Why Paying Bloggers For Posts Changes The Game

There’s been a lot of debate back and forth around bloggers (generally mommy bloggers, although they’re certainly not the only ones) receiving direct payment for posts over the last little while. The latest post to catch my eye was a controversial piece over at Mom Blog Magazine entitled Why PR People Get Paid And You Don’t.

I’ve shied away from this topic in the past, but after some interesting conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks I’m ready to weigh in.

A quick note up-front: I’ve been writing here for six years now. Over that time I’ve built this site up from a static site, that I coded by hand in Notepad, to a blog with 40,000 views each month.

While I’ve never accepted monetary payment for posting, I generally get several requests to incorporate ads each week. I get the attraction – it’s a lot of work to maintain a blog – and I don’t begrudge anyone from monetizing their site.

With that out of the way, on to the crux of the matter…

To put it simply, bloggers accepting (or demanding) payment for posts changes the game for them in several ways:

  • You shift from earned to paid media
  • You shift from content creator to service provider
  • You need to compete for budget

Let me explain further…

You shift from earned to paid media

If we break online communications into different spheres – owned, paid, earned and social media – PR has traditionally played in the “earned media” space. When PR people pitch a journalist on a story, we’re trying to “earn” that coverage.

Earned media brings with it lots of advantages. It’s highly credible, it’s long-term (it lives on) and it increasingly plays a role in product sales. On the flip side, though, earned media is near-impossible to control – in terms of quantity of coverage, of tone of the journalist/blogger’s coverage or of the content of the coverage. However, the benefits have traditionally outweighed the risks (hence PR people have jobs).

To journalists/bloggers, that means that when a PR person approaches them, they have control of how they react to the ask. They can turn it down entirely and write nothing, or they can write a positive, neutral or even negative piece if they so choose. That’s fine, because they’re producing editorial content. PR people accept that risk when they pitch.

When money exchanges hands, the situation changes. Suddenly you’re no longer playing in the “earned media” space. Now you’re in the “paid media” space. That changes the expectations. If brands pay for placement, they have different expectations to when they just pitch for coverage. Not only do they expect the post to appear, but they also have different expectations around control of content.

Update: Paid media also suffers from a draw-back of being less trusted than earned coverage. (thanks to Jen Zingsheim for noting this in the comments)

It’s not a black-and-white situation in reality – mainstream media is now adopting more of a pay-for-play model – however, brands do get control over key messages within those stories.

Simply put: you earn coverage; you pay for ads. You can’t have things both ways. If you accept payment, expect different conditions.

Your role in the situation changes

The earned/paid distinction also plays into the second of the key factors in this debate.

On the earned media side, the PR person is looking for a win-win situation – they’re looking to win through favourable coverage; meanwhile they’re looking to provide value to the blogger through content opportunities that fit their needs (so they’ll publish not just this time but also down the road).

Once we’re dealing in the paid media space, the situation changes. Suddenly, you’re not just the recipient of a pitch, who gets to decide what to do. You’re a person who wants payment to provide a service. That means you need to demonstrate value to the party that’s looking to purchase that service.

This means a shift in roles. The PR person becomes a client, just as someone buying ad space is a client of the publication selling the ads. Meanwhile, you (now as a service provider) have more of an obligation around quality.

This leads into the last key factor here…

You need to compete for budget

When companies allocate marketing budgets to PR, advertising, interactive and social programs, they make a decision on how to allocate those resources to get the best results.

When PR agencies come up with their plans, they consider how to get the best results for the budget they have. Sometimes that will incorporate a blogger outreach program. They make the decision that this is the best use of their budget.

When bloggers require payment in order to write a post, they add another decision point in the budgeting process. That isn’t, by itself, an issue. However, the result is that the blogger then finds themselves competing against other options for budget.

