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The FTC has just released updated guidelines for disclosing online when you’re being paid to post something, and these guidelines are a little more helpful than what they’ve posted in the past. According to Mashable, they finally give an example of how to disclose in tweets. You’re supposed to put “Ad:” at the start of your tweets if they are advertisements.
That’s great as far as it goes, but what constitutes an ad? What if I’m just linking to a post that I was paid to write, but don’t actually say anything positive about the product in the tweet? What about if I’m saying something positive about a product that I was given for free, but wasn’t actually paid to write about? What if the post contains a disclosure, does the tweet have to as well?
Back when all of this stuff was being talked about everywhere amongst my fellow bloggers – when we had somehow convinced ourselves that the FTC was going to show up in the middle of the night and confiscate our computers if we didn’t disclose properly – I developed some twitter disclosures for myself, like *spon if I was tweeting about a post that had been sponsored, and *ad if the actual tweet itself was an ad purchased by a brand. It turns out that I was not disclosing the way the FTC wanted me to – I wish they had been more clear back then.
I’m absolutely not an expert on this, but I dove into the report to see what I could figure out regarding disclosing correctly in tweets. I looked at it through the lens of tweets since they are the most restrictive at only 140 characters. These guidelines should be applied to Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and other online platforms as well, but those give you more characters to work with, thus making it easier to disclose within them.
Most of what the report talks about simply does not apply to what bloggers such as myself do. It’s talking about traditional advertisements, where disclosure does not mean identifying an ad as an ad, but rather explaining a statement or claim made in the ad (for example, disclosing that even though products may be returned if the customer is not satisfied – “Satisfaction Guaranteed!” – this process will incur a restocking fee).
Much of the report deals with the conspicuousness of a disclosure as it has to do with font size and color – I’m ignoring those parts for these purposes and assuming that plain text will be used for social media disclosures.
“Required disclosures must be clear and conspicuous.” In the past I’ve added my twitter disclosures to the ends of my tweets. According to the FTC, in order to be conspicuous in a tweet, the disclosure can not come after a link – they claim that most people don’t read anything after the link in a tweet. (I disagree, but that doesn’t matter; it’s the FTC’s world, we’re just tweeting in it.)
The FTC says that disclosures should be “unavoidable,” and in a tweet that means right up front at the beginning.
“Use disclosures in each ad.” Sometimes when I’m a paid participant or host of a twitter party, I’ll tweet once or twice that I’m being compensated, and then drop it. If each tweet that is part of a sponsored campaign is indeed an advertisement, then each and every tweet needs to contain a disclosure. “Do not assume that consumers will see and associate multiple space-constrained advertisements.“
I run only a few twitter parties a year, so it seems reasonable to me that the average person would not associate me with paid twitter parties. But what about those bloggers who run several a week? Should they have to disclose in each tweet that they’re being paid? The FTC doesn’t discuss this directly in the report, but in their guide on using endorsements and testimonials in advertising, they indicate that there may be an exception regarding celebrities. Basically, a big exception for disclosure is made for celebrities in many instances because the average consumer understands that celebrities are paid to endorse products.
But how does that apply online? Are there twitter celebrities? Certainly someone like Scott Stratten, with almost 150,000 twitter followers, would be considered a twitter celebrity. But would the average twitter user assume that he gets paid to endorse things? I doubt it.
What about someone like Amy Bair, who invented twitter parties and sometimes hosts two in a single day? Is there a general understanding on twitter that she’s paid to host these parties? I think there probably is. But the FTC doesn’t go into it. I would really like to see more guidance from the FTC on this, but for most of us, I think it’s safe to say that we need to disclose in each and every tweet where we say something positive about a product if we have any kind of monetary relationship with the brand. (And this is where, once again, I will remind you that I’m not an expert, just a blogger trying to interpret these rules the best I can.)
“Advertisers should employ best practices to make it less likely that disclosures will be deleted from space constrained ads when they are republished by others.” In other words, if someone wants to retweet your ad with their own comment added, are they likely to delete your disclosure in the interest of space? Believe it or not, the FTC is putting the onus on you – the original tweeter – to make sure that there is a reasonable amount of space left so that that doesn’t happen. (Seriously?!?)
“Icons, abbreviations, and symbols are not adequate if they do not provide sufficient clues about the nature of the disclosure.” My use of *spon to indicate a sponsored tweet would not be sufficient, because I cannot assume that the average consumer knows that *spon is short for “sponsored.”
