A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about brands who expect bloggers to work for free, and some of the comments on that post made me realise there’s another side to this story, too.
I mean, yes, sure, there are tons of brands out there who obviously don’t have a whole lot of respect for bloggers: who see us as an easy way to get some cheap (or free!) publicity, and don’t understand or care about the time and effort that goes into the posts they ask us (or sometimes order us…) to create for them. Which sucks, basically.
At the same time, the fault isn’t only on the brands’ side. There are also plenty of bloggers out there who treat brands equally badly: using them mostly as a source of “freebies”, and then not delivering much of anything in return. Which also sucks. For some reason, there’s a real lack of communication between the two sides, and that’s a real shame: when it’s done right, brand collaborations can be a great way for brands to get their message out, and for bloggers to make a living from something they love. With that in mind, here are some tips on how to work with brands without destroying your integrity, alienating your readers, or messing up your hair because you can’t stop pulling it out in frustration…
Pick and choose your collaborations
When you first start to be approached by brands, it’s really exciting and flattering, and you feel like you should just accept every single opportunity that comes your way, otherwise they might never ask you again. I think most bloggers have probably made this mistake: I know I did, and not only did it not really help either me or my blog, I’d be surprised if it helped the brands much either. The fact is, collaborations work best when they’re highly targeted: they’re better for you, because you’re not annoying your readers by bombarding them with a ton of sponsored content that they’re not interested in, and they’re better for brands, because they’re not spending money on having their product shown to people who aren’t going to buy it. Everyone’s a winner, baby!
These days, I reject way, way more offers than I accept. For every sponsored post or gifted item I feature on my blog, there’s probably a few dozen I say “no” to: as far as I’m aware, turning down offers hasn’t made the brands who make them any less likely to come back to me in the future, so as long as you’re polite, there’s really nothing to lose by saying “no” to the things that don’t interest you – and a LOT to gain in terms of keeping your content authentic, and your readers on-side. It’s also worth remembering that the higher the quality of your content, the more brands will want to partner with you – and the more they’ll be willing to pay to do it. Accepting every offer that comes your way, and stuffing your site full of products you don’t really care about will only harm your blog in the long-run, by effectively turning it into a giant advert: so don’t be afraid to be picky!
Get everything in writing
In terms of the collaborations I do say ‘yes’ to, my main rule of thumb is that the post I end up writing has to be something I’m genuinely interested in, and happy to have on my blog. I write all of my content myself, don’t give copy approval for sponsored posts (because I’m a blogger being paid to write a post on my own blog, in my own style, not a copywriter working to order), disclose everything, and while I will try products and services that I might not otherwise have come across (I’m running a business at the end of the day), if I really don’t like it, I won’t write about it, end of story. And I make all of this clear to the brands I work with BEFORE I agree to work with them: because if you DON’T make your terms crystal clear, that’s when the problems start.
I’m sure you’ve all read stories about bloggers who end up having very public disputes with brands (last year’s #bloggerblackmail story springs to mind here), and that normally happens when there hasn’t been clear communication between the two parties. Before agreeing to post about something, it’s REALLY important that you know exactly what the brand are expecting from you, and that they know exactly what you’re agreeing to do for them – and what you’re NOT agreeing to do.
Ideally, it’s a good idea to get all of this in writing. I normally communicate with brands by email (or via my agency, who deal with all of this on my behalf!), so that’s already covered, but if you’ve been dealing with a brand by phone, or in person, and have agreed to some kind of collaboration, I’d always follow up with a quick email saying, “Just wanted to confirm that this is what we’ve agreed…” That way both parties know exactly what the deal is, and you won’t run into problems further down the line: well, hopefully not, anyway.
Disclose all collaborations appropriately
You know that sponsored posts and gifted items should be disclosed to your readers. Brands know that sponsored posts and gifted items should be disclosed to your readers. Hell, EVERYONE knows that disclosure is important, and even if wasn’t a requirement by the ASA, it would still be the ethical thing to do: your readers want to know when you’ve been paid to write about something, so TELL them: it’s not that hard, seriously.
