07 April 2015

How to write sponsored + gifted blog and social media posts with integrity.

Pic of butterflies behind glass. Text reads: How to write sponsored + gifted blog and social media posts with integrity.

I am a blogger and a blog reader. I've been doing both for a long time. One of the trickiest things about writing and reading blogs, and following bloggers on social media, is sponsored content, and how to create it with integrity.

I think it’s important to discuss this topic - but it can be difficult to discuss openly, and sometimes it's done undercover and with snark, which isn't good either. So, here goes. It's a long's. I've created a handy printable (saveable?) for you at the end of this post, if you'd like to refer to it later.

Sponsored content is essentially advertising - product placement. Sponsored content on blogs comes in the form of sponsored posts (also known as native advertising), banner and sidebar ads and affiliate links. Bloggers are paid to write sponsored content, paid for clicks through to brands via ads, and receive commission when people purchase via an affiliate link. There are also gifted posts on blogs and social media - where bloggers receive products and services for free to review. I see gifted content as being no different to sponsored content - receiving a freebie may impact on whether the blogger writes about it, and whether a positive or negative review is written.

I am not averse to sponsored or gifted content. Bloggers need to make money. But I don’t like it when it’s not done with integrity. I like immediate disclosure, relevance to the blog and infrequency.

I do the occasional sponsored or gifted post (I've done two sponsored posts in the past 18 months), run sidebar ads and have a partnership with clothing store St Frock. The store sends me pretty dresses and I pose in them for social media, and if people buy the clothes I wear, I get a commission. I’ve gone to stage shows and had a interstate trip - I’ve been very lucky. (And I've also received things I was not keen on, which made it hard to write about.)

But I always disclose if I have been paid to write something or if I was given a product. I don’t let these types of posts take over my blog or social accounts. And the products I showcase will always fit with my lifestyle and values. I will never ‘sell’ you something I don’t use or doesn’t fit with my values And, as outlined in my health blogger’s pledge, I will never sell you a medical treatment - because I don't know if or how that treatment will work for you.

I recently saw a series of sponsored tweets from an influential blogger I admire. I did a double take. The content was not written in their style - it was in the voice of the brand. A copy and paste from a press release, perhaps. And the product certainly did not fit with the theme and values of their blog - I’ve never seen mention of that aspect of their life on their blog or social media. If I am honest, I felt disappointed and lost trust in the blogger - and my thoughts around those tweets was the impetus for this post.

Some of my blog readers (many of whom are also bloggers) told me what they think. Almost all of those who answered my questions about sponsored and gifted content said they like disclosure at the top of the blog or social media post. They also said they enjoy refreshing, creative sponsored posts, not too many sidebar ads, and content written in the blogger’s voice (rather than in advertising speak).

A few bloggers were ambivalent - let them earn money from blogging, they told me.

Some of my readers don’t like sponsored content at all. A blogger told me:
“If I see it is a sponsored post I click off immediately and their credibility for me has been tainted.”
And a reader said:

"I don't like to see so many that it looks like the blogger is just trying a money-grab: buy this, buy that. And whether I'm reading for pleasure or purpose I want to feel like the blog is the owner's passion, and not just a money-making gig."

A 2014 study by Contently revealed that readers’ trust decreases upon reading sponsored content. Contently stated:

  • "Two-thirds of readers have felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored by a brand.
  • 54 percent of readers don’t trust sponsored content.
  • 59 percent of readers believe a news site loses credibility if it runs articles sponsored by a brand.
  • As education level increases, so does mistrust of sponsored content.”
Readers may click away, or not return to the blog if they feel the sponsored content has discredited the blogger or brand in some way. Maybe it's not a god fit, or seems out of place or is something that a reader finds inappropriate? I do believe readers should be considered before taking on sponsored or gifted opportunities.

One veteran blogger believes the readership of sponsored content is different to the readership of non-sponsored content. And I agree. She told me:
"I think that bloggers that do a LOT of sponsored posts are mostly read by other bloggers - not so much by the general public. I think it's BLOGGERS that understand the whys and wherefores of sponsored posts. My feeling is that the general public would be confused if they visited a blog that had weekly (or more) sponsored posts… It's not very engaging and it's mostly bloggers that get the context of them (not the wider community). So if you want a broad readership (which consists of more than other bloggers who want to be signed with an agency too!) you might want to think carefully about your approach to this."
Here are my tips for sponsored content done with integrity - from a blogger and reader perspective.

