I’d been sent. Also if a blogger is using the blog for part or full time employment reasons then they should be paid accordingly by companies, I think it’s great that a new generation of people are able to boost income with a blog (Just as long as they are covering tax correctly).
    However I’m going to turn the tables, if you’ve been given an incredible opportunity as a blogger and can only write a few paragraphs with a half-hearted vague explanation (aka glossing over) of how the opportunity came up then I DO have a problem. I don’t think it’s reasonable for ‘freebies’ to be sold on ebay etc, I unfollow blogs who basically become one great big advert (and I can see that others feel the same).
    As a blogger I do get asked to review all sorts of things, mostly items that are completely irreverent to my blog and I’m sure I’m not alone here. If a blogger reviews something that is so, out of context it does make me question the blogger and although I shouldn’t always do that, it’s a natural reaction. I’m particular on ethics, I was offered a big job with a very, very well-known weight loss company and I declined because I don’t actually agree with the ethics of the company or the PR Company. Why would I push something I don’t love? For page views? For more followers to boost my tiny ego? No thanks.
    Sorry…I’ve written you an essay lovely lady!

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    1. I LOVE an essay. Debate is awesome so essay away!

      Photoshoots take FOREVER. For my AW fitness gear post it took us like 2 hours O_O.

      Like you, I really get irate when I read a post where a blogger has been given a huge gift (example: holidays) and writes 10 words with 5 photos. No information on the place. No idea of how a normal person can go. That to me seems to be letting down the company who paid for them- that CANNOT have been what they were looking for.

      I forgot to mention freebie reselling: I completely agree with you. I'm not even sure its legal to sell on freebies. Certainly when I used to work at clothes stores we were not legally allowed to sell on anything we bought with staff discount. It certainly seems unethical. Sure, give it to a friend or a charity. But directly prosper from something you swore blind you loved? And worse advertise it as 'with tags on'? Pretty poor behaviour that makes me question your review of it in the first place.

      It sounds like declining was the right decision. I'm glad you have your head in the right place and very much screwed on :)!

      Delete
  5. Really great post, as usual, and an interesting debate. I don't have any great issue with freebies as long as it's made clear that something was free. Personally, I don't get offered many freebies and I have turned down various freebies that are totally irrelevant to my blog (men's camping gear, I'm looking at you). Sponsored posting is a tricky one. I like it when someone works the post into something that seems like a post they would write anyway (if that makes sense) but I am usually less inclined to read sponsored posts. However, provided it is made clear, I don't really see anything morally wrong with publishing them. I have never been offered any, but I wouldn't necessarily rule it out. Like you, though, I am based outside London and have a much smaller reach than some bloggers so I doubt many/any offers would come my way! Sometimes, I like it that way, though. I am not beholden to anyone so if I don't post in a while (like I haven't lately) then I don't feel bad about it.

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    1. Thanks Clare! How does men's camping gear differ from women's camping gear :-S? To be honest I think the vast majority of sponsored posts are kinda dull, but I have read some good, integrated ones (Lazy Girl Running does brand posting really well).

      I like being a less popular blogger too! Keeps me thinking for ideas, and means my posts rarely overlap with anyone elses :)

      Delete
  6. Interesting post - I have to say I love your style of writing! I can really "hear" your voice, if that makes sense haha.

    I'm a blogger, and I've worked with bloggers professionally on the side of PRs and brands through my day job as a digital strategist. Whenever I've worked with Bloggers on behalf of brands we always stipulate to both parties whether it's a sponsorship/partnership (usually meaning there will be monetary payment and gifts, in return for unique content) or if we're gifting product (meaning that the brand hopes for a blog post, or a social media post) and typically, due to having worked with large luxury fashion brands and eCommerce giants, due to their own legalities the bloggers must explicitly state the nature of the work whether it's gifting or sponsorship.

    I'm not sure I'm that bothered by sponsored posts from bloggers. I know some readers get really turned off by it & refuse to read posts but it really doesn't bother me. The lines of paid/earned/owned media are pretty blurred these days, especially on platforms like Instagram; you mentioned that it's hard to decipher the whether or not something is an ad/sponsored/gift when people post "just received this from X," and I agree, it is difficult to tell. Some use the hashtag #ad or #freebie and some don't. This type of advertising is still fairly new, and so whilst there are clear and defined standards for some forms of digital ads (e.g. display banners and video ads) for social media, it's still such a new format that the rules aren't all in place yet, and the technology is still being created as we speak.

    I would argue that the big blogs should be seen the same as magazines - and I find it's quite easy to identify which blogs that have evolved from personal hobbies to media platforms. This issue of being advertised to online and/or without the consumer knowing I find incredibly interesting, especially as you have platforms like Instagram dappling with Native Ads, just as much as the traditional media formats are. A really interesting debate on Native Ads occurred when the New York Times ran one for OITNB. As a consumer, I find that more frustrating and misleading - even more so when coming from news media.

    OK I'll stop writing a blog post on the post, now!!

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    1. Hey Temilasade, thanks for such an awesome comment!

      "I can really "hear" your voice, if that makes sense"< a) it totally makes sense and b) I think that's the best compliment I have ever received :-)

      Its really cool that you have both sides of the debate- as a strategist and as a blogger too.

      Instagram is SO blurry. Its near-impossible to tell if someone just likes it, or was sent it, or was paid to say it!

      I agree that some blogs are clearly 'editorial' style glossies, and some more home grown. I'm in category B ;-)

      thanks for your thoughts!

      Delete
  7. Such an interesting read and isn't the whole blogging thing just fraught with pitfalls. At the end of the day I think if you are an honest person you will be rewarded with readers. Folk aren't daft and soon see through you if you're saying you had the best haircut of your life in 3 different places in the same few months...
    Lovely to meet a fellow Glasgow blogger! Say hi the next time you see me out with my furries.x

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    1. Thanks ThankFifi- I will!

      Unfortunately I'm not totally sure that's true- there's a couple of very famous main offenders in that regard. But yes, hopefully most people can spot when every new thing is their new favourite thing ;-)

      Hope your fuzzies enjoyed the sun on Saturday, as it is MISERABLE today. x

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