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Trust Capital In The Mommyblogosphere

Trust Capital In The Mommyblogosphere

The success of mommyblogging depends upon trust capital. Bloggers grow their trust capital with their audiences over time through sincere engagement with readers. The trend in the mommyblogging niche toward direct brand engagement in the content column–rather than as display or secondary engagement–is contrary to the concept of building trust capital. This type of monetization limits the life expectancy of a personal blog.

Trust capital is a form of social capital.

Trust capital functions in a similar way to social capital. Social capital is the degree of influence that you have as a result of your connections in the new media space. You start off with nothing, and as you become active on blogs and Twitter, you start to earn credibility or influence as a result of your engagement with people. Your relationships and influence become things that have a value, and that you spend or save (e.g. encouraging Twitter followers to support a candidate for a blog award, or publicizing a project). Trust capital applies to a blogger’s relationship with readers as it attaches to a specific set of expectations. For example, a blogger who has never done any sponsored content has readers who expect featured products are simply shared because they are great products. Readers expect this blogger to tell them about his/her life (including the products he/she likes) as a natural offshoot of content creation. They trust the blogger to tell them what is good.

This trust is why social media is so powerful. Without trust, there is no reason to listen to what anybody on the internet says about anything.

Trust Capital Takes Time To Build

This process of building trust takes time. It takes a long time to develop a relationship with a readership, and it takes a long time to build up trust. That’s why it’s so valuable. Trust capital is the difference between having a product recommended by somebody you’ve never met, and a product recommended by somebody who is a trusted friend. Whereas somebody can have a ton of social capital just by their relationship to other people (e.g. if you are known to have influence over a particularly popular blogger, for example, you may have a large amount of social capital), you cannot build trust capital without developing a readership on your own and filling it with people who trust that you are a person to be listened to.

3. Trust capital needs to be balanced like a checkbook.

If you have a great deal of trust capital, you control a valuable commodity for which advertisers will pay handsomely. It can be very tempting to use your trust capital to get some actual economic capital — particularly once you get a glimpse of how much advertisers are willing to pay for it. Content-column placements pay much better than sidebar placements, and if you want to make money as a blogger without the kind of crazy traffic levels that are required to make a full time income from sidebar ads, you will be tempted to start experimenting with leveraging your trust capital by putting sponsored content in your content column. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you must do it with an eye to keeping your audience’s trust — it is not enough to ensure that your audience is getting content in exchange for their time, you must also make sure that their trust of you is not being affected.

Trust can be eroded in various ways — are you featuring products that you would never mention, were they not paying you to do so? Even if the product is not directly affecting your content (e.g. a sponsored post that simply says “Sponsored by XXXX company” but is otherwise completely free from third-party influence), this can still erode trust. It might not be fair, but watching comments and emails from people who are dealing with blogs that have an increased amount of sponsored content suggests that this is how it works. People start to trust you less when you feature sponsored content. They may still read you, and they may want to buy the things that you have, but the element of trust is still decreased.

Trust Capital Is a Suspension Of Disbelief Based On Past Performance.

One way to figure out when you are spending your trust capital is to look at what you are asking of your audience. When you say, “I am asking you to suspend your disbelief that this sponsored post is worth reading, based on the fact that in the past I have given you tons of great free content,” you are spending trust capital. When you ask your audience to believe that your endorsement of a mass-marketed product is genuine and uninfluenced by your sponsorship relationship, particularly when you have never been one to endorse mass-marketed products in the past, you are spending trust capital. There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending trust capital, but you have to remember that you only have so much of it to spend. If you repeatedly spend your trust capital without doing anything to build it back up, you are eventually going to find yourself with an empty account.

Build Trust Capital By Doing The Right, and Possibly Difficult Thing Even And Especially When There Is No Direct Benefit To You.

Trust capital in blogging is initially established by creating high quality free content. But if you plan to do a lot of sponsored content, you are going to have to up the ante a little bit. It will no longer be enough to just blog the way you have in the past: you will need to do more. One way I have seen this done successfully is by creating additional, bonus free content that has an easily recognized direct market value and giving it to your readers for free. For example, Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) had a set of Photoshop Actions developed and released for her readers for free. She could easily charge for these products — many people do. By giving them to her readers for free, she has upped the ante in terms of their trust that what she is doing is in the spirit of generosity and giving.

Another way to build trust capital is to do or say things that are not necessarily beneficial to you. For example, if a company or sponsor does something you do not like, removing them from your blog immediately and explaining why you have done so, can build trust capital. Deciding to not participate in the same kinds of campaigns that other, comparable bloggers have chosen can also build trust capital. Saying things that are not popular, when there is a clear moral issue at hand, can build trust capital with readers who feel similarly.

