These days, it’s impossible to go on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even Snapchat without seeing a sponsored post from your favourite blogger or celeb – a paid-for post by a brand, marked #ad. You’ve seen ’em – lipsticks promoted by make-up artists, skin care hawked by lifestyle bloggers, protein powder gushed about by fitness Instagrammers. GQ recently reported that Instagram saw over 300,000 sponsored posts in the month of July alone.
Yep, advertising via influencer is skyrocketing, and it’s a trend that sees no sign of slowing. Question is, for something that’s now such a normal part of social media… why are we so secretive about it?
Alright… it’s time we started talking openly about sponsored posts.
The truth is that there are plenty of bloggers and influencers out there creating – well, let’s be honest – shitty content for a lot of money. These are the ones you can spot from a mile away (it’s usually a selfie of them holding some magic hair pills or teeth whitener), who have nothing of interest to say about the product they’re hawking, yet continue to get money thrown at them from brands simply because of the number of followers they have (let’s not even get started on the fact that they likely bought some of those followers).
But here’s the other truth, and the one I want to focus on – not all sponsored posts are shady. In fact, a good chunk of them aren’t. Plenty of bloggers, photographers and storytellers out there are producing excellent sponsored content – they promote only products that they actually use, made by brands that they genuinely love. They respect their readers and wouldn’t compromise their trust by posting generic crap. And for many of these content creators (including myself), sponsored posts are a main source of income and a means to create content as a full-time job.
Perhaps the idea of paid content wouldn’t seem so dirty if we just tackled some of the misconceptions surrounding ‘sponsored posts’ – the business behind them, the question of their authenticity and the responsibilities that both brands and bloggers have when it comes to delivering sponsored content. To help expand on my own experiences, I reached out to my friends Sasha Exeter of SoSasha.com and Nathalie Martin of Woahstyle.com for input on the topic, both full-time content creators who regularly work with brands to develop sponsored posts (and do an excellent job of integrating them into their regular content).
So, let’s start with the question that’s on everyone’s lips these days…
Why should brands pay for content?
Ahhhhh, the constant debate between content creators and brands. It’s interesting to note that while many brands are at the stage where they struggle to decide which influencers to work with, there are plenty still stuck back at stage one, asking the question, “Ummmm, WHY should I pay you to promote my brand?” For some, they can’t get past the old way of doing buisness – having their PR agency pitch to magazines and newspapers, hoping and praying they’d get featured in the next issue.
But the landscape has changed. Now there are Instagrammers and bloggers who have built audiences bigger than most magazines, whose influence spans continents and can generate immediate purchases through a click on a link in their bio. They have followers who are heavily invested in their content, who trust their individual opinion and who feel a genuine connection to them.
“More and more brands are acknowledging that bloggers are true influencers not just in trendsetting, but also in our connection with our audience,” says Nathalie. “Bloggers are able to interact with an audience directly through social media and blog comments, which means we have a solid trust foundation with our followers. If a blogger or YouTuber recommends a product, I know I’m more likely to buy it versus seeing it in a print ad with models or celebrities.”
It’s that trust, that immediate connection to their audience that makes influencers, well, influential. Followers can ask questions about the brand, exclaim their mutual love for a product or tag friends in the post to spread the word. The engagement is immediate and authentic and has the ability to grow past the influencer’s direct audience.
For Sasha, the payment from brands is often more about the hours and quality of work that go into a sponsored post: “For me, accepting paid opportunities is simply being compensated for the hard work I put in to produce original content for a brand,” she says. “If you look at most successful websites and blogs today, the quality of content posted on there is no different than editorial content you may see in magazines, newspapers and digital publications. So why shouldn’t we be compensated for it?”
It’s really no different to the way things have been done traditionally – it’s simply the medium that’s changed. Instead of brands buying ad space in a magazine (which, newsflash, impacts which brands are featured within editorial as well), they can buy space within a blogger’s content. And if a blogger already loves a brand, what’s the harm in them getting paid to genuinely talk about that love?
‘Sponsored post’ Doesn’t Equal ‘Sponsored opinion’
If there’s one thing I want to get across to my readers (and the general public) about sponsored posts, it’s this – just because someone paid me to talk about their brand, doesn’t mean they paid for my opinion.
When a brand approaches me to work with them on sponsored content, my first thought is, “Is this a brand that aligns with the values of This Renegade Love?”, followed shortly by, “How can I integrate this into my life story?” If a brand isn’t a natural fit or I can’t easily incorporate their product into my content using my own voice, I won’t do it. Simple as that.
In fact, I’ve declined many more paid opportunities than I have accepted. There are red flags that I can spot from the beginning, like when a brand states in the contract that ‘all reviews must be positive’ (um, BYE…. don’t tell me how to live my life). Or like when a brand asks me to talk about a product without giving me the opportunity to try it out first (I’m not going to promote a skin cream that, hey surprise, actually gives me hives). Because although money can buy space within my content, it can’t buy my opinion.
And since launching my site, the number one thing I’ve learned is that if your readers smell bullshit, they’re gone. Why compromise that loyalty and trust for a brand that will move on to someone else in a heartbeat?
