Blogging networks have popped up everywhere, claiming to be the route to ‘easy, steady’ cash for many bloggers. Turns out they’re only the ‘easy, steady’ route to cash for themselves.
How is this done? Sponsored content and promotions. Follow me for a minute.
What is sponsored content?
Have you ever seen one of your favorite bloggers, or even print magazines, with a page talking about some lovely new skin cream, computer, eye shadow, or pair of shoes? In the case of a blogger, he or she would have to disclose at the bottom of the post that they were paid in some capacity to publish the content. In major magazines, you often see the words “PAID PROMOTION” or “ADVERTORIAL” in faint print at the top of the page. It’s how we all eat. Creating good content alone is never enough to pay bills of any significance. Working with brands we think are good and probably already use helps get us from Point A to Point Paid.
How do bloggers get sponsored content opportunities?
Ah, the magic question. So, it used to be in the olden days (like 2009 or so) that we just kind of plucked our eyelashes out to make financial wishes that major companies would come along and say “Hey, you really have a great audience and we want to pay you for that.” That was stupid and unrealistic, and by the luck of the stars ad agencies got wiser around 2011 and started opening pretty major digital divisions with budgets specifically for ‘influencer campaigns’ and social media promotion. Boom, the Wild West of blogging salaries was born with virtually no rules or guidelines, and everyone was more or less free balling around town hoping to get sticky campaigns with good results (on both ends). Around this time, blogging networks were born, too.
Blogging networks gathered groups of somewhat likeminded bloggers together to be pitched and sold collectively to brands with budgets. A group of 40 fashion bloggers with 1,000 unique viewers a day would stand a better chance of getting Fortune 500 dollars than a standalone Sally with some cute ideas, right? Right. So the boss people at these blogging networks went ahead and pitched their groups for sums like $100,000 to do a full one month campaign including blog posts across all 40 blogs. Social promotion of those blogs would obviously be included. So let’s break that math down a bit.
- $100,000 for 40 blog posts with social promotion = an average value of $2,500 per blogger.
Obviously the blogging networks wanted their fair cut, so they’d take a significant piece off the top. What went from taking about 25% off the top in 2011-2013 went to taking more like 75% off the top in 2014 and 2015.
- If a blogger made $1,875 of that $2,500 value in 2012, he or she only made about $625 for the same content and promotion in 2014 or 2015.
I asked a friend of mine who works for one of the bigger NYC-based blogging networks with how this funneled into such a dark, crummy hole.
“There are just so many bloggers now, and sure, they don’t all have the greatest traffic, but a lot of these brands don’t even know anything about metrics and they don’t even have their own Instagram accounts to check if everything is on the up and up. So, if we can get Blogger A to do the same project for $500, why the hell would we pay full price for Blogger B?”
I pressed her for info on the campaign rates. Do the major drugstore and department store brands sponsoring all this content still pay the same rates?
“Duh, they pay the same rates. We just take more. We get a nicer office or employee health benefits. That’s a plus. But it doesn’t matter. The brands just see if the whole campaign went well, they don’t look at how every drop of their $250k budget was spent.”
YIKES. That’s scary.
How do bloggers feel about these campaigns from blogging networks?
I can say from my own experience that working with brands (and their demands) when the campaigns come through blogging networks isn’t always nice. You’re asked for 5 times the work for far less money, and the only reason you do it is because the blogging networks promise you volume. They promise 200 other social influencers the same volume though, so they’re hardly an advocate for you.
“I’m independent – but wasn’t always,” says my journalist friend, Aly Walansky. “I can tell you how when you don’t represent yourself, sometimes your interests aren’t a chief concern. Like, once upon a time, when I was represented, I’d email in leads I was sent, and somehow someone else on their roster would end up with the gig instead of me. Or, they’d price things so high – higher than I would want to – and lose an opportunity for me altogether. Or, how, once when I was severely ill, and did a twitter party anyway from the hospital because I was honoring my commitment – I was scolded for mentioning on twitter where I was, that it ‘made them look bad’ – if I’m going to have someone representing me, or working with me, I want to know they give a crap about me.”
