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Bloggers gotta eat: Does winning #sponsors mean losing followers (and credibility/authenticity)?

The popularity of influencer marketing means digital entrepreneurs often struggle to strike a balance between being authentic and getting paid. Here’s my opinion on the topic.

The tone of the PR rep’s email was measured, but accusatory. “I saw your article. I had hoped you had some more positive things to say about your trip.”  

His message was in response to a blog post I had shared about an experience I’d had on a press junket that was sponsored (read: paid for) by the tourism board he worked for.  My transgression? I’d written about sampling a local dish… and not liking it.

I sighed, thought for a moment, then began typing my reply.  I shook my head in consternation as my fingers flew across the keyboard.  “I apologize if I caused any offense,” I began. “Make no mistake,  I had a fantastic time on the trip, and the way I felt about one of the things I ate does not detract from that.”

I went on to explain that my goal has always been to accurately and honestly relay my travel experiences, and that I’ve been told this practice is not only the strength of my blog and brand, but one of the major reasons people follow along.

His reply, sent ten whole days later, was the equivalent of a resigned shrug.  “Of course, I appreciate your honesty”, he wrote, “I look forward to seeing your other articles about us”.  

But did he really?

From hobby blogger to full time travel journalist and “influencer”

I fell into blogging quite by accident: when I hit publish on my first post back in 2005, I had no idea that it would form the cornerstone of a future lifestyle and career.  I started creating content for the web out of pure practicality.  I was moving to France to teach English for a year, and putting my stories and pictures online was an easy way to update loved ones without having to send emails all the time.

 

But twelve years and over 800 entries later, “Oneika the Traveller” has become something more.  Something I could have never imagined.  Far from a simple diary chronicling my travel adventures for loved ones, it’s morphed into an online resource spread across various platforms (see my Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube channels) consumed monthly by hundreds of thousands of people I’ve never met.

And, travel blogging, once a hobby, has become a business, a career. Because of my blog, my writing and photography have caught the eye of companies and organizations who pay me to create travel-related content for them.  I’m routinely hired to collaborate on marketing projects for destinations and brands; my portfolio of services has expanded to video production, public speaking, appearing as a travel expert on air, and consulting.  

My newest and biggest gig, with Travel Channel and HGTV, even has me hosting a few different travel-themed series on the web (you can watch episodes of my shows, “Big City, Little Budget” and “One Bag and You’re Out”, on Facebook).  


While I never could have foreseen that my casual online musings about travel over a decade ago would bring me to this point, I am grateful for the opportunities travel blogging has brought into my orbit.  If I think about it, there are few things in the world that I’d rather do.

But I’d be lying if I said the transition into a career in travel has been without its snags. In an industry where glowing reviews and pretty pictures translate into increased sales and tourism dollars, a penchant for brutal honesty and truthful reporting can put content creators at odds with editors or potential employers (as illustrated by the opening of this piece– I never heard from that PR rep or tourism board again).

It can also put us at odds with the very audience over whom we exert “influence.”

“They sold out” is a common refrain from followers when their favourite blogger or media personality has too many #sponsored or #ad hashtags attached to their captions.

After all, authenticity is the buzzword of the day, praised above all.  But let’s be honest, it doesn’t always pay the bills.

The truth about authenticity in travel media and influencer marketing

“Authenticity” is a word that’s bandied about in the travel industry more and more nowadays.  But I’m finding that as much as travel brands, tourism boards, and travel companies say they want genuine content from travel bloggers and influencers, there can be… limits.

In other words, there’s a fine line to toe in destination marketing when you’re being sponsored (i.e. given free travel) or hired for a campaign (i.e. paid a fee for content being produced in addition to having your travel paid for).

On the beach in Jacmel, Haiti

Be truthful about your experience, but not *too* truthful– especially if it’ll make the brand look bad.

Work with brands but not *too* many brands– because it might make you look disingenuous, ultimately alienating your audience.

That’s not to say that partnering with a brand or doing a sponsored post is inherently inauthentic.  I, for one, make it a point to do collaborations with companies I already use and enjoy, or have admired from afar.

It’s tricky, though. Maintaining your voice and integrity, all while attempting to earn income from your platforms, can be like doing a dance you don’t quite know the steps to.

