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 Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.