Last week, I dove into re-living our Alt Summit panel on Blogging Etiquette bit by bit. I got pretty in depth covering Part 1: Comments, Copying and Crediting and wrote over 4,000 words, so today I’ll do my best to be as concise as possible* while covering our next series of topics.
Today I’m tackling Part 2: Submissions, Sponsorship, Giveaways & Freebies. This section of our panel had Joy, Emily and I offering our advice and experiences dealing with a wide range of topics, many of which we had differing opinions on. So these topics are definitely open for personal interpretation and feedback. I still struggle with some of these on a daily basis, so I’m most curious to see what YOU guys have to say about today’s topic. Blogging has changed so much since I started six years ago, and some of these topics, while once considered controversial (sponsorship and advertising) are now totally commonplace. So I’m excited to see how all of you see these topics affecting your blogs or your experience with reading blogs. I hope you’ll chime in with your ideas and issues, and as always, I’m happy to answer any questions, comments or concerns you have about these topics. So, let’s dive in and discuss the etiquette and ethics behind Submissions, Sponsorship, Giveaways & Freebies. xo, grace
*Sorry, I failed. Today’s post is over 3,000 words. Hopefully we can fill the comments section with 3,000 of YOUR words and get a mix of opinions, thoughts and ideas here. Stay tuned next week for the final installment: Contributors, Collaboration and — my favorite — Social Networking Etiquette.
CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!
Today’s topic is a bit more wide ranging, covering everything from submitting your work (or blog) to other blogs to handling the freebies and perks that come with blogging. I’m going to start with submissions because this topic is one that Emily, Joy and I agreed unanimously about and sailed through pretty smoothly (with most audience members agreeing on the ideas we discussed, as well).
Reaching out to other bloggers can be one of the best and worst aspects of being a blogger. Though it’s exciting to make a new connection and have your work shared on someone else’s site, it can also be intimidating. What do you say? What if they don’t write back? Do you email everyone at once? We all agreed that our perfect version of a submission would cover these bases:
WHO: A friendly blogger, designer, artist or reader
WHAT: A personal email tailored to the individual blogger you’re contacting
WHEN: No more than once a week (unless agreed upon by the blogger you’re contacting)
WHERE: Email (not Twitter or Facebook unless requested by the blogger you’re contacting)
WHY: To announce a new product, new blog, new blog column or new event that is relevant to the blog you’re contacting
Reaching out to a blogger is like shaking someone’s hand at a cocktail party. What would you say to them then? Would you spill your life’s story and beg them to help you with something? Nope. You’d be short, sweet, polite and friendly. And that’s how submissions should be. Bloggers at all phases of their blogging lives get tons of email, so keep your emails short and to the point. Our panel all agreed that a few paragraphs would do the job.
But before you write, you have to decide to whom you’re writing. And this was something that I was thrilled to see consensus on among my blogging panel colleagues: exclusivity matters. I’ve heard people say all sorts of nasty things behind my back about how my desire not to repeat content that’s been featured on other sites is snobby and elitist. But the fact of the matter is that most of us really care about and love our readers, and we want to give them something new and exciting as often as possible. And that’s a HUGE priority for me and for many of my fellow bloggers. So we really appreciate when someone emails one blogger at a time, giving her or him the chance to “debut” or “break” a new story, rather than emailing 20 of us at once.
Bottom line: Email one blogger at a time, starting with your favorite and working down a short list of sites you’d love to be featured on. Don’t hear from your first choice after a week? Move on down the list.
Pitfall to avoid: Lying about previous coverage. Most bloggers within a niche talk to each other and know who emailed whom. So while you may think that it’s clever to say you’re brand new if you’re not, it’s always better to be honest and work with us to find a unique angle on your product or story.
Once you’ve decided whom to target, you have to know what to write. We all agreed that short, personal emails that are, above all, RELEVANT TO THE BLOGGER AT HAND were the best. We didn’t care as much about long stories and perfect pitches as we did about emails that felt real and like we were having a conversation with an artist or designer who took the time to get to know what our blogs cover.
Note: Sometimes people think being a one-man or one-woman show seems weaker or less professional. But it’s not. Bloggers love to support and celebrate independent designers, so don’t feel the need to pull out the “we” card or write in the third-person to sound professional. It can feel forced if it’s not genuine, so feel free to say that you’re the owner, designer and PR person all rolled into one. We can totally relate.
Pitfall to avoid: Always address your email to the blogger’s real name and spell it correctly. If you can’t find one, it’s okay to address the blog by its name, but most people have a contact page. Use it frequently to get the correct address and see their comment policy.
Once you’ve written an email, what should you include in it? We all agreed that with today’s crazy email loads, something easy and fast to read is best. A handful of simple, low-res JPEGS is all we need. No fancy links, Flash sites, PDFs, slideshows or PowerPoints — just something easy and quick to load. Keep in mind that bloggers often check submissions on their phones, so if you have a Flash site, you might miss out on someone who often works while traveling.