Trust Capital Will Be The End Of The Mommyblogosphere

First, let me acknowledge that I don’t know what is going to happen with the economy of trust capital in the mommyblogosphere any more than anyone else. I have no idea if audiences will respond to the increase in sponsored content favorably or not. However, the reason that I wanted to start talking about trust capital is that I’ve been disturbed by the shit ton of sponsored content I’ve seen recently around the mommyblogging space. While I’m excited that people are finding ways of monetizing, I am worried that there may be partnerships formed with brands that do not have the best interest of the blogger’s brand at heart. From an advertising brand’s perspective, the blogger is interchangeable: if a blogger becomes less influential as a result of working with too many brands, they will just move onto the next one. But if a blogger becomes less influential, they are going to have a tough time building that value back up. I’m worried about this because in blogging there is no middleman network on whom we can place the blame for sponsorship: in TV, we can always note the inclusion of commercials or product placement as something “the network” or “the studio” forces the creative people to do. In blogging, there is nobody like this to blame, and though it’s not fair, and as much as I want bloggers to be paid for their work, I worry that they are cashing in on a resource that is dwindling.

Comments (72)

  1. Sep 13, 2010

    This is really spot on to me. I will reply at greater length later if I remember and my brain stops being full of mucus.

  2. Sep 13, 2010

    I’m glad you wrote about this. Looking at this from the consumer (or reader) side of it, I have to say that I treat blogs in much the same way I treat television. If a post is openly sponsored, I’m much more likely to skip it, just like using a DVR, I’ll pass by every commercial I can. I might read one or two sponsored posts, but after that, I’m probably taking my reading somewhere else. Once I know that you’re shilling for dollars, I don’t believe a word you have to say.

    The “trust capital” that you’re talking about doesn’t go very far. If I examine my own blog reading, it takes six months or so before I might accept you as “real”. That’s maybe 20 to 30 posts? And you lose that capital with 2 or 3 posts? It makes one wonder if it’s actually worth it.

    Like many readers, I’m reading for the content, not the product endorsement. I will say this for PW. There is so much content on that site that if there are sponsored posts, people with my tolerance (and I don’t think I’m alone) are able to avoid them without much effort.

  3. Sep 13, 2010

    Dear God I am a moron! Six months gets you roughly 120 to 130 posts. Which makes the “trust capital” about as valuable as a rupee…

  4. Sep 13, 2010

    I think you’re spot on about most of this stuff. I will say this–there are communities within the mommyblogging world that are totally fine with sponsored content–blogs built from the beginning to be that kind of “resource” for lack of a better word, and an audience who comes specifically for that.

    Which makes me wonder how that affects the rest of us, from both an audience standpoint and in the eyes of brands. As a way to distinguish–say you’re a personal blogger who occasionally does sponsored content, vs. a blogger who does mostly review and sponsored posts. How do you explain that difference to a brand when they approach you with the same deal as the review blogger? A deal that might work for their audience, but won’t for yours?

    (I mean, I know the answer is, you wait for a better deal, that’s a better fit, but at some point, don’t you think these discussions have to start happening? That one mommyblogger doesn’t always equal another?)

  5. Sep 13, 2010

    Well, I’m not sure that it’s a simple exchange rate. I think people will put up with a certain amount of commercialization and then they reach a breaking point. Really big fans will put up with nearly anything. Some people have almost no tolerance, others will read almost anything before it starts to annoy them, there’s nothing like a universal standard here. But it does matter for something because if you’re still in the process of building up your name, and you are already doing sponsored content, I think it will limit the amount of growth you can do long term.

    I think there is a real value to trust capital, and if you need to see how it works, look at the results that Ryan got from Dooce linking to his charity album today. It went from #78 to #1 on iTunes within a few *hours*. That’s trust capital right there — trust capital from a bunch of eyes, but trust capital nonetheless. Say what you want about Dooce, but she has guarded her brand pretty closely, and it’s only very recently that she has done any sponsored material in the content column (the Verizon videos). When something shows up in her Daily Style section, it’s operating on pretty much pure trust capital with a huge audience, built up over a decade. That’s a marketing force. What I’m saying is: you do that now, you will never have that kind of power, no matter how big you get, even if you DO get as big as dooce.

  6. Sep 13, 2010

    There are communities that are OK with it, but the space isn’t really worth as much, IMO, as elsewhere. Something plugged there is never going to get the kind of response as something plugged somewhere else, and I think it has to do with trust capital. I even think that maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but that it is.

