The Simple Reason Why Sponsored Posts, Links, and Trips are Bad

Since Boots N All launched a bit of a furor over sponsored trips/posts/links a few weeks ago, a number of people have weighed in on FB and in blog posts. It’s been interesting to watch. People have given long and impassioned responses and intellectual reasoning for both sides of the argument. Here’s my take on why it’s all bad. It’s really simple:

Look at the top, top bloggers in every niche – whether travel, fitness, finance, entrepreneurship, self-help, four-hour work living, marketing, etc. These are the bloggers with the biggest mailing lists, the largest traffic, and the ones who always seem to get links and mentions in the media.

What do they have in common? They don’t do sponsored content or links or take many freebies.

They have built businesses and have products.

Now look at all the bloggers in all fields who complain about how “hard” blogging is and how there is no money in it.

Are these the ones who follow the best practices of the top bloggers or tend to take the most sponsored shit?

Think about it.

So the real question you need to ask yourself is:  do you want to be a top blogger or do want to take free shit and complain about why you aren’t making much money?

If you want to make some actual money and have lots of readers, follow the best practices and examples of top bloggers. Don’t do the opposite of what they are doing.  I constantly mimic what the best in other niches do and adapt it to my own blog. It’s worked.

Let it work for you.

A couple of other points:

You may be the most honest person in the world and I have no doubt that you are going into that press trip with good intentions but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Perception is reality and if people perceive you are taking all your trips for free, they will simply stop reading you because eventually your “all opinions are my own” will begin to ring hollow and readers won’t be able to relate to your experience since what you get and what they get will be a totally different experience.

There’s nothing wrong with partnering with brands you love and creating long-term partnerships (I have one with G Adventures). What rings hollow for the public at large is stuff like “Guys, I’ve never used this brand before but you should totally use them. They are the official X of my site now that they have paid me a ton of money!” People see through this stuff.

Is it fair that magazines get away with this and bloggers are held to a different standard? No. It’s not. But it’s reality.

You’ll always find a core group of people to read your stuff but you’ll never gain mass appeal if all your posts are “brought to you by….”.

If you can only afford to do this job because you are getting free trips, you might want to re-examine your business model.

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14 Comments on “The Simple Reason Why Sponsored Posts, Links, and Trips are Bad”


  1. It’s so true! No one is going to pay you to be perpetually on vacation or to be a “reality refugee”. If you don’t produce a product of value, you can’t expect to get paid for whatever it is you are doing.


  2. I have no problem with sponsored work if it’s really, really good. And neither does the rest of the world, I think.

    One of my favourite travel books, “A Week At The Airport” (Alain de Botton), is a sponsored piece of work. It’s amazing and insightful and beautiful and fun. The fact that it’s so good and serves its readers so well means the whole “sponsored” side of it is a non-issue. Heathrow Terminal 5 sponsored its creation. All-round win.

    Personally, I believe in this: http://mikesowden.org/feveredmutterings/why-i-blog-on-a-napkin I’ve yet to make it up that napkin very far, but I believe in it. I want to find a way to make stuff that my readers want and will be willing to pay for. The people whose success I want to emulate serve that goal, above all others. Sponsorship can be a way towards it, but if it *replaces* it? Good luck with that approach.

  3. Casey Says:

    It’s been an interesting discussion to follow from the sidelines. There is basically no content that we consume on any media that is not somehow sponsored but today it’s all about trust and transparency. I find it hard to believe anyone who has not sweat through travel and spent some of their own hard-earned money on an experience, a hotel, etc really has anything to tell me about a destination. The travel bloggers I believe follow what you say – developing partnerships and long-term relationships (agree that A Week at the Airport is a good example of this). Quick freebies basically turn the travel blog universe into a big TripAdvisor…and it’s much quicker to read and weed through review websites than across a dozen blogs.