Disclose immediately.

Disclose before you write the body of the post. Disclose in the subject line if you want to. This gives your readers a chance to keep scrolling if they don't want to read it, just like they might flick over to another TV channel if an ad comes on.

I write: “This post was sponsored by [insert brand]” or “I received tickets to [performance] for review” at the start of the blog post, or "[Gifted post]", "I'm a guest of..." or #gifted on my social media posts.

My examples of disclosure are as follows:

Sponsored blog post:

Example disclosure on a sponsored blog post. Text reads: "20 October 2014  Paint the town Ford: road tripping to the Mornington Peninsula. Competition closed. This post is sponsored by Ford and Kidspot. There's a chance for you to win a $500 Temple and Webster voucher too. This competition is now closed. The winner has been notified. Thanks for entering."
Gifted blog post:

Example of a gifted blog post. Text reads:  05 April 2015  Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2015 - Hannah Gadsby, Barnie Duncan and Emma J Hawkins Disclaimer: I was given free tickets to see Calypso Nights. I paid to see Hannah Gadsby and Emma J Hawkins. Actually, Adam paid for tickets to Emma's show, but I bought him dinner. All opinions are my own."

Gifted social media post:

Example of gifted social media post from Facebook, text reads: "(Gifted post)  St Frock gave me this cute dress - I feel like I'm just wearing cherry blossom! It's available at www.shop.stfrock.com.au (search 'stolen kiss'). Love it!", picture of me in black and pink dress

A gifted social media post featuring an example of "I'm a guest of...":

Example of a gifted social media post for Thriller Live. Picture of cherry in cider. Text reads: Thursday night you're alright. Off to #ThrillerLive soon - I'm a guest of @ThrillerAUNz.

And sometimes I feel the need to disclose if I have not been paid to write something, like the review of Attitude that I was asked to write in order to promote the show:
Example of non sponsored blog post - You can help Change Attitudes by supporting the Start Some Good campaign. We are crowd-funding our first Australian programme, and we’ll build to an Australian series. Join us today to help change attitudes towards people with disabilities.  Follow the Attitude Foundation on Facebook and Twitter.   This post was written for the Attitude Foundation - no payment was received. Opinions are my own."

I feel duped if I get to the bottom of the post and find out it’s sponsored or contains affiliate links. Was this story really true? Was I sucked in? Did the blogger really enjoy or purchase the products they’ve mentioned in the post? Did the blogger make money out of my clicks without me knowing?

I’ve seen some bloggers have a separate page about their sponsorship policy on their blog, outlining the conditions for review, a statement that some posts might include affiliate links and how to get in touch with them if a brand wants them to showcase their product. This is great, but it’s not enough if disclosure is not stated on the blog post itself.

Continue to write in your own voice.

I find it so difficult to write sponsored posts. Usually they require a personal story with the product details woven in. They take me much longer to write than a regular blog post. I don’t want it to read like a blatant ad. I like reading sponsored posts that read just like every other blog post on a blog. I think food bloggers do a great job of weaving brand information into their posts. I love seeing how different bloggers create a recipe with the same product, or share a family tradition or photograph produce interestingly.

Ensure the sponsored posts, ads and affiliate links fit your niche, values and lifestyle.

I am not going to write about a product a don’t or can’t use. I also won't write it if it doesn't fit with my values. It’s not fair on me (writing a sponsored post is HARD!) or my readers. It would reduce my credibility.

Last year I was offered a product that would give me soft feet by removing the top layer of skin. I laughed a lot. Oh the irony. Then I wrote back thanking them for the offer and saying that my skin does this naturally, and it’s not a product I could write about. The PR lady just didn't think. I was also offered tickets to a baby show - which I politely declined and suggested a pregnant bloggy friend receive them. (But now that I’m getting married, I will consider doing sponsored or gifted content about a wedding fair or product.)

It's great when advertising agencies let bloggers opt out of sponsored posts or sidebar ads because they don't align with their values or lifestyle. I remember when a blogger I love was asked to write about alcohol. That blogger is a recovering alcoholic. They politely declined the opportunity. This was a great example of how a brand got it wrong, and how a blogger had the integrity to decline because of their lifestyle and values.

