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Companies are from Mars, Bloggers are from Venus

What is the “right” way?

A couple weeks ago I read an article in the NY Times – as I’m sure many of you did – about mom bloggers.  I won’t bother commenting on that article here, since it’s been talked about ad nauseum (and what I’d have to say wouldn’t be all that interesting, since the article didn’t really get my panties in a bunch).  But buried near the bottom of that article was a fantastic quote by Ciaran Blumenfeld of Momfluential, referencing the game “Seven Minutes in Heaven”: “The brands know they need a blogger. The bloggers know they need a brand. When everyone gets in the closet, nobody knows what to do with each other. It’s like we’re all 13 again.”

That quote really sums it up, doesn’t it?  Brands get bashed all the time for not knowing how to deal with bloggers, but I haven’t really seen anyone come up with a good definition of what the right way is.  I can start listing what I’d like from brands (payment for my time being at the top of the list), but with each thing I want from a brand will come a requirement from them, and pretty soon it will start to sound like a job, not a blogging relationship.  What attracted me to blogging was having my own online space, on my own terms, so finding ways to work with brands that preserve my space as much as possible, while benefiting me and the brands, is one of my long-term goals.  And it’s not easy, because at this point I don’t have a clear idea of what that looks like.

I’ve worked with a lot of brands in the past couple of years.  In the beginning, I was just thrilled to be sent free stuff, I really and truly was.  I also used to get excited (pre blogging) when a free sample of detergent arrived in the mail, so that’s not surprising.  So I often reviewed products just for the sake of getting products, mixed in with rants about my husband and cute stories about my kids.  And with the amount of traffic and credibility I had in the beginning, I’m not sure who was getting the better end of the deal.  I will never ever criticize new bloggers who work for products, because if reviewing is a direction you want to go in, you have to start somewhere, and after you’ve reviewed the things you already own you realize that you don’t have a budget to buy things just to review them.

But somewhere along the way, you start to feel a little bit used.  At one point you were getting detergent and toys and writing about them and thinking to yourself, “The joke’s on them, only my family reads my blog!”  Then, as your readership grows and your writing improves and you get more exposure, you start to realize that the relationships are now lopsided.  You crave something long term and more beneficial, where you feel appreciated, but the companies are still only offering one-night stands.  You publish your giveaway or your review, only to see the brand running out the door, as you yell after it “Call me!”  And you feel cheap.

The value of a mom-blog review

Brands and PR agencies are also realizing the value of aligning with certain bloggers longer-term, and I’m seeing more and more campaigns pop up that seem to be giving something back to the bloggers.  What might work for one blogger might not work for another.  Some of my blogging friends want sponsorships to conferences so that they can improve their blogs, some just want cash to pay their bills.  I really appreciate the companies that are trying to work it out.  I’m no fool, I know that their bottom line is…their bottom line.  But I really believe that campaigns that help bloggers be better bloggers or contribute income to their households will ultimately work out well for the companies too.  In other words, just because they’re trying to make money off of us doesn’t necessarily make them evil.

And I still work for free if the product is interesting or strikes a chord – whether I’m writing about a product or about my kids or my house or New York City or whatever, there has to be inspiration in there somewhere.  That took me a long time to learn.  I used to write about products as totally separate from my life and the rest of my blog, but my reviews got more interesting when I started writing about my life and my family around the products.  (Just the other day I went to a lunch hosted by Uncle Ben’s and wrote about it, because I was interested in whether or not my picky son would eat a whole-grain product.)  And that, in my opinion, is the real value of a review by a mom blogger.  Any writer can look at a product objectively, and test it, and analyze it.  But our readers get to know us and our families, and it’s our histories and the complete subjectivity of our reviews that make them influential.

Companies on the right track

Frigidaire/MomCentral.com

I’m working with some companies right now that I think are trying hard to figure it out.  I’m one of the Frigidaire Test Drive moms, a program run by MomCentral.  We’re three years into renovating an old Brooklyn brownstone, so when the opportunity came my way to write twelve posts on my blog in exchange for a kitchen-full of quality appliances, I jumped at the chance.  Taking into consideration the cost of the appliances, minus some of the prep-work we had to do in the kitchen to accommodate those specific appliances, and keeping in mind that we were in the market for appliances anyway, it works out to more money per post than I would charge for a sponsored post.  That’s a win for me: I get new appliances at a time I really need them, and I get to write about them long-term and hopefully attract traffic looking for appliance reviews.