It’s that kind of chaos that has driven a steady stream of bloggers to leave their networks altogether, and for several reasons. In my own experience, I found out from an employee at one of my former networks that a well known skincare brand had paid $7,500 for me to create a blog post and several social media posts for them. By the time the network contacted me to get the work done, the email said “we have a $2,300 budget for you to create the blog post, share it on all social platforms, and sign over one year exclusive rights to your photos.” They banked on me never finding out about the real rates, and that was stupid. Clarity typically makes for better business, and my current solution has exactly that.
So what’s the solution?
If blogging isn’t your full-time gig, and you don’t have time to negotiate your own direct deals (and believe me, with enough traffic and followers they’ll come to you), blogging networks may still make sense if you’re just looking for minor supplementation for the hobby you love. If creating cool, engaging content really is your 9-5, consider getting an agent with a real digital firm. Agents for digital influencers work the same way as agents for actors and models– typically they take 10% right off the top of any deal you do. There are no questions, no shady behavior, and generally they’re working their hardest to get the best deal for you because that’s their bread and butter.
What’s better is that the brand and blogger preserve their positive relationship. I know amongst my group of friends in the industry, several of us have had brand and PR relationships sour after a far too-demanding blog network promised things like “yes, don’t worry, she’ll be your official spokesmodel for the dog food company for 6 months and won’t even talk about other dog food in that time” while telling the blogger the budget is limited and please just comply before the opportunity is passed to another competing blogger. When we manage to communicate to the PR person that we’ve been paid pennies on the dollar for the campaign and don’t want to appear on dog food billboards for 6 months in middle America because we were paid $800 total, things don’t go well. For anyone.
So what’s the difference, anyway?
Imagine this. One sponsored post may take you only a few hours to complete with original photography, research, and brainstorming– but it’ll likely live forever on your site and people will remember it. It takes the same amount of effort to work with a brand you really like, directly, and keep the relationship great while making more money. Let’s do the math though, shall we?
Let’s say $150,000 in sponsorships comes your way this year through a blogging network, assigning you an average value of $5,000 per assignment. If the blogging network takes a 75% cut (as most do now), you go home with $37,500.
On the other hand, if you work with an agent to negotiate your deals, you potentially make 90% of that $150,000 figure. That’s a possible $135,000 salary vs $37,500.
I know you’re thinking that you’ll get less volume through an agent, and that’s possibly true. Not all agents are hustlers, and not all agents are well-connected… that’s where it’s on you to be a legitimately influential person. When you have a great audience, the opportunities come, and when you feel secure that your best interests are a priority for whoever is negotiating your rent bill, it’s fair to say you can spend more time creating valuable content that resonates with a wider audience. But let’s just do the lower volume calculation anyway, just for the sake of knowing.
Instead of the $150,000 in opportunities you might get over at Blogging Networks Girls United, your agent only fields about $100,000 in opportunities for you this year. You still get 90% of that, which is $90,000. Last time I checked, $90,000 was WAY better than $37,500.
So what should brands do?
Again, I can’t speak for everyone, but the general word on the street is that bloggers want to work with brands directly (either super directly, or through their agencies). We obviously want to get paid the rates that are fair and industry-standard, but moreso, we want to do the best possible job for the brands we think are worth endorsing. We know when brands are happy with our work they come back for more, and when we’re squeezed too tight by greedy networks, it’s just impossible for all sides to leave the table happy.
Wow. I had never thought of it that way. Thanks for breaking it down!
I’m just getting back into blogging and this article is perfect for me. I learned a lot, thanks!
great article, Bryce!
I understand what you’re saying and I think it’s great advice for bloggers with big numbers, but you’re leaving out a huge group in the middle, bloggers like myself. Let’s call us the Blogging Middle Class: Definitely not hobbyists or part timers, but not big enough to have any agents interested in us, and a lot of companies can’t be bothered to write checks small enough for the rates our numbers command. I negotiate when I can, but networks are a necessity for those of us in the middle.
Hi Amy! As a fellow middle class blogger, let me tell you this – it’s all about your influence, not necessarily the numbers. You could have 5000 monthly pageviews and still have stronger influencing power than a huge blogger or Instagrammer.
