Bloggers as Moochers: Reality Check Time

I've been thinking and blogging quite a bit about blogger relations lately (including featuring some excellent cases of good blogger relations in book marketing). In fact, I even revived my PR blog for a brief time to tackle the issue. In that post, Heather Yaxley of GreenBanana left a comment sharing an email she received announcing the launch of Serendipstick.com, a self-proclaimed "network for bloggers who would like to be given items to review in advance."

Wow. As if we don't have enough issues in the blogosphere already, now bloggers aren't just allowing themselves to be "bought," but they've blatantly got the "gimmies." Yuck.

Now I know we have a good selection of folks here who are both regular blog readers and bloggers themselves, so I'd like your thoughts on this.

1. Should bloggers really feel "entitled" to the same perks as traditional media outlets?

2. Do you have any problem, as a blogger, with the idea of joining a network for the sole purpose of getting free stuff / review copies? Is there a better way to go about it?

3. As a blog reader, would seeing your favorite bloggers actively mooching in this way affect what you think of them in any way (or perhaps how you look at their future reviews)?

Here are some of my own thoughts on those issues:

1. In most cases, absolutely not.

Remember, there's a reason tradional media outlets and journalists are approached with things like review copies. In fact, there are several reasons. They offer a large audience with an interest in what the company's offering, and they've generally been around long enough to build trust with that audience.

Can your blog offer that? More than likely, no. Certainly some blogs are exceptions, but those are also the bloggers companies do approach with review copies already. If you want people to respect you and your opinion on your blog, build it up. Promote it. Build an engaged community of readers. Frankly, as a blogger, that's your "job." When you do your job, and do it well, you'll see the perks.

2. Personally, I find it disgusting that any blogger would publicly exercise a "give me stuff" approach to blogging.

Again, there are exceptions. For example, if you write a blog exclusively or primarily focused on book reviews, naturally you'd include your address and submission details somewhere on your blog. But you shouldn't expect to get submissions until you've done what I already mentioned - build the audience and build the trust.

Until you get to that point, it's your responsibility to secure review material - and yes, that often means paying for it in the early phases. The fact that you can instantly publish something doesn't entitle you to anything. Anyone can publish a blog these days. You're probably not as "special" as you think. There's definitely a better way to go about it, and that's something I've already talked about here.

3. From the reader perspective I find the concept of Serendipstick even worse.

If I, for a moment, got the vibe that a blogger I read was "in it for the perks" enough to be blatantly asking for access to free stuff, their credibility would be shot with me. I'd know they were reviewing what they could get for free rather than reviewing what might be beneficial to their readers (including myself). I don't have enough time in the day to read bloggers with that kind of motivation.

That said, I have absolutely no problem with bloggers actually receiving review copies if it's for a legitimate reason. What do I mean?

Let' pick on Heather since it was her comment bringing light to the new site.

Heather blogs about PR and related issues. Heather blogged critically about a certain blogger relations event in the past. Now, if that company were to make changes in their next event, and invite Heather along with the open desire to have her review the event itself as it applies to larger blogger relations issues, that would be effective targeting and relevant to her audience given the past targeting snafus and conversation in her space. As a reader of her blog, I would have absolutely no problem knowing she was invited to a free-access event.

On the other hand, if Heather were to sign up for Serendipstick saying that she wants access to these kinds of events, it would be a different story entirely. Why? Because if you're flat-out asking for it, the company giving it to you is satisfying your desire. They're giving you what you want (and asked for), and with that comes a certain implication that you're not going to say anything "bad" about them - at least not much.

In contrast, if you're putting your focus on your readers and building your blog, and someone happens to approach you, you're the attractive party with something to offer and not vice versa. By maintaining that position, you have a better chance of maintaining credibility in what you ultimately publish.

Look, there are certainly perks to blogging, especially after you're established. But if those perks are the real reason you're in it, do your readers a favor and just quit. Blogging entitles people to absolutely nothing. Sure, you may feel otherwise, thinking "I don't get paid for this, so I may as well get something." But if you really insist on getting something out of your blogging, understand you'll work your ass off to get to that point. Asking for hand-outs in this way is just sad. If you're not getting enough from your blogging to justify the time you're spending, find another way to spend your time.