Of course, since I signed a contract agreeing to a certain number of posts in exchange for the appliances, those appliances are clearly income, and I will have to pay taxes on them.  Frigidaire understands that, which is why they’re cutting a check for me at the end of the year to cover the taxes (and of course I’ll have to pay taxes on that…).  To me, that’s a sign of a company that’s taking the whole mommy blogging world into consideration.  They’re targeting moms who may not be making much actual cash from their businesses, and they didn’t want bloggers to have to reach into their own pockets for the tax money.  I think it’s a smart move on their part, because they’re able to get their message out to a wider audience that way.  My husband and I probably would’ve been willing to pay for the taxes out of our own household budget if we absolutely had to, but not every blogger could have.

Tropicana/TheMotherhood.com

I’m also doing a program right now with Tropicana, run by The Motherhood.  Along with other perks of the campaign, I get a monthly stipend.  That’s right, cash for the time it takes me to write posts.  And there’s no requirement that I write good things and no expectation that I gush.  I’m sure that Emily and Cooper targeted mom bloggers for this campaign who they thought would naturally be into it (“What? I get points for something that’s already in my fridge?  Wheeee!”  Yeah, they targeted me well).  Paying someone to write something good about you is a whole other thing – PR and advertising.  Reaching out to bloggers is a bit of a risk, because you can’t control what’s said about your brand.  But if you choose the right bloggers, ones with a natural interest in your product, you have less to worry about.  And then you pay them for the time they’ll spend writing and researching.  It’s just the right thing to do when you’re asking someone to participate in a long-term project.

eBay/Kijiji/M. Booth & Associates

I was very surprised last week when I flew out to California to spend a day at eBay‘s headquarters in San Jose, talking about their local classified site Kijiji.  I was asked numerous times why I was going across the country just to spend a few hours at their offices, and I really didn’t have an answer to that other than “curiosity.”  What did eBay have in store for me that was worth it to them to fly me in?

They had gathered together a group of bloggers and professional organizers, and the first part of the morning was about what I had expected: we learned about eBay and Kijiji, and got to know some of the people behind both.  Then the day took a turn I wasn’t expecting.  First, we were asked what we would want from a relationship with Kijiji.  I was so excited by the question I don’t even remember what I blurted out as an answer (it had something to do with cash though, I do have a one-track mind).

Then, we were given access to some of the top people at eBay, who analyzed our blogs and answered our questions.  I got to ask Dennis Goedegebuure (don’t even try to pronounce it, his co-workers can’t), who oversees SEO for all of eBay’s worldwide sites, specific questions about my blog, my SEO, my strategy (turns out I need to work on it quite a bit).  It was like getting an acting lesson from Meryl Streep.  And we’ve been tweeting and emailing.  How much would I pay for this kind of consult, if it were even available on the open market?  I have no idea.  But I know I wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Then we got to speak with Richard Brewer-Hay, who writes the eBay Ink Blog and handles corporate communications at eBay.  We got to talk about blogging and social media, and use actual examples from our own blogs.  It was invaluable.  (We also got to talk about the pub his wife built for him on the show “While You Were Out,” which has nothing to do with this but is cool as all get-out.)

Then, as if we hadn’t already been treated to more valuable blogging information than we had ever expected, JJ McCarthy – who runs eBay’s U.S. affiliate marketing program – taught a seminar on monetizing our blogs.  And again, he used our actual blogs as examples and gave us personal, concrete advice.

It was almost overwhelming.  eBay and the PR firm they worked with, M. Booth & Associates, understood a few key things about what they could do to most effectively work with bloggers:

  • They asked what we wanted to get out of a future relationship, instead of dictating terms
  • They had experts in several different fields at their disposal, so they used them to their best advantage
  • They used our own blogs, over and over again, to explain strategies and tactics and point out problems, so that if nothing else we went home with concrete information that would help us
  • They made their experts available to us after the event was over
  • They talked about working with us long-term

I have no idea what will come out of that initial meeting, if anything, but even if it goes no further the trip was worthwhile.  They valued my time and showed it.  They didn’t pay me for the day that I spent away from home, but much like my new appliances, they gave me something valuable that I’ll be able to use for a long time.  And if we do continue working together, they totally get that the better my blog is, the better it will be for them when I write about them.

