Whether you are a blogger, freelance writer or full-time journalist, it is likely that you will have stumbled across that hotly-shared WWD piece by now. "There's been some backlash from designers and brands as they question having to pay bloggers from $5,000 up to $50,000 to work with them," writes the paper's Rachel Strugatz in her article earlier this month. "Skeptics question whether paying bloggers results in significant return on investment, especially in comparison to a magazine or television ad. Besides, some brands contend, if bloggers are journalists, journalists aren't paid for writing about a company."
Indeed, it's an interesting question from a very American perspective, or at least a perspective that's emerged from capitals, like New York, where fashion has money and, generally, more people have more money to spend on fashion, both as consumers and producers. Essentially, it highlights how content producers are continually grappling to prove their worth, both in influence and investment, within the ever-evolving blogging industry. Along with having to justify their reasons for refusing to work with (or "promote") brands pro bono, bloggers are starting to face questions from readers surrounding what the earning of money will do to further blur the line between the real and the fake.
A good place to start the discussion on blogger compensation (and the future of such possible income streams and systems) is to address why people produce these websites in the first place. If you think about blogging as a business, you'd notice the industry's top names - whether in America or in the Philippines - all started out as hobbyists; they were just style-interested private citizens with their own websites. However, blogging became mainstream, ironically propagated and chronicled in the very magazines they threatened. And, when something becomes mainstream, the first instinct is to turn it into a commodity.
In Canada, it is commonly thought that fashion bloggers are having the compensation debate with brands on quiet, polite terms - that is, if they are having such conversations at all. In gathering research and reaching out for interviews with Canadian bloggers, potential subjects cited fear of being blacklisted for saying the wrong thing to a potential collaborator or new contact, fearing the loss of a professional relationship (a "resource," really) would ultimately affect the quality of their content. In Canada - and perhaps amongst the smaller, less global names - the mindset amongst bloggers seems to be: don't rock the boat. But then there are others who plainly claimed they didn't want to get paid and saw no real rush to move past the hobbyist mentality.
Spiro Georges Mandylor, the voice behind the Toronto-based menswear blog, It's All Style To Me, started his online portal almost two years ago after a career change, in an attempt to bridge a gap in a sparse market. For him, the definition of a blogger takes cues from that of the traditional journalist, but doesn't mimic it. "Writers are hired, and they're getting paid; it's [their] job to get out there, and they're making money from selling content," he says. "For a blogger, it's part journalist, part business person, part marketing and public relations, part rock-star and persona."
|Spiro Mandylor of It's All Style To Me.
Photograph by Adrian Fiebig.
But, really, the struggle represents the simplest of pyramid schemes, where the money funnels down, just like influence, from top to bottom, and you can't understand how anyone's losing out until it's too late. I wonder - or is it worry? - about the blogging industry, which is really just a cluster of hopefuls trying to "make it," with numbers on par with those other industries of singers and actors, or photographers and writers.
However, boundaries must be set when amateurs become professionals - kind of like intern to editor - unpaid to being barely paid. Blogs aren't get rich quick schemes. I don't think they ever were. But certain names quickly rose to prominence because of their dedication fueled by unbridled and authentic passion, and each fashion niche slowly found itself served in succession. So why are people starting blogs?
Mandylor is probably one of the sharpest voices within the Canadian fashion industry in favour of proper compensation from brands that explicitly want him to write about their products. His blog functions as his most prominent full-time job even though it doesn't completely support him financially. For him, the problem is simple: "Fashion design houses pay PR companies to promote their brand, and the money stops there. When a blogger attends an event, we're paying to go: our travel isn't covered, our parking isn't paid." It becomes an expensive hobby.
I sympathise with him. As an editor, I have travelled to events under the guise of "my job," and if I needed transportation, I sometimes had access to company-sponsored cab fare or transit passes. But then I wonder if it's a blogger's fault, or if they only have themselves to answer to, when they have ambitions of keeping up with an established, traditional industry. I can understand if a blogger feels like a permanent intern - another topic that has seen recent spikes in controversy - over their unpaid nature.