That’s right – you’re competing for budget. That competition means:

  • You need to demonstrate your value, and “well you want my coverage so I’m valuable” isn’t an appropriate response.
  • Your asking price needs to be based in reality – on the value you can provide. How can you demonstrate your influence? Again, on the earned side the PR pro needs to do that research to satisfy the client; once you become paid media the onus is also on you.
  • You’re up against paid media with established CPM and/or CPC figures, with stated audiences and at least a ball-park number of impressions an advertiser can expect.

Again, is this bad? No. The reality, though, is that when you ask for money for your service, that needs to come at the expense of something else. Your value is therefore going to get compared to other investments. This can be a tough dose of reality for some bloggers, especially those with small audiences, who are used to getting the VIP treatment from brands.

Payment changes the situation

The bottom line here is that, when you ask for payment in order to write a post, the situation changes. You’re no longer just a blogger/journalist from whom a company is seeking earned coverage. You’re  a media property from whom they’re buying coverage.

Bloggers who decide to go this route need to understand that this is the situation. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to monetize your site, but if you’re not ready to deal with this reality then you could be in for a cold, harsh wake-up call.

There are plenty of different sides to this, of course. What do you think?

  • Dave, great post.

    I have had a few offers for positive reviews in exchange for money, and I always found it weird that I was expected to give a positive review of something without having even used it yet.

    I think that’s the problem with any “objective” source of information – if it runs advertising on the website to remain profitable, how “objective” are they expected to be? I can think of all of the game review sites that have had problems with reviews no longer being objective thanks to game companies paying them off for positive reviews.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know if you can run a blog without advertising of some sort, and that might be the problem in of itself.

  • Jen Zingsheim

    GREAT post Dave, and clearly spelled out. I’d add one more cautionary note to bloggers who wish to be paid: it will change the audience’s perception of their point of view. There’s a reason earned media and word of mouth recommendations are perceived as high-quality and trustworthy recommendations. As no money has changed hands, the recommendation is expected to be unbiased. Once money changes hands, the perception shifts from “unbiased opinion” to “paid advert.”

    If bloggers are okay with that, it’s fine. But I think they need to realize that by requesting/suggesting/demanding payment, they may be damaging their value proposition as an objective source with influence–the very reason PRs have reached out to them in the first place.

  • Very interesting discussion. I think one additional point to make that is if you’re a blogger who begins seeking payment for coverage, what you have essentially become to the PR person is a pseudo-advertorial outlet, in the realm of media buying. While it’s not quite traditional advertorial content that the paid blogger will be producing as part of the coverage of your company, it does have a certain set of expectations, as you note in your post. And with that comes, in a way, a degree of responsibility to uphold your end of the bargain and to ensure that the purchaser of your coverage is getting as much out of it as you (the blogger) are getting in terms of increased traffic, exposure, etc. for featuring that brand.

    It’s a two-way street in a manner that requires far more thought and consideration of the ramifications, as you note.

  • Belllindsay

    Great comments here, but I’d like to stir the pot a little (and *please* correct me if I’m wrong). Isn’t the mere acceptance of so many ‘freebies’/products/trips/event tickets/ etc., etc., tantamount to accepting cash? Let’s visit TV land for a sec (20 year career/factual/pop-culture/entertainment producer) – here, the PR people generally rule. They control who is going to appear on your program. If you trash their film, you won’t be going on any more junkets. If you challenge their guest, say goodbye to their entire roster. *No money* is changing hands, yet they are still able to stack the deck, so to speak, in order to achieve favourable content. At the CBC, we refused/weren’t allowed to work that way. No “questions in advance”, no junkets on the PR dime. But it created a huge imbalance in our content/delivereables versus the privates. Which in turn affected our audience share. Dave mentions site advertisers as income source – which is a great point – yet advertisers are looking to make money, and will only advertise on a blog if they feel they’ll get good ROI, yes? How many honest – and by honest I mean bad – reviews/blog posts can you give, as a product blogger, before the PR people turn their backs on you? I would love to get some feedback on this.

