Real Talk: Bloggers & Brands
I’m not usually one to write a blog post about blogging. Why? Well a) I don’t really have any advice to give about blogging that you can’t read in a million other places and b) this is a beauty blog. If I offer you a post about the top thirty-five ways to use social media or a comparison of the Guerlain Meteorites pearls vs compact formulas (yup, that’s coming down the line), well… you pick. (Please pick the Meteorites because I’m massively unqualified to talk about integrating social media into your audience-growing strategy)
I spend entirely too much time on the internet, and lately I’ve noticed there’s been a lot of discussion about beauty blogging. Specifically, about sponsorships, PR samples and disclosure (or the lack thereof). It made me realize that even though I’ve put my rules on my disclosures page, I’ve never really talked about it in a post before. So I guess you can consider this my own personal Blogging Code of Conduct.
Out of several online conversations I’ve observed/been a part of, the main thing folks take offense to (and rightly so) is that bloggers/youtubers aren’t always very up-front about when a post has been sponsored or uses products that were gifted. And that’s a problem. Partly because it’s against the rules, at least in the US. When a blogger receives compensation or free products, the FTC considers that to fall under online advertising rules. In other words, it needs to be clear that the brand/PR firm/whoever provided something in the hopes of getting the word out, so readers won’t feel deceived. Totally reasonable, right? The disclosure also has to be ‘clear and conspicuous’ – it’s not much of a disclosure if you bury it. The rules vary in different countries though, so not everyone is required to announce whether they’re getting compensated or not.
The other problem with not disclosing – and the most important one, if you ask me – is a matter of trust. I read blogs because I can’t get all the information I need from the product description, and because I want to know if the product description is a load of bullshit. I trust a random person more than I trust a retailer, plain and simple. If someone says they love love love a thing, I’ll assume they have no reason to lie about that. Marketers are a wily bunch, and it’s their job to know that people are more likely to trust an independent review than the company itself. Thus, sponsorships and gifted products.
That’s not to say I look at every sponsored/gifted post on the internet and start running around my house shouting “LIAR!!!” Far from it. It’s completely possible to receive something for free and not like it. Anyone who’s ever gotten clothing for a holiday gift knows that. How you handle that situation makes all the difference. Unfortunately there are people out there who will automatically give favorable reviews so they keep getting samples, or talk up anything in the world if they get paid for it. I like to think those people are the minority. And that’s where disclosures come in. The little asterisk noting that you got a product for free gives me the opportunity to hit pause and decide whether I trust your opinion or not. Have you always steered me right in the past (yes)? Are the things you talk about generally relevant to me (yes)? Do you say you hate liquid lipstick and come back next week raving that this one is your new holy grail (no)? Ok, I believe you. Press play.
How I see it
There also seems to be a lot of confusion over the types of partnerships that bloggers have with brands and retailers. Just because someone’s working with a brand doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being paid to do it. Whether or not they’re raking in the cash seems to make a big difference in a bloggers ‘trust quotient’ (a technical term that I totally just made up) so here’s a quick rundown.
- Sponsored posts – This is when a brand or PR person financially compensates a blogger in return for creating a certain type of content. For example, they might be doing a campaign where they ask people to create a specific look with their products, or even just want them mention a specific product in the course of your editorial content.
- PR samples/gifted products – The brand obviously wants to get as much exposure as possible for their stuff, so they sometimes send free product out in the hopes that bloggers will mention it or review it. No money involved, and most bloggers I know/know of don’t guarantee they’ll remove
- Affiliate links – Most retailers have an affiliate program. If their affiliates (ie, bloggers) refer someone to the retailer and that person buys something, the affiliate gets a small commission on the sale. In most cases, ‘small’ does really mean small.
- Paid reviews – I really hope no one actually still does this. This would be a brand paying (and possibly also sending free product) in return for a review. Presumably the review would be favorable.
Hopefully it’s no surprise that in the course of all my mad swatching and typing, I do accept gifted products. In theory I also do sponsored content, but I’ve only had the occasion to do that, like, once ever. If I use gifted products and/or affiliate links, you can find the disclaimers in text buttons at the top (or in the description box on videos), plus after the post and I’ll probably mention it as part of the content. Hell, if I talk about it in a forum that’s not even related to my blog I still mention it. That said, if you ever see something and wonder if it was a freebie, please feel free to come right out and ask me.
My goal is to write the kind of blog I’d want to read (ie, honest and with helpful information) so I have rules for myself when it comes to working with brands and PRs. They’re nothing ground-breaking, but I’ll tell you about them so you can hit pause and decide how much you trust me.
The biiiig reason I haven’t really done sponsored posts here is that I haven’t been approached about many that fit with the type of content I’m putting out. I doubt you came here for info about laundry soap or crackers. What would be the point? I also won’t promote things that I wouldn’t recommend or haven’t used myself. For example, I don’t think it’s safe to get your information on dietary supplements from a beauty blogger. I’ve also been approached to do sponsored content on cosmetic procedures (fillers, plastic surgery, etc) and turned it down. Not because I’m against it – I’m totally for it, actually – but I don’t have any personal experience with it, and that’s something you need a doctor’s advice on anyway. Please rest assured that if you do see a sponsored post pop up here and there, it’s something that doesn’t suck and I think you’ll be interested in hearing about it.