Including a link to a site that explains your disclosure – instead of disclosing within the tweet – is not OK. Remember cmp.ly? According to the report, simply adding a link to a disclosure explanation like those found on cmp.ly does not cut it. Sorry.
If you’re a paid endorser, spokesperson, or compensated ambassador for a brand, everything positive that you say about that brand (that is disseminated by you) should be marked as an ad. The FTC doesn’t come right out and say this in the report, but they imply it with examples.
Specific disclosures about claims made in a tweet must be contained in that tweet. If you say that you lost a certain amount of weight using a product, and your results were not typical, you have to make that disclosure in your tweet. Since tweets don’t leave much room for explanation, it would probably be easier not to include claims like that. You could probably include a sufficient disclosure on Facebook, however, where adding something like “results not typical” would not eat up too much space.
The only exception to this is if you’re linking to the only place that exists where a person can buy that product, and the disclaimer is placed prominently on the page linked to, because then a consumer would not be able to read your endorsement and then go out and buy the product somewhere else without clicking on the link and seeing the disclosure. I doubt that applies to anyone reading this (unless you’re selling your own product on your own site), so be careful when making claims in tweets – if you need to include a disclaimer and don’t have room, don’t make the claim.
What if you were given a product for free and tweet about it, is that an ad? I don’t know for sure. The report specifically deals with a situation where a blogger posted about paint she received for free and didn’t disclose properly, but does not address this kind of situation with regard to a tweet. Here’s my best educated guess: since my accountant makes me treat free products the same way I would treat cash, I’m going to assume that that treatment carries over to tweets, in that I was “paid” with the product. I’m not using this language to suggest that products are payment – don’t get me started on that topic. I’m just suggesting that for the sake of social media disclosure, the “Ad”:” standard would probably apply.
There’s further evidence to back up my gut feeling in the FTC guide to using endorsements, where they differentiate between a random person who is given a product by a company to review, and a person who routinely receives products to review. If you routinely receive products, then things that you say about those products will be considered endorsements, no matter the value of the products.
What if I don’t actually name the product in my tweet? If you’re not endorsing a product in your tweet – for example, you tease with “Who makes the best potato chips I’ve ever tried?” and then give a link – but nothing to indicate which brand it is – then you don’t have to disclose within the tweet (of course, if your post is sponsored or you received the samples for free, that has to be disclosed prominently in the post they’re clicking through to).
What if I name the product in the tweet, but don’t reveal how I feel about it? That’s a tough one. For example, what if you were to tweet “Click on the link to find out what I though about ACME brand hair gel!”? This is just my opinion, but my gut says you should still identify that as an ad, just to be safe. If you hadn’t been paid or given the product for free, then chances are you wouldn’t be tweeting about it.
Last, I’ll leave you with this: actual examples from the FTC of a tweet that does not disclose correctly, and one that does.
Online reviews are so hard to judge. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got people who use their own money, buy a product or service on their own, and give a completely unbiased and honest opinion. They are beholden to no one, and can be trusted. On the other end, you have people who make it known loudly that they have a blog, or a lot of Yelp followers or Klout or Kred or Krust or whatever, in an attempt to get their meal/service/product comped. I have no idea if these people can be trusted to give an honest opinion or not, but I don’t tend to pay much attention to them.
Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are bloggers. We get contacted all the time to write up products and services, and how we disclose that is mostly left up to us. I choose to have a category called “Product Reviews,” and I mention in the post if I was given the item to review. I also mention it in the post’s footer by way of an anal-retentive system I came up with. (If I’ve been paid to write about a product or service, then I also disclose that clearly at the top of the post, but I’m not talking about that here – those are sponsored posts and a totally different subject.)
But what’s harder to quantify is how that relationship affects the actual product (if it is something being produced just for you, like food, or a massage), and how that relationship affects your perception. It’s a difficult thing to juggle, and some people do it better than others. But most people I know at least give it a lot of thought. As bloggers our integrity is important – if people don’t trust us, we have no influence. I could write ten posts about this and still not cover it all.
But what about the people who have no integrity, don’t care if people trust them, and just want free stuff? Now there’s an ID card just for them! Called the ReviewerCard, you can buy this for $100, and say goodbye to any little bit of dignity you may still have.