All true, but the fact remains, agencies aren’t interested in me at this point, so I’m grateful for the opportunities I get through networks.
Yes but the BRANDS don’t get that and we spend a ton of our time convincing them people whose numbers aren’t impressive on paper are actually very influential.
That’s why when pitching brands for monetary compensation I always arm myself with Affiliate analytics in addition to Google Analytics stats and show them that people actually buy things I recommend. Confidence is key! For every 3 NOs you are bound to get a YES 🙂 Don’t be shy, girls, we don’t have to be big to be relevant!
Wow. So many thoughts here. I would say sure, you shouldn’t work with shady networks that keep most of the brand’s money. Whoever you talked to… well, I would never work with HER network. That’s for sure. I would say there are many, many benefits to working with a network. Brands don’t know whose numbers are fake and who has low numbers but actually is very active in communities and actually heard (and who creates great content). I will say we push CONSTANTLY to drive the amount being paid to bloggers up, not down. And believe me. It’s a fight. We did our parent blogger survey and the majority (by far) of income bloggers made was via networks. Sure, you can pitch brands directly. It often doesn’t make sense for them to put together all the effort to work with one blogger on a sponsored post, however. And look, I don’t want all bloggers to work with me. We want to focus on high quality campaigns, not getting as many bloggers to do something as possible. So I really gain nothing by defending it. We have thousands of bloggers in our network so we are doing fine. BUT I know many smart people who are VERY ethical and working their asses off to make sure bloggers make money, so I generally take offense to the entire industry being characterized as greedy and screwing bloggers. You can get a sense of my mission with our A-LIST campaign announcement here where we take the network campaigns to another focus: http://typeaparent.com/alistlaunch.html
Be ware of agents as well. I signed with an agent nearly 5 years ago (at a higher rate than 10%) and that agent has basically turned into a blogger network and is not always working their hardest to get the best deal for ME, but the best deal for THEM. Those secured clients are now pitched campaigns like a network would pitch and I’m thrown into the mix, which I can assure you, while I’m getting a decent rate for my services, I can’t help but think I would be getting paid much more if my agent wasn’t taking a bigger cut by selling my contact a bigger package.
Susie I’m going to be I have the same agent and feel the exact same way.
The real question here is where can you find an agent?
Where do you find an agent? That is a great question!
I totally disagree. I work with a lot of brands that have no idea how to work with influencers. I’m both a coach and someone who vets bloggers for them. It’s very time consuming to manage a large group of bloggers. One on one is easy, but we’re doing larger campaigns. There’s a learning curve and it’s interesting to me – there are different worlds to navigate too. For example, I’ve worked with a brand that is ideal for YouTubers but doesn’t get the blogging world at all. They rely on me to run that.
I just got into a discussion with a brand about how she hired an influencer to promote her product and said it did almost nothing for her. I looked at the influnencer, the brand’s website and knew right away why. Her site isn’t going to convert a cold lead. Bad photography, tough to figure out how everything works. The product is beautiful but poorly presented. Also, she chose the wrong person for the campaign. So what if that person has millions of followers? Still a bad fit. I know that. She didn’t.
I even have people who want to work with me and pay me for something and I know they don’t know what they’re doing and I’m the wrong fit. A network should know that. No one bats 100% but they should have their go to influencers for different types of offerings.
A good network or consultants like me can prevent that from happening. I won’t take a client if I don’t feel like their offering is strong enough. Sometimes I send them to a website conversion expert to improve the site. I will make sure that I never work with bloggers who don’t know what they’re doing, are unprofessional, don’t follow instructions, get a low response, etc. On the other hand, I have bloggers who have crushed it and the brands have been very happy with the results.
Most networks have a team to pay (rather than a single agent). I agree, a network like the one discussed in the post is bad for everyone. A good one though can be invaluable. I’ve been working with bloggers for over 10 years now. I still look at networks and realize that they can do things I can’t – invest in software and systems, a team, etc. I think it’s worth paying for, depending on who you are, how big you are, etc.