If you'd like to read more on the issue of whether or not bloggers should be treated as journalists, I have a post at NakedPR detailing a chat with ProBlogger Darren Rowse on the subject: Bloggers vs Journalists.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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13 thoughts on “Bloggers as Moochers: Reality Check Time”

  1. Oh, this is a great topic, and one filled with so many shades of gray. Let me try my hand at these questions:

    1. I think it depends. If your blog has a readership to which you’re providing a niche service, I don’t see why you wouldn’t deserve some of the same perks as the msm. The question is: What level of readership denotes true legitimacy?

    I write for a blog housed within a fairly popular web magazine, and also have my own blog, which is way smaller, but which markets itself as a service blog, and definitely has a regular audience. I receive unsolicited press releases for both. I accept samples only for those products that I feel would make for a good test drive post, or for which a review would prove helpful to readers. Sometimes, I also request samples, if the products fall under what I’ve described in the preceding sentence. Some samples must be returned. Some I end up keeping around. Some I raffle off on the blog after review. Whatever happens, though, I’m as likely to give a bad review as I am a good review.

    2. Despite not having a problem with receiving samples and review copies for the purpose of my writing, I do have a problem with joining a network for that purpose. It seems to signify shady intentions, and breed biased reviewing. Then again, if publicity reps are able to search by industry/niche, it could be helpful in bringing writers and pr together. ::sigh:: Personally, I believe the best PR people will seek you out themselves, and the best writers will pinpoint the best products for their blog without the help of such a network.

    3. I stop trusting the blogger who has received samples and review copies when the posts start reading like shameless press releases. A post that truly outlines the pros and cons of an item it is reviewing is helpful to the reader, no matter how the sample was obtained.

    Reply
  2. Review networks are very common when you’re talking about “Mom bloggers” and I can think of 5 of them right off the top of my head. And some bloggers will do so many that they end up setting up an entirely different page or even a domain for them because there are just so many that it can easily dominate your blog if you’re not selective. And believe me, there are plenty who aren’t.

    I used to do reviews a lot on my personal blog but now I’m more selective and I rarely do them. And as far as my business blog, I’ve only done maybe 2 or 3 and I definitely don’t belong to any networks asking for stuff to review on those blogs. The few that I have are from people who have approached me, not the other way around.

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  3. One of my blogs is devoted to reviews of knitting books (a very specific niche!), and the fact that some publishers have graciously sent me review copies is something I very much appreciate–but that’s not why I started the site in the first place. I have a 20-year old knitting book collection and figured most of my reviews would be of THOSE books and what new ones I could afford to buy or to check out from the library. I’m grateful (and am not complaining about the increase to my knitting library), but the thought of pimping my blog just to get freebies? Ick!

    And, yes, if I found a blog that clearly leaned in the “send me freebies” direction, it would definitely color my opinion.

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  4. This is a great topic. I read dooce.com for years and stopped once she started posting so many postings about items she had purchased for acquired. If anything the blog became too much about material stuff and less about her life.

    I have received some “freebies” because of my blog and past podcasting, but it was never expected. My blog is very niche (knitting) and if I received a free pair of shoes I doubt very much i would blog about it. Getting something free doesn’t obligate you to blog about it (unless it said so or implied so in which case I would send it back). I think it’s nice when the person lets the readers know they got it free. I don’t object to it overall but too much of it and I get annoyed as a reader, and I think it would take a lot of work to “fake” it just as lies take a lot of work to keep up with, and often come back to bite you in the ass.

    So as another commenter said, overall I think readers can tell if that is what is happening and it will have a negative effect on the blog, but occasionally it doesn’t bother me.

    If it’s a blogger I’ve read for a while often I do have often come to understand their perspective, and have actually personally found some wonderful items via other bloggers. Hard to say if they got those items free or not. I read a twin mommy blog once and learned about munchkin snack pack thingies which I ADORE and have used so much sense I purchased off her review/recommendation.

    I think most of the time if people get freebies that suck, they just don’t ever mention them.

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  5. Thanks for picking up on my comment on this topic. It is interesting to see that much the same debate is happening in the UK motoring PR world at present regarding mainstream media. As you can imagine, budgets are tight and the number of cars available to loan to media for review has been slashed – as have the number of places on product launches.

    So a lot of journalists are being asked questions about their outlets and copy that they produce (which of course online can be checked much more easily). Some have even been declined a loan or not received an invitation because they aren’t high enough priority when the resources are tight.

    Sad to say that the response from quite a few is a sense of outrage as if they are entitled to these things. The cause of this believe is decades of fulfilling every whim (even cars for holiday loans or weekends away with partners).