The “wrong” way

So I still don’t know what the “right” way is.  There isn’t just one.   And the ones that do rise above will be constantly evolving.  But I can offer up a few things for companies not to do if they want quality, long-term relationships with bloggers:

  • Don’t promise traffic unless you can actually deliver. Companies somehow got the idea that a good relationship was one where a blogger wrote about a brand, the brand mentioned the blogger, the blogger got tons of traffic, and the blogger made lots of money from advertising due to that traffic.  I have yet to hear of that actually happening.  Unless you’re going to put real time, effort and money into promoting a blogger, don’t mention traffic.
  • Don’t waste their time. If you invite bloggers somewhere, make sure that they’re going to get something out of it.  It’s bad enough to have your time wasted when you’re getting a paycheck, but when you’re doing it for free, it just sucks.  And if you’re promoting a product that has a high value, don’t gather a bunch of bloggers together and then raffle off one of your product.  If you’ve only got one to give, then find a blogger you want to work with.  Otherwise you’ve left all but one of the group feeling left out.  This isn’t a game, this isn’t a social group where everyone should just feel honored to attend.  These are people with a business, and if they need to experience your product to do a knowledgeable write up of it, just give it to them.
  • Represent your product truthfully. If you send bloggers extras that aren’t usually included with the product, make that crystal clear.  If you invite bloggers on a trip and give them something special, but they’re under the impression that they’re seeing what regular guests see, it’s going to come back to bite you all in the ass.  The blogger is putting her reputation on the line reviewing your product, and she has to be able to represent it accurately to real consumers who will not be getting a freebie.
  • Don’t ignore the bloggers after they’ve written about you. You came to them and asked for something.  If they come back to you later and ask you for something, don’t develop a sudden case of amnesia.

Originally posted on Behind the Screen, a part of SelfishMom.com. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. This post has Compensation Levels of 2 & 7. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information. Amy also blogs at Filming In Brooklyn and the NYC Moms Blog.

Blogging and taxes: does anybody know what the hell is going on?

I just got back from my accountant’s office.  My new accountant.  My first accountant.  I’ve never needed one before.  I’ve been blogging for almost four years, but before 2009 there wasn’t any money involved, unless you count what I paid to get myself online and go to BlogHer in San Francisco in 2008.  I didn’t, I just thought of it as a hobby.

Then 2009 hit, and I started getting products in the mail.  Some I knew were coming because I had gotten emails asking if I wanted them.  Some I knew were coming because I got emails telling me they were coming whether I wanted them or not.  And some just showed up – I have no idea how those companies even got my address.  I’ve gotten some incredibly cool stuff, I’ve gotten some incredibly lame stuff.  All in all I’d estimate that in the past year I’ve written about 10-20% of the products that have come through my door.   I’m going to do this entire post without mentioning any products or brands, because I just can’t handle disclosure and taxes in the same conversation.  My head will explode.

Then there were the trips, I think seven in all.  Some I paid for completely, some a brand paid for completely, some I got partial sponsorships for.  I wrote about all of them.  And while every single one was enjoyable (I love to travel), they were all work.  That is, if I weren’t blogging about them, I wouldn’t be taking those trips.  And I don’t mean that I took my kids to a water park and then reviewed it to try to deduct it on my taxes.  These were all business trips.  The only problem is, how do I treat them for tax purposes?  I had no clue.

The thing is, not too many people have a clue about a blogger’s taxes.  Or rather, everybody has different clues.  Asking around for the past year and listening in on twitter, here’s what I’ve discovered is “the law” according to whoever is saying it:

  • All trips that are paid for by brands have to be treated like a prize, with sales tax being owed
  • All trips that are paid for by brands are counted as income
  • All trips that are paid for by brands don’t count
  • All products received by a blogger have to be claimed as income
  • All products received by a blogger have to be treated like a prize
  • Products received by a blogger only count as income if the blogger asked for them
  • Products received by a blogger count as income unless they are given away again in a giveaway, in which case they don’t count as anything and the shipping can be claimed as an expense
  • Products received by a blogger only count as income if they are written or tweeted about
  • Products received by a blogger count as prizes unless they are written about
  • Products received by a blogger and given away to charity don’t count as income, unless the blogger takes a deduction for the donation
  • Products received by a blogger don’t count as anything

Basically, if you ask three people, you’re likely to get three different responses.  So what’s a girl to do?