I will freely admit that when I go on a trip as a guest, specifically in order to review it, I may not be getting the same experience I would if I’d gone on my own. And my follow-up emails to my hosts often include questions such as “Do all guests get fresh flowers in their rooms? Do all guests get a cold drink upon check-in?” I do my best to differentiate between special treatment and what’s normal. And I tell my readers that I was there as part of a group, so that they can take this into account.
But if you’re the kind of person who is going to stroll into a place and throw around the word “reviewer” – whether you’re a blogger or just like to use review websites – then your only goal is to get special treatment and freebies, and you are not to be trusted. This card is for you.
I’ve been doing this blogging thing for a while now, at least long enough to see some evolution in how brands interact with bloggers. While I’m still annoyed on an hourly basis by something that lands in my inbox, things are definitely improving in terms of the kinds of pitches I get – many brands are finally accepting the fact that in many cases, working with influential bloggers who can form complete sentences involves offering them more than coupons and high-res images.
I’m also frequently given disclosure language to use when I’m hired by a brand, as well as guidelines for working with the brand, and I always welcome it. The more disclosure the better, and the more you let me know about the message you’re trying to get out there, the easier my job is.
Today though, I received an email from a big company that has me shaking my head. It was a pretty standard invitation to an event, but it was followed by more rules and regulations than I’ve seen with most paying contracts. Most of it was pretty obvious – don’t lie, don’t act on behalf of the company, make sure you disclose your relationship with the company etc. It was the last one, though, that actually made me laugh out loud (and it bears repeating, this was for an invitation to an event, not for a sponsored post or some other kind of job):
9. We Reserve The Right To Ask You To Remove Content
By Blogging at the direct request of [company], or by accepting any incentive from [company] to blog, you agree that you will immediately remove any content on your Blog relating to [company], its products or its services, those of its competitors or those associated with [company], that [company] notifies you that it finds objectionable. Even if we do not notify you, we expect that you will promptly remove any content for which you receive a legitimate complaint or which you later become aware may be in violation of the law or otherwise violate third party rights.
I know that companies have to cover their asses, but this just goes beyond what I think is reasonable. It makes me want to have nothing to do with that company (a company I love, by the way, and have written about in the past). They are asking me to take time out of my day to come to an event promoting their product, and then taking more time to write about it, and yet want me to agree to manage my content on their terms. That’s something I’m happy to talk about when money is changing hands and I’m hired by them to promote a product. But this? No way.
Incidentally, the email also included the standard language about content being intended only for me, and then I went and copied and pasted and posted some of it. Whoops! See, if you want me to keep something confidential, you need to get me to agree to that before you tell me what it is. Just a pet peeve of mine.
Am I overreacting? Probably. I admit that freely, to save you the trouble of pointing it out. And I also know that a lot of this stuff is just seen as a formality – it will never be put into practice. But I think many of us who blog for income were drawn to this so that we could have control over our own little worlds, and I run mine on my own terms. If you want to have some sort of control over what I write, you have to give something up as well – and it will probably involve a dollar sign.
I’m relaxing in my room at the Westin, on the Boston waterfront. This weekend was my first time in Boston, and I came to do a workshop on podcasting at the first ever SpringBoard Conference, co-founded by my friend Christy Matte.
The last conference I attended before that, with my children, was the Digital Family Summit in Philadelphia founded by my friend Stephanie Schwab, where my son attended sessions on WordPress, video editing, and Scratch animation, and my daughter learned about working with charities via social media.
Before that, the last conference I attended – also to do a session on podcasting – was SheStreams in Ft. Lauderdale, founded by my friend Maria Bailey.
What did these three conferences have in common, aside from being run by smart women? They were all on the small side.
I don’t want to disparage big conferences just for being big. Some of them are really awesome, some are just OK. But they exhaust me. It’s just too much. The rock star sessions are standing room only. There’s a ton of walking, dragging laptops and “swag bags” from session to session and around humungous expo floors. There are too many session tracks, and no matter what I choose I feel like I’m missing five other things I wanted to do.
While I’ve never organized a conference, I do get that there is an economy of scale. For many reasons a small conference can end up being more expensive per person than a giant one. And for some conferences, getting really big meant that they made it – so many people are clamoring to attend that the conference can take over a bigger venue, attract dozens of big sponsors, fly in famous speakers, and put on an amazing show.