Now that you’ve got your blogger, your message and your attachments sorted out, you’re ready to reach out to people. Don’t be afraid to email the “biggest” blogs you love — most blogs are run by one or more totally normal people who are happy to answer emails and talk to people. You may not hear back from everyone right away (or at all), but remember that it’s all about taking that chance. Maybe your favorite blogger will turn out to be someone with whom you have a lot in common, so don’t miss out on the chance to have your work/blog get the attention it deserves and possibly make a new friend in the process.*
*I’ve found almost all of my editors and many of my close friends via emails that related to Design*Sponge. A simple, personal email can be one of the strongest tools in your business arsenal.
Okay, let’s dive into the stickier stuff: Sponsorship, Giveaways and Freebies. This may sound like all the great perks of blogging to some of you, but I distinctly remember a time when I started blogging back in 2005, and these were nasty words that got you snarky emails from readers who felt you’d sold out. I remember the “I’m an Ad-Free Blog” craze that went around (and all the mean emails I got for having ads on my site), and it felt like it all died down after about a year when a lot of people realized that there were ways to sell advertising without selling your soul.
Joy, Emily and I defined sponsorship in a few areas: advertising, sponsored posts, sponsor-supported content and sponsor-supported trips/events. Before I address the details, let me stress one thing: All of us agreed that these decisions are entirely personal and subjective for each blogger. There is no “right” or “wrong” amount of ad banners, giveaways, etc. to have on your blog, as long as you are transparent about sponsorship.
The stickiest part about all the ways in which blogs can sponsor things today is that they can be misleading to readers. And we all agreed that it’s our job as bloggers to GIVE our readers the choice to care or not care about ads, sponsorship, etc. If you don’t reveal what’s sponsored on your site, you make that choice for your readers, and that can damage the trust you have with them. So above all, let people know what is sponsored. You can gauge by your gut (and the public) reaction as to whether or not it feels like something that’s right or “too much” for your site.
Okay, now that transparency is out of the way, let’s get into details:
Advertising is pretty straightforward these days: banner ads, ads in-between posts and ads in Twitter feeds. People are all over the map in terms of what they feel is too much or too little. But the bottom line is to remember why you started your blog. Was it solely to make money? Probably not. So should you be spending ALL of your free time worrying about ads and ad clients? Probably not. Find a level of sponsorship that allows you to focus as much of your time as possible sharing your voice through content. When you find yourself spending too much time dealing with ad requests and worrying about ad dollars, you’re taking away from the time you spend on the voice of your site, and that’s what keeps your readers around. Ads are so commonplace that they can disappear to your readers; no matter how much time you spend carefully choosing them (which is a great thing to do, by the way), your readers are always going to notice CONTENT first. So make sure content is still the focus of your site and workday.
Sponsored posts and sponsor-supported content are slightly different. The first is something that an advertiser buys and for which they supply you with text or tell you what sort of post to write. Assuming it’s clearly marked as “sponsored,” it’s an FTC-sanctioned way to make money, and it’s up to each blogger to decide how they feel about doing it. I don’t do sponsored posts on D*S, but Emily at Once Wed has had great success with them because they offer her current advertisers a way to bump up their presence on her site and provide her readers with more valuable resources for wedding vendors.
Tip: Most audience members at our panel and our panel members agreed that no matter how many sponsored posts you do, make sure they’re always spaced out between non-sponsored posts. So if you want to do several a day, make sure they’re sandwiched between original posts that you aren’t “paid” to write, so to speak. If you find that you have to write more and more posts to sandwich-in the paid posts, that may be a sign that it’s time to cut back on the number of sponsored posts you do.
Sponsor-supported content is something that’s done on a more custom basis between you and a company. Maybe they supply materials for a DIY project or snacks for a party, or they want to have their brand associated with a column you do. This sort of brand association isn’t always clearly labeled as “sponsored,” so much as labeled as “brought to you by” or “supported by,” meaning they provided a monetary donation but didn’t necessarily dictate what you say in the post. I love these types of arrangements because they let you get to know a company well and find a way to creatively align your two brands’ missions. This can be a great way to support costlier content ventures (like video series, etc.), but the bottom line is to always be transparent about when a post, party, video or other aspect of your content is supported or provided by a sponsor.
UPDATE: AFFILIATE PROGRAMS
One quick note that I forgot- affiliate programs are an example of profiting from an editorial mention. The FTC requires that all bloggers divulge that they’re paid for any editorial mention so be sure to disclose that an Amazon links, etc that you’re profiting from are part of an affiliate program. It can be as simple as saying “You can pick up a copy of the book here in my affiliate shop” or just a disclaimer at the bottom of those posts that say “All Amazon links on [this blog] are part of our affiliate shop”.
