Nothing is ‘free’ in blogging – for brands and bloggers

blogging brand bloggers

Everyone loves to get something for nothing, don’t they? But why do some brands expect bloggers to work for free? And are bloggers right to expect free reach for themselves?

Fran from Whinge Whinge Wine published a post yesterday stating You wouldn’t expect a magazine to print your ad for free, so why me? She’s right. Influencers put a lot of work into producing sponsored posts, reviews, competitions and giveaways. We write words. Take photos. Promote our content to audiences we have carefully nurtured over time. Deal with invoicing and other admin.

Most brands recognise this time and effort should be rewarded in the form of cash, product and sometimes both. However, there are some who seem to think bloggers will be happy to work simply for ‘exposure’ or a low-value product. (Standard blogger response: exposure doesn’t pay the bills, does it?)

Similarly, envious ‘friends’ of bloggers will snipe about our ‘freebies’. Oh, and by the way, can we show them how to start a blog so they can snaffle some freebies themselves? (Standard response: two words, one of which is ‘off’ and the other not repeatable in polite company.)

Why do brands expect something for nothing?

The point is this: if a brand wanted to advertise their product in a magazine, they would never ask for it for free. They would expect to pay to put their ad in front of the publication’s readers. Of course they would. The nature of that value exchange is well established.

But apparently it’s okay to expect a blogger to give them free access to their creativity and their readership.

Sorry, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – especially when the bloggers concerned still have to pay for theirs. There are times when it may be appropriate to work for a brand for free, for instance if it is likely to lead to future paid work. But there is rarely any guarantee of that in the blogging world beyond empty promises.

So should brands expect bloggers to work for free (or close to it)? Absolutely not. It is exploitation, plain and simple.

Why do bloggers expect something for nothing?

So far, so good. But are bloggers sometimes guilty of the same expectations of ‘free’ as brands?

Put a group of bloggers in a room together – or, failing that, a Facebook group – and the conversation soon turns to stats. As sure as the sun rises in the morning and sets at night, someone will complain about how their social media posts are seen by hardly anyone any more.

There is a large element of truth to this. Organic (‘free’) reach is plummeting. Research shows that posts from Facebook pages reached on average 16% of followers in 2012. By 2016, that figure was closer to 3%. Today it’s even less. For bloggers, whose pages have relatively small followings compared to major brands, the absolute percentages are higher. Nonetheless, the downward trend is the same and just as dramatic.

Why is this? Facebook is constantly making changes to its algorithm which determines in what order posts are shown to users. Recently, it has started to aggressively favour posts from our friends’ profiles or paid ads over organic posts from pages, whether these are bloggers, brands or news sites.

Spend long enough around bloggers and you will inevitably hear someone asking “Why should I have to pay to be seen by the same audience I used to reach for free?”

It’s here that bloggers run the risk of having the same unreasonable, entitled expectations of free media that (some) brands have of bloggers.

Yes, reach is falling. The algorithm does play a role in this, but it is primarily due to the fact that there is more content than ever competing for the same amount of attention. This is why Facebook introduced the News Feed algorithm in the first place, to help put posts we are more likely to read at the top of our feeds. It doesn’t always work, but that’s the aim.

Should bloggers pay for reach? There are plenty of arguments both for and against. But the question really is not whether we should buy ads, rather whether we should continue to expect Facebook to continue acting as a free shop window to advertise our content.

To use the previous analogy, Facebook is the magazine and bloggers are the brand asking for free placements.

Yes, it is annoying that our posts reach fewer people. That’s just tough. It’s basic market economics in action: when there is too much supply (content), demand (reach) generally does not rise in line with it. And when a commodity (readers’ time) is in limited supply, its cost (paid ads) will inevitably increase.

Gone are the days when we could easily reach thousands of people with our content for free. The rules of social media have changed. In fact, many of social media’s rules today are essentially the same as for traditional media. Emphasis on media.

It’s not all Facebook’s fault

There’s one final harsh truth to consider too. The problem is not a lack of readers. The issue is that they have more choice as to how they spend their limited time. That means that, as bloggers, our content has to be great to stand out. Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t suppress content but it does amplify the difference between great and so-so posts. The best bloggers will continue to thrive – but at the expense of the vast majority of us who are merely good.

So if your numbers are falling – and I fall into this camp too – by all means blame Facebook and its pesky algorithm. But it may be better to ask yourself why Facebook isn’t pushing your content over someone else’s. Sometimes the real ‘fault’ lies uncomfortably close to home.

It’s difficult to question the quality of your own content. Believe me, I’ve been there; it’s not fun. But it’s an important question we would all benefit from asking ourselves. At the very least, we shouldn’t feel we’re entitled to free reach with our content. To do so makes us no better than those brands trying to make us work for little to nothing.


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