But I just want to put out a good word for the smaller conferences. I think Cat Lincoln of the Clever Girls Collective tweeted it best last night:
I love that #springboston is an all "first names" conference by the end of the day. Intimate size conferences like this rule!
Instead of leaving the conference feeling like I missed out on meeting just about everybody, I’m thinking about what a huge percentage of the attendees I got to know. Unlike after big conferences, you won’t see me tweeting things like “OMG, you were there? I totally didn’t see you. #BigConference”
And if I can speak to businesses for a moment, please take advantage when those smaller conferences approach you. When the expo floor is small, you’ll have more time to get to know the bloggers. They won’t feel pressured to run from table to table, and can instead take their time and find out about you and what you have to offer.
Thanks to the businesses that worked with SpringBoard, I went on a fantastic dinner cruise courtesy of The Odyssey my first night here, a great way to start the weekend. I chatted with reps from Peapod – a service I use at least once a month back home in Brooklyn – about various school programs they offer, including helping kids donate food to local food banks, and the Stop&Shop A+ School Rewards program, which helps schools raise badly needed funds. I found out from the women at the Woven table that there’s a Windows Phone app on the way – yay! I discovered American Flatbread Pizza, which has so many vegetarian options I’m drooling – I can’t wait to try one with my free coupon! I’m going home with two gorgeous paperblanks journals (pictured on the right). I’m in discussions with MomIQ about new moneymaking opportunities for my blog. I had an amazing dinner courtesy of Maggiano’s Little Italy (Omg! The onion strings!). And back in my room last night, still stuffed from my fettuccini Alfredo, I couldn’t help myself and dug into a Dancing Deer Chocolate Chunk brownie, which was incredibly yummy (and I’m bringing lots more of their goodies home to my family!).
I really appreciate all of the businesses that supported SpringBoard, and can’t wait to work with them in the future. And I really felt like I got to know many of them better since there weren’t an overwhelming number.
And of course, there was what I learned. I now know how to make my very own Android apps, thanks to Dr. Beryl Hoffman, and you’ll probably be seeing some stop-motion animation popping up on SelfishMom.com thanks to Derek Wilmot. I heard amazing things about the other sessions, and will be scrolling through the entire hashtag archive on the train back to NYC to catch up on what I missed.
Like I said, I’m not writing this to put down big conferences – there’s room for both in the world. I just want to remind bloggers that when you’re choosing where to go, where to spend your money, bigger is not always better, especially if you’re newer to the blogging world. Smaller conferences have more of a grassroots, personal feel. Your head won’t be spinning by the second day. You’ll get more personal attention in sessions. And you’ll be helping smaller bloggers realize their dreams of helping you.
Top 100 Bloggers? You might think I’d be excited. And this may sound very jerky, but I wasn’t. I sighed and clicked.
I know I should appreciate being included in things that are meant as a compliment, but it’s lists like these that cause me to spend a ridiculous amount of my time dealing with pitches that are way, way off base. And while I appreciate (sincerely) the article’s suggestion that PR people print out the last 30 days of blog posts from the 100 bloggers on the list, the trees are safe – they won’t do it.
Instead, many many lazy PR people will just pitch anything and everything to the people on the list. (And please note carefully that I’m not calling all PR people lazy – I work with many many wonderful PR people who are the opposite of lazy, and would never just blindly pitch people on a list.)
As I scrolled down the list of mommy bloggers (not all bloggers, or moms, or even women, I might add) and found my name, I clicked on my “direct contact” link with apprehension while muttering “Please don’t be my email address. Please don’t be my email address.” See, if people actually go to my contact page to find my address, they see a list of things I don’t want to be pitched about. Hopefully they pay attention and that list saves us both some time and trouble.
But if they just get my email address from a list online, or a list they purchased, then my inbox gets clogged with even more that the hundreds of off-base pitches I’m already getting every week. Even if I’m just skimming and deleting, it still takes time I would rather spend doing just about anything else.
Well, the link didn’t go to my contact page (damn) or my email (phew), but it did go to my twitter page. Almost as bad as my email. While that won’t put me on any lists I didn’t subscribe to, it will cause me to get pitched publicly, something I can’t stand.
