Monday, March 31, 2014
Thoughts on Relationship Capital
As a reader, I mentally divide blogs into two main categories: professional blogs, which are usually unambiguous in their self-identification as businesses, and all other blogs. Professional blogs are based on the fantasy of readers having a relationship with the bloggers who write them - as everyone knows by now, that's the foundation of those blogs' successes. We readers feel we know the bloggers personally and we therefore trust them when they endorse products or brands. (That's why we feel so betrayed when the bloggers behave contrary to our ideal, like when Joanna Goddard plagiarized her own article for Glamour from 2009 in a blog post on Cup of Jo three years later.) But at the end of the day, professional blogs are businesses and we readers are consumers. Nothing more, nothing less.
The relationship that readers have with bloggers gets a little blurrier when we wade into the "all other blogs" category, though, and I think this is why: we're all open to the idea of making money from our blogs. Even those of us whose blogs serve as extracurricular outlets would be happy to accept a free product in exchange for a review or a check in exchange for a branded guest post. There are plenty of us who are keen to keep our blogging a hobby rather than a job, avoiding the external pressures and reordered priorities that monetization brings, but very few (if any) would turn down a potentially lucrative opportunity if a brand reached out to us. I'm not saying that no one has integrity when it comes to blogging, but most would agree that there's nothing wrong with being compensated for something you would publish anyway.
Now, as a blogger, I mentally divide the income a blogger can generate from her blog into two main categories: advertising, which is usually bought by a company or arranged by a media agency, and sponsorship. I think that advertising is relatively straightforward and, again, the bottom line is that we readers are understood to be consumers by both the advertiser and the blogger. However, sponsorship is more complicated because it imperceptibly leverages personal relationships for financial gain.
Before I go any further with this line of thought, I want to make it very clear that I don't think all sponsorship programs on all blogs are bad. This post wasn't inspired by any one blog or any one approach to sponsorship. I've sponsored a few blogs with only one dissatisfying experience, and I am very glad I tested out my own sponsorship program for a few months (although, as you know, I ultimately decided that the kind of sponsorship I wanted to offer was unsustainable in the long run). Plus, I do still sponsor other blogs from time to time when a blogger or a project presents an opportunity that I want to support. So maybe this post is a bit hypocritical, but it's the result of four years of figuring out how I like to blog, four years of watching other blogs go through their own growing pains, and four years of trying to keep up as the blog world evolves - though, as I write this, I realize that many of these observations come from the past year alone.
It seems like increasing numbers of bloggers jump into sponsorship because that's an easy way to be taken seriously and to start monetizing. (As Amanda commented on my post from last Tuesday, "It makes me feel sometimes like I'm not a "legit" blogger because I don't offer sponsorship.") When you sponsor other blogs, you expose yourself to new and bigger audiences, you borrow a platform from which to introduce yourself, you buy the opportunity to cohost giveaways, and you gain followers, all of which then allows you to explore other ways of earning money from your blog including - to bring this full circle - offering your own sponsorship options. The difference between advertising and sponsorship, though, is that advertising is purely transactional. Sponsorship is based on the premise of a relationship, both between you and the blogger you're sponsoring and between that blogger and all of her readers.
Whereas everyone knows that professional bloggers make money off the fantasy of relationships with their readers, the rest of us have (or once had) real relationships with our readers and those intangible relationships get complicated when money is involved. Honestly, I start to doubt the authenticity of relationships when they come with a dollar sign. Again, I'm not saying that everyone who offers or buys sponsorship is faking it, but I am admitting that I've gotten a bit jaded over the past year or so. It started with the relentless advance of Passionfruit across blogland, making it possible for the purchase of sponsorship to be entirely devoid of interpersonal communication. Then came the flood of tweets announcing new sponsors - @blogger1: thrilled that @blogger2 is on my sidebar this month :) this girl is the best! - and I would notice again and again that @blogger1 had never interacted with @blogger2 on any social medium before that moment. I began to doubt endorsements; when @blogger3 shares a post that @blogger4 has written, is it because @blogger3 really does think that @blogger4 has some fantastic suggestions for how to spend a weekend in Berlin or is it because @blogger4 gets a certain number of shout-outs as per the sponsorship she bought from @blogger3?
I told you. I've gotten jaded. I'm sorry.
There probably isn't an answer to this issue. In fact, I'm not even sure what the question is. After all, I'm totally in favor of blogs monetizing. Why not earn a little from doing something you love? Many of us pour time and energy into our blogs that could be used to generate income elsewhere - why not here? That absolutely makes sense to me. But, given how I invest emotionally in the blogs and the bloggers that I love, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with how relationship capital is thoughtlessly spent on monetization. I'm afraid it's getting harder to maintain purely qualitative blogging relationships when we readers are so easily leveraged into consumers with a quantitative value. I feel like sometimes I'm getting played, and I don't know what to do about it.
Am I the only one who feels this way?