    • I’d love to hear other peoples’ opinions on this, but there are some nuanced differences between the media here.

      TV media has to fill spots – they have to fill air time. In contrast, most blogs can cover what they want. If they don’t want to post one day, they don’t have to (of course, if they’re driving traffic to support ads then that again changes the game).

      • Belllindsay

        {TV media has to fill spots – they have to fill air time. In contrast, most blogs can cover what they want. If they don’t want to post one day, they don’t have to (of course, if they’re driving traffic to support ads then that again changes the game).}
        Absolutely true Dave, and therein lies my point: in the blogging world, when does content cease to be king..? PR types wield an enormous amount of community power and influence – so I’m wondering if bloggers feel pressured to keep PR people happy. I also am figuring if you’re a blogger who hopes to be paid, then it’s something you take seriously and dedicate a significant amout of work and time towards. It’s a bit like the junior high school dance; no one wants to be left propping up the gym wall. And you need to ‘get asked to dance’ in order to achieve Annie A-list status. I read the “From PR with love..” post early this am and liked your response to it. I’m not a blogger, btw. I’m just curious. (I read the “From PR with love..” post early this am and liked your response to it.)

  • The whole chinese wall thing is critical for this very reason. Writers write, and should get paid to write no matter what they write. The revenue needs to be separate. Anytime a writer gets paid more/less based not on the quality of what they write but based on:

    a) whether or not they wrote the post at a company’s request
    b) whether or not the post was positive
    c) whether or not they hurt a company’s “feelings” in a post

    … the dynamics change. It’s hard enough these days in a world where most writers earn bonuses for traffic and such. But for smaller bloggers where they are both writer AND sales team, the ethical lines become blurred beyond distinction.

    Add to that the fact that for many of the bloggers engaging in this discussion they weren’t around the last time this was an issue for bloggers, and so they haven’t thought through the ethics of it yet, and it becomes a conundrum. Especially when these are people that are doing real work for no real $. And in the mommy blogging situation where they have real (internal and family) pressure to earn money?

    Yech, I empathize. It’s an impossible situation.

  • Good points.
    The top experts and journalists blogging under their own names are unlikely to go down the ‘pen for hire route’ as they know this will damage their reputation. People can scent vested interest a mile off, so the value of the paid blogger will tend to decrease the more vested their interest becomes.
    I suppose the SEO people will be happy to generate some backlinks, but there’s no point in gaining a high position on Google if people don’t like what they see when they click through.

  • Receiving payments totally changes the game for bloggers.

    I’m not trying to be an ethical snob, but it’s a fact. If you’re paid to write something, then your writing is an advertisement, not a blog post. Personally I think this shifts the credibility of a blog in the eyes of it’s readers.

    Instead, why don’t more blogs get sponsored? Maybe the same company that wants to pay for a post can become a sponsor for the blog. Sponsorship is a better revenue stream for the blogger than ads. Personally, as a blog reader, I would be more receptive to a sponsor than to a paid post.

    What does everyone think? Are there many blogs that are getting sponsored and not just selling advertising?

  • Anonymous

    Great post – I came across this issue when trying to get various blogs to review a smartphone app. In this realm payment doesn’t even guarantee a positive review – it only guarantees a review and various marketing aspects (write up, video). Of course, this is good and bad for anyone who is just getting started and attempting to get their app out there. I never did want to pay for an app review simply because it seemed like an irresponsible use of money – there had to be a better way.

    From what I’ve seen on fashion blogs – a lot of big name bloggers will get clothes and accessories sent as gifts to them. This depends more on the senders of the gifts – have you done your homework to check whether the style you’re sending will be appreciated? If so, you are probably going to get a good post and some pictures.

    That said, I love that there are guidelines that requires bloggers to indicate whether they purchased something or was given it to them. It’s so honest and transparent.

