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How Bloggers Make Money, Part 3 | Sponsored Posts and Product Gifting

Posted on 9 min read

In the previous posts in this series, I wrote about how bloggers make money through advertising and affiliate links, so in the final instalment (Because yay, it’s almost over! Only another 3,000 words to go!) I’m going to tackle the thorny issue of sponsored posts and product gifting.

I say “thorny”: these are two really popular ways for bloggers to make money from their blogs, but they can be really UNpopular with readers – and with search engines, as I’ll discuss shortly. First, though, because these two methods of monetisation are pretty similar (and often completely overlap), a quick explanation of what they actually ARE, and how they differ from each other. So!

How bloggers make money from sponsored posts

 

Sponsored posts explained

SPONSORED POSTS are, as I’m sure you already know, posts which brands pay a blogger to write and publish. The brand will normally provide the blogger with some kind of brief for the post, which can range from very detailed and specific to incredibly vague, but which will generally include things like the links they want to include, the timescale they expect the post to be published by, and sometimes a specific topic for the post. They may or may not also provide an item of clothing or other product which they want the blogger to feature in the post, and they’ll normally expect it to be promoted on social media, too.

Sponsored posts have long been popular with bloggers, because they can be highly profitable: what you earn from them will differ from brand to brand, and from blogger to blogger (If you have a huge amount of traffic/followers, you can expect to charge more than someone with a much smaller blog), but some brands are willing to pay quite a lot of money to appear on the blogs of their choice, so it can be a good way for a blogger to earn money without selling traditional advertising.

The problem with sponsored posts, of course, is that readers almost universally hate them. Don’t get me wrong: not all readers are vocal about their hatred of sponsored posts, and many are willing to tolerate them, on the understanding that bloggers need to make money somehow, but I don’t think there can be many people out there who say, “Oh, great, another sponsored post: those are my favourite!”

Part of the issue is simply that posts which the blogger has been paid to write can seem unauthentic to the reader: they don’t feel they can trust them, and see their appearance as evidence of the blogger “selling out”. Other times, sponsored posts can be problematic because they seem totally out of place on the blog: they might be on a subject the blogger hasn’t previously shown any interest in (but is now claiming to be ALL ABOUT), or the brand’s requirements regarding the way they’re written might make them totally different to read from the rest of the content, which is off-putting.

Whatever the reason someone has for disliking sponsored posts, the fact is that they are generally disliked by readers, and they’re positively HATED by search engines… as  I’ll get onto in a minute, I promise. First, though..

how bloggers make money from sponsored posts and product gifting

Product gifting

In this scenario, rather than paying for the post itself, brands will simply “gift” the blogger a product in the hope that they’ll write about it. By which I mean, “they totally expect you to write about it: there is no “hope” about it”. They might not actually come right out say it, but there is most definitely an expectation that if a blogger has accepted a product, they WILL write about it – this is the infamous “c/o” (or “courtesy of”) you sometimes see in posts, when bloggers list where their clothing came from.

So, how does this make money for the blogger, I hear you ask? 

Well, up until fairly recently, it didn’t, really. I can only speak for myself here (although I know a lot of other bloggers who are in exactly the same boat), but until earlier this year, product gifting was a nice perk of blogging, in that it enabled me to get the occasional free dress or whatever, but it wasn’t anything more than that. If a brand offered to send me something to wear, I’d accept it (IF I liked it, obviously) and I would always, always blog about it, but it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to ask them to ALSO pay me to feature it on my blog. I mean, cheeky or what?!

Over the last year or so, though, blogging has changed, and the nature of product gifting has changed, too. There has always been an expectation that bloggers will write about the items they’re gifted, but until recently, it was mostly an unspoken assumption: the brand sending the item would generally leave it up to the blogger to decide how and when they would feature it, and wouldn’t make any “demands” about it – because then it wouldn’t be a “gift”, would it?

