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The Rise of the Shady Blogger

In the Beginning…

Once upon a time, bloggers blogged because they had something to say.  The drooling three month old in their arms appeared to listen intently, but never had much to say in reply.  The partner that returned at the end of the day wanted to listen, and maybe really did listen, but exhaustion, dinner clean-up, trash removal, and late night pinch-hitting on baby feedings made it hard for him or her to add a coherent thought in response.  These moms wanted a community, an audience, and an outlet for these crazy new mom thoughts running through their corporate minds.

It was a hobby.  The expected payout was pleasure.  Period.

Surely Google ads got into the mix rather quickly, Paypal tip jars appeared, and bloggers hoped to sell button ads on their personal blogs for enough money to cover the internet service, the custom URL, and maybe the occasional chai tea latte.  But in general, the reasons for blogging remained the same and it continued to be viewed as something other than a business.

Then one day the archetype blog reading businessperson reached out to the original alpha blogger and offered her something more.  Perhaps she’d like to blog about life at home with…his client’s vacuum?  Maybe that baby food that she’s already purchasing could be provided for free in exchange for…a link to a coupon?

And It Was Good…

I entered the blogging scene in the summer of 2008.  Surely there were tons of product reviews by now and gaggles of men and women receiving product or money to write Amazon “reviews.”  However, there was also this amazing and powerful community of women writers, thinkers, and friends.  The group that welcomed me in whole-heartedly could best be described as hybrid mom bloggers.  These bloggers partnered with companies from time to time, hosted the occasional giveaway, and even wrote some reviews, however, they also wrote prolifically on multiple sites and spent as much time giving back to their community as they did receiving.  But this was the summer of the Walmart Eleven Moms and things were about to change…

Monetizing my blog never crossed my mind when I began blogging.  I asked a blogger friend about the cost, and she explained that like any hobby, there is a cost.  If she took up knitting, for example, she would certainly be purchasing knitting needles, yarn, patterns, perhaps even paying to take classes.  Why should blogging be any different?  I vowed early on to not accept ads.  I thought Google ads looked tacky and opted out of that movement.  I had no interest in pitching myself to companies to solicit ads, and stayed far, far away from text ads and affiliates.  Accepting money for reviews felt wrong and dishonest, and I felt no need to be paid for hosting a giveaway.  Pay for post…well, I write what I want to write, when I want to write it.  Pay for post would change that.  I opted out.

The only change in my blog monetization policy over the last two years has been the addition of ads both through the Lifetime Moms ad network and individually purchased.  However, I continue to avoid all other ways of monetizing my blog and hope to stick to this for the remainder of my time as a blogger.  I have always known that not every blogger feels the same way as I do about monetization, and for the most part, I have not judged other bloggers for their personal choices.   Then what I call the third wave hit.

Great Expectations

Somewhere between when I began blogging and now, the tide turned when it came to bloggers and monetization.  Now instead of new members of the community approaching blogging as a hobby, albeit one that may provide opportunities for monetization, many now begin blogging not just with the hope to make money, but with the expectation that they should make money, often by any means necessary.  Seemingly gone are the days when a new blogger would weigh the decision to monetize carefully, protecting not only her own integrity and standing within the blogging community, but protecting the community as a whole.  Instead, nearly every day I hear of yet another blogger making downright shady decisions with this excuse,

“I have to find a way to make money/pay for this/justify this to my husband.”

This is a radical shift in thought that I believe began around the time of Erin Kotecki Vest’s “Carpet Baggers” post.  For bloggers who chose to monetize in the brave new world that mixed marketing with mommy bloggers, there were serious discussions about forming limited liability companies to protect family assets, disclosing properly even before the FTC told us we were required to do so, and paying estimated quarterly taxes.  Everyone had an opinion about the best way to disclose and most bloggers knew someone who had not paid taxes and instead paid taxes plus fines and interest.  Most of us were careful to straighten up and fly right.  This new wave of bloggers instead seems to laugh in the face of the tax man and flippantly bandies about the idea of disclosure, tossing Blog with Integrity buttons and “I Disclose” tags on their sites while not actually writing a disclosure statement or even disclosing within posts the presence of Amazon links to recommended product or the fact that money, not just product, changed hands in the review process.

For Sale: Community

The most disturbing manifestation of this “monetization at all costs” mentality began around the same time that I began blogging.  Out of nowhere a social media community formed with thousands of moms signing up to connect, join interest groups, and support one another.  Once the community grew to a large enough number, access to these women was placed on the market at a phenomenally high price tag.  As a member of the community, my updates from other moms who love Disney or enjoyed reviewing toys were now overshadowed by pitches from companies for me to blog, tweet, host, try.  The community creator found a new income source and my inbox found a new spam folder.  At no point during the community sign-up process did the owner of this group disclose that as a member we would receive pitches or that she would be compensated monetarily for these pitches.  Her name began to be whispered in conference hallways, mentioned cautiously in Skype conversations, and in many, many circles over a glass of wine with friends, cursed.  And yet now this new wave of bloggers now had someone to emulate.