Sometimes, however, it IS that hard, because even although they know it’s not really legit, there are plenty of brands out there who will ask you outright to lie to your readers, by not disclosing a partnership, and making it look like you just spontaneously decided to write about whatever it is they’re selling. Please guys: DON’T DO THIS. It’s just not worth it: not only could you get a rap on the knuckles from the powers that be, you’ll also stand to lose the trust and respect of your readers – and when you lose that, you lose everything. Moreover, brands who ask you to do something you know to be illegal/unethical are never good people to partner with: if they’re willing to break the law – or pay YOU to break the law for them – then that doesn’t say a whole lot about their ethics, does it? Do you really think you can trust a brand who’re starting their relationship with you by asking you to lie? I wouldn’t – and I wouldn’t want to be associated with them, either.
Don’t take on too much
The feedback I’ve had from my readers is that most of them understand why bloggers need to do sponsored posts and other collaborations, and are willing to accept paid content every now and then. Everyone has their limit, though, and when it gets to the stage where every second post is sponsored, it can be a bit much – it’s like sitting down to watch a movie, and getting an ad break every five minutes. I do my best to try to space sponsorships out as much as possible, and I think it’s important to try to do that, not just for the sake of your readers, but for your own sanity, too. Creating sponsored content can be stressful: I’m used to being my own boss, and being free to write whatever I want, so suddenly having to meet deadlines, deal with clients and worry about what they’re going to think of the resulting post is a big change for me, and not something I want to do too much of. Spacing posts out gives me a bit of breathing space, and also keeps things balanced, so if I DO run into a situation where I have a couple of deadlines close together, people are a little more forgiving of it.
Always keep your promises
As I said at the start of this post, bloggers may have plenty of reasons to feel frustrated with (some) brands, but they’re not always totally innocent themselves, and one of the things I hear from brand reps is that some bloggers just don’t deliver on their promises: so they’ll accept an item of clothing, say, but them not bother to feature it on their blog – which is totally unprofessional, and really unfair to the brand who sent it. If you’ve agreed to feature something, it’s only right to follow-through – or at the very least, to let the brand know if there’s a reason you can’t do as you said you would. This is the case regardless of whether or not you’re being paid to write a post: if you’ve been sent something on the understanding that you’ll cover it, it’s not fair let the brand down just because you changed your mind or couldn’t be bothered.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that you’re obliged to feature something you don’t like: if the product arrives and it doesn’t fit – either literally, or in the sense that it’s just not right for your blog – I’m not suggesting you should write about it anyway. In cases like that, I simply contact the brand, explain the issue, and ask to return the item: most brands would much prefer for you to do that than to keep the item and not cover it (and they’ll normally offer to cover the return postage, too), so don’t be afraid to contact them if you have an issue with something.
Of course, if something turns up that you DIDN’T agree to feature, you’re under no obligation whatsoever. This does happen from time to time, when PRs send items out on spec to bloggers they’ve worked with before: I know a lot of new bloggers panic and assume they HAVE to write about whatever it is they’ve received, but unless you specifically agreed to cover it, you don’t have to do anything here. Brands are – or at least should be – well aware of this, so don’t feel pressured into writing about something you didn’t even know you were getting – there’s absolutely no obligation to.
Some things to ask yourself before agreeing to a collaboration:
Here are some things to ask yourself before entering into a collaboration with a brand:Will I get as much out of this collaboration as I’ll be putting into it? Is the brand a good fit for my blog? Is the product/service something I’d wear/use even if I wasn’t being paid/receiving it for free? Can I write about this in a way that will blend in with the rest of the content on my blog, and be interesting to my readers? Is the deadline reasonable, and can I meet any other requirements involved in the collaboration? Is the brand happy to let me disclose the collaboration? Do I have a clear idea of what’s expected of me – in writing, ideally?