Just Say No – When Brands/Businesses attempt to take advantage of Bloggers

by Katie on May 17, 2011

These are blurred times we live in.  

As the growth and impact of social media continues and the bloggers’ voice grows in decibel, so does the number of marketing and social media agencies, individuals and brands who will use the hazy line between advertising, sponsored posts and PR to their advantage. I also expect that the recession and squeezed marketing budgets are to blame – target and take advantage of those less aware in a new and lucrative arena where the marketing process isn’t quite set in stone.

After all, not everyone out there is trained in marketing/PR and from gauging real opportunities from fake ones.  And boy, are there a great many individuals wittingly or unwittingly using bloggers’ naivety as well as their potential to expand their client’s wares, all at bloggers’ expense in terms of time, talent, ability, experience and track record – This smacks of exploitation to me and nothing, I repeat, nothing, gets me irked as much as exploitation, especially when the bloggers’ concerned have spent years establishing ‘their brand’.  ie. The blog.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been approached by so many brands and individuals requesting valuable content, information, blog statistics and editorial ‘guest blog’ pieces for free in the guise of  ‘this will benefit you by promoting your blog’  (ie. it wont), that I have decided to write a beginners guide tutorial to ‘just saying no’.

Now, you may say, “what’s your problem?”.  Well readers, these are all approaches from large, well known brands and businesses and also from private researchers, investors and ‘social media’ types who will be earning a pretty penny from this knowledge (and potential workload) and rubbing their hands in glee every time a ‘green’ blogger unwittingly assists in this type of activity by thinking it will benefit them.  Unless lines are clarified and bloggers learn to spot real opportunities, this facile business tactic will continue and guess who the winners and losers will be?  Please note, just because this blog hasn’t accepted advertising or sponsored posts to date doesn’t mean I won’t, but so far these approaches are not legitimate, straightforward suggestions requesting paid for content

So, with the best will in the world and hoping someone somewhere will learn from my experience, I have 4 real case studies for you (with brand names deleted of course) to peruse alongside my responses, as well as tips for both bloggers and businesses at the end of the article.  Please note, those being exploited have long memories and today’s niche blog is tomorrow’s big business or influential journalist/columnist.  Take heed businesses.

CASE 1
Social media blogger approaches a number of different fashion bloggers for a ‘project’ with a large, well established charity.   Ah, the charity ploy.  Except this isn’t a charity as such but a huge, well known, fashion related annual project who are establishing a commercial online site for commercial purposes.   The social media blogger (no doubt being paid for project heading) approaches ‘blogs he/she likes (beware of flattery) to write content in terms of “a few blog posts a week” by the lure of high traffic of this well known brand name.

Points here for a blogger to note:  
1.  You would be writing a monumental amount for free.  NB. A few well researched posts and the editing involved, in my time, takes around a day’s work.
2.  You will have to source the story lines and ideas as content for someone else’s commercial blog/site (that you will not be paid for (but the social media person, no doubt, will).
3.  You will be driving traffic to their site by your reputable name, followers, links and tweets to build branded content  to sell designer product for an online site.
4.  You are using your blog name/brand to endorse another commercial site for FREE. 

So what’s in it for you?  Not a lot.  Only a complete novice with no existing blog or network would benefit from this opportunity and even then, its a great deal of work.

CASE 2
A research and strategy person (NB. not fashion) who is being paid to do a project for a private investor approaches you to ask you for a 45 minute phone call with in-depth questions re brands and branding concerning the high street. – ie how you think some are working and others not.  Brands mentioned included Matalan, New Look, Primark etc.  “We’d love to hear your thoughts….”, is the sign off.  Well, I expect you would.  However, the blogger concerned just happens to be an individual who is employed by brands to reposition, outline strategy and to build business as well as awareness which you point out in reply. 

In summary
1.  Why would you give away a bank of knowledge (+20 years) to someone else for their benefit while you don’t get paid?  That’s devaluing your brand and your experience.
2.  This is a business private investor using a (paid) researcher to garner knowledge on their behalf.  The researcher his/herself has no fashion brand knowledge and approaches experts in the field to gain extensive qualitative data and opinions.
3.  As an established marketeer you know the usual budgets set aside for this form of research which the approached bloggers or ‘fashion experts’ including CEOs, directors and suppliers are seeing nothing of.

That’s what I call exploitation.  A wealthy investor gathers invaluable business information and opinions to make an informed decision on a business opportunity to make them even more wealthy, based on the knowledge, experience and careers of others.  Nice move.  Not for me, fortunately.  As Tom Cruise says in Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money”.

CASE 3
A website approaches you and asks for you to ‘guest blog’, borrow samples, interview the owner and run a profile feature.  Not one.  All.

Now while this merely sounds like a clumsy and rather awkward approach re PR, brands should note that good PRs are known for giving angles, ideas and product ‘newness’ at timed moments in the fashion/beauty calendar for their clients benefit in exchange for coverage.  Nothing at all wrong with this.  It’s how the industry functions.  Everyone benefits.

