The majority of things featured on this site are sent to me as samples for consideration; in all honesty it's extremely rare that I feature things I've bought myself, but I don't see this as a negative thing. I've been writing for four years, posting seven days a week and in most cases twice a day - there is no way on earth I would be able to keep that up out of my own pocket, let alone come up with enough content ideas without brands sending me things to try and test. However, there's a definite air of negativity against PR samples, many readers believing it means your opinion isn't valid or honest; I know that I, like many others, couldn't care less if it dropped on my doormat or I picked it up in Selfridges, because I'm still going to talk about it honestly, openly and with transparency. If I love it, it's because I would happily re-buy it with my hard-earned cash; if I hate it then it doesn't matter if I paid for it or not - I'm still saying it's not worth yours. Most things that I don't like don't even make it to the blog; I prefer to keep it as positive as possible, avoiding featuring anything that doesn't appeal to my senses or offer value for money. Even though 95% of products featured on the site were sent to me, they're still part of an edit I really did want to feature. That's what always should be remembered.
Over the years I've been lucky enough to work with and collaborate with many brands, being paid to do so on many occasions. I never dreamed that I would ever make money from my blog, but now I'm lucky enough to make it my full time job I have to ensure that it's regularly bringing in the cash. (A girls gotta pay the rent.) These collaborations may be as simple as bringing you interesting news, sharing a new product launch or hosting a competition, but I always ensure they're worth writing about and believe they're of interest to those reading. I always declare at the end of a sponsored post that I have been compensated to write it, letting you know that the topic (although never the tone or content) has been collaborated on. I have never ever compromised on this issue as I feel it's important to not only adhere to the law, but to be transparent with my readers. I only ever work with brands I really believe in and only ever publish my true opinion or thoughts; no amount of money can buy my integrity, because it's simply not worth jeopardising four years of hard work.
Furthermore, I've always had a disclaimer on the side panel of my blog, believing it's important to be honest about the fact that the majority of things featured have been sent to me for consideration. I don't feel it's necessary or relevant to mark every item individually, simply because the blog would become one massive disclaimer and detracts from (what I like to feel) is an engaging and positive platform. I've had a few negative comments and presumptuous messages about removing disclaimers or not stating when I've been paid; I have never ever stated individual samples (so there's nothing to remove!) and I have refused to work with brands that ask for paid content not to be declared. This is an issue I've always felt incredibly strong about and have called out brands, bloggers and agencies I believe are operating in not only an unethical way, but an illegal way. (FYI you can read my full disclaimer here.)
However, I'm only one blogger in a massive pool of writers. The problem is that some of the biggest and most well established sites are not declaring a single thing, when they're clearly taking part in a paid for campaign or have been compensated to flounce about in a designer's clothes. How can we begin to tackle this issue of transparency and honesty when the biggest and most influential sites aren't acting within the law? Declaring paid for content and collaborations is actually a legal requirement, as outlined by the ASA. They say: "Ads must be clearly identifiable as such. Put simply, a blogger who is given money to promote a product or service has to ensure readers are aware they’re being advertised to." Having worked within a social media agency and with bloggers across a multitude of topics, I know how to spot sponsored content a mile off - it's often incredibly obvious (for those in the know) when a blogger has been compensated to talk about a product they wouldn't normally, or to squeeze in a promotional message that's somewhat out of character. The amount of well known and hugely established sites making a full-time living from their blog but not declaring where their income is coming from is incredibly shocking.
I don't believe that working with brands is a bad thing; I'm proud that brands want to work with me so much that they financially compensate me for my time and space on this site. I have no issue with stating when I've been paid to post something, because I always retain 100% creative integrity and always write 100% of the content myself. I don't post pre-written content (that's often optimised for SEO) because I believe it would damage the standard I have set for myself and that my readers expect. I don't feature brands I don't believe in and I certainly don't promote products I haven't tried myself. I've always wanted this space to be a positive and informative one, providing advice and opinions that really mean something and can be trusted: I want my readers to feel like they can believe in what I'm saying and that they can ask me questions.
So what are the guidelines? Have a look at this article by CAP which outlines sponsored content and how it should be labelled. Essentially, if you've been paid by a brand you must always declare it in a clear and easily identifiable way - writing your thanks to a brand for being part of a post isn't a clear statement that you've been paid to talk about their product, neither is adding asterisks or using some kind of complicated code that needs research to understand. This declaration also covers social media platforms, so if you've been paid to tweet you must always add a simple hashtag to make it clear (i.e. #ad or #spon) However, being in receipt of a press sample or gift is not classified as sponsorship: because the brand has no impact over what you'll write or the outcome of the review (if you even review it at all.) Therefore press samples do not have to legally be declared in the UK, although this is different in other countries. It's not difficult to understand and the ASA leaves a lot of room for interpretation and personal preference, but it's vital that we're all transparent and operate within ethical boundaries set out by UK governing bodies.
There are so many opinions on disclosure, with every blogger having a different approach and their own standards to fulfill, but the most important thing is to operate ethically and within the law. Working with brands should be celebrated, as should young men and women being able to turn their passion and hobby into a fully fledged career. Any individual that tries to damper that or feels negatively should simply move on and read something they feel more comfortable with. Currently there is no governing body that monitors and represents blogging in this country, something I really feel is missing. Because blogging is still so new (having only really exploded in the last couple of years,) the usual advertising bodies haven't quite caught up. I really believe that we, as a blogging community, should regulate ourselves and work together to set standards that ensure we're transparent; I'm seriously considering setting something up myself. But for the meantime, I'm going to be adding clearer disclaimers and explaining exactly what they mean at the end of any collaborative or sponsored opportunity. Although there are thousands of bloggers that are 100% honest and transparent, there are still a huge amount operating in grey areas and know full well what they're doing. (Or not doing.) Regardless, I want to take a stand and do all I can to put my best foot forward - because blogs are going nowhere fast.
What do you think about the issue of disclosure? Do you worry about collaborative or sponsored posts? As a reader, are you put off or feel distrust? I'd love to know your thoughts.