Find a good accountant, that’s what.  I found one who in fifteen years has only had six of the returns she’s prepared get audited.  I like those odds.  The reason is that she’s cautious.  She’s not going to let me claim my home computer and internet as an expense, because if I weren’t blogging they’d still be sitting here, getting used by the whole family.  She isn’t going to let me claim the food the kids ate at the Type A Mom conference as an expense,  because they aren’t on my payroll and didn’t go to North Carolina to work.  That’s all fine, because if she’s that cautious with those types of things, I’m more likely to trust her answers when it comes to trips and products.

So what were her answers?  I’m not going to tell you, for several reasons.  Number one, I’d be giving away her advice for free, and that’s not right.  Number two, what’s right for my situation may not be right for yours.  And last, because if it turns out she’s wrong, I don’t want to be on the hook for giving bad advice.

So instead, I’ll tell you what you should be doing all year to prepare for your taxes as a blogger.  Do these things now, in March, even if you still look on blogging as a hobby.  By October it could be a career, and you’ll be scrambling like I was, looking for receipts for all sorts of things that you were prepared to just forget about before.

  • Don’t just save receipts, track them.  I thought I was off to a good start by bringing in receipts for everything from my laptop to room service to software and web hosting fees, but they need to be on a spreadsheet, not in envelopes.  I mean, you want them in envelopes as proof, but your accountant wants them organized in some kind of money program, or even just an excel spreadsheet showing what came in and what went out.
  • If you go on a trip (no matter who pays for it), keep track of what you’re doing in order to prove that it was a business trip.  If there’s a printed conference schedule, tuck that away with your tax papers.  Keep a log of meetings you went to.  Hell, I asked her jokingly if I should print out my twitter stream from trips, and she said sure, that that would be a great way to show that I was actually working.  If you review a product connected with a trip, or the trip itself, print that out to put with your tax papers.  You need to be able to prove that the trip wasn’t a vacation.
  • Don’t mistakenly believe that you don’t need to worry about income that falls below $600.  That may be the magic number for you to receive a 1099 form about that income, but you have to track and count your income no matter how small.  Again, do it now in case big things happen to you later in the year.
  • If you buy something specifically for blogging – a laptop, say, or some kind of software – document how you’ll use it and why it’s a work expense.
  • Don’t forget about all those expenses you just wouldn’t have except for blogging.  No, I’m not talking about the Valium in your purse, I mean the business cards and the shipping charges for sending prizes and the copies you made at the library for that research you did for that one post (seriously, I’ve heard some bloggers actually do research!).

You may have a stronger stomach for expenses than I do.  I came across this list of 101 deductions for bloggers and freelancers, and actually laughed out loud at a few of them.  My new accountant would never let me get away with most of those.  I would rather pay a bit extra in taxes knowing it’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever get audited.  If you’re more daring, more power to you.  But whichever way you decide to go, make sure you have the paper trail to back it up.

Originally posted on Behind the Screen, a part of SelfishMom.com. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information. Amy also blogs at Filming In Brooklyn and the NYC Moms Blog.

Is it ever a good idea to insult another blogger?

This evening one of my google alerts let me know that a blog had linked to mine.  I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, that’s always a good feeling.  So I clicked on the link, thinking it would be the usual: My new friend this, or check out this blog that, or even a post picking apart a view I had on something.  Instead, what I found was a post that started out by insulting my readers.  Or rather, in this case, my video watchers, basically saying that anyone who watched my videos to the end was a sucker.

I don’t need to defend my videos.  They’re a minor part of my blog, they don’t get much traffic compared to the rest of the site, and I mostly do them for myself.  Complaining out loud when I’m home alone might indicate that I need to visit a psychiatrist, but if I put a camera on while I do it then I’m “vlogging” and not necessarily nuts.  And they’re so incredibly quick to do compared to actual writing that they make me feel like I’ve accomplished something.  So if someone doesn’t like them or doesn’t watch them, whatever.  I’ll keep doing them as long as my face doesn’t break YouTube.  Oops, I guess I just defended them.