    Do we really want to turn bloggers – and ourselves as bloggers – into self-important people who forget what they were in it for originally and are totally bereaved when the perks disappear?

    I agree entirely that if it is appropriate and relevant, reviews are a good addition to a blog post (with transparency over the deal).

    But never forget, this is a reciprocal arrangement – and if you aren’t delivering don’t whine when the “freebies” dry up.

    Reply
  6. 1. Maybe not “entitled”, but I don’t think it’s a big deal if a blogger asks a publisher for a review copy of a book, or a DVD, or something to review. Of course, this is as long as the review is a fair one.

    2. That said, I don’t think a network is necessary. I think doing your own homework to find relevant material is where bloggers (and journalists) should go. If bloggers are approached, even, they should still look into any party that wants to give the blogger free things, and make clear the expectations.
    3. You’re right. Bloggers shouldn’t be blogging for the perks. They should be blogging because they have something to say. If I know the blogger is part of a network, that blogger will lose credibility in my eyes.

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  7. When I was a staff writer for a publication, I used to get stuff in the mail all the time. But our corporate policy would not allow us to keep anything that cost over about five or ten bucks, so usually that swag would get tossed into the “give to charity” basket. Did it ever affect what I wrote? I honestly can say no. As a blogger, I haven’t tried to acquire stuff to review, but even if I did, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t let that color my written opinion. As a writer, it’s pretty easy for me to tell who’s writing for the swag, and I just stop reading.

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  8. I can’t say as I agree at all. I myself started writing for Awmusic.ca for the purpose of getting free mp3s. I’ve only done two reviews thus far. But, they’ve been really fun to do. For instance, I did a review of the Canadian band The Deep Woods. I listened to all their songs, studied some of the lyrics and the music, and even phoned them for a review. This week I’m working on a story about another band and have also arranged an interview with them. Hey, I get free MP3s, and get to talk to artists!

    What I hate are people who are always snubbing their noses at others. There’s a lady who recently wrote an article disparaging folks who work for $1 per story. Later, she came down on rewriters. But we all have one thing in common: we like to write, and we have to make a living and do things that make our lives more fulfilling. Who is anyone to disparage others for pursuing their own way? If Tiger Woods can make millions off of sweat shops filled with child workers and be a hero, then how can people come down on folks who write for freebies? In the end, after all, they’re just copywriters for free stuff.

    Reply
  9. Steven – First of all, writing reviews of free stuff (or otherwise) does not make someone a “copywriter.”

    Second, you obviously missed the point here. We’re not talking about people who choose to write for someone else for little or no pay. We’re talking about people who write for their own blogs, who build their own audiences, who build trust with those audiences, and then who proceed to mooch free stuff pretending they’re legitimate and unbiased reviews, rather than having enough dedication to invest even a little bit into their own blogs – the people who join networks solely because they think being a blogger entitles them to swag.

    Third, I’d love to know who that writer is you’re talking about. They’re spot on. If you want to write for free or crap rates, more power to you. But serious writers give serious advice about how to make a real career out of it – they’re not going to put on the kid gloves for the writers who don’t have enough business sense to cut it. If you were serious about making a living at it, you wouldn’t be writing for free .mp3s. You’d be writing for the money that, oh I don’t know, actually contributes to earning a living. Most people giving advice about freelance writing are giving that advice to actual freelance writers looking to earn that living, and like it or not many really do need a reality check – even if it stings. What you’re talking about is hobby writing, which is fine and good for what it is, but don’t confuse the two.

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  10. “If you were serious about making a living at it, you wouldn’t be writing for free .mp3s”

    You know, since I opened my office almost 5 months ago now, I’ve gotten only a few simple paid gigs (for illustrations), both of which were through family. The fact is that in a lot of ways it’s about who you know. If I was a good tech writer on the level of my brother-in-law, I’d have work through him as well – but he’s so far above my head it’s pointless. If he was a creative writer with some books published, it’s not too unlikely that I’d be able to use his connections to follow through with those kinds of paid gigs.

    Now, back to my point – a copywriter is simply someone who writes promotional materials for pay. In the case of this article posted above, it’s about people who have established some kind of audience online, and want to do reviews of products or services wherein the ‘pay’ is simply the product or service.

    I really don’t care about kid gloves. I’m not in it to fight. Rather than turning noses up at other people, it would be wiser simply to show respect for everyone.