  • From a position in the middle, I think both sides have a ways to go before this model (these models?) mature. I’ve seen “PR-friendly” bloggers who don’t have visible contact info on their sites or who pitch companies whose business they’re clearly know nothing about. I’ve seen campaign outlines from brands that have conflicting messages and offers in the pitch. Or who don’t seem to have a clue how quickly the influencer landscape changes.

    I think the barter-esque nature of how a lot of this started, and the fact that it looked a lot more like B2C than B2B — providing goods for reviews (and often giveaways) — clouded that it IS business, not Secret Santa. For both sides. Sure, when you get heaped with offers and products and schwag it can initially feel like Christmas, but those providing those items ARE buying you, or at least your brand, words, reputation, and audience’s time. And from the blogger perspective, when you enter into an agreement with a company, no, you are no longer completely autonomous. There are now boundaries, legal and good judgment around what you can say, especially if you want to continue to do business this way.

    Certainly, at this point, agencies and brands want to start with reliable lists of X number of currently influential people who write about Y topic to help with campaigns, etc. for Z products. And there are not yet a lot of efficient ways to get those. I work for PostRank, and our Connect service was developed to tackle precisely that need.

    But that need will get more sophisticated, just as the business relationships between bloggers and brands will get more sophisticated. And the lists will start to include more information about which communities you’re influential in, rather than just traffic numbers. Or how your influence rankings in various topic areas have changed in the last few months. Or how dedicated and active your audience is.

    If we have neuromarketing to show what we REALLY think and feel about products, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have something comparable eventually to show the emotional relationships between a blogger and the audience, and how that ecosystem grows, changes, and can be leveraged, if that’s the business direction the blogger wants to take. (Which bears a bit of resemblance to sentiment analysis, but would have to be far more sophisticated.)

  • Vanessa Ciccone

    Great blog post and an interesting issue. It’s tough for bloggers to make this call, especially those who blog full time and don’t allow ads on their sites. Although, I would argue that a lot of bloggers take advantage of the barter system with brands and use that as a motivator.

    There are many social media savvy brands that offer bloggers new products to sample if they have already blogged about existing products. For example, if I’m a blogger who has written about a particular kind of journal that use, whether that posting is positive or negative, the company that makes that product has an opportunity to build a relationship with me. They could do some research on what I write about and offer to send me samples of products that I might be interested in. Even if I end up disliking the products they send, the fact that they made the effort adds value to our relationship and increases the likelihood that I’ll mention the brand again (in a positive light). Even if I still hate the product, I now have a relationship with the brand and am less likely to bash it.

    Receiving a free product is a far cry from a paycheque, but it can still be a motivator for bloggers to continue their work without having the credibility of their blog called into question. The same cannot be said for bloggers who are being paid or writing advertorial-type posts.

  • Very interesting post and discussion below. But I think there is a whole other type of post that isn’t being considered: non-product related. Why is a freelance writer in a print magazine about X topic expecting to get paid by the publisher but a “mommy blogger” who writes about her personal tips on toilet training toddlers posted on a for-profit site is not expecting to get paid? Why is print being held to different standards than digital? A magazine buys articles becuase they have ad revenue to spend. Why is a digital magazine (aka a blog) any different? Not all articles or posts have to be about a product. In fact, the majority are likely not. Its true that not all bloggers have been to journalism school and have debated the ethics around the role of the media, but I venture a guess that many print writers are in the same boat. Do we value their stories less?

    Granted I’m new to this space and am sure to have missed a few nuances here but ultimately isn’t it up to the reader to decide how many grains of salt are needed when reading any article, whether in print or digital?

    • Thanks for your comment, Michele.

      There’s a key nuance here. No journalist expects a PR person to pay them for writing a story. They get paid by the owner of the property.

      This is a key point, and keeps getting lost with people expecting payment: brands don’t pay traditional media for coverage (there’s a grey area around products/trips, but we’re talking monetary payments here).

      Traditional outlets pay writers out of the revenue they generate from other sources (generally advertising in its various forms).