  4. Well, there’s another take on this … I do sponsored posts to reach new people I otherwise would not be reaching … I also make money (six figures every year for the past four years from my online business). Indeed, I would not be able to afford sponsored posts if I were not making money. I agree with you that if that is ALL someone is doing, or they expect it to “make up” for not having good quality content or products, then it’s useless. No sense throwing the baby out with the bathwater however. And I really do not believe in mimicking anyone. Sure if a good idea crosses my screen, I may implement it myself. In general though what has worked for me is blazing my own trail and ignoring people’s opinions about it. Could I be more successful? Absolutely. Am I pretty happy about my results? Yep.

  5. Anwar Says:

    The reason I think magazines get away with it is the general reason many bloggers claim that blogging is better, Blogs have a human face and a personality behind it. You build your blog on your audience trusting you, so yes they hold you to a higher standard than they would say a travel magazine. I couldn’t rattle off the names of the writers of articles in any magazine off the top of my head, but if i read a blog I know exactly who it is I’m reading.

    I’ve read so many sponsored posts that come across as a commercial and then it’s like oh i was paid for this but my opinions are my own. What opinions? You are hawking some resort or product which paid you a bunch of money, it might as well be a infomercial…

    I agree if you have long relationship with a brand you believe in, that is great, particularly if its one who likes what you do and lets you keep doing it. One of the first bloggers I followed was Matt of wherethehellisMatt and his relationship with Stride I didn’t feel affected his writing or travels.

    The bigger you grow the more people are going to try to get you to sell out. It starts out well intentioned, you say oh i’ll just take this to allow me to keep going and then once i get to a “certain level, status, etc” I’ll stop, but the goal posts always change and the money gets harder to come by for the same type of effort as before. But I don’t think all sponsorship is bad, just how you deal with sponsorship and the ones you pick. And find sponsors who are excited to work with you because of the work you do and not simply because of the audience size you have.


  6. Well I think your first point was the key Matt – bloggers that make money sell a product. It doesn’t have to be a physical product; it could be expertise (social media, photo, video, writing, new media marketing campaigns) and in that case the blog as a whole is an advertisement for their skills and expertise. They could also be selling an engaged audience with a site or SM that drives high quality traffic.
    Whatever it is, your business needs to sell something or don’t expect any ‘sales’. Also can’t harm to know exactly what you aim to sell and to who.


  7. My only addition to this would be that there is a fine line between bloggers who go on free trips and only get the free trips and those who go on a trip and also get paid to do X, Y, and Z behind the scenes.

    From a reader’s perspective, the top bloggers who write about free trips and don’t provide extra services for money could write a similar article to those who go on a free trip and also get paid for extra services behind the scenes. In either case, the fact that the trip was a “freebie” shows all the same.

    I could rattle off plenty who travel for free, and are considered in the best of the best, while I personally have no idea what they do to earn money in the meantime. On the other hand, I also know several who travel for free, and earn very little money and are struggling to get by like you say. In both cases, the content that goes out may appear the same to most readers no matter how we want to explain it.

    My personal opinion is that blogs who make long-term partners always appear more valid than the bloggers who jump on the “whomever is paying this week” bandwagon. Again, a bit of a tangent from your original point, because either way there is someone else providing for the trip and that is all most readers will ever see. It is us bloggers who get uptight about such things the most!

    Ultimately, you’re final point is the best. If your blog is just running purely on freebie to freebie, you need to look into what you’re doing. Odds are if you’re able to go that far, you should have enough creativity and skills to leverage your offerings even more.

  8. Stuart McD Says:

    I didn’t realise there was a furore over Sean’s tweets, so I guess I missed that train wreck.

    I’m not sure that I’d agree that sponsored posts, paid links and press trips all belong in the same bucket.

    a) Paid links: Yes, if you’re in the business of selling links, you’re a cog in a black hat SEO game that is actively damaging websites that eschew black hat tactics. There is zero debate on this and people who call paid links advertisements are deluding themselves.