The rise of the community for sale seemed to have no boundaries.  If you blogged for a group site, suddenly that site owner might be selling access to her list and your inbox might begin overflowing with “opportunities” and “chances to check out fun new products from our friends at brand x.”  Bloggers began to adopt the language of the same PR and marketing agents they previously mocked, and all without disclosure and transparency.  And all while continuing to not pay those bloggers for their content on their community blogs.  Any Ning group could turn into a marketing network on a dime, any cooperative become a pitch engine.  The worst among them, those who formed “interest groups” with the sole intent of using the growing numbers as a means to money.

Disclosure, Transparency, and Morals – Oh My!

Marketing is not the devil.  My business is social media marketing and I very much enjoy what I do.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am the owner of the Global Influence Network, a network of nearly 1,000 bloggers who signed up to take part in, yes, “opportunities.”  But from the very first moment, this network was announced as a business venture.  The “About” page discloses what we will and will not do for our clients.  Bloggers are told during the sign-up process that they are opting in to receive our pitches and that they always have the choice to opt-out.  Our social component is just that – a place for members of an opt-in marketing network to also get to know and support one another.  Those finding Global Influence through my personal blog can read on my disclosure page the exact words, “I do charge to create Global Influence campaigns.”  The words are not, “Hey, I might be able to hold a fun event, want to join me?” all the while accepting payment from the sponsors of the event.  My penchant for transparency has landed me on CNN’s The Situation Room and CBS news as an example of proper disclosure in blogging.  I take pride in this because I would much rather be over-the-top with my morals than be just on that side of shady.

What Now?

Short of calling the FTC, the IRS, and the WOMMA  to play tattle-tale, I’m not sure what there is to be done.  As bloggers we can tell cautionary tales to new bloggers of “that mom who got caught not declaring a couple thousand dollars” or “the blogger who was sued for a bad review.”  As I said before, many of us know those stories well.  Perhaps we need to spend more time reiterating them at blog conferences and less time in “How to Monetize” sessions?  I hope that this topic arises during the Mindful Monetization panel I will be speaking on at BlogHer.  The best thing I can think to do in the meantime is to throw out a word of caution to bloggers – you choose your own path….choose wisely – to businesses – do not expect results when pitching to bloggers who did not sign up to receive pitches – to the community – rally around what is good and right.  The last thing the blogging community needs is another summer of FTC concerns, or worse, the coming of the IRS to the blogosphere.  If we continue on this evolutionary path, we’ll lose not only our businesses, but our readers as well.  And at what point do we also lose ourselves…

You tell me…where do we go from here?


Comments

  1. 32

    I loved this post. That feeling of selling out is why I shied away from ‘mom blogging’ and went back to my Disney niche. In doing so I took myself out of a lot of potential networks and opportunities for ‘stuff’ but I was able to keep my community and (I think) the respect of my readers. I do not begrudge those that want to have review blogs or sponsored posts, it’s just personally, I can’t blog if it’s not, well, personal.

    Wish I were going to BlogHer, would love to see your session in person!
    Zanna @ Zannaland recently posted..Disney Dooney and Bourke Cindy Sketch Design in NEW Colors and Styles-

  2. 33

    I hate when people are so general about “her” “them” “that community”….it makes people jump to conclusions about who you are talking about and then has everyone second guessing other people for no reason.

    I’m not sure how to take this post to be honest with you. You know I adore you but this post rubs me the wrong way….I’ll have to think about it before I comment and say something worth a damn.

  3. 34

    Loved the post and it brought up a lot of good points. It’s funny that you bring up the issue of monetization as it was something I wrestled with when I started my blog.

    I actually make a point to state why I don’t offer or entertain reviews (http://www.tellingdad.com/product-reviews/) and it’s mainly because the focus of my blog is my affection for writing…my desire to try and make people smile.

    While I do try and raise money for my Sweet Dreams Fund, I wouldn’t consider that monetization in the true sense of the word.

    Any opinions I write are unsolicited and I don’t think I can get past the thought that my words are being bought. Not that this is happening all over…as I make clear on my site…but it’s just not something I’m comfortable with.