      The other piece of this – whether people value blogger stories less – relates back to a comment in the post – if you’re expecting payment, you need to demonstrate your value. Is a blogger as valuable as a mainstream media outlet? Perhaps, but they need to demonstrate that value. Claiming to have a targeted community isn’t sufficient – that value needs to be demonstrated in terms of audience size, demographics, psychographics, etc. Again, I’m not saying that bloggers aren’t as valuable as traditional journalists (I certainly value my relationships with the ones I know and work with) but if they’re asking for money they need to demonstrate that value.

      Make sense?

  • Trevor Campbell

    Timely post, Dave. In response to Belllindsay, I don’t think accepting “freebies” is the same as accepting cash. The journalist is obliged to provide an honest and fair review of the product or service received. They can’t write about it if they don’t experience it first. Paying someone for a blog post is a lot different.

    Also, Jenn Maier of the UrbanMoms.ca network argues in a post here http://bit.ly/cPi1TX that networks should operate like mainstream media and pay its bloggers for their writing. The advertisers and sponsors pay to be part of this influential network for the same reason an advertiser appears in the Globe and Mail: the brand wants to seen and appreciated by its many readers.

    Perhaps comparing a vast blog network to a standalone blog is like comparing apples to oranges since the writer in the blog network isn’t paid directly by the advertiser. That said, I agree that paying a blogger directly turns earned media into paid.

  • Pingback: Radio Roundtable: Hashtag How-to, WikiLeaks, and paying bloggers « Media Bullseye – A New Media and Communications Magazine()

  • Anonymous

    A wee bit late to the campsite here…so I apologize if I’ve put a damper on your days by adding fuel to this fascinating fire…

    A blogger getting paid by a company to review or mention a product or service favourably crosses the line from earned to paid media. To me that is a no-brainer.

    There’s an issue we seem to be tiptoeing around: placing ads (banners, etc.) on a blog where the blogger continues to write freely at his/her discretion. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t addressed in the comments)

    Did I miss something somewhere? Do those blogs and bloggers now become paid media once they accept a banner ad for their site?

    Dave – would your blog’s credibility as a valued, impartial, PR source diminish if you started accepting ads of any kind from say Canada Newswire or your blog’s platform, Wordpress (heaven forbid!)? What if, instead, your blog’s email newsletter contained ads but your blog didn’t? Same content – different delivery…

    That leads me to yet another related issue. If a blogger is showing favourable bias towards a product/service that advertises on their blog, was an ethical line crossed (intentionally or not)?

    Conversely, if a blogger reviews that product/service negatively, does the company pull the ad and do we think less of them for doing so? How beholden are bloggers to their blogs’ advertisers?

    Is there a resource out there with recommendations for bloggers on how to conduct themselves in these situations?

    If not I’m happy to rely on Dave’s blog and the good folks who contribute to it…paid or not…(I’m sure not)

    As an aside, I came across the following recommendation (1 of 8 ) for advertisers who want to determine their best online advertising options:

    “Paid Reviews on Blogs. It’s important to pick quality bloggers with a decent amount of integrity, trust, reach and authority. I would also recommend choosing a blogger that doesn’t do paid reviews very often in order to maximize the mental attention directed towards each review. The more objective the review, the better. Undisclosed reviews will generally work better but it is difficult to find high quality bloggers that don’t disclose.” (Source: http://www.doshdosh.com/how-to-advertise-your-website-eight-paid-advertising-models/)

    I have to point out that this site calls itself an authority in this area – 250,000+ page views/month; top 50 in Adadge’s Power 150 list; top 10 on the Technorati Most Favorited Blog List; 30,000+ RSS Feed subscribers. It also recommends taking out “premium” ads with them, yet they have none on their site (that I could see). Needless to say, my eyebrows were raised from their usual furrowed position…

  • Great post Dave, and great discussion. I am following the debate as someone who worked as a journalist and now works with bloggers as a PR person.