"In some way, there has to be a reimbursement. If [a brand or PR agency is] relying on bloggers, and they're trying to get people to influence their readers or friends and it's an extension of [a PR agency's work to get the word out], why shouldn't we get paid?" Mandylor understands that budgets are tight for up-and-coming designers, and I understand a little more that Canadian budgets, even from international brands, are small slices of bigger, global fiscal pies. "But if you're a big box retailer and your PR company is coming to me, and you can only buy the product at that retail outlet, and they want you to publish products with no compensation - no way. Collectively, we're doing all the work." In other words, he thinks it is just good business for brands to be fair.
The talk revolving around bloggers puts their compensation at odds with their supposed objectivity, where one is demanded in favour of the other by comparing bloggers to their closest ancestors: journalists. But those labels - and their definitions - actually say very little about what it means to actually be a blogger or a journalist. It's one part personal, one part perception. Technically - and it's a huge technicality - editors and writers don't get paid to write about products, but they do get paid by companies that earn those salaries through the advertising that surrounds an editor's content, or other auxiliary programs like partnerships or digital strategies.
When I worked as an editor of a lifestyle magazine, those advertisers directly, though implicitly, dictated what products we would feature. It's a fine line - sometimes written into a contract (say, two garments from a fall collection must appear in editorials) or sometimes abused by the publishers themselves who apply pressure because they understand the delicate symbiosis of the ad/edit relationship. (Advertisers don't threaten to pull "just because.")
Basically: you can't quantify or qualify objectivity, and the most objective relationships between advertisers and publishers still means content is subject to an editor's personal tastes, preferences and relationships. I've never participated in a direct exchange of money for promise of press, but my personal enjoyment of a certain brand or product influenced my choice to feature it when appropriate. Nevertheless, it's not like these issues have never come up. In 2010, the Editor-at-Large for style.com, Derek Blasberg, was accused of charging Yves Saint Laurent US$2,500 for his online coverage of its party. He says he was merely consulted on which people to add to the guest list.
|Tara Ng and Sharon Ng Hayes
of The Backseat Stylers.
Photograph courtesy of Emma McIntyre.
Sharon Ng Hayes has been blogging at The Backseat Stylers since May 2009. She started the site with her sister, Tara Ng, after catching a DSquared2 fashion show during the Toronto International Film Festival. A chartered accountant by day with a young child, Ng Hayes and her sister, a student, have taken their once-pet project from simple hobby to rising-star status within Canada's blogging community. "While our original intention was to capture and showcase Toronto street style, the blog has now become something else entirely for us: a mood board, a diary, a wish list - essentially, a place to document and share our fashion adventures."
While the two see a modest revenue stream from their efforts, blogging still remains a relatively part-time endeavour for The Backseat Stylers. Their mindset is almost the antithesis to Mandylor's. "We're still blogging because the adventures haven't stopped. The industry is still very much shiny and new to us." They're more focused on the desire to revel in the experience of it all, rather than command grandiose commissions from a blog they keep because they love it.
That isn't to say the compensation question doesn't arise from time to time for the pair. "Blogger compensation is such a personal question and the answer is really situational: the blogger and their purpose for blogging, the product in question, the brand and their expectations. In my mind, all of that factors into whether compensation is or isn't appropriate." The ladies currently work with an advertising network for their banner ads and also offer the opportunity for sponsored posts. "It's important to us that [the sponsored posts are] consistent with our brand and the quality and type of content our readers have come to expect from us." That means those types of posts are clearly identified as such, and they maintain creative control over the content. "Every word on the blog is written by us, whether sponsored or not."