    Anyhow, enjoyed the post and I’m sure people will get some good insight at BlogHer from the sounds of it. :)

  4. 35

    I do think it’s important to realize that (I think) this post is a lot more about the honesty than the intent to monetize. Making your blog into a way to support your family, and find a new career is awesome, imo! I never look down on a blogger for monetizing, nor do I think it’s a “sell out” or “cheapening the writing.” I think Amy would agree with me, too (right?)

    But the difference is the disclosure. I became a member of a few “blogging/social media communities,” only to realize that my real value to them was on an email list that they farmed out to sponsors for 1000s of dollars. Now, I expected these groups to monetize, to advertise, to partner with brands, but I really don’t want an email every week plastered with sponsored messages from the “community”

    I have recently started an NC Bloggers to Business network, with the clear purpose to bring opportunities for NC Bloggers to work with NC brands/ Companies. Also, to help bring more attention to the awesome stuff going on here in NC Social Media. It’s a business thing. I’m not pretending that it’s main purpose is social, although I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more NC bloggers.

    Disclosure is key. Having people know what they are signing up for. Another thing: I really have no problem with a community bringing marketing messages. But here are a few possibilities:

    1. Have an opt-in to “receive messages and promotions from our sponsors/partners”

    2. Maybe a separate email with site news, that ppl can subscribe to, then one with branded messages?

    3. Just tell people when they sign up.
    Real Life Sarah recently posted..10 Things I Did at Biltmore Estate- part 1

    • 36

      Yes, Sarah, I agree 100%. My problem is not at all with bloggers monetizing, which is partly why I pointed out my own changes in monetization of my blog. And if I decide to start taking paid posting campaigns or add affiliate links, I will simply change my disclosure statement! My problem is with transparency and disclosure, bloggers who think that illegal practices are okay because it’s “just blogging.” I think Molly said it best when she talked about working within a lawless industry and what can occur. You don’t want to make enough to have to owe taxes? Don’t charge. You don’t want to monetize? Say no thank you. You want to do those things and build your blog as a business? Then walk the straight and narrow for everyone’s sake.

  5. 37

    OK I just realized that I’m the most naive person in the whole world.

    I just started my blog about 2 months ago and only have 3 posts, and the reason I started was because I was reading so many awesome blogs (like this one) and thought “hey maybe I can do this too and talk about me, my family, and what I’m doing”.

    It NEVER occured to me that you could make money off this. I still don’t even know how people do it or where to even begin looking!! I don’t really know the difference between legit blogging and shady blogging, but I hope I don’t fall into the latter. I think the information you’re giving is a bit over my head now, but I will definitely be on the lookout.
    Zelma recently posted..Mini-vacation in paradise!

  6. 38

    I agree with what you have to say to a certain extent. There are some big time blogging groups like Twittermoms, One2One, MomCentral etc. I know they are getting paid for me to do a review on a particular product. I don’t mind that they get paid as long as they are willing to pay it forward and pay the lowly blogger who actually does the review.

    As far as communities go. To each their own. Everyone tries to find their blogging “tribe”. When you do you make friendships and share different ways to make money. Why do we begrudge each other so much when one of us is making money?

    P.S. I luv ya Amy!
    Kas
    Kasandria recently posted..Wordless Wednesday Mission Impossible Cats from Funny or Die

    • 39

      I think it is far less about begrudging people the opportunity to make money and far more about asking for people to remain transparent. I’ve found that some of the people who seem to be doing the best turning blogging into a business are also the most giving in terms of advice and support. And not only do I not begrudge them, but I admire them and the way they care for their blogging community. The issue comes when there’s no disclosure.

  7. 41

    I started blogging 3 years ago before product reviews were even really done. Everything has changed so much since then! I originally split out a separate review site and still maintain both a separate review blog and my personal one. I try to keep my personal blog just that – the only ads I have on there are the BlogHer ones and that’s more to support the BlogHer community than make any money (which I don’t much). I do monetize my review blog but have always tried to be as transparent as possible over there.

    I guess I didn’t even realize that all of this was going on with making money off the communities and lists and such, wow. Thank you for writing this very honest post, Amy – I respect your opinion so much, especially since I know how much you value transparency and honesty in blogging.
    Deb – Mom of 3 Girls recently posted..Wordless Wednesday 152 – Someone’s getting new glasses…

  8. 42

    Amy,

    You make many good points. When I started it was a hobby with hobby hours, just for fun. The difference now would be the hours aren’t just hobby hours (a few here and there) or hobby dollars. I think this is why you hear mom bloggers saying they need to make money. When husbands see hours and hours online just for fun it makes sense why eyebrows would be raised. It also makes sense why moms would want to make money and turn their hobby into a profit. I love camping and if I could be paid to do a hobby and something I enjoy, I’d do it more often!

