Apart from a few Google Ads and the odd Mars bar provided by Amazon’s associate links programme, I’ve never tried making anything out of my website by advertising. Although I’ve been approached many times, I’ve always ended up deciding I don’t want the hassle. The Google Ads provide a bit of pocket money, but they’re also money for old rope. I just paste the code into my web pages and Bob’s your uncle – every month some dosh arrives in my bank account.
Every so often an offer comes along that catches my interest, and I end up investigating it a bit. This happened recently when an online outdoor retailer approached me to ask if I wanted to do gear reviews for them. It was an interesting proposition – a network of bloggers provided with free kit to write reviews as blog posts which link back to the retailer’s product page.
Essentially what they were asking for was not banner advertising or paid links, but what’s known as a sponsored post. Instead of simply linking to the advertiser’s website, the blogger writes a post which relates to a product or service of the advertiser’s, providing one or more links at the same time. Because of the effort involved, you’d expect to be paid a little bit more for this, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the years discussing the merits of various bits of walking and mountaineering kit, and the idea fitted nicely with my blog’s theme, so I decided to look into it.
Their initial terms were a bit derisory: they wanted me to provide a permanent link to their website from my blog home page, as well as review gear exclusively for them and nobody else. This appeared to be a bit of bluff on their part and they were happy to drop these two conditions when I asked. They sent me links to some of the reviews, and I have to hand it to the bloggers in question, they’d done a thoroughly professional job of reviewing the kit with posts of a few hundred words which involved testing the items rigorously in a variety of conditions. Just as importantly, the posts were well written. These guys had talent, and judging by the comments on their posts they also had a responsive audience.
I was rapidly losing enthusiasm, though. The reviews were all for a particular brand of footwear I’d never heard of before, and in the £50 range. They suggested starting me with a pair of the same, but as a walker and climber my feet are the most important part of my body (what was that? … yes, even more important than that bit …), and I’m quite particular about what I put on them. But when the advertiser asked me to provide a list of items I’d be prepared to review, then ignored it by sending me a cheap £40 North Face fleece, I decided enough was enough. I’d expect an outdoor retailer to know that a fleece is unlikely to get used much during an English summer. Even on the hills the ambient temperature is relatively warm, and any cold weather is likely to come from wind and rain. A windproof rain coat is a much more suitable item at this time of year, which I did include on my list, but it’s also a bit more expensive of course.
I was led to conclude they weren’t expecting a rigorous review, after all, and what was really of value to them was the link from my website. I responded by offering a small paragraph of text with links. They responded with a counter proposal that I should return the item to them if I didn’t feel able to review it.
Let me just spell this out. They were genuinely expecting me to sweat away on the hills in summer wearing a fleece, spend a couple of hours crafting a piece of content on their behalf advertising their commercial website, and provide a few permanent links, for nothing more than a piece of cheap outdoor clothing. I returned the fleece, and perhaps I should have sent them the shirt off my back, as well.
But although it was a bit cheeky, I suppose I can’t really blame them for trying if they’ve managed to persuade a few other bloggers who are quite skilful writers to do a really good job for them. And it is a good idea in theory, which could have worked for both parties if they’d been a bit more generous. It got me thinking. I can see what’s in it for the advertiser; what’s less clear is what the blogger gets out of it. Let’s examine both.
Why would a decent writer want to review outdoor gear for nothing?
It’s a bit of free kit, and I like writing about it. There’s no arguing with this one. Here’s a man who was able to write 2100 words about a sleeping bag. As prep for this post I forced myself to read all the way through this particular article from start to finish. Notwithstanding the fact that I started reaching for my own sleeping bag long before I got to the end, I have to take my hat off to the reviewer. 3-seasons sleeping bags are not cheap and if I needed a new one and was unsure what to look for, I’d have no doubts after reading this post. I’m guessing this man’s a true pro, and he received more than a free sleeping bag for writing the review, but at the end of the day, to write 2100 words about a sleeping bag, you have to love writing about sleeping bags.