But as the line between professional and amateur continues to thin out, the sustainability of it all is hard to ignore. I used to misunderstand the point of why people continue to jump into the ring when there are already established names out there. There is Bryan Boy. There is Garance Doré. Susie Lau of Style Bubble. The Sartorialist. It's the same people you hear about over and over, and - judging by the strength of their established portals - they aren't going away anytime soon. But, in fact, there may be room for everyone; those established bloggers may only do the "top-tier" events or brands, but someone else will still be needed to work with smaller labels, or serve other markets and audiences. Or maybe the Wal-Mart of blogging already exists and we'll just have to wait for smaller shops to close up.
Maybe the self-identities need to become more defined. "[Blogging] can be a hobby for some, and a profession for others. You have to get paid for it, or it gets relegated to a hobby. If bloggers aren't making money, then it gets directed at something that does, and then that helps no one," says Mandylor, who thinks another issue needs to be addressed: quality. "Not all bloggers are created equal; some are more coherent, have better writing, are more organised. There's a difference between critique and 'Omg, I love it.'"
One thing is certain: free wine and gift bags aren't cutting it. "I have wine at home; I have my bar stocked. That may work for the 19-year-old bloggers, but we've got to look at it as a maturing industry. Now it's about 'social media strategy,' not just blogging. Ten years ago, the big thing was to have a website, and now it's a social media campaign." I had another blogger-cum-photographer friend tell me she was offered a gift card to appear on a panel at a big corporate fashion event. Time is money, and, as a freelancer, I can relate. For editors, it's an expected part of the job description to appear at industry events on behalf of the magazine.
Ng Hayes agrees with the rapid change and need to reassess the state of affairs. "Blogging is becoming big business, and it's only going to get bigger from here. Fairchild's recent acquisition of NowManifest is a telling indicator of that. More and more bloggers are making a career out of it, or at least attempting to, and many newcomers start their blogs with the hope of becoming the next Bryanboy or Fashion Toast." There's nothing wrong with having such aspirations, she says, but it's not her end goal and she'll keep the fire alive until it's just no fun.
So where do bloggers go from here? And how do we prevent blogs from becoming a series of digital billboards for sale? "I think it would be nice to have an agency for bloggers where they can go in as a collective," says Mandylor. "There's few of those super bloggers - very premium and niche - but, collectively, you can pull some of the smaller sites and offer that to PR reps or brands, based on demographics: lifestyle, tween, etc. Or do campaigns across all sites." What he's suggesting is a "combined reach" idea. It sounds like a union almost, and is definitely a way to keep bloggers focused on the content. If bloggers are the talent, then maybe it makes sense to have an agent negotiating the deals and business backend. It also sounds like a media company with various virtual publications (or, in business speak, "properties.") It also sounds like Digital Brand Architects, a new agency with a similar purpose referenced in the WWD article.
|Garance Dore and Scott Schuman.
It's quite obvious that companies clearly want to benefit from bloggers, but very few are willing, or able, to financially support them. If bloggers aren't journalists, and they're hobbyists, then the idea of getting paid for what they do sounds, to me, no different than selling crafts on Etsy for fun. "Eventually, [bloggers] will give up, and then they'll die off, and new people will come in to try to build new audiences from scratch, and then who will your product reach and how fast?" This is why Mandylor thinks investing in those who invest in themselves is important for companies. Otherwise, he says, it's hopelessly cyclical.
More often than not, the instinct is to attack press agencies and representatives. Maybe the way to approach this is through media buying agencies responsible for deciding which advertisements go where and with whom, bus shelters vs. television vs. billboards. Maybe add blogs into the mix. And where do we draw the line on excess before blogs are just advertorials? Eventually, new models will have to be explored outside of a "pay per post" structure. Tools exist to track and measure online impact, with everything from Google Analytics to website traffic ranking websites like Alexa and Klout. If bloggers want to go professional, they've got to fully equip and inform themselves with metrics and shift the mentality.
Maybe the days of simply having "good" content and operating on impulse are over. Maybe it is about being calculated. Maybe it's about defining the "professionals" and paying them. And if not all bloggers are created equal, then, in the eyes of brands and PR reps, are all pageviews created equal? A hit is a hit. But at what cost?
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