These days, though, instead of simply saying, “Hey, how about we send you a dress, and if you like it, you can write about it?”, brands are now more likely to say something more along the lines of, “We’ll send you a dress: in return, we want you to style it three different ways – all of which must be appropriate for someone attending The Oscars –  provide a list of your “top tips” for Oscars-attendees, include a paragraph promoting this contest we’re running – complete with these exact links – and promote us on all of your social media accounts. And we need you to do it by Friday.”

Now, this is obviously quite different from the scenario outlined above, and is the point at which “product gifting” basically becomes indistinguishable from the sponsored posts I discussed above. For that reason, many bloggers have started to charge for this kind of post, too (Catherine at Not Dressed as Lamb wrote an excellent post about this a few months ago, and followed up on it with some reactions from other bloggers: her posts are well worth a read.).  I personally don’t charge for all of the posts I write featuring gifted items (and I don’t ever charge for reviews), but I do charge for ones in which the brand has specific requirements for the post, or expects me to work to a deadline, etc: to my mind, that’s no longer a “gift”, but an advertisement*, and my personal feeling is that advertising should be paid for, regardless of whether an item of clothing is provided as part of the deal or not. After all, if you’re being given a “free” dress, but you’re expected to work for it, that’s not actually “free” at all, is it?

(* Really, ALL posts promoting a brand are “advertising”. Some, however, are much more work than others, and it’s up to each blogger to decide where they draw the line – or if there even is one.)

So! That’s how bloggers make money from sponsored posts and product gifting. But! There is one major drawback to all of this, and that drawback is the almighty Google.

shoes

Why Google hates sponsored posts

 

As I mentioned above, Google hates sponsored posts – and makes no distinction between traditional sponsorship and “gifting”, viewing both as scenarios in which the blogger is essentially “bribed” to write about a brand. To understand WHY Google hates sponsored posts so much, you have to understand why brands pay bloggers to write sponsored posts in the first place. There are basically two reasons for this:

1. In order to sell products – the brand hopes that when the blogger writes about them, and links to them, the blogger’s readers will click through and buy something.

2. In order to improve their search engine rankings.

Point one is pretty self-explanatory. In order to understand point two, you need to know that one of the factors search engines like Google take into account when deciding how to rank websites, is how many links each site has pointing to it, and what the anchor text on that link says. (The “anchor text” is the words you click on to open the link.) So, in theory (and I’m greatly simplifying this), if I want my blog to rank highly in Google for the search term “green midi dress”, the more people who link to me using the words “green midi dress”, the more likely I’ll be to appear in Google’s search results for that term. So, brands pay bloggers to write about them, using specific anchor text: and Google sees that as an attempt to manipulate their search results (Which it is: they want the sites that are most relevant to rank highest, not the ones with the deepest pockets…), and it penalises the brand AND the blogger.

Yes, Google can and might penalise your blog if you accept money (or products) in exchange for writing about a brand: they do it by bumping your blog down the search engine results, or even removing it from the Google index altogether. (One of the best known examples of this was when Interflora managed to get themselves completely banned from Google for placing paid links: whoops!) Obviously, this can be catastrophic for any online business, blogs included: so does this mean that you can’t ever write sponsored posts?

pink heart-front shoes

How to accept sponsored posts without upsetting Google

 

Don’t worry: you CAN still write sponsored posts (or accept gifted items) without getting yourself banned from Google. The way to do it is to simply add the “nofollow” tag to the links within the post. Now, I’m not going to write a tutorial on how to nofollow your links (Because Google have already written one, which you can find here), but basically the “nofollow” tag is a way of saying to Google, “Hey, don’t bother taking this link into account when you’re working out how you’ll rank the site I’m linking to.” By doing this, you can accept sponsored posts and gifted items, without waking up one morning to find yourself on the Google Blacklist.

The downside to this? Well, nofollow is all well and good IF the brand who’s sponsoring you is doing it for reason number 1: to sell products. The problem is that a huge number of brands do it for reason number 2 – to improve their search engine ranking – and a nofollow link is no use to them whatsoever in that respect. (This is why some bloggers don’t disclose sponsored posts or freebies: so that Google doesn’t know the post was sponsored, and therefore doesn’t penalise them for it.)

