Recently a reader reached out to me with an important question about sponsored reviews. I started typing a reply to him… and when I reached 500 words, I realized that this needed to be a blog post so everyone can benefit from it!
This blogger had been approached by some companies to review their products, and had the some question many bloggers have…
“Should I charge for a sponsored review?”
It brings up a lot of ethical questions. What if you don’t like the product? What if they want you to promote something you didn’t get to personally experience? What if they want you to use certain language in your post?
So today, we’re talking about sponsored blog post and sponsored reviews. I’m going to answer all of these questions and more, so you can publish ethical reviews that your readers love.
Sponsored Posts versus Sponsored Reviews
First and foremost, all sponsored reviews are sponsored posts… but not all sponsored posts are sponsored reviews. “Sponsored” simply means that you are being compensated for the blog post in some way. This can be through free products/services or monetary payment (or both).
A review specifically means that you are talking about your experiences with the brand’s products or services.
It is possible to write a sponsored post that is not a sponsored reviews. In this case, you would not be giving your opinion about the product or service. Instead, you’d be writing a more objective blog post about the brand or their offerings, free from any personal opinion.
For example, let’s say that a local restaurant has a brand new menu and you want to write a sponsored post about it. If you do a sponsored review, the restaurant would give you a free meal or pay you (or both) to experience the new menu and write your opinions about it. If you do a sponsored post, you would just write a blog post about how this restaurant has a new menu, what is different about it, and where readers can go to experience it. It would not include your opinion (if you do it ethically… more on that later).
Sponsored posts can also take a third form – informational content. In this kind of sponsored post, you simply create create content and at the end you say it is sponsored by whatever brand is paying you. So, for example, this post could be a sponsored post (it’s not, but it could be!). I would simply mention what brand is sponsoring the content at some point, kind of like how a commercial is tacked onto a TV show, even if the TV show has nothing to do with the brand being advertised.
If your post is sponsored, whether it is a review or not, you need to follow FTC guidelines for endorsements. Disclaimer: I am NOT a lawyer, so if you don’t understand these guidelines, please speak to an actual lawyer to make sure you are following the rules. Here are the highlights:
- If you are being paid or receive free product from a brand, tell your readers about the compensation.
- Your relationship with the brand should be disclosed at the beginning of your blog post or immediately before you start talking about said brand. Do NOT bury your disclosure at the bottom of your post. (WAAAAY TOO MANY BLOGGERS DO THIS, BUT IF YOU DO YOU ARE NOT COMPLYING)
- If you are making specific claims about the product, you should have proof that your claims are true or you should disclose the results an average person would see. (example: if you are reviewing an online course about investing and you say that you applied what you learned in the course and made a million dollars, you should be able to prove that and you should tell people if that result is typical or not).
FTC guidelines also say that if you do sponsored social media posts, you need to disclose this as well. You can write a disclaimer about your relationship if you have the space to do so, and if you are using a medium like Twitter where space is limited, you can use the hashtag #ad to indicate that something is sponsored. This disclosure has to come before links to the brand website and it can’t be hidden in a list of other hashtags.
Basically… don’t be sneaky. 🙂
If you don’t disclose your relationships, you could be facing fines, your social profiles could be deleted, and more. Don’t risk it!
More importantly, if you start endorsing brands and products without disclosures, you’ll lose credibility with your readers. It’s just not ethical. Beyond what the FTC says, let’s talk about how to write sponsored content ethically!
Writing Ethical Reviews
The FTC does not dictate the language you have to use for your disclosure. I typically write something like, “This post is sponsored by so-and-so, who compensated me for my honest opinions about their products. All opinions are my own!”
The honest part is important, because you want your readers to know they can trust you, even if you’re being paid to write a post.
The best guideline I can give you for writing ethical reviews is to write content as though you are writing it to a friend or loved one. You would not steer them wrong, so don’t embellish or lie to your readers either.
When I write a review, whether it is sponsored or not, I always include three components:
- The objective specs – information about size, shape, color, price, etc. which is fully objective, based on whatever I am reviewing
- The advantages of the product/services, including who would most benefit from buying it
- The disadvantages of the product/services, including who should not buy it
I do give my own opinions, but I’ve found that almost every product has some pros and some cons, no matter what my personal opinions may be.
This also keeps the sponsor happy, even if I don’t like the product.
For example, let’s say someone sent me a phone to review and I hated it. Instead of writing, “I hated this! Don’t buy it!” I would instead write something like, “This phone was not for me because it was too complicated to use. However, if you are willing to look past the learning curve of the operating system because you like the sleek physical design, check it out.”
If I have a hard time finding redeeming qualities, I instead try to point to other products from the same brand that I like instead, or that I am curious to check out. Example: “Overall, I thought ABC Bakery’s cookies were bland and the texture was chalky. I recommend their brownies instead, which have a richer, chocolatey flavor.”
What you don’t want to do is write about experiences that you haven’t had, simply because the sponsor wants you to do so.
Every month, I get “review” requests where I’m not even given the product to try out. The brands simply want to pay me to post a blurb about their product that they write, as though I have written it. This is so unethical that I typically just delete their emails without even replying.
You also don’t want to write about all of the positive aspects and none of the negative ones, simply because you are trying to keep the sponsor happy. Your duty is to your readers. Without them, your blog would be nothing but clutter on the Internet that no one reads. Always be honest!
