How to get coverage from ethical bloggers

We’ve been engaging in a lively discussion over at the Ethical Writers Coalition about the issue of “ethical” brands asking for free coverage from “likeminded” bloggers. And we’re over it. Here’s why: 

Dear social entrepreneur (or the PR person representing them),

Thank you for clarifying that despite the fact you love my ethical blog, you do not have any marketing budget, but would like to “collaborate” with me on a post about your brand. Let me explain to you why I am not taking you up on your offer:

1. A collaboration is equal work, equal reward.

I love collaborations, where two enterprising people split the work on a project, each bringing their unique talents, and split the rewards. I did that recently with a brand, where I showed up, their photographer took the pictures, they fed me lunch, the photog edited the pictures, they put together the newsletter, and I put up a post sending traffic to their site, plus put it in my newsletter and shared it with my ethical blogger friends. I will be paid a portion of sales through the affiliate program. That is a collab. Split work, split profit.

This is not what you want. You want me to spend an hour talking to you or your founder. After that, your founder’s work is done. Then I have to transcribe the interview, write the post, edit the post, take and/or edit the pictures for the post, and post it, promote it, put it in my newsletter, too, not to mention all the backend work I do to keep EcoCult humming along. Then you get the all the reward, because the post is sending my readers to your site to buy your stuff.

If you want to call it a collaboration, you need to do a large portion of the work, plus adequately compensate me and other ethical bloggers for my part of the work, either through a fee, or an affiliate program on Skimlinks or ShareaSale.

2. You are not unique.

I’m sorry that someone told you that you don’t need a marketing budget, that it’s all about “earned media.” Just email some ethical bloggers, and they will be so moved by your story about helping artisans, they will gladly write a post about your brand.

Well guess what? Somebody also told all the other 4,533 social enterprise brands the same thing. And they are also emailing me, asking me to come into the city for a cup of coffee so they can tell me about their social enterprise, give me $20 worth of beauty products, and get coverage on EcoCult.

What you are doing is admirable. It’s much better than the brands paying $3 a pop for pants made in Bangladesh, or brands that have parabens and formaldehyde in their formulations. But I’m sorry to say, it no longer makes you unique.

Do you know how many brands now are pitching me [handcrafty thing] made by [underprivileged females] in [impoverished country] who get [benefits]? Or [beauty product] with [extracts] that is free of [chemicals]? That is a baseline for inclusion in my blog. It is no longer newsworthy. Plus, when you say, “But I’m a sustainable brand, so I was hoping you would collaborate with me,” that assumes I’m also working with unsustainable brands who will subsidize you. I don’t. Everyone is sustainable on EcoCult. Everyone gets the same exact treatment. 

I’ve already gotten four other emails just like yours today, and will probably get a couple more before I leave my desk at 8 pm. If I were to say yes to every email, I could spend 63 hours a day writing about social enterprises, and I would never have time to write about the things that I’m passioante about, or the things my readers need to know. My price reflects supply and demand. Very limited supply, high demand. 

It’s true, there are some brands that are doing wonderfully without a marketing budget at all. You know why? Because they are busting their ass to do their own social media, their own blog posts, throw huge parties with an open bar, etc. Plus, their stuff is on point gorgeous. When they email me, I’m like, yes, my readers need to know you exist. To break through, they are fucking gorgeous, useful, and above all, unique. I would say 1 out of every 100 emails I get crosses that barrier.

3. I am my own advertising department.

But, you protest, journalists from big magazines don’t accept payment for coverage! That would be unethical!

Ah, but there’s a huge difference between journalists and bloggers. No, it’s not education level, or ethics, or taste. It’s the structure of the medium.

Journalists work for media companies who have whole departments dedicated to advertising. Marie Claire writers have the luxury of pretending that their salary doesn’t come from the brands they cover, because of a supposed firewall between the two departments. L’Oreal knows this. They know that editorial assistants have the leeway and time to do a roundup of the best mascaras because L’Oreal’s two-page September advertising spread made those writers’ September paycheck possible. So when you win a mention in Marie Claire (“earned media”) you are essentially being subsidized by companies like L’Oreal. They are paying for the editor who wrote about your heartwarming entrepreneurial story.

