Should you be paid to blog?

The issue of whether bloggers should blog for free is a tricky one, and a hot topic of discussion over on the BritMums parent blogger network.

Imagine you’re invited to a press event celebrating the launch of a new product. Flattering and exciting though it is, the event isn’t really an excuse to have a few drinks and chat – you’ll be working the whole time, taking photos, making notes, filming video clips, thinking about angles for your piece, and getting a few statements from key people.

After the event, the expectation is that you will compose an article that is factually correct, interesting, and well written., and then email it to … oh wait!  Until this point, the expectations of the brand on the blogger are much the same as they would have been for a journalist. For bloggers, however, the work continues…

After writing the piece, you re-read it a few times, wishing you had a second opinion – no sub-editors over here! You upload the text, manually add links, categories, and tags.

You write custom meta descriptions, keyword and a title to ensure the best possible SEO and know that having done so hundreds (thousands) of times you have as much SEO expertise as those agency fellas who are paid £800 a day for their troubles.  You modify, label and upload your images, preview to make sure everything looks okay…. and click Publish.

For BritMums parent bloggers, we then rush out to pick up the kids from school, work another 4 or 5 unpaid hours until bedtime, cook the evening meal, and then work an additional 2 unpaid hours on maintaining our blogs, researching the next articles, and feeding updates through our social networks.

Does this sound familiar?  Don’t get me wrong – I love what I do, and I’m not complaining, but I do want to make a point… Bloggers are not journalists.

We don’t just plan, research and write the content – a blogger is like a journalist, senior manager, finance director, salesperson, marketing expert, digital blogger outreach specialist (whatever that means), technical support, researcher, legal team (competitions anyone??), and personal assistant all rolled into one.

So we’ve established that Bloggers are Brilliant (you’re welcome), but the million dollar question is should we be paid for it? And who pays?

The Psychological Contract between Brand and Blogger

In Management Today this month there was a mention of the concept of the “Psychological Contract” – an understanding between an employer and employee about their informal obligations to each other.

Managers assume their staff will go the extra mile, if asked to, on the strength of their loyalty, goodwill and sense of responsibility. Staff assume that if they do what they are asked they will be rewarded, if not now then later.

Let’s apply the same concept to the Brand and Blogger relationship: The brand assumes that bloggers will go the extra mile to promote their campaign or new product, and bloggers assume that if they do, they will be rewarded for their efforts.

What’s missing here for many brands is the phrase that says “on the strength of …”. Brands need to think hard about what they can and should offer a blogger in return for publicity through their blog and social networks. In some cases that will be to pay for the content and the inventory as though it were an advertorial. In some cases covering a blogger’s true expenses (for example, 2 hours of research and product testing, plus 2 hours of writing and SEO) would be fair compensation. For others it might be excellent content, good links back and a link to the review from the brand’s own Facebook page.

While there are some brands out there who work hard to nurture their relationship with bloggers, some brands have simply not understood that without a reward or fair compensation, that relationship will quickly sour… and because so many of us work together and exchange ideas, a soured relationship with 1 blogger could easily mean that the brand has burned their bridges with 3000 bloggers.

It seems quite a high risk for nabbing one extra blog post for free, does it not?

Let me take you through two real life scenarios, one where I have blogged for free, and another where I politely declined.

The argument for blogging for free

A leading children’s brand once invited me to attend a press event to preview a new product, with the expectation that I would cover it on the blog and on all of my social networks. There was no mention of a fee, or a request for my rate card, or any mention of what they would do in exchange – the expectation was simply to do the work for free.

From the email, however, it was immediately obvious that I was not contacted by ‘mail shot’ – my blog had been handpicked by the community manager because it was genuinely a great match for the content. I enjoyed the event, and had the opportunity to network with other like-minded bloggers. Writing about the product was challenging and fun, and because the content was such a good match for my blog, my audience enjoyed it too.

Being given the rare opportunity to experience the new product before the official launch, I was able to write an excellent article without rushing or abandoning my kids, and to schedule publication so it would be released just minutes after the embargo ended. Being one of the very first to write about the new product, and with a few SEO tricks up my sleeve, my blog post was on the top page of Google,  my traffic soared as a result, and traffic-linked revenue like Google Ads and Skimlinks increased proportionately.

The brand has now gone on to invite me to many other press events, provide me with excellent free no-strings-attached content for my blog (Really Kid Friendly), and have introduced me to some of the most influential bloggers, brands and even celebrities.

In all, while they didn’t pay me in cold hard cash, this brand has consistently rewarded me for my time, effort and expertise.

The argument for being paid to blog

Another leading brand asked me to include content about their brand, the expectation being that it would be for free. While I was initially flattered at being approached, a few quick minutes of research told me that their coverage of the product across leading websites is so vast that my blog post about their product would be buried on Google under 15 other pages of results.

I mentioned that I would be happy to write about the content as and when I had time, however I needed to prioritise paid work, and I supplied them with my (very affordable) rate card. Their reply was that they did not have a budget for advertising or for paying for sponsored posts.

Now this is where it gets complicated…. in effect the individual who contacted me was part of a department handling press and blogger outreach, and in all likelihood genuinely did not have a budget for paid content.  However, having seen paid-for advertorials and full page advertisements for the same brand in lifestyle magazines that same month, I know for a fact that a budget for promoting their product does exist.

The issue wasn’t that they didn’t have the budget, but that their company had made a deliberate decision not to budget for specific forms of media.

Furthermore, they weren’t able to offer anything concrete in return such as links back to our review or a guarantee of a mention on Twitter, because of the sheer size and complexity of their business and the way their website and social networks were managed. The agency themselves would have been keen to give us a mention, but given that my Twitter following was 10 times the size of theirs, I didn’t think it was a particularly enticing offer.

I politely declined the offer to work for free.

Why don’t the big brands offer to pay? Surely they can afford it!

The simplest answer I can come up with is that they don’t know that they should. Many big brands are so complex, with multiple departments and each with its strategy and own agreed budget. If paying for sponsored posts isn’t factored into their department’s budget, they can’t just nick a bit of money from another department.
As bloggers, we understand that many blogs are a more interactive, immediate form of media – more effective in many ways than a traditional paper, magazine or TV. But we understand this because we are immersed in it, because we can see first hand the impact a blog can have on its readers. For a big brand, that depth of understanding will take longer to come, and will require a lot of hard work and perseverance on the part of bloggers and blogger networks such as Brit Mums.
Soon brands will begin to realise the value of our highly targeted, web savvy audiences. They will understand that even the teeny tiny I-write-this-from-my-loft-room-after-my-kids-have-gone-to-bed niche blogs with relatively low traffic are invaluable, because their small audience are exceptionally engaged and trust the recommendations of the writer.
So where do we go from here?
I’m feeling rather optimistic about where big brands are going, especially as with deepening recession they will be looking for viable alternatives for promoting their brands without the huge expense of advertising in print. My gut feeling is that an understanding of why bloggers should receive some form of compensation (cash or otherwise) will creep slowly through businesses, starting with digital marketing experts and community managers, and eventually reaching the decision makers.
When that happens, we’ll be ready and waiting, with professional media packs and rates which reflect the value we can bring to a brand’s campaign.
In the meantime, we will continue to work with those brands who offer us fair compensation in exchange for our reach, expertise and time.
Do you ever blog for free? Do you feel you are fairly compensated by the brands who contact you? Please leave a comment below.

Image courtesy of Images of Money on Flickr