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?

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  1. You are definitely not the only person that feels this way! Like you, I've gotten a bit jaded over the last year too but I think that comes from the bombardment of sponsored everything. It did frustrate me a bit when I felt like some of my favourite bloggers were only endorsing blogs/posts that they were paid to endorse and I'd get a little miffed when I clicked over and immediately knew that was the case. Honestly, these days, I rarely click on links provided by bloggers who do a lot of sponsorship so I wonder if the person who paid for the exposure is really getting what they paid for now.
    But again, I have also sponsored blogs in the past and aside from a couple of mediocre experiences, it was generally positive and served its purpose. I don't sponsor anymore because my goals have changed. Monetizing blogs doesn't bother me in the least but that line between genuine and not seems to become so blurry and there are few blogs who seem to navigate it well.
    Another great post, Betsy. Looking forward to the rest of the comments :)

  2. Ha, I've been thinking about this more since my email. I make money from my blog occasionally, and it makes me really happy when I do so. As someone who is self-employed it can come in very useful. I'd love to make a comfortable living blogging and acting. But I will say if someone mentions that something is a "sponsored post" 9 times out of 10, I don't even bother to read it because I know they are just getting paid to do so. With issues on blog it's a lack of transparency that really bothers me.

    In regards to social media, you mentioned the use of hashtags to help designate (and maybe differentiate) paid for media shout outs versus genuine ones. And that's actually an idea that I really like. I've been thinking today of what I think would be appropriate and how I could utilise something like that it my own relationships with sponsors. #ad doesn't seem quite right to me because it makes it seem like the post that you are promoting is an ad. Hashtag thoughts? x

  3. I totally feel this way as a new blogger and new to the sponsorship scene! Sometimes I feel like my blog won't be taken seriously since I don't offer sponsorships but then again when I read blogs that are frequently having sponsored posts it makes me not as likely to read them.

    Another thing in regards to sponsoring others blogs and social media. I so agree with this! There are some blogs that I have sponsored that I feel like a connection was made outside of the money but then other times I feel like its almost fake. The times when other bloggers give social media shout outs just because are more important to me since it says they like my work just because!

  4. I feel your pain! Another blogger and I (Katie from The Style Dunce) were discussing our frustrations with sponsorship just this past week. I've only done a few sponsorships here and there, mainly because I don't really have the extra money to pour into it, nor do I have the time to keep up with guest posting. At this point, I've re-prioritized where I will spend that money in the future. After sponsoring a few blogs, I felt the same way you were talking about in your post--if I wasn't paying for a spot on their sidebar, this person would never be reading or promoting my blog. So, in the future, I'll be looking for blogs where I already have a connection. I started my blog with the intent to have an outlet for my writing (and planning my wedding), and it really had nothing to do with money or readers or even the "sense of community." I've definitely enjoyed meeting and connecting with other bloggers; however, I have no desire to spend my money on forced relationships.

  5. It's definitely a tough balance to find. And I've found that a lot of the big bloggers have gone over to lots of sponsored posts. Occasional are fine - I'm not looking to get rich from my blog but it would be nice if it could pay for its own hosting. But when every other post is sponsored, it just feels disingenuous.

    On the other hand, I've met a number of awesome bloggers through sponsorship opportunities - bloggers who maybe read me but I didn't yet read them. So I can't count them all out.

  6. This is such a good point. I love blogging because of all the relationships I build through it. I see the benefit of sponsoring (and I've done it myself), but I think it feels a little weird when you have no relationship outside the sponsorship. Or when someone spotlights somebody who has zero to do with their blog's feels wrong. I'd rather make friends and have them give me a shoutout because they actually liked my work, not because I paid them!

  7. I think the sponsorship thing is really easy to get out of hand and I am discontinuing them on my site and going more toward advertising, though I am really glad I jumped into the Sponsorship pool because I did learn a lot. I just realized that in the end, I didn't really have the time or energy to put into it anymore the way I wanted to.

  8. This is why I don't offer sponsorship. I don't want to judge people who make that decision, but as a reader I'm not a big fan of tuning in to my favourite blogger and finding someone else there and I guess I worry that others will feel the same. Occasionally I have clicked through and discovered a great blogger, but for the most part (I feel bad to admit) I click away. That said, I'm keen to expand mblog upy readership and have spent the last month or so considering sponsoring other people so perhaps this whole comment is hypocritical. As of yet I'm undecided as to whether I'll purchase space on another blog, but I've definitely decided I won't be offering sponsorship on my own blog. I've just arranged my first guest posts for while I'm dealing with a move back to the UK in a few weeks and that fits better with me. No one has paid for the space, but I feel like we both benefit from the agreement. Perhaps that's another demonstration of how complex this situation is. I guess people have to find their own way and do what feels right for them/suits their blog requirements at the time.