For that reason, it’s becoming harder and harder for bloggers to make money from sponsored posts. (Which is good news for readers, I guess.) Personally, I only accept sponsored posts or gifted items from brands who are happy to get a “nofollow” link. There are still some of them around, and they’re great to work with, because they understand how the internet works: they’re interested in building a relationship with the bloggers they work with, and they’re not going to ask you to do anything that will get either of you in trouble.

For every brand who’s happy to sponsor my blog on this basis, however, there are many, many more who lose interest as soon as I tell them I’ll be disclosing the sponsorship and nofollowing the links. (Some even specifically ask me NOT to do these things: those brands aren’t ones I’ll ever work with.) And that’s why, as I’ve said in my other posts in this series, if you want to make money from blogging, it’s a good idea to use a few different methods of monetisation, so that if one stops being effective, you don’t completely lose your income.

And so ends this series on how bloggers make money! I hope you enjoyed it, or at least found it interesting to find out how the business side of blogging actually works. As always, if you have questions, leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer!

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17 Comments
  • Holly
    November 23, 2014

    I have no interest in making money from blogging, but I’ve found these posts really fascinating as a kind of blog-version of ‘how to read a scientific paper’ – I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about what the blogs I read do to stay afloat. So, cheers for that!

    • Amber
      November 23, 2014

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m always really aware when I’m writing these that there are a lot of people they just won’t be relevant to, but I was hoping blog readers might at least find it vaugely interesting to get a bit of a “behind the scenes” look!

  • CiCi Marie
    November 23, 2014

    Another great post – I was definitely vaguely aware of nofollow links, but hadn’t put two and two together and thought about what that means for bloggers. I feel like there needs to be some sort of blogger school (and you could be the Head!) where everyone should go to learn this kind of thing… it really is vital. Thanks for sharing!

    • Amber
      November 23, 2014

      Haha, oh I definitely don’t think I’m qualified to be the head, but I do wish these things were a bit clearer to people – I think a HUGE amount of bloggers won’t know about nofollowing links, for instance, and that’s not through any fault of their own, it’s just not something that’s really widely known. It actually terrifies me how easy it can be to inadvertently annoy Google… I mean I don’t think anyone ever WANTS to break their “rules”, but they will literally change them overnight, and they’re not always exactly transparent about it, so I live in perpetual fear that one day I’ll wake up to find that something they’d previously considered to be absolutely fine is now totally forbidden!

  • LydiaGrace
    November 23, 2014

    As a reader I’m all for sponsored posts from the right blogger, by which I mean someone who gives their own opinions and details as opposed to basically copying and pasting what the company says. Recently a VERY famous blogger has been doing a lot of sponsored posts which each consisted of two short paragraphs. S/he could have typed ‘spaghetti’ over and over for those two paragraphs, but thousands would read it so the brand still got attention and s/he still got $$$. I don’t agree with that at all.

    • Amber
      November 23, 2014

      I really hate it when people just copy and paste – especially when they don’t disclose it: it’s always so obvious!

  • Selina
    November 24, 2014

    When I used to work for a nail company, part of my job was to track down popular nail blogs and do exactly as described above, but with less of a rigid deadline. It made no sense to go to other blogs other than the nail ones so I avoided some of the problems as listed

  • Lizzie
    November 24, 2014

    This series has been incredibly helpful for me! I’m not really trying to make money, but if you can make a little side cash, why not, right?

    However, this post brings up a whole new problem for me. Quite often I am contacted to write a themed post for a company, but they are offering no compensation whatsoever. Is it wrong to give a polite “no thank you” and move on with my day? I feel like it’s one thing to offer a “free” item or small payment, but nothing at all except you (the social media manager) will post your favorites to Twitter? Is this a problem you personally have run into at all? How have you handled it?