So back to the part where I acted like a jerk. Burning bridges never does anyone any good. I wish I’d kept that in mind when I saw the following:
But I was still aggravated from this morning, and then got aggravated more when he thanked me for feedback I hadn’t given. Add to that the record number of times he’d used my least favorite term – “Mommy Blogger” – in the post and I just snapped.
I’m not against lists completely. I proudly display my inclusion on some of them on my press page. But here are some suggestions for how I think lists can be productive. These suggestions start with things that are really easy to do, and get progressively harder. The farther down the list you get, the more relevant and helpful your list will be.
Give some context for how the list came to be. Was it based on traffic? A poll of people in your office? Blogs you personally like to read?
Scrutinize and edit your list. Go past the obvious. If you really and truly think that Dooce is the very best writer out there and needs to be pitched more, fine. But your list will be a lot more useful (not just to the PR people, but to the people on it) if it explores new territory and is not a carbon copy of half of the other lists already out there.
Go niche. Know what’s better than a list of 100 bloggers where the (supposed) tie-in is that they’re all mom bloggers? A list of 15 great blogs about fashion from a mom’s perspective. Or 20 blogs about balancing home life and work life. Or 50 bloggers who write meaningful, in-depth reviews about baby products.
Give a description of each blog. If you’ve done your homework, it should be easy to write a sentence or two about each blog on your list.
When someone lands on your list, it should put them in a good mood and have them racing to their twitter account to brag about it. If that happens, you’ve done it right.
I have no illusion that I control the world. I would never tell everyone on twitter that they must do something a certain way (unless you can point to a specific instance when I did, and then, uh, I promise I won’t do it anymore). In fact, the dumbest argument I ever got into on twitter was one I could never win, because the person I was arguing with kept insisting that things should be done her way because “it was an unwritten twitter rule.” That was one of those times when I had to sit on my hands and not point out to her that I had been on twitter 3 years and 50,000 tweets longer than she had, so I might just be the authority in that conversation.
But no, I’m not trying to control twitter. I would, however, like to have some control over what is done directly to me on twitter. It would be super duper awesome if the world would stop doing these things:
Asking me to follow you
When I first got on twitter I followed back everyone who talked to me. I didn’t check them out at all. A few years later I found myself following 6,000 people and not really listening to any of them. I couldn’t really get to know anybody with that many tweets flying by in my stream, so I mostly just paid attention to the people I already knew outside of twitter.
Then I unfollowed about 5,000 people. I didn’t do it all at once. I started by using automated programs that told me who I was following who hadn’t tweeted in over a month (why are you on twitter?). Then I got a list of all of the people I followed who weren’t following me back and I looked at every single one individually. I did it a little at a time, over several weeks. I did it manually, and with discretion.
I don’t care if someone I find interesting doesn’t follow me back. I’m following them because I find them interesting. If they follow me, that’s a bonus. But there were thousands of people I was following and I had no idea why. I checked out each stream, and if I didn’t find it interesting, I chucked it. And over the next few weeks, I lost a lot of followers. I had a lot of people write snotty, passive-aggressive tweets to me about how I wasn’t following them anymore. But then things leveled out and started going up again. And I felt lighter, and found myself interacting with people on twitter a lot more.
And that’s the sum total of my method of following people now: I read their stream and decide if I want to read more.
Interestingly, the people who ask me out of the blue to follow them are hardly ever worth following (in fact, a large part of their stream usually consists of them asking other people to follow them; I don’t consider that fascinating reading). On the other hand, when people I’ve conversed with a lot on twitter ask me to follow them back, I’m usually surprised that I’m not already.
That’s the thing about following somebody: aside from boosting your numbers, the only thing them following you will change about your relationship is that you can direct message that person. And 99% of the people who follow me on twitter don’t need to direct message me about anything. I consider a direct message just a step below calling me or texting me.
So the rest is about ego. Or numbers. Or a combination of the two. I’ve never asked anyone to follow me, not even for a giveaway. I hope the people who follow me do it because they find me interesting. A little funny, too, perhaps. But if they’re following me just trying to get a follow back, I suspect they’re not getting as much out of twitter as I am.
Want me to follow you on twitter? Be interesting. Have a conversation with me occasionally, but not in an aggressive way just to get me to notice you. Retweet my stuff. I assume that’s how I got my followers.