  9. This post says a lot about how I feel about sponsorships. I've sponsored a number of blogs and I've only really felt satisfied with a couple (yours included!) I can't necessarily quantify what I wanted from those others but I didn't get it, and that was a huge part of my deciding that I wasn't going to sponsor anymore.

    I love building relationships with other 'bloggers' (so said because I don't think of myself as a blogger) but I'd much rather it be organic.

  10. Once upon a time in blogland (way back when!) the idea of sponsors was not even a twinkle in bloggers eyes. Getting on someone's blogroll was like a huge win, and honestly I miss those days. I feel like the joy of blogging, the love of it, has disappeared a lot for me, because I can't "keep up" with others who are bigger or have bigger followers or lots of sponsors or whatever. And I totally agree with the poster who said it is frustrating when you go to a blog you love and every week there is a guest blogger. But then again I am most definitely not in it for the money (obviously!) so I guess if I was I would feel differently. I do it because I love it and I think my kids will love having a record some day of my life before they were born, and when they were little, as I would love to have from my parents. Anything beyond that is just icing on the cake :)

  11. I did a post on this awhile ago (and apparently from the comments here, not surprisingly one of my most-viewed posts) after buying up some holiday sponsorships for my Etsy shop last November/December and not seeing any kind of return on them at all. And from that I decided that I am not going to try and monetize my blog. If a friend would like me to promote something for them, I'm happy to do that, and I also try and support other shops I find too, but independently of money. However, the @blogger1/@blogger2 scenario has long bothered me, and I realized that when @blogger1 shouts out to me, I am one of those sad @blogger2's that everyone knows really has nothing to do with @blogger1. So, I decided that I am not going to pay for sponsorships, I'm not going to worry about blog ads on my own blog, and I'm not going to stress myself out over giveaways and sponsored posts that many people skip over anyway. I am going to go back to blogging what I feel like when I feel like it, and I hope that people will want to read it, and I'm going to take joy in comments left by my readers, which are better than any amount of free toilet paper I could receive. :)

  12. You're not even close to being the only one who feels this way. In addition to the fact that I have been completely MIA lately (and therefore don't feel like I'm "in the game" enough to merit it) I've never wanted to do sponsorships because I've always felt like it would be an impossible line to walk. If only my favorite bloggers wanted in, and I could make money talking about how great you, Alicia or Eileen are (for instance), great. Literally no problem. But that probably wouldn't be how it would shake out in reality, and you'd find yourself in the position of having to "market" something you didn't really believe in. If you're running a blog purely for hits and numbers and to make a little money, I guess that's not a problem. But I (and think you and all the other bloggers I read/like so much) are in it for the community and the writing. In that context, it's a big mess.
    Not that I have any thoughts on the subject or anything.

  13. I hate hate HATE the constant flood of tweets about who is joining whose sidebar - I DON'T CARE. It's obvious that in a majority of cases there's no real feeling behind those kinds of announcements - your excitement and warm welcome is stemming from the fact that you've made money, not because you have some sort of super close relationship with some other person.

  14. Yes and yes to all of this, when I follow someone on Twitter I want to read their thoughts not posts they are tweeting because of their sponsorships and also that it makes me feel awkward when I genuinely want to share a post. I feel like I need to put a disclaimer that I really liked the post and want others to be excited about it as well.

  15. ♥♥♥

    (more feels coming in a larger comment below)

  16. I feel like your blog is a seminar class on topics that I always love and want to spend three hours on seated at a round table with everyone in the comments. This one spawned another essay-length comment with oh-so-many run-on sentences (sorry sorry sorry). Thank you for opening this discussion here!

    I have at some point contemplated everything you've written here, especially as I start offering sponsorships. I recognize that I've been lucky in that so far, everyone who's signed up was someone whose links I already shared and whose blog I already read + commented on, with one exception (who ended up being someone I have lots of odd things in common with, v. cool). Obviously that will not always be the case and I think it's important to continually assess the value of offering up my credibility and platform to others.

    Blogging has been a constant learning and assessment process for me, and I suspect it is for many. I realized recently that through sponsorships and just asking individuals, I'd offered up way too many guest posts and had agreed to be part of a lot of giveaways. While I've liked every GP so far, I don't want my blog to be known as a place that's mostly other people's writing and free goodies. I started blogging because I enjoy writing and sharing my experiences, and I want to stay true to that at the core of what I do. I've also observed tons of different promotion tactics, tried some on my own and rejected them because they felt uninteresting, lazy or sleazy. Overall I actually want to rein in my tweeting a little because even though I read, like and share many things, it's just...a lot. A lot, all day, all buffered/hootsuited out into the future, which has started to feel a little too rote.

    I've also wondered--I believe you're legally required to write "#ad" or "#sponsored" (or similar) at minimum when you send a paid-for tweet, like when you're part of a media campaign. Even though sponsorships are premised on a relationship, not just a cold hard exchange of cash, does that relationship necessitate the same type of disclosure? Because technically, someone is still paying you to promote them, even though the agreement is usually something like, "includes lots of social media love!", not "will send one sponsored tweet for $X."