    In any case, the reason I chose to ‘write for free’ was to establish credits beyond what my degree in English literature and professional writing has done – which is nothing at all. By participating in creating material for this guy’s website, I’m learning to approach artists, how to draft questions to ask them, and establishing a style. I’m doing something, which is better than nothing at all. Someone who wasn’t serious would be more likely to give up without much of a fight. I am in this for at least the next twelve months.

    In any case, this article, much like the other I loosely referred to, is not giving advice – you’re just snubbing your nose at the work and motivation of other people who don’t fit into your cliche. Is it really necessary to do so? Did it make you feel better to berate other people? Do you get paid to do so, or is it just a hobby?

    Reply
  11. I daresay you’re sounding a bit hypocritical there Steven – commenting primarily for the reason of criticizing others because you don’t like that they themselves have something critical to say.

    But to address your questions / points:

    1. Yes, it is in large part “who you know.” And as a freelance writer it’s also your job and responsibility to grow that network, filling it with influential people in the niche or industry you want to work in – not just relying on family and friends. Even top writers continually work to build and grow those networks. So in that sense, put more focus on that area, and you’ll likely find your business growing much quicker.

    2. Content writers write to educate, inform, or entertain (such as reviews). Copywriters write to persuade (even when not overtly). Reviews aren’t the same thing as promotional content unless they’re written by someone like an author’s publicist as a “false” review strictly to include in a press kit or on a website for promotional purposes / hype. In the case this post addresses, we’re talking about bloggers, who in the vast majority of cases are actually content writers. And no, you don’t have to be paid for it to be copywriting (most copywriters I know also write their own for obvious reasons).

    3. You’re confusing being nice and showing respect. I do not show respect to new writers by sugar-coating and putting a little happy face on everything. It’s far more respectful to be honest with them, whether or not they like what I say or how I say it (and I’ve had more than a few in similar positions to you over the years who disagreed with me up front who later came back to thank me for the wake up call when it finally sunk in – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong). But it’s still irrelevant to this post, where the only respect issue is between bloggers and their readers / followers, and how begging for or demanding free stuff from company PR reps doesn’t show respect to the reader in most cases – where the swag becomes more important than saying anything worthwhile. You twisted the intention of the post to free stuff as a substitute for paid blogging, and you’re making arguments that make no sense to the original points at all.

    4. As for writing for free, you also missed something. While you were quick to jump on me or any blogger that calls out low-paying gigs for the garbage they are, it appears you haven’t bothered to look at exactly how much I and other bloggers in this niche have done to help writers in those situations move beyond them. We’ve repeatedly shown that it’s possible to build quality portfolios without taking those kinds of gigs. The information is out there. Again, many writers have thanked us for it. We’re not going to cater our blogs further to the writers who have it at their fingertips (something most of us starting years ago did not have) and do nothing with it. No one can help those who won’t first help themselves. If you like writing for free, go for it. That’s great for you. But don’t complain later when you’re not earning what you’d like to be or when it’s taking too long to get a career off the ground, and don’t complain about the people actually giving you that information on how to build a portfolio, network, market yourself, and build an image that attracts paying clients.

    5. Not every article is meant to “give advice.” This is a blog. By their very nature, blogs are personality-driven – not strictly informational. People share their opinions and experiences as much as they give advice. If you don’t like that, then there are plenty of other sites out there to frequent that do focus on advice alone. That’s the beauty of the Web – if you don’t like one thing, you can pick up and find someone more to your liking fairly easily.

    Does it make me feel good to berate people? That depends on the person I suppose. I don’t have much respect for the types of bloggers this post addressed – ones who put free stuff above all else. And yes, I do consider it necessary for people to speak their minds freely. I always have. I make a “pretty penny” doing it nowadays, but it’s no different than when I started out earning very little. The difference between a blog of your own and writing for someone else for free? The blog is a networking and marketing tool, and never something I mistook for a “gig” or substituted for billable hours when they weren’t contributing to the business. If you really want to write for free doing music reviews, don’t do it for someone else – try starting your own site or blog. It’s one of the few exceptions I noted in the article (which I assume you also missed somehow), where the free stuff isn’t a perk – it’s a necessary part of the job. You’ll also build a better name for yourself, and more visibility. On top of it, blogs are outstanding portfolio pieces, respected by most clients hiring for Web writing. Give it a try, and I doubt you’ll regret it.

