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.
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.
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…