Asking me to RT your post publicly
This makes me so uncomfortable. This is one of those times I wish you would DM me (and if I’m not following you, and you can’t DM me, chances are good you shouldn’t be asking me for a favor anyway). If you @ me on twitter and ask me to RT something, I feel like I have to respond publicly. What if your post sucks? What if I just don’t find it interesting enough to share with my followers? What if I have 73 things open that I’d rather read instead of your post? I don’t want to tell you that publicly, so I usually just ignore the tweet, which makes me feel a little like an ass.
Contact me privately. At least then I feel more comfortable contacting you back the same way, and letting you know why I will or won’t promote your post or cause.
This goes double if you want me to comment on your post. I just hate that. If I’m already discussing your post publicly and you say “Hey, would you mind saying that in the comment section?” That I totally get. You know I’ve read it, you know I’m already interested in talking about it. But to just blindside me with a post and say “Could you comment on this?” is presumptuous and rude.
And this goes triple if you want me to vote for you for something, because chances are I won’t, and again, I don’t want to tell you that publicly.
@ing me with a business pitch
I always assume an intern is manning the twitter account when this happens. If you want me to review your thing, if you want me to come to your event, please email me. My blog URL is in my twitter bio, and my contact info is linked to at the very top of my blog.
This makes me uncomfortable in the same way that asking me to RT you does. If I don’t want your product, if I don’t want to attend your event, if I don’t want to work with you, I would like to be able to tell you that privately.
The possible exception is when you’ve already emailed me and I haven’t answered. The sad fact is I get over 100 pitches and requests a day, and while I’ve gotten much better at actually looking at all of them (after missing a few important ones), I simply don’t have time to respond to all of them. Ones that are completely off base just get deleted. So while I understand that you’re frustrated at my silence, and want to contact me some other way, chances are good that if we don’t have a prior relationship I’m just not going to answer you. I wish that weren’t the case, but I simply can’t spend any more time on email each day than I already to.
Keeping me in a conversation I have no interest in
Oh dear. So you were nice enough to include me in a tweet, along with a bunch of other people. Maybe you were saying “Great to see you the other night!” or recommending me for Follow Friday. But then, 30 tweets later, the other people in the tweet are still hitting “reply all” and discussing something I have zero interest in.
It’s pretty simple: if you’ve tweeted to everybody a few times and there are people who still haven’t jumped in to the conversation, leave them out of it.
Of course, there’s a simple way to avoid this scenario in the first place…
Including me with seven other people I don’t know in a tweet
This usually happens during Follow Friday. Follow Friday drives me nuts for many reasons. It was a great idea in the beginning, but it has far outlasted its usefulness. Now it’s mostly people cramming as many other people as they can into a tweet and ending it with #FF. There’s no context. There’s no theme. It’s just random, and I really don’t get the point of it. And it usually results in me being included in a bunch of other tweets where one of the other people hits “reply all” to thank the original tweeter, which drives me crazy.
Asking me what’s going on instead of reading it for yourself
So I’ve spent a few tweets complaining about something (likely) or complimenting something (less likely), and you jump in and ask me what I’m talking about. Instead, how about taking a look at my stream and seeing if you can suss it out?
If I’ve been tweeting about something for half an hour and you would have to go back 30 tweets to find the original tweet, then I don’t blame you at all for asking. But usually it’s someone asking asking about something I said two or three tweets ago. And they just look really dumb.
Did that all sound cranky? I don’t care. You are, of course, free to do and say whatever you want on twitter. But if you do something annoying directly at me, then I get to tell you to cut it out and stop annoying me. For the sake of the poor kittens.
In February of 2009, when I’d been blogging for less than a year, I was approached by a large company (or, more accurately, the company they hired to do their pr) to be part of a contest. One blogger would win $5k for a local food bank. $5K? Of course I was in! Who wouldn’t want to be able to give that much money to charity?
I was incredibly flattered. I had a tiny blog, and yet they were picking me! I was seriously excited…and pretty stupid. I mean, duh, they were coming to me because anybody with any sense had already turned them down.
Of course the contest was a disaster. I ended up annoying pretty much everyone I knew, and I didn’t even win. But it was a wake-up call, and I was glad that I’d gotten it before anybody really knew who I was.
There are three clear things for bloggers to take away from this mess.
1. Any time a blogger is offered an “opportunity” to participate in a vote-getting contest where readers can vote day after day, she should say no. Loudly. What’s really going to happen is she will help another (bigger) site get crazy traffic, and annoy her own readers and followers. I don’t care what the prize is. Run the other way.