    I certainly don’t expect that you and I are going to suddenly start agreeing (when we weren’t really talking about the same things to begin with). But at a bare minimum, I do want to thank you for the lively discussion. You obviously have a strong personality of your own, and I hope to see you turn that into a blog to share your own thoughts. If you do, I also hope you’ll stop by and share the link with us (coming from a music PR background, and running an music webzine / blog of my own, I’d especially be interested to see anything you might put out in that niche). In the meantime, understand that people can disagree with what you say strongly, without actually disliking you or thinking less of you. It’s only as personal as you choose to make it. 😉

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  12. I think Serendipistick isn’t a bad idea. People who are new or struggling to get known, or perhaps who are trying to develop a portfolio, get stuff that they review. This would likely never apply to me since I’m not in an English speaking country and surely they would balk at the exorbitant shipping fees, not to mention the long wait should they choose to ship by post.

    So, theoretically, I’m someone who likes to read books. I’m capable of writing reviews on them. Then, it becomes possible for me to get those books for free provided I write a review. Does it need to be dishonest to the point where I say only good things and excluding the negative? That shouldn’t be necessary. I remember a novel I read when I was a teenager about a martial artist who took a gig on an infomercial on a kitchen item. Someone in the audience said to his master something to the effect that he was a terrible actor to which the master replied that he made the cutting device look easy, and that it was garbage. Or, in real life, there’s the fact that most movies are garbage. So, to ask the question, why is Harrison Ford in another crappy movie that’s a copycat of an endless stream of lousy Hollywood movies and virtually identical to everything he’s done excepting Indiana Jones and Star Wars? Surely he could get better gigs. The answer is simple: it’s his job. That’s how he makes money. Another way to put it, a garbage man probably doesn’t really like garbage, but that’s how he makes a living. What’s my point to all this? So what if someone writes biased reviews in order to receive products? Surely magazines have been doing the same thing for ages – whether it’s a camera magazine or a computer magazine – people are getting gifts from manufacturers, getting paid to write the articles, and often keep the goods that they received. How is this fundamentally different from a blogger following the same trail? Even doing it for free: think of Emily Dickinson – is she less of a great writer because she never ventured outside of her room to get paid for her work, which was immortalized thanks only to the people who marveled over her work. Surely these writers are not her equal, but it still makes my point that profit is not the only gauge of quality, and profit not the most important motive. Yet, I try to respect those whose primary concern is profit.

    You might wonder why I’ve chosen to respond strongly to this critique of others. Well, the truth is that I hear this kind of thing from everyone about everyone else. A few years ago, a good journalist wouldn’t be caught dead writing for web. Bloggers were the topic of derisive commentary. Heck, for the most part, even if the writer had better academic credentials than the professor I was writing for, I still couldn’t use them as a reference simply for the fact that the prof had a prejudice against web writing and a penchant for those academic rags which are little more than small meanings wrapped with thick layers of megasyllabic vocabulary. And then, to discover that the one that they worshiped the most was a hack of his own: William Shakespeare, for whom they are constantly ooing and awing over, was himself a hack and knew it well enough that, if it weren’t for Bacon or whomsoever transcribed the dialogue of the plays, would have been lost with the closing of a show. It didn’t hurt that playwrights were ill thought of in his day.

    No matter what level of writing you go to, there are always going to be snobs. Even I have that grain inside of me, which I constantly strive to put down because the reality is that I’m in no way superior to those who work for free, for small pay, or for those who are making seven or eight figures per year. Nor are the people who make those seven or eight figures per year ultimately better than those who are making a few dollars a day.

    “If you really want to write for free doing music reviews, don’t do it for someone else – try starting your own site or blog.”
    It’s unlikely I’ll be doing that. For the amount of ‘free time’ it would require to put up a blog, and then to build traffic – it’s simply too much. Between the full time job coming up at the end of the month (I wasn’t able to make a go of freelancing in the two months I pushed for it – so it’s back to teaching English), supervising my office (a telecommuting art director – that will be an experience), at best I’ll only be able to pursue part time freelancing. I will, however, start a blog about my third contract teaching English in Korea. I only need to contribute an article every two weeks to the music blog, and I don’t have to deal with finding new albums to review – though I’ve heard that Zero 7, a favorite of mine, is coming out with their fourth album, and it would be really cool to be the one to do their review.

    In any case, I’ll let you know when my review of The Deep Dark Woods comes up on awmusic.ca.

    Reply

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