But I was baffled as to why this blogger would insult my blog like that.  I expect to be criticized for what I write.  I often have strong opinions and I put them out there knowing that they’ll be challenged.  But this blogger is new, and she’s writing on someone else’s site.  She has a handful of posts under her belt and twitter followers numbering around 50.  I was at that stage not all that long ago, and I can remember my attitude towards my fellow bloggers clearly: I’m in awe of you, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’d be ever-so-grateful if you’d help me out in any little way you can.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me to try to get ahead by insulting another mom blogger.

Notice that I’m not telling you who the blogger is or what site she writes for.  I don’t need anyone to defend me and I don’t want to give her any traffic.  In blogging, any kind of attention tends to be good attention.  So, she missed an opportunity to get a link back from me, to engage me in a discussion.  And as much as I’d like to pretend that I let these things roll off my back, I will remember her name forever and will never be rooting for her, because she started out her writing career insulting me.

So is there ever a reason to insult a fellow blogger?  (I’m wracking my brain trying to think if I’ve ever done it, because there’s nothing more embarrassing than saying you should never do something and then having ten people show you exactly where you did it.)  If I disagree with someone I try to focus on the issue, not the blogger.  And that can be hard.  Sometimes what I really want to do is just go on twitter and start calling names.  But I take a deep breath, and I try not to stoop to that level.

I’ve seen plenty of bloggers attack other bloggers.  Am I in the minority here, thinking that this isn’t cool?

Originally posted on Behind the Screen, a part of SelfishMom.com. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted.  Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information.

What’s going on behind the screen?

So it’s a little after midnight.  I should be in bed.  Since I’m not in bed, I should at least be loading the dishwasher and cleaning up from the late dinner I had with my husband.  Since I’m not cleaning up, I should at least be posting things on SelfishMom.com that I’d promised this person or that person I’d post soon.  And actually, that’s what I was doing when I decided to put my first post up on Behind the Screen.

The other day I was talking with someone about a product I had gotten recently in exchange for writing about it.  I had to talk to this person about the product, but was trying to have this conversation without letting him know that I hadn’t actually purchased the product.  But eventually he needed to see the receipt, and after avoiding it for as long as possible I finally had to tell him that I didn’t have one, and why.

I’m in no way ashamed of writing in exchange for products, but I really don’t like explaining it to near strangers.  Because no matter how I phrase it, even if I explain that I don’t get much actual money for doing this, I always get the same reaction: “You got it for FREE?  Just for writing about it?  Man, I’m going to start a blog.”  Yeah.  Because it’s just that easy, dude.  Well, actually it is that easy to start a blog.  But making it successful, whatever your definition of that is, that’s not so easy.

When I worked at a law firm as a receptionist, nobody ever said “They give you MONEY for that?  Just for sitting at a desk and answering phones?”  But with blogging, well, somehow I’m expected to do it for nothing.  I once had someone tell me that she seriously did not believe I was able to sell advertising for my blog, that I just put ads up there to look important.  And while I do occasionally put up ads for free for friends, it’s not to look important, it’s to be nice.

But that’s really not why I’m writing this post – some bloggers proudly choose to work for nothing, and good for them. This post isn’t about whether or not you accept products or sponsored posts or advertising.  It’s about the way some people automatically devalue blogs.  Whether you get paid to blog or not, I’m guessing you at least want a basic respect and appreciation for the time that you put into it.

My point is that most people don’t understand how much goes into blogging.  They look at a three paragraph post, figure it took me ten minutes to write, and then I spent the rest of my day playing tennis or watching TV.  And I’m here to tell you: if that were true, I’d be asleep right now.

So, I started Behind the Screen as a place to talk about that kind of stuff – products, advertising, logistics, disclosure, the “in” crowd, swag, lists, conferences…the list goes on and on.  I’ve tackled some of these on Selfish Mom, but never felt comfortable doing it.  I didn’t want to talk about blogging on my blog, if that makes any sense.  I needed another outlet.  And while this is still part of SelfishMom.com (same disclosure, same “About” page, etc.) it’s its own space, all about blogging.

If you’ve got an issue you’d like me to write about, or if you’d like to guest post, please shoot me an email at Amy@selfishmom.com, I’d love to hear from you.  And if you send it at one in the morning, there’s a good chance I’ll answer you right back, because I’m up blogging, “paying” for all that “free” stuff.

Originally posted on Behind the Screen, a part of SelfishMom.com. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted.  Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information.