    That was easy.

    b) Sponsored posts: This is to paid links as native advertising is to advertorial. Effectively a story that the publisher is only paid for if it contains specified link(s). So see (a).

    c) Press trips: I wouldn’t put these in the same bucket at all. While they may not be the best use of a novice’s time, a smart journalist can use a press trip to get all sorts of access and stories they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

    The issue here isn’t so much the action of taking the trip, but rather the disclosure of who paid for you to be wherever you are. So for example, if Matt is in Greece on a G Adventures gig and he decides to write a story totally unrelated to G Adventures, on say, getting laid in a hostel dorm in Corfu, I’d expect to see a disclaimer that he was in Greece on G Adventure’s dime.

    Obviously if you’re being paid on top of just accepting the press trip you’re being brutally dishonest in not disclosing that as well as you’re an employee – a copywriter.

    Personally I’d prefer any disclaimers up top — giving me the opportunity to decide if I should keep reading or not off the bat. Rather annoying to read something only to find it is an ad after the final par.

    And I’ll stop now so I don’t become one of those people who writes an essay in response to a short blog post.


  9. Since I missed the original furor … I may not even be understanding what you meant by “sponsored posts” so maybe my comment was totally off base. If you mean having sponsored posts on your own website, I would probably agree with you. Facebook and Twitter can have sponsored posts … I don’t know why an independent blogger would have them. There are much better uses for that space. Maybe I missed your point on that one. I’m actually still not sure 100% which you meant since I didn’t see the original debate and furor.

  10. Tim Uden Says:

    I think there is a difference depending on the type of travel writing the blogger is specialising in.

    If the story is a general piece like you would find in a travel magazine or the travel section of a newspaper, then a free trip shouldn’t really influence the outcome of the article too much as long as the writer has journalistic integrity. Bloggers who started out writing for national newspapers are pretty honest in this regard, but bloggers with no traditional journalism experience seem to feel that they have a duty to paint a rosy picture for the company that sponsored their trip and that is just doing their readers a disservice.

    If the article is more like what you would find in a traditional travel guidebook, then there is no question. Sponsored posts and free trips are completely off limits. In this instance your job is to provide impartial consumer advice and you simply can’t do this if you accept freebies for the companies that you write about.

    If your writing is good enough you should have content that is worth paying for (either as an app, book or downloadable guide) in the same way that in pre-internet times you had the option of paying $30 for a Lonely Planet guide or picking up a free glossy brochure from the tourist information centre that generally had much better maps (but not so impartial content) than an LP guide; yet most people would pay for on-the-ground research from a source they can trust.

    In the travel writing game, trust is everything and you’re not going to make it big as a travel writer (although you could successfully crossover into copywriting or PR) if your writing doesn’t show independence or journalistic integrity.


  11. There is nothing inherently wrong with selling links, or sponsored posts, or press trips. And there is nothing wrong with not doing any of them either. There are a variety of ways to make a living blogging — it isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing for everyone. Nor should it be.

    Shortsighted and overly judgmental to shite on other’s business plans because you don’t share the same plan.

    Huffington Post and the NY Times have entirely different business models in the publishing world. Plenty of room for both of them. G Adventures and Cox&Kings and entirely different business models in the tour world. Plenty of room for both.

    Pissing on people that don’t do it your way is just idiotic. Live and let live and just do whatever you’d like your plan to be or what works for you.


  12. Like Stuart McDonald, I only just picked up on this mini firestorm and I agree with him: Paid links & sponsored posts = bad. Fam trips = OK.

    But I also agree with Michael Hodson: it’s up to each individual how they balance these things.

    (FWIW My own position on Sponsored Posts is nice & clear. http://www.travel-lists.co.uk/about/about-travel-lists/sponsored-posts-policy )

  13. thirdeyemom Says:

    Great post. Thankfully my blog is a labor of love. I do it all for fun and write the social good posts because I want to use my voice to raise awareness. I went to TBEX last June and felt so out of place. I don’t want a free trip so I can write about it or to do sponsored posts. I felt like the odd ball and a failure compared to everyone else who was vying for these opportunities. After I got home I remembered why I started blogging in the first place and felt much better. thanks for reminding me! 🙂

  14. Dan Says:

    So why is selling text links the second thing you recommend in your ‘how to make money travel blogging’ ebook? Making money advising something you’re against makes you as bad anyone doing what you’ve described in this post.


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