“I know that my readers are smart and I never want to insult their intelligence by writing bullshit posts on brands I don’t really stand behind, just to put a couple extra dollars in my pocket. Not worth it,” claims Sasha. “As a blogger or ‘influencer’, all you really have is your word – once you become known for selling out, you immediately lose credibility.”
And when it comes to things that really get under our skin, many of us bloggers are on the same page as our readers. “I can’t stand when influencers say ‘I love my new product from brand. @brand #ad’ “, Nathalie groans. “It’s so annoying. It’s not original and it’s not authentic. It’s my biggest blogger pet peeve.”
No value ever comes out of a generic post like that – a good content creator will come up with the concept for their Instagram shot or story angle for their blog post organically, then build the brand into it. This summer I worked on a project with Australian wine producer, Ringbolt, to promote their Cabernet Sauvignon (a wine I already drink and love). Because I knew that a stock-standard blog post raving about the flavours and notes of the wine would put my readers to sleep, I instead built it into a story on 5 Things that Aussies Do Better, including wine as one of those points. I was able to keep the reader engaged, honour their trust by writing in my own style and tone, and openly disclose that the post was sponsored without anyone thinking that my opinion was paid for.
To hashtag or not to hashtag
….that is the question. An easy way to spot a sponsored post is to look for ‘#ad’ or ‘#sponsored’ within the photo caption, or a blurb at the end of a blog post saying the content was in partnership with a brand. In the US, you don’t have a choice on whether or not you include these disclaimers – FTC regulations require bloggers and influencers to disclose when they’re paid to promote products. And although the same regulations haven’t been extended to Canada (yet), many influencers and brands are picking it up, regardless of lack of legal requirements.
While I personally prefer to have total transparency on content that’s been paid for, I know plenty of bloggers who prefer to keep it ambiguous simply because of all the misconceptions around sponsored content and the question of authenticity.
“I don’t have a problem with stating #ad at all – I think it’s fair to be transparent with my audience,” says Nathalie. “That being said, I have received low very engagement on a couple of posts that have been obviously sponsored and with captions or styling that was dictated by the brand.”
Sasha echoes that sentiment, and because of the often negative view given to sponsored posts, she’s apprehensive to talk about whether or not she was compensated – especially since she’d give the same opinion whether it was paid or not. “At first, I had some tredpidation when brands began requesting that I disclose ‘Sponsored’ or ‘Paid’ on my content,” says Sasha, who admits that 90% of her blog content is sponsored by brands. “I take my site and personal brand very seriously and put a lot of time into the content that I produce. I felt like my followers would make the assumption that because I clearly indicated that a post was sponsored by a brand, that my opinions were skewed because I received monetary compensation to share on my site and social channels.”
Unfortunately, this mentality isn’t going to change overnight – it’s natural for readers to be wary when they discover something that they’re viewing has been paid for. But the more transparency there is with sponsored posts, the less it will feel like a dirty little secret of the blogging industry.
Make sponsored posts great again
Okay, here’s what we now know: there’s nothing wrong with sponsored posts. If a blogger already use a brand’s products, then hell, they may as well get paid to share with their engaged audience and start a conversation. But we can’t deny the fact that there’s still A LOT of shitty, lazy sponsored content out there. And that the shitty content often discredits the authenticity of the good sponsored content simply through association.
So… how do we fix it?
Well, it’s up to all of us, really. Both brands and content creators need to take responsibility for the way the industry is shaped and for how it will look in the future. The quality of sponsored content can only improve if brands start being more selective with who they work with, and content creators are true to who they are.
Here’s what I suggest:
- Produce shit-hot content. Plain and simple. Your sponsored posts should be of the same quality and produced in the same voice and style as your non-paid content.
- Be selective with brands you work with. If it’s not something you would recommend to your friends at brunch, don’t do it to your followers.
- Don’t allow brands to dictate your tone-of-voice or creative concept – your sponsored content should fit in seamlessly to your other work, and when it sounds scripted, your readers will disengage.
- Respect your followers. They’re not idiots and don’t deserve to be treated as such by you trying to pull the wool over their eyes with a product you don’t even use.
- Be original. Don’t just tell people why you love a brand or product – give examples of how it’s actually impacted your life.
- Do your research when it comes to content creators. Stop throwing money at people who don’t fit your core values or are lazy with their work. Look for people who tell a story with their content and can creatively do so with your brand.
- Pay fair rates for the work being done. When you’ve done your research and found a perfect brand fit, you’ll see that the fee is worth it.
- Let content creators do their thing. If you’ve worked hard to find a great brand fit, trust that they know their audience and what they respond best to.
- Understand the difference between reach and engagement. Whilst audience reach is hugely important, engagement is worth its weight in gold. You can buy followers, but you can’t buy an organic conversation started about your brand.
Sponsored posts aren’t going anywhere. Hell, I think it’s plain to see that from the 300,000 that were posted on Instagram alone in one month. But it’s the way we collectively approach sponsored content that will take it from being a dirty little secret to being an acceptable way to make money from online influence.
What are your thoughts on sponsored content on blogs + social media?
Leave your comments, rants and praises below!