Any sponsor who is angry about a honest review is not a sponsor that you want to work with in the future.
Writing Ethical Sponsored Posts
As noted previously, you don’t have to write a review for a post to be “sponsored.” You can instead write a sponsored post that does not include review elements. You do still need to disclose your relationship with the brand at the beginning of your post. It is as easy as saying, “This post is sponsored by so-and-so. All opinions are my own.”
For example, let’s say that you write a travel blog. You could write a blog post called “The Top 10 Travel Tips for New Parents” that is sponsored by a certain type of baby car seat. You would disclose this as the top of the post, and then one of your tips might be to make sure that you install your car seat correctly, and to check out the video from your sponsor about how to install a car seat. You don’t review the car seat company directly, but you do point people to their website in a relevant way.
Another way you could write a sponsored post that is not a review is to keep it objective, reading more like a press release or news item. You could also add some subjective elements that make it clear that you haven’t tried the product or service. For example, you could say that you’re excited to try out a product because you’ve tried similar products and liked them.
It’s all about being 100% honest with your readers!
So…Should I Charge?
Now for the question that is the granddaddy of them all… should you charge brands to write about their products?
That’s not an easy question, and there’s really no write or wrong answer. Here is the question I want you to consider:
“What is the benefit to the brand versus the benefit to me?”
The benefit to the brand is the amount of press you can give them. Are your readers likely to purchase their products or services if you write about them? How engaged is your audience and how big is your audience? Now, think about the benefit to you.
A lot of bloggers think they are delivering customers to the brand, but don’t forget that if you’re writing great content, it benefits your blog as well. Is the brand giving you the opportunity to write about something that is going to bring a ton of readers to your site? For example, maybe you get to review something first, or maybe you’re getting an insider or behind-the-scenes experience that most people never get, which will be super interesting to your readers. Be honest with yourself about how you are benefiting as well.
Then, weight the benefits to the brand versus the benefits to you. If the scale is unbalanced, you should be paid.
This post goes over exactly how to set your prices for sponsored posts.
You can be “paid” in money or in products/services. If you are paid in products/services from the brand, ask yourself these two questions:
- What is the value of the free products/services I’m receiving?
- Is this something I would have purchased anyway?
Obviously, if someone is paying you with a bag of potato chips, the value is low… but if they are your favorite chips, you would have perhaps purchased them anyway. On the other hand, if someone is paying you with a new car, the value is high… but if you can’t drive, you wouldn’t have ever purchased the car on your own (or even wished you could afford it).
Often, companies want to pay me in gift cards or store credit. I have to ask myself – is the store credit worth to me what I should have been paid? $100 in store credit to my favorite grocery store is worth $100 to me, because I shop there all the time. On the other hand, $100 in store credit to a website that sells dog food is worth very little to me because I don’t have a dog.
The value of what a sponsor is willing to provide is what you assign to it. Don’t let other bloggers dictate what you charge or do not charge.
Some bloggers never, ever, ever do sponsored reviews unless they are paid. If that’s your opinion, you are more than entitled to it. You don’t have to review a brand’s products or services for free if you don’t feel like the products/services they give you are worth your time.
Other bloggers happily fill their house with free stuff and are never paid for talking about brands. If that’s your opinion, you are entitled to it too! Just because some bloggers only work if they are paid doesn’t mean you have to.
In short… do what is right for you.
Remember, most physical products do have some intrinsic value, which means you can sell them unless a sponsor specifically asks you not to do so (which is often the case if you receive a product before it is released). However, don’t forget to account for your time to list the product and deal with potential buyers, costs associated with selling online (like eBay’s fee), shipping costs, and the depreciated value of the item since it is used.
Obviously, don’t pretend that you’ve used an item for a review but keep it new in the box so you can resell it. It should go without saying that this is unethical.
Pushback from Brands
If you work with brands in any way, be prepared to deal with pushback (especially if you charge for sponsored posts) and outrageous demands. Here are my best tips for working with brands:
- If a brand won’t pay you, don’t take it personally. Keep a good relationship with them if you can, since they may have a budget to pay you in the future.
- Be willing to negotiate, but remember that negotiation means that you give up something and they give up something. Negotiation isn’t just a demand for you to lower your prices. The brand needs to give up something too.
- Be clear about what the brand is asking you to do. If they ask you to post anything that doesn’t sit right with you… say no. You’re allowed to walk away from an offer that won’t be good for you or your readers.
Remember, when you say no to an opportunity that isn’t right for you, you are making space for more opportunities that are right. When you first start getting contacted, it can be really tempting to say yes to every review request that comes your way, but take some time to think about it before you agree. Is the sponsored post going to help your readers? Are you happy with the compensation being offered? If you answer no to either of those questions, decline gracefully.
Also keep in mind that you should only work with brands that fit in with your blog’s brand. I run a food blog, and I get pitched diet pills and other weight loss products all the time. Yes, a review might help some of my readers, and yes, I could probably make a good amount of money doing these reviews, but it doesn’t fit my brand to talk about weight loss, outside of the occasional mention of healthy food alternatives. Make sure you aren’t driving readers away because they are seeing content on your blog that has no relevance to why they read your blog in the first place.
Do you have any questions about sponsored reviews? Let me know by leaving a comment below or email me at allisonmboyer -at- gmail.com
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