    Like all things in life, there are shady people and crooks. There have always been shady deals online and offline – which is why we should all use our smarts and think before we sign up or just trust a “community”. I think it is great you’ve been able to stick to just selling ads and the Lifetime Moms advertising but you’ve also been smart enough to realize you had a market and created site warming parties for Twitter – advertising perhaps isn’t as necessary for your blog – you can justify your hours in other ways because you’re making an income in relation to blogging.

    I’m all for monetizing a blog and when I realized I had a business I got smart and created and LLC and got insurance. It isn’t for everyone and because it is my business I dislike the idea of others thinking it is not enjoyable like when it was just a “hobby”. I feel lucky I like it enough that it doesn’t feel like work but like any business there are ethics and if I’m unethical – it will be disclosed because Karma is a bitch and the online world is ruthless! I just hope that every blog isn’t started just as a business with dollar signs in mind and if it is I hope that mom bloggers that do begin on this path love it like I do and if they do – they’ll be genuine, make money in the long run and have a loyal following and community of readers.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post.
    Sommer recently posted..What to Pack for Camping

    • 43

      I love some things in particular about this comment:
      “…because it is my business I dislike the idea of others thinking it is not enjoyable like when it was just a ‘hobby.'”

      YES! I never liked teaching the way I love what I do now. This is probably why it’s so hard to hear people complain about the work involved. If it’s not fun, scale it back, make it a hobby again, do what you need to do.

      I also love what you say about people starting just to make money – I agree that I hope that doesn’t become the motivation for waves of people and that even if that’s what brought them here, that they find something else they love about it. Surely tons of people enter professions solely for the income they can earn, but I can’t imagine that being the best reason to start blogging!

      And please let me know if they ever start paying people to camp. Add in swimming and sign me up :)

  9. 44

    Thanks Amy, I’ll contact your first when I’m paid to camp and swim! Wouldn’t that be fun!
    Sommer recently posted..What to Pack for Camping

  10. 45

    Very insightful as always Amy, and just proves once again why you’re such a great leader amongst bloggers. I started blogging just to have someplace to record our family’s memories. It was a way to have my scrapbook journaling done before I got around to actually creating a layout. It has definitely evolved into something different, unexpected, and at times very scary – i.e. having to worry about doing the “right” thing disclosurewise when there isn’t really a crash course or places to turn to for advice as a newbie. Blogging remains a hobby and something fun to do. Getting any extra perks are nice, like review items, and it’s nice to have places like Global Influence to join for support.
    Katie recently posted..C is for Cookie

  11. 46

    Totally looking forward to hearing what you have to say at BlogHer (and finally meeting IRL!)

    I think this dynamic shift is also part of the reason of the raise of Dad blogs as well!
    DaDa Rocks! recently posted..Its time to street surf with the Whiplash

  12. 47

    Oh, the IRS is coming knocking, trust me. New rules for forms 1099 are just the start. But it’s not just the unreported cash that’s an issue – both in terms of tax and blog integrity. It’s the blogger who drives around for a month in a “borrowed” car with a trunk full of “free” loot for review. Who is being honest about what they really like versus what they’ll say they like for a buck or a free ride has become increasingly difficult to ascertain.

    Terrific post.

  13. 48

    In addition to the Mindful Monetization panel, BlogHer usually provides in the hall o’ sponsors room a financial advisor with whom bloggers can schedule a meeting on how to correctly report personal income and which expenses you can legitimately write off. As a new blogger at my first BlogHer conf who regularly paid for my kids and me to try attractions out in the community, it was awesome to learn that I could write off my own ticket to an event I wrote about…and important to learn that I could not write off my kids’ and DH’s tickets.

    I met with an incredible advisor who gave me a free copy of Quicken software to keep track of financials…that I promptly wrote off as income since it retailed for more than $50.

    Anywho, a lot of this blog monetization stuff is new to me so I try and conduct business like a print freelance writer. I ask myself WWAD? – what would Anna Qunindlen and Amy Tan do? It usually works.

    I also try and stay away from feeling like one of the working saloon girls on Bonanza who’s owned by a Madame and Little Joe has to come in and save. It’s better to just be one of the slightly skanky girls drinking at the bar.
    Jessica McFadden – A Parent in Silver Spring recently posted..Kid-Friendly Activities This August- In The Washington Post

  14. 50

    Why thank you! I owed you a good comment and am trying to be better about leaving them.

    Also, I had a typo: I didn’t “write off” the software as income, I REPORTED it as income. Sorry for that very important mistake – big diff!!!

    xo
    Jessica McFadden – A Parent in Silver Spring recently posted..Kid-Friendly Activities This August- In The Washington Post

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