If you would’ve asked me how I felt about sponsorships when I was a kid, I probably would’ve rolled my eyes and pointed to my super rad 5 Star Notebook that said “MONEY CORRUPTS” in whiteout—well, if you could find it in the sea of bands my mom wouldn’t let me listen to. I think I wrote N-I-(backwards)N over 20 times on that notebook. I was pretty cool. While it’s hard to argue with all that upper-middle-class angst, I have to say that at 29 I feel a little different.
I think living in the online world, where we essentially get all media for free, has us pretty accustomed to the word “sponsored.” It makes it possible to continue to enjoy our free content, while the content creators sustain a business. And the value of banner ads seems to have maxed out. Enter sponsored content. I think there was some justifiable hesitation mixing editorial and advertising at first. No one wants to see their favorite bloggers sacrifice their content for a dollar. That said, having been in the industry in one form or fashion for pretty much all of my career, I’ve noticed people don’t really care whether it’s sponsored as long as it’s authentic.
Now, it can be argued as soon as money enters the door all authenticity goes out the window. But ultimately, I think that’s up to the blogger. It can be true, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s your blog, so it’s your terms. Sure, it’s unlikely you’re going to read a lot of negativity in a sponsored post. But frankly, if you’re looking for critical analysis on a brand, a post sponsored by that brand might not be the smartest place to look.
While I definitely hunt down leads at companies we want to work with, a lot of my job is just filtering requests we get through the sponsorships email. And we get every kind of company inquiring about our program, from car brands to tech start-ups to insurance companies to “adult” products to brands that actually fit our content. My inbox is awesome.
I have a pretty simple filtering process for our sponsored content inquiries:
• Is it a brand E+E like? We will not work with a brand they’re not into. Simple as that. Aside from it feeling super shady to write, you guys are too smart for that. We would justifiably get called out immediately. Like, you see our Macs in every other post it seems like. We couldn’t just spring a “10 Reasons Dell is the best!” on you.
• Does it fit our content? There are plenty of brands out there that E+E like that just don’t fit within the type of content we run. We won’t invent a whole new feature for a sponsor. We have to design features around readers, not sponsors. It would be pretty weird if all of a sudden we posted about the benefits of off-roading in our Subarus.
• Do they actually want what we offer? We’re very narrow about the kind of sponsored content we offer. We have a short list of features a brand can get within our posts for a firm price. Often we get requests to do things we just don’t and won’t offer.
The first two are pretty easy to manage. It’s as simple as looking at the brand and politely declining. The last point is where it gets tricky. It typically takes a couple of back-and-forth emails to figure that one out, especially when ad/PR/media agencies get involved. They sell this whole blogger campaign concept to their clients, complete with $50,000 consumer research, dorky hashtags (#PeopleHateHashtagsEvenWhenThey’reNotSponsored), photo editing requirements, over-the-top legal language, royalty-free rights to your brand, and a continued laundry list of actions they expect the blogger to take—all in exchange for a Facebook shoutout and a gift card.
But they build out this whole proposal without ever checking if that’s something bloggers even offer. It’s just strange. I wonder what it’s like going to a restaurant with these people. Do they walk into McDonald’s, shut their eyes, and shout, “I want a pizza with a side of sushi for $3 and a Jiffy Lube coupon!”?
Having worked in marketing and for agencies, I totally get the lengthy process of getting your client’s/boss’s blessing on something. All the approvals you need sometimes are a nightmare, and all bloggers do it a little differently. So I can appreciate wanting to be as complete as possible with a plan, but we just need a little flexibility if you’re going to ask us after the fact.
For the most part, I’m able to be pretty upfront and clear about what we offer, so we can sort out relatively quickly if we’ll be able to work together. In fact, I have an almost perfect track record of never canceling after we’ve started work with a brand. Almost perfect—except this one time…
So we work with a handful of media agencies or publisher networks who develop relationships with hundreds of bloggers/publishers and connect them with brands interested in sponsoring a blog or a group of blogs. What’s nice about the particular media agencies we work with is that they specialize in blogs. So for the most part, they thoroughly understand what we offer and our challenges.
This one agency in particular had been a great partner to us over the years. Now I can’t disclose names here, but we’ll make some up. And our contact (we’ll call her “Jenny”) came to us with a three-post campaign from a juice brand (let’s get creative and call it “Juice”) that could’ve made a great partner for a recipe post series. I ran it by Emma, and she was immediately throwing some ideas at me. So, as clearly I could, I spelled out exactly what our sponsorship program entailed and how we could work with the brand: (I’m paraphrasing here) ABM would post recipes using Juice, and Juice would be featured in the photography, called out as a partner in the copy, and linked accordingly. Jenny is and has always been a great person to work with and said that was fine and she’d get back to us directly.
A month passed, and we hadn’t heard from her. Then she emailed me something like—
Sorry for the delay! Finally heard back on Juice. It looks like we’re a go! Just to recap the details:
– 3 posts featuring Juice. The post will show Elsie and Emma’s blended interests and how their generation is always working on so many things.
– 3 Facebook posts tagging Juice
– 3 Tweets with #JUICERATION (made this up obviously, but it was equally lame)
– 3 pins
– 3 Instagram posts with #JUICERATION
I look forward to hearing from you!
Not quite what we discussed, but I’m sure there’d been a lot of back-and-forth since we’d last talked. So I figured I should clarify.
I think I must’ve misunderstood. We should definitely be good, as long as the posts can be teaching-oriented. Essentially the only way Juice could really fit into the content is through some recipes Emma dreams up. Sponsored lifestyle posts aren’t something we can offer.
And just to be clear, our social won’t include @s or #s. We just promote the post, like we do all our content. If that works with Juice, this sounds great.
We clarified a couple more things, and we seemed good to go again, or so I thought. The problem was this became a little bit of a pattern. Every time I thought we were on the same page, a month or two would pass, and she’d email the exact same list of deliverables: the weird lifestyle posts, the hashtags, etc. And again, I would insist that the only way Juice would be in our content was through recipes Emma wrote. This whole cycle went on for nearly six months, and every time we tried to back away entirely we were told our terms were fine.
We finally got to the point where everyone agreed we were doing the recipes, and Emma came up with some awesome concepts on a crazy fast timeline. We sent our first post for them to review, and we got a mile-long email worth of input, leading off with how Emma’s writing tone didn’t ladder up to the JUICERATION concept document they sent over. Then they went on to say the recipe itself wasn’t good enough and didn’t reflect the “Juice Generation.” So by the time I got to the full paragraph of legal language they wanted us to add to the post, I was done. We were canceling. No more emails. No more hashtags. We were done.
They were asking Emma not to be herself, and that’s exactly why people hate sponsored content. So yeah, canceling sucked. We wasted a lot of time and passed on some money. But it just wasn’t worth it. At the end of the day, when it comes to sponsored content, the sponsor can never be your first priority. It always has to be you guys, the readers. Without you, sponsors wouldn’t want to talk to us in the first place. There was nothing inherently bad about what Juice was asking us to do. It just wasn’t something we thought you guys would like and therefore not something we believed in. If you’re a blogger considering sponsored content, I can’t stress enough not to back down. If you don’t stand up for your blog and your brand, sponsors will definitely overstep and drive readers away. It’s your blog. You call the shots.