However, when someone approaches you for ‘the earth’ with a brand that doesn’t quite fit the brand outlook of your blog, the aim, once again, is all one sided, whether this approach has been well-intentioned and simply PR based.  The brand benefits at the bloggers’ expense, time and experience.  The blog risks lowering their brand value and integrity, while giving away links, editorial and hits.  It’s your choice.

CASE 4
An extremely well known, established, online fashion/beauty site approaches you to work with them.  At this stage things are just in the project mode but they have let it be known there is “zero budget”.  They wonder if you are interested and request current figures for your blog.

Points to note
1.  Never give away your knowledge and your blog figures freely unless they are to  a) your agency b) a potential advertiser.  As they say in PR, knowledge is power.  Never give away your contacts.
2.  Even large firms haven’t grasped that like the magazine industry, there are many types of blogs out there.  It’s horses for courses.  It’s not all about the numbers, baby, it’s about the content, the style, the opinion formers who read your blog and the blog’s influence.  That’s why, say, titles like Love and Wonderland magazines have a different readership from Company mag.  Blogs have readership ‘types’ too, and we love our readers, so don’t disrespect them and use them.
3.  Importantly, request the type of potential relationship involved.  Unless the cards are all on the table from the onset, how can you make an informed decision?  As there’s (quote) “zero budget”, I expect this has more to do with free content and driving your precious blog readership to a commercial on-line site.  I await clarity.

To summarise, here are some BLOGGER tips and suggestions:-

1.  Always ask which other blogs are confirmed as being involved and what exactly, in writing, is expected of you.  If the brand contacting you cannot confirm names, ask who is being approached.
2.  Ask if there are opportunities for paid content, sponsorship or advertising.  This sorts out who is getting what early on.
3.  Ask yourself, not unjustly, ‘what’s in it for me?’.  Will I be writing, researching and giving away ideas and contacts while driving someone else’s blog awareness and hits to another blog at my own blog’s expense?  Why do it for someone else when you could be doing it for yourself?  We all know how much hard work blogs are…right?
4.  Ask why you have been approached?  This will establish if the person contacting you knows your blog and/or if you are just part of a herd of bloggers being contacted in the hope of a few hits.
5.  Value yourself and your work.  Would you let someone exploit you in a relationship?  Hell no!  So don’t do it in business.  And blogging is business to these brands and businesses who approach you. 
6.  Beware of flattery.  “we have chosen your blog as we love your style…” etc may sound great but often is a cut and pasted email to hundreds of similar blogs.  Throw their net wide and the brand approaching bloggers reaps rewards.  Learn to spot who has really read your content and understands your point of view.
7.  Ask a reputable agency to represent you.  This may mean hard work re building your blog content and reputation prior to approaching an agency but having them on board means someone will help fight your corner and is skilled at recognising real opportunities from exploitation.

Tips for Social Media agencies/Brands and Businesses approaching Bloggers

1.  Bloggers do not work alone.  They are a very social bunch and that’s why they are so powerful.  We value and respect one another and will help those with less knowledge or experience.  The Social Media game you so wish to exploit can just as easily be used to turn your tactics on their head, and share information on brands who seek to exploit.
2.  Know each blogger whom you approach, their style and content.  Know that there are many and varied reaches and blogger experience.  Its simple.  Their written style and content should tell you this. 
3. Know that bloggers are gaining awareness of their value and of their usefulness.  No longer green and naive, bloggers should be valued by business.  Value here, does not mean exploit the potential of, to your advantage.
4.  Play fairly and state what you have/haven’t.  Don’t dress up opportunities which clearly aren’t meant to benefit the blogger.  This just makes you look even more exploitative, especially if coming from a large brand.
5.  Set aside a budget for social media and blogger events/sponsored content/guest posts.  Bloggers work full time in another arena or are freelance and have to make a living.
6.  Realise that targeting a few bloggers with some budget is better than targeting lots with no budget.  Think of your brand reputation and what this says about you.  No one likes greediness.
7. Be clear in your approach. Set out the benefits to the blogger ( as you see them) and also state how your brand/business will benefit.  Transparency is everything. 

I’d love to hear from your experiences and if you think the tips are helpful. It’s only by sharing information that we can help make fashion and beauty bloggers become a stronger force and avoid people being taken advantage of.  Please share.
  
    



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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth @rosalilium May 17, 2011 at 8:21 am

An excellent post – you hit the nail really quite firmly on the head. I do hope bloggers, PR’s and Brands take notice of this. It should be a fair game for all.

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Deana Burke May 17, 2011 at 8:50 am

Hi there Katie. I’m one of the social media marketing/PR types you mention above (although not the specific one!) and I’d like to say that I thought this was an excellent post. My peers in the industry who are doing it right/well will agree.

Having worked on all sorts of social media campaigns for all sorts of brands I’ve learned that one of the most important things in a blogger/brand relationship is transparency. Transparency in the pitch, transparency in the communication and transparency in whatever posts or content come out of it. This protects the brand, blogger and most importantly, the reader.

Also respect. PRs should get to know the bloggers they’re going to pitch. This means reading the blog on a daily basis, commenting, following the blogger on Twitter, Facebook, whatever. If a PR hasn’t taken the time to totally tailor a pitch for you, then the opportunity probably isn’t worth it.

