Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Is the blogging industry immoral?


Grab a cuppa and strap in guys, because this is a long one...

I'm a smallish blogger who's never really been interested in making a career of it, just sharing some of my life and flexing my writing muscles for those who want to have a read. I came onto the scene in 2014, about two years too late to have hitched a ride on the wave that took a select group of YouTubers and bloggers to relative fame and allowed them to carve a pretty substantial living out of what started for them as a similar hobby. But much of the money in being online is made through product placement, sponsorship and advertising.

A couple of weeks ago I read this article by Katie from Scarphelia, a blogger I had amired over the years who has decided to hang up the keyboard so to speak. She speaks from first hand experience about her discomfort with this side of blogging, and how the creative industry is being taken advantage of and reshaped by huge corporations that want access to its loyal following. 

The green-eyed monster

I don't begrudge any content creator for earning a living this way whatsover - I'm an avid consumer of their content, ravenous for the next Instagram story, lookbook video or editorial to be posted. Like a lot of people, I like the pseudo-friendliness of it all. I feel like the person talking to the camera could be my real life mate and is talking just to me, allowing me to live vicariously through their glam lifestyle. I often wish it could be me pouting into my Canon G7 x over brunch in Shoreditch, but alas, that's not quite me.

That's the real clincher. As influencers hit the big time and their personal pay packet grows, their lifestyle changes at an accelerated pace. Jetting off to the Maldives, showing off skincare hauls that cost more than my monthly paycheck, shopping exclusively at designer stores in swanky areas of London rather than the Primarni and H&M of their career's infancy. Meanwhile most of us are still stuck here in the same place, still watching, and starting to feel a touch of the green-eyed monster within.

To say I lust over the lifestyles of these people is an understatement. I often compare my less-than-chic flat filled with second hand furnishings and budget beauty cabinet to those of the people I used to identify with. It doesn't feel great - in fact it feels like for some reason I'm just not good enough - and yet I can't stop watching. I feel like I've gotten to know these people over time, so I don't want to let that go. But I also feel like true authenticity has left the building, at least in some cases.

To #ad or not to #ad?

The advent of sponsored content (or more, the need to disclose it), has really pushed these feelings of unease to the forefront of late. Without even considering the amount of placements that may not be being disclosed, my feeds are rife with '#ad' and '#sponsored', usually accompanied by influencers gushing about a brand or product that they don't usually mention in their day-to-day organic content. In black and white terms, they're capitalising on you being a tiny bit jealous of them, on wanting what they have and to look they way they look. This kind of content has turned user generated material into a cash cow for brands whose traditional methods of advertising are beginning to fail them.

If I'm honest, I don't like feeling as though I'm being sold too, like I'm playing into a brand's hand if I click through and buy into these blatant advertisements. I worry that those not too clued up on blogging and vlogging and how sponsorship works may not even notice the disclosure in the post/video title. I miss the old days of only seeing online personalities sharing stuff they really love and recommend as opposed to showing me the stuff they've been paid thousands to feature. The excitement in their eyes when they've found a new product they want to share, as opposed to some overpriced skincare they're not really that crazy about. 

That's not to say that these influencers are deliberately deceiving us or sitting at home laughing as they through piles of cash around, watching the clicks roll in - far from it. No doubt if you follow some of the bigger online personalities on social media you've seen them fretting about how best to disclose their paid brand collabs to us, sometimes even apologising for them. Even affiliate links, whereby the influencer receives a cut of the sale if you click through and buy something, are disclosed prominently these days.

The thing is, I get it. Most of us get it. These guys are only able to produce top-notch organic content for us to consume and enjoy because of the sponsorships, advertising deals, merch stores and brand ambassador contracts that pay for them to do so. And good on them for taking the opportunity to fund a career they love. I would do the same in their position.

The rise of the 'micro influencer' 

One thing I've found as this stuff becomes even more common is the not so subtle shade that gets thrown at influencers for doing these things - unfollowed, called out as being immoral or dishonest, left with a slew of bitchy comments on their post or video. How dare these people try and make money in order to sustain their lifestyles while they create the content their audience hungrily demand? They can't win.

And then there's the hypocrisy of it all. As someone with a blog of my own I get a rush of endorphins when I spy an email from a brand in my inbox. And I'm not the only one. I've been approached by everyone from big brands like Thornton's to small Etsy sellers, and on the surface it provides a decent ego massage. It doesn't always feel right, and I always think twice before agreeing to review or feature something. I will even go back to someone having tried their product if I didn't get on with it, and I will never post content written by somebody else, because I could never, ever lie and convince you guys to purchase something that I myself thought was shit, no matter who the brand is.

Look deeper though and it reveals a seismic shift in the way retailers are placing influencer content. Big bloggers that do big sponsorships on the regular are holding less and less traction with consumers. The trust that grew their followings to begin with is withering. Sponsored posts and ad placements typically get far less engagement from an audience and I'd even go as far as to say certain endorsements have put me off of those that I follow before. Like I said, nobody likes knowing they're being sold to. So brands are looking to smaller bloggers (so-called 'micro influencers') more and more.

Why? The answer is simple. Smaller bloggers typically get higher rates of engagement from their followers, and with their sponsored content less frequent and less tightly controlled, tends to feel more organic and generate more trust. Small bloggers rarely feel ballsy enough to demand a fee and often agree to committing SEO faux-pas like using follow links for fear of losing out on the collaboration to somebody else who's willing. It's an easy win for the budding PRs of the world.

Where do I stand?

So, after that painful dissection of a medium that has grown from an organic, underground creative movement into a fully-fledged industrial advertising machine, where do I actually stand? I really don't know. Will I stop posting about PR samples or placed products completely? Absolutely not. But I will always ensure I present them to you in the most honest way I possibly can. I urge other creators to do the same. Will I stop engaging with influencers who post '#ad' posts? Of course not. At least they're open about it rather than actively pulling the wool over my eyes. The organic content that I love is still out there being produced, so if a sponsorship or two has to happen for that to be paid for, then that's something I can live with, and even support.

I've been wanting to write this post for a while, if only to throw the topic out into the open and see what my readers and blogging peers, in my little internet bubble, think. Let me know your views in the comments below.
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3 comments

  1. Really love this post. I really only work with the brands I like/ use, maybe it's because I manage myself and I'm a small blogger. I guess if you do it for a living, most people just advertise to get paid.

    Lippie143.blogspot.com

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  2. Such an interesting post! I've definitely noticed that nowadays it's harder to know whether or not to believe a big blogger when they say they like a product - I'm always wondering whether or not they've been paid to say so! I hope everyone would use #ad or #sponsored clearly on their posts and titles, in which case I'm totally fine with it - I think it's great that bloggers can earn a living from what they do! It's a tricky subject for sure as you can never know how honest people are being, but I try to have faith in the people that I like to follow that they wouldn't promote something they don't believe in.. I hope I'm right! :)

    Laura // Middle of Adventure

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  3. This is a great post, loved reading your opinion on it all! At times I see a big blogger/yt-er post a sponsored video and I'm like 'damn, not another one' but then I try and remind myself that this is actually their job and without these sponsorships they probably wouldn't be able to put out these videos.

    Lauren | Lauren the Daydreamer

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