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.