    I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that “earned” media is earned because no writer directly gets paid by a brand. My journalism experience was in print and online publications (consumer and B2B) and although we typically don’t like to talk about this much in the journalism or PR world, advertisers definitely dictate (aka pay for) coverage, at least in Canada. Big advertisers regularly meet with senior editorial staff at major publications and review content plans or editorial calendars, it may not be stated openly, but they absolutely have a say in who gets covered when, and it’s ALWAYS positive for their brand. Clear example: open most women’s magazines and look through the ad pages, and then review the “celebrities” covered in editorial. How many of them are spokespeople for the brands being advertized?

    And if the writers don’t directly get paid by the brand, they are told by their employers (who do get paid by the brand) that to keep their job they must write on certain topics, with a certain tone (positive). Sometimes this is stated outright, sometimes it’s just an unspoken understanding that all editorial staff know about. It’s naive to think this doesn’t go on and often.

    Business publications tend to have a stricter approach, but even there many publications will accept free trips or “junkets.” And although no attending journalist is ever outright paid by a PR person, if you’re flight is free, you’re put up at a great hotel and treated to great dinners and parties every night–how objective are you going to be towards your charming hosts? And let’s be honest, the reporters who are seen as risks for negative coverage are not going to be invited to go in the first place.

    From where I sit, in some respects bloggers asking to get paid to write is actually more honest than the traditional “earned” media model. At least we’re all aware and having a discussion about it.

    What I believe needs to happen is a maturing of blogs as a media platform and clarification of rules so that clear ethical guidelines get put in place.

    Handled properly these should allow a blogger to accept advertising, or even sponsorship while making it clear to the brands in play that payment does not guarantee positive coverage. This is how it works at the best traditional media outlets . My honest belief is that this is where the issue will land eventually, and that the people paying bloggers will not be PRs, but advertising agencies.

    I also truly believe that at the core, this is an issue about blogs evolving into an accepted, legitimate media outlets, and a necessary re-evaluation of their value. Perhaps the role of bloggers themselves will have to evolve? Today they are the blog writers AND publishers. Will we need to arrive at a more traditional group approach where the publisher gets paid, but writers write to maintain (at least an illusion of) an arms-length relationship with advertisers?

    • Thanks for adding such a thoughtful viewpoint to the conversation, especially when it’s a counterpoint!

      Don’t you think there’s a bit of ‘having your cake and eating it’ here, though? When advertisers pay for an ad, they pay for control of what’s shown. Demanding payment for something then expecting not to cede control of the content seems naive.

      Again, I have no problem with bloggers getting paid for what they do. If that payment is for content, though, bloggers should expect that that comes with conditions on the content. If I were an advertiser and someone told me to pay for something but that that something could be a negative story, I’d move on.

  • Bloggers who make the move to accepting money or some form of compensation for their efforts must also become familiar with disclosure.

    While rules are in place in this area in the US, bloggers elsewhere should voluntarily embrace transparency or risk compromising their own integrity.

    • Mark – I’d say that they run the risk of compromising their integrity anywhere. The difference in the US is that it would also be illegal!

  • Excellent, excellent post. It reminds me of a situation we face with many clients who have resisted giving up AVE for years. Although they do not use the outlawed indicator to calculated the financial contribution of their PR work, they use it to pressurize the media in which they advertise for coverage. In short, I paid you this much, I want more coverage. And paid blog posts just seem like shifting independent publishing into a domain in which reasoning will become true as well.

    I think the more savvy companies entertain a dynamic and positive engagement with bloggers, inviting them to previews and events to strengthen their industry thought leadership rather than simply paying them for publicity.

    At any rate the days when Microsoft got scalded by bloggers for sending them laptops to review seem far behind.

    Cheers,
    @PascalJappy

  • Pingback: The Greatest TED Talk Riposte Ever Posted | davefleet.com()

  • Just for the record, no one ever pays me to write a post. There may be some who’d like to pay me NOT to write one!