But bloggers, we are our own writer, editor, copy editor, art director, publisher, and yes, advertising department.

So if you want me to write about your amazing leather satchel made in Africa, I need to be paid enough so I can afford to do that. You could pay for a sponsored posts about the 10 cutest leather satchels, and I will include yours and send you a bunch of organic traffic of people looking for leather satchels. Or you could pay for a sponsored post about your leather satchel company and I will write a beautiful story about it. You could pay for a sidebar banner ad so that I will include your satchel in relevant fashion roundups. I’m not a money grubber. You do this once, and my good will toward you will extend for a year or more, and I’ll keep tossing your stuff in other relevant posts.

But either way, if you want successful ethical bloggers to choose to write about you, you need to make it worth their while.

4. To make money (for artisans) you have to spend money.

But, you protest, your brand is a social good brand! When you pay a blogger $300 for a sponsored post, you’re taking $300 out of the pockets of the women in Africa you pay to make beaded bracelets.

Let’s unpack that way of thinking. First, when you approached the company that makes your glass bottles, did they generously gift you them because you’re a social enterprise? How about the United States Postal Service? Are they delivering your consciously made goods for free? Did the Javitz Center comp your tradeshow table? Does Delta fly you back and forth to Guatemala in return for an Instagram post? Does your website hosting service, landlord, and mobile provider provide their service in exchange for some embroidered clutches? Are you, PR person, providing your PR services for free to the brand? No? Hmmm, then why are you asking ethical bloggers to? When you sketch out your business’s expenses, you should include marketing in there.

When I spend five hours traveling to meet you, talking with you, traveling home, photographing said product, then editing a post about you, and all I get in return is a product whose retail price is $50, that means I “earned” $10 an hour. Yes, many fashion bloggers earn a lot from turning around and selling $400 brand-name purses on eBay. But I can’t do that with your product, because it’s not brand name, and it’s not $400. So really, if I can resell it, I probably will end up at $3 an hour. That doesn’t strike me as ethical.

Second, not even 501(c)3 registered charities have this mindset. They have marketing budgets. You could say that Make-a-Wish shouldn’t be taking out $10,000 magazine spreads, when that money could be used to send five little girls to Disney World. But they do, because Make-a-Wish understands that you have to spend money to raise money.

5. I’m an entrepreneur, too.

When you ask me to write about you for free, you’re essentially holding two opposing ideas in your head about me:

  1. A mention on my blog is worthless.
  2. A mention on my blog will drive sales of your product.

Which is it? Is EcoCult worthless, or amazing? Do you “just love” my blog, like you said in your pitch, or do you think it’s a silly sideproject?

The message you are sending when you email “like minded” bloggers like me and ask for us to “support the cause” is that while conventional bloggers are badass female entrepreneurs who get that money, ethical bloggers are just dabblers. Let me throw that back at you: Regular designers are badass female entrepreneurs. You, since you use artisans or organic oils, are a dabbler. How does that feel when I tell you that? Yes, there are ethical bloggers who are just starting out and can’t drive clicks. But I have 50,000 uniques a month.

You know when you do this, you are essentially asking ethical bloggers to be your unpaid PR intern, right? But I’m way past the intern phrase. I am 29 years old. I have an expensive degree in journalism and business and experience as an assistant editor on an editorial team. I am a boss bitch of this blog. I have bylines all over the internet, and I get paid $150 at the very least for those bylines – and that’s if it’s a super simple story that takes me 45 minutes to write about a subject I’m passionate about. So when you email me and in so many words tell me that my posts are worthless, well, I just have to laugh. Because it shows me that you don’t know anything about me.

6. Free shit isn’t free.

I joke about “free shit” with my friends, but it’s only free if you don’t take into account the $4,000 I paid for two rounds of blog designs, the $3,000 I’ve paid for camera equipment, $2,000 for my laptop, $25 a month in photo editing software, hundreds on tech support, yearly hosting, and the three years of sweat and tears I’ve spent meticulously building this blog. I just bought a $700 lens to improve my photos, photos I would take of your product so it would get more likes and shares and sales. Because I know I have to spend money to make money.