It’s difficult because you have to serve two masters: your audience and your sponsors.  The former most often feeds you metaphorically through comments, engagement, and loyalty. But it’s the latter that most often feeds you literally– giving you the very remuneration that allows you to continue to create.

How and why I (try to) achieve balance

Personally, my predilection for discussing race and politics in my travel content has sometimes made me unpopular. Especially in a world where listicles about ‘where to find the best gelato in Rome’ are “palatable” and what drive web traffic via SEO.  

But as I’ve grown as a writer and human being, I’ve felt more compelled to write about these important intersections, as well as the socioeconomic aspects of travel.  Why?  Because while they may not fit neatly into a marketing campaign, they are integral parts of the travel equation.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t find travel tips, glossy beach photos, or even the occasional listicle about, well, ‘where to find the best gelato in Rome’ among my writing credits.

Souk hopping in Luxor, Egypt

But now that this is my full-time job and primary source of income, doing sponsored posts, paid campaigns, and putting ads on my blog (as unattractive as may they look) are necessary if I want to continue running my business.  

Still, I decided long ago that I also wanted to use my platform for activism and social advocacy.

Concretely, this means I’ll openly discuss Black Lives Matter on my channels, or question on the blog why the support for terror victims in Brussels and Paris seems more passionate than the support for those affected in Istanbul and Tunis.

It means refuting the notion that everybody can travel around the world if they were to simply “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and will it to happen.

It means uplifting voices and perspectives not commonly highlighted in mainstream travel media.

It even means calling out problematic cultural practices that, while traditional, are out of touch with today’s society.

And it means writing about how I sampled a country’s local dish on a press trip… and didn’t enjoy it.

Being honest and engaging in uncomfortable conversations have surely made me unattractive to potential business partners and readers.  However, the good news is that I haven’t been affected in a discernible way.  

On a campaign with Greyhound Bus Lines in 2016

Brands still reach out to me to review their products and services, even though they know I’ll be honest about what I don’t like.  

My followers tell me in comments and emails that they appreciate my candour and willingness to stand up and call out, even when there’s no benefit to myself. They also (for the most part) understand the need for #ads and #sponsored content on my feeds.  

A note on privilege

However, this is where I have to acknowledge my privilege.  My situation is ideal.  I have a hefty amount of savings, no debt, and an advanced degree. I have a decade-long career in another industry to fall back on.  I also have a spouse and parents who can support me financially should the need arise, and have no children or dependents to support.  

With my husband on our wedding day

These factors dictate my ability to mostly say and do what I want online.  They enable me to walk away from partnerships that aren’t a good fit, or turn down opportunities that I don’t like.  I am privileged where many are not.

This is why I would never begrudge anyone trying to “get their coins”, as long as it didn’t mislead or cause harm to themselves or others.  

Because folks gotta eat. And if you’re not funding them (or willing to), who are you to judge?

What are your thoughts on authenticity in the blogging/online influencer world?  Curious to know what you think!

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Jen
    January 29, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    You’ve got perfect pitch about your position of privilege. I’ve seen it in other posts as well, like the one about how black peoples in Europe are treated differently, depending on if they’re from Africa or the US.

    I started reading you in large part because it is difficult to see beyond my own privelege. I learned long ago that my black friends could pick up a whiff of racism where I thought the air was clear. I want my son to have good experiences when we travel (I’m white, he mixed) and I hope you’ll give us real advice.

    I appreciate your insistence on only taking sponsorships from companies you support. A knowledgeable PR person would know that including a couple negative details makes your overall story more believable. We all do it when we read online reviews—the ones that praise a place to the sky and the purely negative ones aren’t given much credit. The ones I pay attention to are in the middle, giving highs and lows and, most importantly, descriptions. If that dish had a certain spice or flavor blend in it that you can’t stand, tell us that and let us make our own decisions. Even when things are great, I appreciate that. My son can’t stand loud noises or places, and I don’t do well with cilantro, so telling us you had a wonderful experience and ate a delicious meal in this restaurant is nowhere near as helpful as a more nuanced description.

    Anyway, just my two cents because you asked for comments. I continue to follow you, because I think what you wrote is worthwhile.

    Btw, I try to spread the word, on my FB page and other groups I’m in, recently got a group with average income of $200k to discuss one of your articles, just so they’d see your perspective.

