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. 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've 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 years of hard work for a quick buck.
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 write about a brand or product. 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." Sponsored content is often incredibly obvious; it's easy to spot (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 people want to work with LBQ and 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: I want my readers to feel like they can believe in what I'm saying and trust me completely - and I know I'm not alone.
It's becoming increasingly obvious that the bloggerpshere is at the end of its tether when it comes to paid for content and collaborations. Although the absolute majority of us work ethically and transparently, a minority of other sites and the brands they work with are giving us all a bad name. There are so many loopholes, grey areas and statements that are open to interpretation that it's no surprise we're all singing from a different hymn sheet at any one time. I've been contacted by other bloggers to clarify their obligations; I've been sent links to posts readers think should have been declared as sponsored; I've been involved in broadsheet investigations into non-declaration as this becomes a country-wide concern that's no longer just relevant to our ever-growing bloggersphere. There's real concern out there and something needs to change.
If you want to see the guidelines that we're currently bound by then I broke them down and explained what they mean for bloggers here. However, it's become apparent to me that even when a blogger and brand obviously break the rules the ASA put together themselves, they are incredibly unsupportive of any complaint and are quick to dismiss it as bitter rivalry. (I kid you not, this is essentially the response I've had from them about a complaint I made.) I'm not making a stand just to be a pain in the arse; I'm making a stand because it impacts us all when bloggers and vloggers get away with making cash of the back of something that isn't declared. Those of us that refuse to flounder the rules are losing out on opportunities; we're all coming under scrutiny and our integrity is being questioned; readers no longer trust us collectively because of a few bad apples souring the pie and I for one am sick of it.
Because I'm always the first to stand up for something I believe in passionately, I've put together a 'manifesto' of changes I would like to see the ASA make. There are six main points that they can action in order for our industry to have clarification and guidance that's easy to implement on a day-to-day basis. In my opinion they need to close loopholes, offer up examples and provide easy-to-access information. Here is what I propose...
The LBQ Guidelines Manifesto
1. Clear labeling of press samples, gifting, trips, experiences and heavy discounts provided in the hope of a positive feature. As an industry we want to remove any suspicion or skepticism by being as transparent as possible; a freebie doesn't impact our viewpoint, but we do want to assure our readers of our transparency and integrity by declaring it.
2. Loopholes to be closed around editorial control - if you've been paid for something it should be declared, end of. It doesn't matter if there is specific editorial control or influence, if you've been paid to feature something then it should be made clear to the reader that that is the case. This grey area is causing the whole bloggersphere huge issues, as those operating within 'the rules' are losing out on opportunities because there are others prepared not to. (This also includes 'native content', which I believe is just a sneaky way around guidelines.)
3. Greater sanctions for those flouting the rules. Right now bloggers and brands blatantly operating outside of the set guidelines face nothing more than a telling off - if they're lucky. We want to see greater powers being enforced that will actively encourage digital content creators to work with integrity.
4. Easier ways for bloggers to report others within the industry they don't think are playing fair, without the threat of being ignored or called out as being spiteful by the very regulatory body they're appealing to for help. Right now there's not even a section within the complaints form for digital content creators!
5. Clear examples of declaration, not just suggestions that can be ignored if the blogger or brand chooses to do so. Currently the ASA specify only "signposting it as 'ad', 'advertorial' or 'sponsored content' is a simple way to make it immediately clear to readers" - but many are still writing 'in collaboration with' or 'thanks to our friends at XYZ for making this post possible.' We want to see clear, easy to understand and uniform declarations that protect both the blogger and reader.
6. Easy to find, easy to understand guidelines that can be downloaded and circulated. Right now the waters are so murky you need a law degree to understand what your obligations are; this doesn't benefit anybody. I want to see a fact sheet developed that clearly outlines what our obligations are as bloggers and examples of declarations - so that even if you've never worked in the marketing industry you can easily interpret and act upon those guidelines.
If you would like to see these action points implemented, then please do pledge your support by providing your name and blog URL here, or filling in the quick sheet below. My objective is to collate as many bloggers as possible and take this to the ASA in order for them to make real change. They seem to be too busy, scared, lazy or pre-occupied to get off their backsides and do it themselves, so let's stand up together and show them what we're made of.