And let’s say I agree to product for post. It’s going to take me at least three hours to set up a photoshoot, take photos, edit the photos, research your company, and write the post.

So a post for product is really only worth it if I wanted/needed the thing you want to give me (organic sheets, eco-friendly sunglasses, meal kit delivery service), and it’s on the pricey side. If you really can only send me a sample of your product, I might consider doing an Instagram post about it. (But not if it’s retail price is $40. I charge $100 for Instagram posts.)

7. You get what you pay for.

You really can run your business however you want. You can take iPhone photos of your best friend wearing your products and put those up on SquareSpace. You can ask your niece to design your logo and print it out on sticky labels from Staples. You situate yourself at a cafe in TriBeCa and invite bloggers to take two hours out of their day to travel to you and listen to your pitch in exchange for a $3 cup of coffee. You can email me and ask me to feature your brand, but not offer any incentive, payment, or gift.

You might sell some product, but you won’t sell a lot.

In practical terms, a free mention is so very different than a paid one. If you cannot incentivize me at all with cocktails and a bangin’ gift bag at a party, a high end product, a sponsored post, or a combination of the above, I might, at some point, write one sentence about who you are and put one picture of your product in a long post with 25 other brands  – if I think my readers would really, really love it. There will be a space of four months in between you emailing me and this passing mention. (Go ahead and pester me. I will email you back and suggest you pay me if you want it to go live on your desired schedule.) When it goes live, some people will visit your website and a few might buy your product. And then it will be over and you’ll have to go back to sending out emails to bloggers who will ignore you.

Let’s be clear: Incentives will not convince me to cover an unsustainable, unethical brand. If that were the case, I would be making three times as much as I am. Free shit won’t convince me to gloss over the drawbacks of a brand in a review. However, incentives will convince me to write an entire post about you, instead of a one-sentence mention, and it will move you to the top of my list.

8. My sponsored posts work.

Some ethical brands email me and tell me they have a budget, and would like to do something with me. Well, they get the royal treatment. I work with them to come up with a killer idea. I take gorgeous photos of the free product they send me. I fill my post with links, and keywords, and write beautiful prose on how amazing they are. I send copy for them to approve, then publish it within a few days, and promote it across all my social media channels.

I did this for a boutique in January, and guess what? I’ve send them more than 2,200 visitors since then and each month the number grows bigger. It cost them $200. That entrepreneur got a lot of value for her money. (My price has since gone up, by the way.) And I’m still throwing her in relevant roundups, because I appreciate that she wants to work with me, instead of taking advantage of me. We’re now planning our next campaign for fall.

9. I am not responsible for your lack of budget

If after all of this, you still have decided that it’s not worth paying for coverage from ethical bloggers, or you just don’t have the budget, that’s fine. Being an entrepreneur is hard. But it’s still a choice you’ve made. A choice to not continue seeking out investors, to not save up more money before you quit your job, to set your Kickstarter goal too low, to allocate money toward something else instead of marketing, whatever. I had no part in that decision, so please don’t make me feel guilty about it.

And I know it’s not impossible to have a marketing budget, because there are plenty of other brands who are willing to pay me. I think it would be unfair to them to give away the goods for free to brands who have the audacity to ask for freebies, when these companies been valuing my work from the first interaction, and treating me with respect.

10. The gravy train is over.

Going to try your “no budget” idea on other ethical bloggers? I wouldn’t if I were you. We all talk. And we have all coalesced around the idea that we are not letting brands take advantage of us anymore. If you do find a blogger that is willing to write about you for free, then they are probably just starting out and don’t have much of a following, or confidence in their ability to drive sales. Sure, it will be fun practice for you both. But you’re not being clever by switching from me to her. It’s like balking at the price of a lease on a SoHo space, and deciding to open your store in Astoria, instead. There’s nothing wrong with Astoria, of course, they’ve got some great food out there. But you won’t get the same traffic, or even the same type of customers.