Don’t run sponsored content too often.

We see a lot of advertising in the media, on the roads, in train stations, on our phones. I don’t want a blog to be taken over by ads. I read blogs for interesting content.

A couple of years ago, when blog monetisation really started to take off, I read a blog that was divided into vertical thirds. One third was the blog posts. Funny, mommy blogger type stuff. And two thirds was advertising! Two thirds. I clicked away.

I want to see more traditional blog content (stories, tutorials, creative writing) than sponsored content. But that’s just me.

Don’t contradict yourself.

A blogger might write (on their blog or social media) that they had a bad experience with a brand. The product was shit. They received bad customer service. And then all of their readers gets behind them, slagging off they brand too. And then, a few months down the track, the blogger does a 360 and write a sponsored post for this brand. Or a blogger might rave about the importance of organic, locally grown food, and then writes a sponsored post from a supermarket chain the following week.

Total contradictions.

Opinions about a brand, product or service should not change because one is being paid or gifted to write about them! And readers can spot this!

Question whether you are paid enough to to lose readers.

Sometimes bloggers lose readers because they do sponsored blog posts. Readers don't like them, they just want to read about the bloggers' lives. And so they don't continue reading. Kalen Smith wrote for Problogger about how sponsored blog posts can damage readership. Kalen said:

"Taking sponsored posts can be risky. Is it really worth alienating yourself from your readers and damaging your position with the search engines in order to make a quick buck?"
A blogger friend told me:
"I remember reading something long ago that you need to make sure you get paid enough when you do sponsored content to "cover" losing readers for each sponsored post you do.”
I remember hearing this statement too. In doing some research about this idea of losing followers, I found a quote from International News Media Association (INMA):

"We need to be careful not to sell our souls for short-term dollars."

If I am promoting something compromising or personal or embarrassing (like vibrators or diet shakes or admitting I’ve needed a lawyer - none of which I have or will ever write about) I’d want to get paid more than if I wrote about a clothing line or trip away.

And I know my worth. I recently turned down an offer to run wedding-related sponsored posts on my blog - the brand was offering $10 a post. Considering my freelancing rate is $300 an article, and I get around 70,000 hits on my blog a month, and I've won some awards, this offer of $10 was not worth it.

Ensure there’s something in it for the reader.

Sponsored or gifted posts that have something in it for the reader are really great! It may involve a giveaway or a discount on their products. I really liked working with Ford and Kidspot on this blog post where I reviewed a Ford for payment, and gave away $500 from Temple and Webster to a reader. Something in it for me, and something in it for the reader! Win-win.

I don’t tend to like seeing bloggers list all the free stuff they received - it can come across as a bit braggy, and I wonder where they put it all!

Don't use your power as a blogger or social media influencer to ask for an upgrade. Don't fish for free stuff.

Sadly some bloggers do this - publicly asking hotels and airlines for an upgrade. There's an implied promise of a good review if it's granted (and perhaps a bad review if they don't receive one). Someone, I really can't recall who, gave wise advice: "ask privately, praise publicly". I like that.

Similarly, it looks tacky if bloggers post photos of products they love on their blog or social media accounts, hankering to get one, linking in or tagging the brand...just hoping that product arrives in the post. Why don't they save their money earned from blogging to buy that product - I'm sure they'll appreciate the product more!

Don’t define blogging success by sponsored posts.

For a couple of years, I thought the epitome of blogging success was working with brands. I felt left out because I wasn’t being offered these opportunities or being signed up to blogging agencies. NO ONE WANTED TO WORK WITH A CHRONIC ILLNESS BLOGGER! And then I realised that it’s not my type of success anyway (but it’s also ok if bloggers define THEIR success this way!). I’ve given this a lot of thought and have now defined my success as a blogger.

There are other ways to make money from blogging.

I don’t do many sponsored posts, and my sidebar ads are not raking in the money. But I make money in other ways because of my blog - writing, speaking, consulting and teaching. Soon I will have an e-course out, and I am creating a small themed e-book.

There are lots of other ways to make money through blogging, without compromising your content and readership. Problogger lists a lot of ways to make money blogging - many that I hadn’t even considered.