    I'm gonna go ahead and interrupt myself Kanye-style here so I stop rambling, but last thing, just wanted to say I appreciate that you process all of your thoughts on blogging pretty publicly because it opens up awesome conversations.

  17. These are really interesting thoughts, Betsy, and I actually have no conclusions. I think it's a thing that's constantly evolving, as you mentioned, and it really varies from blogger to blogger. I guess it comes down to the way people decide to do it. Because there are blogs I love that have that personal feel but tons of sponsored content and it doesn't bother me, and then there are others that... well, I guess there are none where that bothers me too much, but I guess I can understand the sort of sadness that comes with a death of an era or content really changing from what it was to... maybe a watered-down version or motivated by different things?

    I... When I dove into sponsorships on my old blog, I thought I was ready and I was SO not! I was determined to not be one of those people who was disingenuous, so I really poured myself into it. And in the beginning it was really fun, but it started to become a case of... maybe too much? I basically came to resent it -- and not because of ANY of my sponsors, because they were so awesome -- but because I wasn't able to execute it to my standards but anything less felt like... not something I wanted to do with my space. I spent a lot of time going back and forth... and when money is involved, it just complicates the whole thing. I think it's really easy for bloggers to jump into it without knowing what they are doing (meeee!) but it's so much harder to take steps back or maybe even end a program when you realize that (also my case, too). It definitely changes how people blog, their content, what their blog even is... and it's rarely a change that goes unnoticed. I think it takes time for people to really find their footing with it and something that works. But the consequences of that are... in the time it takes for you to get it, you may have lost a good portion of your readership. Ay yi yi.

    Anyway, thanks for discussing these issues in such an interesting way! Love it!

  18. Guest posts always feel kind of awkward to me - like you're heading over for a conversation with a friend and there's someone else sitting on the porch, and you wonder, "Am I in the wrong place? Did I show up at the wrong house?" Okay, maybe that's a bad analogy. And maybe I'm a hypocrite, because I don't mind writing guest posts at all - I just feel weird about hosting them and when I find them on people's blogs.

    But I LOVE the blogger "cocktail parties," like the ones that Belinda has hosted on Found Love Now What - where she throws out a question or a discussion and lets her sponsors throw out their best answer in response. That feels a lot more like you're being invited over to a group of friends at a social, not like you've just stumbled into the wrong room. And you still get to hear from the blogger you came over to visit.

    We give up a lot of our time and resources to do projects and take photos and host discussions and write posts. Some folks need some monetary compensation for that. Others are just fine with the relationships built. I'm not judging either way, but it's definitely one of those areas where what works for one might not work for the other.

  19. Sponsorship has to be done very carefully to be done well. I've been fortunate that the blogs I like who offer sponsorships are able to strike the right balance. I see value in them because that's how I found you! And Casey! And Jess! It's not a coincidence that y'all are three of the four blogs I have "sponsored." (I still think the sponsorship terminology is ridiculous and fake--it's advertising, pure and simple).

    I don't know if I will ever monetize my blog beyond my rare Amazon affiliate links, my Influenster VoxBoxes, and my occasional free ebook in exchange for my review. I really really really like featuring guest bloggers, and I'm not sure I could ever charge for that. If I do ever end up going that route, I would probably still allow "free" guest posts for feminist topics.

    Which reminds me... You never sent me a button to add to my "Daily Reads" page!

  20. I've felt this way for a while, but rarely bring it up because I was afraid I was the only one. I, too, feel jaded when I see blogger1 tweet a post by blogger2. Some of the bloggers I've developed a relationship are very authentic, and I can tell when a tweet is sponsored or organic (because they've tweeted me, as a non-sponsor- and a non-sponsored tweet has a different flavor, be it a subtle difference). But some bloggers, I don't even click on the posts they tweet because I know they're sponsored. I'm in this for authentic relationships. Therefore, the way I see it, sure, bloggers can monetize their relationships with other bloggers. But in so doing, those bloggers are taking the risk that readers like me will jump ship for someone more authentic. I reserve the right to stop following a blog when I feel that they've lost their connection with me as a reader.

  21. Alicia, this comment is awesome. I love your idea of a round-table seminar. THAT sounds like something I want to be in on.

  22. I absolutely love your analogy! Perfect!

  23. Great post, Betsy. I think bloggers are a creative bunch of people, and it is time to think of new ways to make money from blogging. I agree with you that the integrity of relationships is demeaned by the dollar sign. I don't necessarily think sponsorship is bad, but it definitely changes the way we blog, and maintain relationships with our readers. I sponsor blogs occasionally, but I can't help wondering if there are better ways to get our blogs more publicity. I don't want to just shrug my shoulders and say, well, it is a necessary evil. We call the shots, don't we? I think we should create the rules. I just need to figure out what I think those new rules should be...


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