This topic was a mini-hotbed of controversy at Alt. I listened to a fantastic panel on advertising with Erin, Maggie and Liz, and they were split two to one about whether or not giveaways were something that should be paid for by the company giving something away. I personally feel that you should never give away editorial space (which is what a giveaway is) for free, even if it gives your readers a free necklace, etc. It’s a nice way to boost traffic and give people a gift, but in the long run, it can be equally valuable to “give back” to your readers by dedicating more time to original content and fun ideas. But of course, there’s no reason you can’t do both. Here are some things to think about when it comes to giveaways:
1. They can be a traffic-building catch-22. Yes, they give you a surge in instant “gimme gimme” traffic from people just looking for free things. But those readers often only stick around if you KEEP giving them free things. So avoid doing so many giveaways that your readers come to expect them or feel like they’re owed them.
2. Giveaways, like sponsored posts, are best spaced out. If you’re doing a few giveaways a week, make sure you’re spacing them out between original, non-giveaway content. Blogs that build lasting loyalty with readers tend to do so through their voices, not giveaways, contests or gimmicks. At the end of the day, people want to get to know YOU. And they do that when they hear from you, not a sponsor.
3. Giveaways should be worth the cost of the precious editorial space you’re giving them. Maybe you do a special small giveaway every now and then, but is a full-post space on your site only worth the cost of a $20 pillow? Probably not. Today’s blogs are so busy with ads, flashing buttons, Twitter feeds, blogrolls, RSS feeds and other distractions that your editorial section is the one place where your voice can shine through loud and clear. Respect that space, and your readers will respect you. Choose your giveaways wisely, and make sure they’re worth your time and your blog’s space.
4. To pay or not to pay. Erin and Maggie both agreed that giveaways should cost the giver the gift itself in ADDITION to a fee for hosting the giveaway. I agree (see number 3 above), but Liz thought that, for the most part, if you were working with a small, independent artist, there was no harm in not charging for them. So when deciding whether or not to charge for giveaways, consider a few things:
- Is it a company that could normally afford to advertise with you (like a national box store)? If so, they can probably afford to pay for that editorial space that they’re getting for the cost of a pillow.
- Is that company a small indie seller or Etsy shop owner? Maybe they can’t afford to advertise, but giving away a small piece is something that would be a big help for them. Liz felt this was a great way to use giveaways — letting artists with smaller budgets give away something in exchange for exposure.*
*I am pretty protective about my editorial space on D*S, so we make sure giveaways are few and far between (and valuable when we do them). That said, I recognize the limited budgets of indie artists who can’t afford them. So if you’d prefer to charge but don’t want to edge out those indie artists, consider offering them some sort of ad sales discount, so they can still advertise with you but maybe at a smaller ad size or lower location on the site that suits their budget. There are always ways to help our indie artists if you think creatively about your needs and theirs.
Oh man, I was the old lady dinosaur of the panel when it came to the topic of freebies. Freebies are often the perks that most writers and bloggers get excited about, but I shun them like the plague. Mostly because I was taught not tot take them when I worked at my newspaper and magazine jobs, and I always want to make sure I stay as impartial as I can when it comes to covering things. That said, there’s no reason for everyone to be as puritanical as I am about occasional gifts, discounts or free items.
Joy and Emily both agreed that gifts offered AFTER a post was written were fair, as long as they didn’t affect the post or future posts and especially when the gifts are small and not of significant value. The same goes for press discounts or discounts given after the fact, as long as they aren’t so significant that you’re expected to do some sort of future post based on that gift.
As with sponsorship, if someone gifts you something that you end up writing about, it’s always important to note in the post that it was a free gift/product sent to you for review. Most readers won’t have any problem with this (it’s common practice in the beauty and fashion blog scene), and disclosing gifts means you’re being honest with your readers, which is what’s most important at the end of the day.
Pitfall to avoid: Not declaring gifts of large monetary value. Gifts are considered taxable income if they’re of a sizable value, so be sure to check with your accountant about the laws in your state. Small gifts are not a problem, but if a company buys you a car, home or expensive vacation (lucky), you may need to declare it.
One of the questions people asked me about after our panel was how to politely turn down gifts, free samples, etc. from designers. The answer is to send the same short, sweet email we discussed earlier. Most business owners are people just like you trying to be kind and do their job, so just thank them for their kind offer and explain your gifting policy. Most business owners will understand and respect your decision. If they really, really insist on doing something as a thank you, come up with a creative way to give back to your readers or people in need. They can make a donation to a charity in your name if they really want to thank you, or perhaps they can give your readers something interesting or sponsor a contest that benefits your readers in a valuable way. Use that positive interaction and offer as a way to open the door to a long-lasting relationship that can result in opportunities or content that is beneficial for all your readers.
Today’s topics are definitely forming, changing and shifting under our blogging feet as we speak, so I’m curious to know your feelings about these issues and how you’ve handled them or feel about them in general. The more we all discuss these topics and know how people feel, the better we can handle them when and if they turn tricky, or if we need help or advice from each other one-on-one. See you in the comments section! xo, grace