    • Amber
      November 24, 2014

      Nooo, it’s not wrong at all! You’re never, ever obliged to write about anything at all on your blog, especially if you’re not getting paid!

      I get stuff like that all the time, so I now have a couple of canned responses I just copy and paste – they basically just say (politely) that I’m not able to work for free, but here are my advertising rates if they’re interested. Even if someone isn’t trying to make money from their blog, I think it’s incredibly rude to ask them to devote time and effort to promoting your brand for absolutely nothing in return!

  • rakhshanda
    December 4, 2014

    Hey Amber,

    Thanks a ton for sharing these posts! They prove to be quite helpful for other bloggers and Im glad that you have so honestly revealed so many things unlike other bloggers. I have noticed the recently a number ot bloggers have bought domains to get rid of the .blogspot.com url. Why is it so??

    • Amber
      December 4, 2014

      I think a lot of people who are trying to turn blogging into a career think the blogspot URL is a bit unprofessional: it means that you don’t actually own your domain, and a lot of people just want to have a .com or whatever, so that it’s truly theirs, and as a sign that they’re taking it seriously. With that said, there are quite a few really huge blogs that still use the .blogspot domain, so it definitely hasn’t seemed to hurt them!

  • Erika
    December 14, 2014

    Loved the series, Amber! I’ve learned a lot, and thanks for taking the time to write about all of this. 🙂

  • Zoe
    January 1, 2015

    This has been so interesting, I didn’t think you could earn anything at all from blogging aside from a little pocket money but now I’m thinking differently! Thanks for posting – lots to think about!

  • Emma
    January 4, 2015

    I found your blog a week or two ago and I love it, I’ve been binge reading since!
    Just wondered if it’s good practice to “nofollow” all links, not just paid ones? I’m just in the process of getting ready to start blogging, so am under no illusions that I’ll be getting approached by sponsors, but I was planning on doing some reviews and outfit posts and linking the products, and also linking a couple of my favourite blogs that have inspired me (yours included!) and I wouldn’t want to get either myself or those being linked in trouble with Google?

    On the subject of sponsored posts, I actually like to see a sponsored post or even just a gifted item, when it’s been done in an honest and open way that’s true to the blogger’s usual style and voice. I find it so jarring (and even a little manipulative) to be reading through someone’s blog and then read a post that’s suddenly gushing over a brand in a way that’s clearly either not their true opinion, or an exaggeration. Or seeing an item prominently featured that doesn’t really fit their usual style, so has obviously been gifted/sponsored. But when it’s done properly I’m genuinely pleased that the blogger is earning from the time and hard work they’ve put into their blog.

    • Amber
      January 4, 2015

      You don’t have to nofollow all links, just the ones you’ve received an incentive to post… I’m not an expert, but my understanding (which could be wrong!) is that it’s not a good idea to nofollow ALL links, or it’ll look like there are no organic links at all coming from your site, which could be bad for SEO!

  • Carla
    October 16, 2016

    Just found your articles about this topic and love them. Just have two things to say: I see no problem and it’s no cheeky at all to ask for money for product gifting reviews or articles. You need to remember that an article in your blog will and can stay forever in your blog. And if the blog has lots of traffic, this means that the amount of traffic to the brand’s website from your article and the sales they’re going to make in the long run will highly surpass the price of a dress or whatever product it is! And this is true either for cheap and luxurious products, so please do accept money for product gifting reviews.
    The other thing is, if you only write about products that you personally use and like and it’s a real experience, I see no reason to say in your blog that it is a sponsored article. It will annoy readers and take away the credibility of a review when you say it is sponsored, and readers won’t even bother to see you’re being truly honest about the use of the product. So, if you only write about products you genuinely use and like (like you should) there’s no reason to say it is sponsored and annoy Google.

  • Jamie Windust
    May 8, 2017

    Thank you so much for this post! I have been blogging for a year now and lot of my blogging friends monetise their websites and use it as income, however i’ve always been apprehensive, but this has provided me with so many tools and tips i’m super excited to give it a go! All the love, Jamie <3

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