Lastly, I am not the blogging police. As a seasoned blogger and blog reader (blogging since 2001), I hope to add my guiding voice to the blogging community. And I want to discuss these issues, because the blogosphere is constantly changing. And there are no rules. Ultimately, it’s up to individual bloggers to blog as they wish - sponsored posts or not. I would just like it to be done with some integrity.

Further reading:

Brand Meets Blog has a great guide for bloggers who want to work with brands.

Problogger outlines how much a blogger should charge for a sponsored post.

I Heart Fashion Bloggers has a post about featuring products you don't like but your readers do.

Decor8 has a post asking whether bloggers can live off hugs and rainbows?

Clickhole or Die has an article about how The Fight Over 'Sponsored Content' Is 150 Years Old.

A printable for you:
Printable. Text reads:  How to write sponsored + gifted blog and social media posts with integrity.  Disclose immediately  Write in your own voice.  Ensure the sponsored posts, ads and affiliate links fit your niche, values and lifestyle.  Don’t run sponsored content too often.  Don’t contradict yourself.  Question whether you are paid enough to to lose readers.  Ensure there’s something in it for the reader.  Don't use your power as a blogger or social media influencer to ask for an upgrade. Don't fish for free stuff.  Don’t define blogging success by sponsored posts.  There are other ways to make money from blogging.

What do you think?
Have you got any advice for writing sponsored content?
Do you like sponsored posts? What do and don't you like to see?


  1. Great advice Carly. I do work with lots of brands and frequently run sponsored content on my blog. I did not seek these things out and I still wonder why I get this type of thing! I am VERY selective about what I review and write about when I do sponsored content. If I have no experience with services or goods or do not think they are relevant to my family situation, then I decline. I decline a lot (and refer quite a bit.) I have seen some bloggers write content for businesses which are totally random (in a shut your eyes and point one out in the Yellow Pages kind of way.) I would never write about one of these without relevance or experience in my own life.
    I have no issue with sponsored content however and oddly, so of my most popular blog posts were sponsored. Always relate these to YOU and if you can't, leave it out.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and useful post Carly - I don't mind sponsored content and, if it's done well, find it quite useful. I think that word "integrity" is what sums it all up. I think this will be really helpful for those bloggers who are dipping their toes into the sponsored post waters. Well done on what I can imagine was a difficult (but important) post to write.

  3. I have done exactly one sponsored post and didn't disclose it til the end- however, that was a tool for humour in the piece. Another blogger I admire did this once and it really made me laugh. I felt I wrote in my own voice and it was a product I was happy to recommend. I do find some sponsored content very dry and dull so I tried to make it amusing and I think I did. The client was very happy with it and I got good feedback. That said, we each have to determine what works for us but I really like your tips here, Carly- great reference point!

  4. Agree on almost all points and see bloggers mentioning stuff ALL the time I know is gifted without disclosing. I feel readers will always prefer honesty than feeling they're being taken for fools. Can't say I've never asked for an upgrade though, both as a journalist or blogger! Being sent free stuff is par for the course these days and shouldn't be seen as a negative but there is no obligation to write about it unless you like it. And most importantly, for me, readers are always number one consideration as in "will this ad p*ss them off?" combined with "this is my job and effectively I make money from having this audience." ALWAYS a balancing act but if you have integrity and are transparent you can't go too far wrong!

  5. This is a great post and very good advice. Nothing annoys me more than looking through my feed at the end of the day and seeing that several bloggers have written about the same sponsored product. I don't bother reading any of them.

    1. Thanks LM - I've stopped reading many for this reason

  6. You've made me think about writing my own permanent disclaimer, Carly. Might get onto that soon. I've done a small handful of promotional posts for stuff that I've put my hand up to try or been invited to check out. I've only ever done things like that which interest me or have relevance in my life/lifestyle. I've never minded promotional posts, so long as the bloggers review/post with integrity and honesty it's all good for me.

    1. Hey Ren! Sounds like you're doing a great job :)

  7. great stuff and agreed on all points. As a health blogger I have turned away so many paid gigs wanting to sell a"cure for diabetes" and in my sustainable interiors work, furniture companies making totally unsustainable products! I always disclose right up the top. And speak in my own voice. Love your work x

    1. I love your work and ethics! How great that you can have two blogging niches and have a successful business.

  8. Great article Carly. Advice welcomed and necessary for all. V x

  9. Great post Carly - should be compulsory reading for any blogger thinking about monetising x


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