    • Reply
      Jen
      January 29, 2018 at 8:34 pm

      “Peoples” 😱 I wish I could edit out that “s”!
      Also, “US” should be replaced with “N America” and “he is mixed”.
      Next time, I’ll have to proofread. Good thing I’m not hoping to get paid for this, lol.

  • Reply
    Sanaa Brooks
    January 29, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    LOVE this! When I started blogging a few days ago, I remember vividly how people responded to my reviews because it was so detailed or because it was honest. I always feel like I HAVE to tell the truth because I’m pretty scared to say “this was great” have someone try it and then they come back and say “you lied this sucked”. LOL

    However, I have learned to say “I didn’t like this, BUT I’m ___ so maybe you will.” Especially if I’m talking about food, I know I’m picky and I know there are people out there with different tastes. Lol

    FYI – I don’t think your ONE comment about not liking a dish would deter me from an ENTIRE vacation. LOL That’s so funny. It’s not like you said you hated the place. If anything, that dish would make me just look for a different restaurant. Lawd. But I get it. Everyone wants a darn 5 star review! But as a customer sometimes we can’t give 5 stars because of a mishap. I take what people say into consideration. Maybe they liked it but this one thing bothered them. Sigh … Can’t always have a great review. Lol I’d think something was up if you did.

    ~ Sanaa Brooks
    http://www.amomthatsleeps.com

  • Reply
    Nadeen
    January 30, 2018 at 2:37 am

    Another great article. Thanks for shining a light on something most consumers have no idea about. I agree you do often have to walk a fine line. Since in practice I only partner with brands I would have paid for on my own, I haven’t run into the issue of having to write bad reviews often. But it has happened twice and it was tough since I was “comped”. Since this is not my full time career I get to be picky and honest. I much prefer writing the things that have interest to me then tons of sponsored posts. I try not to judge those who have to make their coins. But I do think readers should be able to feel you are in this for more than the $. Stick to your brand and niche at least and write informational or editorial posts that leaves your readers with something besides an affiliate link.

  • Reply
    Michelle Schroeder-Gardner
    January 30, 2018 at 10:34 pm

    Great read. I think there’s a wrong way (in my opinion, of course who am I to judge anyways?), and a right way to approach sponsored partnerships. I turn down partnerships nearly every single day because I don’t think they’d be a good fit – and that’s the way I like to approach partnerships. I like to ask questions such as 1) Will my readers benefit from this? 2) Does it feel slimey? 3) Would I do this if there were no (or less) money involved?

  • Reply
    Leah
    January 31, 2018 at 3:14 am

    I really appreciate your honesty! You’re right, it’s a fine balance when it comes to sponsorships and how they’re described. As a reader, I appreciate when authors are honest about their experiences but at the end of the day, it’s my choice to read their work and it’s their choice to decide what to publish, so each to their own. For what it’s worth, I started following your blog for your valuable commentary on race and politics, and how they intersect with travel – so even though some people might complain, and it might not be the best for driving web traffic, you have committed readers because of it.

  • Reply
    Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    February 1, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    Great post! As an avid blog reader, I find myself disappointed by so many bloggers these days snapping up every sponsored opportunity and writing glowing reviews about everything. I read blogs for honesty, not fake reviews that they’ve been paid to write. So I totally get it from both sides and it’s definitely difficult to strike a balance to pay the bills and not alienate your readers, especially if the people paying the bills expect content that could alienate your readers. It’s like a vicious circle lol.

  • Reply
    Kristin L
    February 5, 2018 at 3:54 am

    I honestly think being able to express a balanced opinion, whether sponsored or not, in a dignified manner is what separates the rookies from the pros. I’ve had similar experiences where I stated a fact (“the ride times were all an excess of 360 minutes,” which seemed an important fact to relay to those planning a theme park trip) and was asked by the publicity team to revise statements. It’s always such a tight rope to walk, and I don’t like when PRs don’t realize that native advertising is not (completely) free rein for them to put their entire branding all over a post in the exact manner they like. If they want that, purchase an advertorial in a magazine instead and don’t rely on influencer marketing, which was meant to be a more authentic way of digital storytelling in an oversaturated age. We’ve really tightened up our business in what brands we’ll work with thanks to a few bad (and luckily, rare) experiences of such micromanaging(/dictating the content).

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