This is a reiteration of what you’ve posted above, but I suppose I’d like to say that we’re not all bad – and there are opportunities to be had for bloggers with brands. But there is a lot of education that needs to happen on both sides before the playing field is leveled.

-Deana

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Ondo Lady May 17, 2011 at 11:24 am

Wow! What an excellent, valuable and well thought out post. Thanks for taking the time out to write it. You offer so much interesting and useful information for bloggers at any level and you have raised points that I have never thought o myself. Thanks a lot. As a seasoned blogger with a healthy following, I am getting fed up of getting emails from PRs expecting reviews for nothing in return. Just how I am supposed to review a product without experiencing it is a mystery to me and is also an insult to me and my readers. Then there are the companies who expect you to post a banner to promote their brand for peanuts. Nope, I don’t think so. They would not approach a magazine with that stunt but for some reason think they can do so to a blogger. This post should hopefully set them straight.

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Cherie City May 17, 2011 at 11:42 am

We always hear complaints on twitter about bloggers feeling used by brands/PR companies, but this guide brings everything together and actually provides a solution to these problems.

My experience of this is as a blogger, but first it’s also important to say that not all bloggers and brands/PRs are a like and transparency is also paramount for ALL. Don’t manipulate your stats, fail to disclose product samples or be a difficult person to deal with. Respect works both ways.

With regards to writing free content for another site, I’ve found that brands try to approach this with as little clarity as possible. Perhaps in the hope of ‘reserving’ the interest of bloggers to use them as safety nets while attempting to score the big-time bloggers.

The whole blogging process take a lot of time and dedication and while it’s fun to go to events and socialise with brands, living (particularly in London) is expensive and finding a balance is key (i.e blogging until 1am!). Add supporting another brand for free into the equation and how can you function in life? Most blogs are run by one voice alone.

Having a mutually supportive relationship with brands can help your blog to grow and is rewarding, but this culture of cold calling and asking for the world just shows a complete lack of understanding and ulterior motives. Would you approach a friend of a friend that you’ve never met before and ask them to look after your house while you go on holiday?!

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Please Don't Eat With Your Mouth Open May 17, 2011 at 11:49 am

Agree. I’ve been approached a few times by companies or PRs with a product to sell, or posts they want written, but it’s amazing how many of them fail to look into the specifics. I write a personal blog. My readers matter. I don’t want to bombard them with posts that are obviously contrived sales pitches. There’s no awareness, no research, it’s just a numbers game. Fire off some emails and hope the clueless and desperate bloggers reply. Behaving like this ensures that all of these ridiculous requests will get consigned to the deleted items pile.

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Cherie City May 17, 2011 at 11:52 am

I’d like to add that many brands and publications now pay their interns (which is great and I applaud them), but seem to expect the services of bloggers for free.

Before training as a journalist, I contributed to many print and online publications for free to fill my portfolio and I’ve been grateful for the platforms. The difference is, this was to enhance my experience as a writer so I could prove my worth for paid freelance work.

However, if brands continue to get blogging for free, will there be any paid work to graduate to, or just a culture of undercutting and exploitation?

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BusiChic May 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Great post. I’m new to this all so much appreciate the guidance as I’m looking to using the blog I’ve established to showcase Australian fashion talent but as per your post; some things I need to be mindful of as well. Thank you.

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Ian May 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm

This is actually really helpful for people who work for social media agencies and want to work with bloggers.

Ta
Ian

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Yazzselena May 17, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Loved this post, as someone who is in the process of setting up a website which will feature a blog, it’s given me plenty of food for thought. Thanks for the thought and careful consideration you took in writing it.

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RedlegsinSoho May 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Excellent blog, I receive some frankly silly requests, as for the stat request, you either want me to help you, and I might IF I genuinely am interested in your business/project but my humble blog has a remarkably targeted readership. I know if I say nice things about something people know I mean it and it translates into interest and sales. I have no sponsorship because this doesn’t fit into my ethos. The insincere flattery approach really narks me. This post was well written and timely, good work.

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Katie Chutzpah May 17, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Thanks to all those who have read the piece, commented, shared and found it useful. Keep the comments coming, please. Cherie City makes some excellent points in her comments above. The only we we can make our point of view known and stop being at the bottom of the marketing/PR ‘food chain’ is to share knowledge, experience and to form a cohesive force.

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MeLikeyUK May 18, 2011 at 7:30 am

Katie, just wanted to say thank you for articulating so well how bloggers can assess whether “opportunities” raised by PR companies are the genuine article. This piece has come at the right time when my blog is still in its infancy so I intend to refer to this post as a reference guide from now on.
Thanks again 😉

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Katie Chutzpah May 18, 2011 at 8:34 am

To MeikeyUK – Please note its not PR agencies you have to beware of…95% of whom are very good to excellent. It’s marketing agencies, social media agencies and/or individuals operating on their behalf etc who you have to query. You must make the distinction between PR agencies honestly approaching you to write about their clients new products/launches (completely legitimate – and we’d be lost without, frankly) and the others I speak of who want advertising, information, stats or you to ‘guest blog’ for free.

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