This doesn’t just go for contests with tangible prizes like trips or iPads, but also for awards. About a year ago I was informed that I had been nominated for a big blogging award. I was flattered for half a second, until I got to the part of the email where it said the winner would be determined by votes, and I should encourage my readers and friends to go to the sponsoring company’s site and vote, often.
I’d seen people with badges on their blogs touting that very award. I had no idea they’d “won” the award by harassing people. I don’t want an award that I can get by begging.
2. Any time a company asks you to do something with requirements, deadlines, rules, etc. they should be compensating you. As far as I can tell, only the winning blogger was supposed to get anything of value (a trip for four to NYC, and an iPad to give away). So right from the beginning, all of the participants knew that they would be promoting Chrysler, and the best case scenario would be that only one of them would get “paid” (in quotes because a “free” trip to NYC will cost you money in the end, not pay your bills).
3. (And I think this is the most important one) If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The kicked-out blogger even said in her post about the mess, “I don’t get asked to participate in this type of thing, like, at all.” The mistake that I made three years ago was thinking that I was being asked to participate because I was awesome, when in truth, everyone who was awesome had already said no. So, if you get an opportunity that seems “bigger” than where you think you are, your Spidey sense should be tingling, and you should proceed with extreme caution.
The Blogging Angels will be posting another podcast very soon, so now’s your chance to get caught up!
Money is a fascinating subject when it comes to blogging, because there aren’t any standards and it’s all wrapped in mystery. Well, we tried to shed some light on the subject in our latest Blogging Angels podcast.
It’s also the closest that we’ve ever come to shouting at each other across the table. That’s what money does to people.
You can listen to it right here on Behind the Screen, or if you want a list of the links mentioned in the podcast, you can find them on the Blogging Angels post (where you can also listen).
It’s happened before, and I’m sure it will happen again. But it just leaves me shaking my head.
On a recent weekend, when I was supposed to be half-way across the country being wined and dined and learning about some products that I have a genuine interest in, I was instead at home with my family. Which isn’t a bad consolation prize. But the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth and a bias against ever working with the company involved, and the PR team that set it up.
I’d had this trip on my calendar for months, and as the trip got closer I asked for details about out-of-pocket expenses. Now, on past trips my expenses have been higher because I’ve needed child care (and if you want to know my stance on that, read this). But since this trip was over a weekend, the only expenses I would have that would be coming directly from me would be transportation to and from LaGuardia airport, about $80 total. I did not get an answer – it simply wasn’t addressed in the next email.
As airplane reservations were about to be made I asked again about airport transportation. I was told that they were not able to pay for that. I responded with this:
Hi XXX, is there any room for negotiation with transportation? I’m sure you can understand how fast expenses add up – getting to and from LGA will be almost $100. While I’m looking forward to next weekend and learning more about XXX, I don’t like the idea of paying out of my own pocket to promote a product. I’m not even asking to be paid for an entire weekend of my time or other expenses related to me leaving my kids for the weekend, just the expenses directly related to the trip.
The PR person’s response:
I completely understand your concerns. However, we are only able to accommodate travel to and from the airport in XXX. We feel that the [event]will be valuable outside of and unrelated to product promotion–and we hope that you’ll still be able to join us!
So that was it, then. I was getting a free trip, so I should just be grateful for that and pay my own way to the airport. I declined the trip.
There’s an idea that giving bloggers a trip is some kind of payment. And if the trip is to a vacation destination, I can totally see making that argument. But when you are being brought somewhere to spend a couple of days meeting people from a company and learning about their products, that’s not my idea of a vacation. That’s work, no matter how many nice meals it’s built around. And the fact that I’m not even asking for compensation for the time still doesn’t sit right with me. So to not even get all of my expenses paid for is completely unacceptable. Besides, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from writing about their products – I don’t need their help for that.
This is not a company I’d ever worked with before. This was not a company dangling future work in front of me. This was presented completely as a get-to-know-us weekend. There are companies that could invite me somewhere and I would likely pay for my own airfare, let alone car service, because we have a relationship. I’ve been working with them for a while. I trust them. I know that good will come out of the trip and I’m not worried. But this was not that. And now it likely never will be. Their loss.