I’m a bit of a gadget junkie, and by getting free stuff to review I get to try out new kit I wouldn’t otherwise have bought. Just like some people love gadgets, some people love outdoor gear, be it electronic or fabric. I must confess, I’m not one of them. I know a lot about it because I use it a lot, but for me it’s just functional and it makes the travelling more comfortable. For others, a penchant for outdoor gear is part and parcel of their love of the outdoor lifestyle. If you fall into this group then I can quite see why you might be prepared to write a few hundred words of copy in exchange for a new bit of kit you wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to try out.
There’s a certain kudos to being an outdoor gear reviewer. OK, I know this one’s a bit shallow, but I too get a glow of satisfaction from time to time when people ask me for advice, so I wouldn’t blame anyone if this played a small part in their decision to review kit.
Why would an outdoor gear retailer or manufacturer want to give free kit to a bunch of amateurs?
To build a network of enthusiastic and eloquent ambassadors for my brand. They say a personal recommendation from somebody you know and respect is better than any advertising. Having respected outdoor bloggers with loyal followers talking about them is a great way for manufacturers and retailers to build brand awareness.
To get genuinely independent feedback from knowledgeable people about what gear is worth investing in. Retailers need to know what items are worth stocking. It’s probably cheaper for them to find out by sending out new kit to a network of testers for a thorough evaluation than to take the risk of stocking items without knowing whether they’re any good.
To bring targeted traffic to my website and get a few inbound links to help boost its ranking on Google. The algorithm Google uses to decide what results to display for a particular search term contains a weighting element called PageRank. This works on the principle that the more inbound links a page has, the more important it must be. This has resulted in advertisers paying relevant websites to link to them, and although Google has recently acted to prevent poor quality sites buying importance in this way, PageRank is still an important factor in its algorithm. The Google Toolbar rates sites on a scale of 1 to 10, which gives advertisers an indication of how important a website is considered by Google. My website has been around for a while with a steady score of PR 4, quite reasonable for a hobbyist’s travel site, making it an attractive target for advertisers looking for paid links.
Because manufacturers give me incentives to raise the profile of their products. I’m speculating about this one a bit, and it may not be true, but it’s worth a thought. Most of the reviews done for this retailer were for a particular brand of footwear, which leads me to wonder whether the manufacturer provides their products to the retailer more cheaply if they expend some resources promoting them.
So is it all worth it?
I can see why a blogger might write a review for a retailer just for a bit of free kit, but it seems clear to me that there’s much more in this for the advertiser than for them, and I wonder whether they realise that they may be underselling themselves, or whether they even care.
I was evidently the wrong person for the retailer to approach on the terms they were offering. I love the outdoors, but I’m not really a gear enthusiast – it’s places that excite me, not possessions. I’m also lucky enough to be paid reasonably well for my digi comms consultancy work, and a £40 fleece isn’t much of an incentive for me to write an article about something that doesn’t really interest me that much. I’m sure I could write a few hundred words about a piece of kit if I wanted to – I get plenty of opportunity to test it in the field, after all – but I hope if I’m ever approached by an advertiser to do it again, they will have the good sense to offer me something a bit more worthwhile.
I’d be interested to hear from other outdoor bloggers who have been approached to review kit. If you accepted, was it for any of the reasons I’ve listed, or are there others? Do you find it worthwhile, or did you lose interest in the end? Or have you been offered better terms for your work than this particular retailer did? Or were you like me, and took it as a bit of an insult to begin with, before laughing it off as just a spot of commercial cheek – if you can get something for (almost) nothing, why not?
[UPDATE, 30 June, 2011]
By chance since writing this post I came upon another one on a hiking blog looking at the issue from completely the opposite viewpoint to me. In this post they question whether it’s ethical to accept money at all because it taints the review. There are also some interesting comments on this one (unlike the sound of tumbleweed blowing across mine). Not everyone agrees with them, but plenty do.