Reviews are sort of my bread and butter around here. I like to try new things, and I like to tell people about them. Ergo, I do accept gifted products sometimes. Not all the time, mind you – there are some that I’ve been offered but won’t consider. For example, some highlights:
- Dietary supplements. Depending on what’s in it, it can have a huge impact on your health, and I’m not qualified to give advice on that. Plus I don’t want to deal with the hassle of talking to my doc about it.
- Skincare products that spread chemical fear. It’s pretty standard for marketing schtick to talk about ‘natural ingredients’ and such, but anything that actively discourages basing your choices on science doesn’t belong here.
- Multi-level marketing products. The business model is predatory (IMO) and I don’t want to support it.
- Tanning products that use body-shaming language in their marketing copy.
- Random things that have nothing to do with beauty, like fitness programs aimed at relieving erectile dysfunction (yes, that was a real email).
When I do use gifted products, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to test them just as critically as something I bought myself. I’ve rarely come across anything that’s perfect or completely awful, so I try to point out the good and the bad. Things work the same regardless of how they made their way to my makeup table, so it’s not something I factor into the review process. If something isn’t great and isn’t something there’s a lot of interest in, I might decide not to review it at all (I do give the brand feedback about why). I don’t want to give you bad info, so I make sure to wear everything several times (or use for a few weeks, for skin stuff) before I review it; if not, I’ll let you know up front. One thing I never, ever do and promise I never will is paid reviews; if it’s a bad review you kind of screwed the brand, and if you give a good review for something you didn’t like, you really screwed your readers. Nobody wins.
As for affiliate links – I use ’em, unless it’s something I really really hated. I won’t ever avoid posting about something just because I don’t have an affiliate link available. Plus that tiny tiny commission does help offset the some of the costs of running a blog. Aside from buying the products themselves (which if you’ve ever bought makeup, you know that can get pricey all on its own), there are a few other thing involved like photography equipment and web hosting that, sadly, are not free.
It’s not related to disclosures and brand partnerships, but in the interest of, ahem, journalistic integrity – I want to talk about photoshop. Photoshop is awesome, just not for blog photos. The product/look pictures on my site are unfiltered and only edited for size, crop, color accuracy and boring crap like that. Editing my actual appearance would be pretty much a flat out lie, kind of like when mascara ads use fake lashes. Not cool, man. And honestly – it’s way easier and faster to do makeup well than it is to do photoshop well (source: a gazillion hours of photo editing in art school).
Pause again. This post is tragically short on pretty pictures, so here’s one my husband sent to me of our extremely happy dog:
So there you go. Those are my personal thoughts on how to work with brands as a blogger without selling your soul. Tl;dr version – It’s nice to be rewarded for doing something you love, but don’t be a sellout. People will like you better if you’re up front about it when you’re working with a brand :-)
How do you guys feel about blogger/brand partnerships? If you have feedback or advice, I’d love to hear it!
Kiss & Make-upJanuary 25, 2015 at 11:29 am
I agree with you. Transparency is key. That said, I didn’t start to disclose my reviews until September of last year, just because I assumed that it didn’t matter. I was like: ‘Oh but my readers know me! Surely they know I’m honest and that I always give them the truth!’ But I’m glad that I started to disclose. It’s just the right thing to do.
And yes, I agree, no to paid reviews! :-)
SunnyJanuary 25, 2015 at 2:57 pm
Hey Nikki, what a thoughtful and well-written post! I’ve never actually written one like that, although I do have a disclosure policy and mark all samples with an asterisk. The thing is out of the US, there is no FTC and disclosure is not mandatory in most parts of the world. I remain one of the few bloggers in Belgium who actually have any kind of disclosure policy. There have been discussions among fellow bloggers about this, but I have been told many times that “my reviews are honest (which might be true). Therefore, it is OK not to disclose it.” Well, I think it is a logical fallacy, but I can’t impose my personal beliefs on others. Recently however, I have felt the need to re-examine the matter. It might be OK not to tell your readers where you got the product from, but I am seeing bloggers flat-out pretending that they bought what I know is a sample. Well, that is really not fine.
As for sponsored content, I have never done any. I just have never seen a suitable opportunity, that or I won’t waste my time getting 50 euros out of a post. My time is much more precious than that. The PRs I work with are A OK with whatever I want to write about their samples. I have spoken ill of many products, but nobody has stopped sending me samples because of that. I think PRs have to know that it is impossible for anyone to like everything. If a blogger is always 100% positive about everything, the readers also lose interest. I dislike what I dislike, but when I love something, I can sing it praises for days on end. If someone can’t stand me for being fair, then I prefer not to work with them at all.
Again, a well-written post! I don’t watch a lot of Youtube, but I did hear that nowadays there is a lot of sponsored content that is sometimes not marked as such. I really hope that will change soon!
NikkiJanuary 27, 2015 at 8:51 am
Thanks Sunny! You have a good point about PRs too. I think it makes a certain amount of sense for bloggers to not want to offend them, but every time I’ve criticized something about a product they’ve always thanked me, and usually said they would take the feedback back to their development teams. Really I think hearing totally honest opinions is just as helpful for a brand as it is for someone considering buying something.