Did I shoot myself in the foot? Do they now have me on a big list of bloggers they’ll never work with? Were they planning on announcing during the trip that they wanted to work with all of us long-term? I don’t really care. Because if they’re not willing to pay my expenses to come meet them on their terms and in their city, how likely is it that they would be generous and great to work with down the line?
Until we all take a stand against this kind of thing, it will continue. I’m sure they found someone else to take my place. I’m sure there are many people who would jump at an (almost) all-expense paid trip, albeit one where their schedule won’t be their own the entire time they’re gone. But by writing this, if you’re one of those people who would’ve taken the trip, or many others like it, I hope you’ll ask yourself next time: What am I really going to get out of this? Is unpaid time away from work and family worth it to me, when they don’t even respect me enough to cover my expenses?
Do this kind of thing often enough, and it will just become the cost of doing business – for you. You won’t even notice how much they’re taking advantage of you.
Last night I read two good posts about blogging for free. One, by Kludgymom, said that under certain circumstances it makes sense for bloggers to work for free (or for product). The other, by Momfluential, laid out some very good reasons why moms tend to fall into writing for free, and why they shouldn’t let that happen. Being a Libra, I largely agree with both of them (although I suspect that the reasons given in Kludgymom’s post are tied in tighter with the pitfalls described in Momfluential’s post than most of us would like to admit).
Fact is, I don’t think I’d be where I am today in my career if I hadn’t spent the first year working for free. In the beginning most of my readers were related to me, and I was still trying to get my bearings. I like Kludgymom’s use of “intern” to describe a blogger going through this phase. I spent a lot of time going to events I wasn’t sure I belonged at, writing about products and services I wasn’t sure I found interesting. But I was learning how to write, I was figuring out what I wanted my blog’s focus to be, I was networking, and I was getting myself into a good position for when I actually wanted to start making money. (And it’s worth noting that I was still doing the majority of my writing about non-product-related topics.)
But this was just a phase, and I think what happens with many bloggers is that they get stuck in that intern phase and don’t know how to get out of it. Writing something that’s basically an unpaid advertisement has certain benefits when your audience is very small and you’re getting a foot in the door. But there comes a time when that’s no longer the case, and you need to move to the next phase. Your gut will tell you when it’s time. Your audience is bigger, your influence is greater, your writing is better. At a certain point, if you are writing about products – and your blog doesn’t have the kind of crazy traffic that allows you to make a living through advertising – you should be making money for your posts.
I don’t make much money from straight-up sidebar ads. I’m lazy about selling the spots. Most of the money I make on my blog is through sponsored posts. And the way I get these jobs, and get paid, is very simple: I ask to be paid.
Told you it was simple.
Sure, sometimes I get an offer for a sponsored post as part of an organized campaign. I’ve gotten good work from the Clever Girls Collective and The Motherhood, among others. But the majority of sponsored posts and giveaways on SelfishMom.com came about because I got a pitch in my inbox about a product that sounded interesting, and I wrote back saying that I was interested in doing a sponsored post about the product, and would they like to discuss my rates? And then I include links to my last few sponsored posts so that they can see I don’t just slap them together. I put the same effort into all of my posts, paid or not (and if you want to get steady, paying work you need to do the same).
Most of the time, I don’t get an answer back. Or I get an answer saying that it isn’t in their budget to pay for posts at this time. Or that they simply don’t pay for posts, ever. Or (and this is my favorite) that they don’t understand why I’m asking for money when all of the other bloggers did it for free. (If I’m in a bad mood, my answer to that one is that all of the other bloggers they’re working with are stupid. If I’m in a good mood I simply don’t respond.)
But inevitably someone will answer back that yes, they’re interested. For some of them, I think it’s the first time they’re commissioning a sponsored post. For others, I think they probably expected to pay a few bloggers, but only when pushed. Either way, it’s a win-win. I get paid to write about something interesting, my readers get a well-written post about a product I like, and the client gets a post by someone with experience, an audience, a good twitter following, and a proven track record of making clients happy.
As with anything else, there are of course exceptions to getting paid to write about a product. We all have those things we’re passionate about, things we want to share because we love them. Then there are those wonderful long-term relationships where not every post is attached to a formal agreement, but in the long run you make out very well.
But if every single time you post about a product you’re doing it for free, you should ask yourself why. And if the answer is that nobody’s offered you any money, then you need to start asking to be paid. It really is that simple.