    I say this as somebody who has done a product placement in the past, too. I will never say never, of course, but . . . I am hesitant to do it again, frankly. The placement I did was for a small business I feel good about, that I would recommend to friends, without hesitation, and would have done so without being paid, in fact — but . . and I cannot explain it because it’s not really rational, there was something about it that didn’t work for me. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because I had to disclose, and it made me self-conscious? I don’t know. But I didn’t like it, and it made me rethink the whole thing. I’m just not sure it played well for me on the blog, and as well paid as it was, I’m not sure I will do it again, only because I think that it is not worth it because of the hit it forces me to take in terms of trust capital.

    But, obviously, I’m still thinking about this, so if you see a sponsored post by me someday don’t give me crap about it.

  7. Sep 13, 2010

    I noticed that you were careful to confine this post topic to mass-marketed products. I wonder, does the picture change much if the blogger is featuring handmade goods by individual artisans/artists, possibly people that the blogger already knows? Or if the blogger is sharing their own work (books, art, what have you)? My guess is that readers might grant a little leniency here, but I’m curious about what others have to say.

    In the case of Do Fun Stuff, it helps a lot, I think, that this is clearly such a good-hearted cause done well. It’s not like hawking breakfast cereal.

  8. Sep 13, 2010

    I agree with you on long term growth, but I also think that you’re underestimating the readers as a whole. I would venture to say that most readers are pretty much desensitized by the whole sidebar thing. Content is something else. Granted, Ryans charity album shot up like a rocket, and I’m willing to bet that a good portion of that was because of Dooce. If we set that example aside, it leads me to wonder how many Etsy sellers benefited from that “trust capital” each time they were featured on the “style” section. I wholeheartedly agree that Dooce and PW are marketing forces unto themselves, but I really do wonder how powerful that force actually is.

  9. Sep 13, 2010

    It was 100% because of Dooce. I’m talking about today only. He was 78 this morning and went to #1 within a few hours. What I am saying is that Dooce’s trust capital is part of why she has so much power. And the etsy sellers ABSOLUTELY benefit from that. It doesn’t last for long periods of time, necessarily, but it absolutely helps them. It also helps people who are known to be Dooce’s friends and/or bloggers she reads or who has guest post.

    Not all bloggers will get to that level, no. But some will. Some are halfway there. If they do sponsored content now, what I’m asking is, are they limiting themselves?

  10. Sep 13, 2010

    It’s different, and I think it’s very different if it’s a charity case because you get some points for doing that. People will give you some credit for helping promote a good cause, particularly if you don’t do it all the time. But you have to be careful with those, too.

  11. Sep 13, 2010

    I was actually just thinking about how I had to clean up my sidebar, actually. I don’t run ads on the other blogs I run, but I do on my main blog. But on my main blog, I’ve never done a sponsored post. I’m unsure how I feel about sponsored posts.

    Okay. No, that’s a lie. I feel awkward when I see them. I don’t do them and I’m never saying never, but it’s like seeing your grandma in the bathtub. It’s not BAD, it just leaves you feeling kinda…weird. And the blogs that are turning into more and more of that make me feel…like clicking that unsubscribe button.

    We all want to make some money, I get it, but at the cost of my integrity? I don’t think so. That’s a personal call, though. I could make more money, sure, and maybe I will some day, but I’m okay with what I do.

    I do need to clean up my sidebar. I’m unhappy with my blog design right now.

  12. Sep 13, 2010

    Yeah, and I should reiterate: this is not me judging on this. I have lots of friends who have done sponsored posts and I am cheering them on for the money they’ve made. This is more me trying to figure out what the best thing to do for people wanting to retain/maximize value of their blogs long term. Nobody really talks about what the long term repercussions of this will be, and I think we all just assume that the audiences will get used to it. But I’m not really sure that’s true. I could definitely be wrong about that.

  13. Sep 13, 2010

    I think you’ve put your finger on the reason why MSM journalists don’t do this type of thing. Sponsorship has real issues and there’s no getting around it.

  14. Sep 13, 2010

    Yeah, and it’s strange because I thought that if you married the product with the blogger, where there was a legitimate endorsement there even before money was exchanged, that it wouldn’t matter. But it did, for some reason. For me, and for some other people I talked to who had been in a similar situation, with a product that they had recommended before being paid versus after. It just creates problems for reasons that are not really clear.

  15. Sep 13, 2010

    In the case of Do Fun Stuff, for example, it should be noted that nobody has been compensated for plugging anything. We all have just done that to help promote the cause, we are not being paid to do it. That’s a totally different thing from sponsored content.

  16. Sep 13, 2010

    I think it’s interesting to read, for me, who does do sponsored posts and to think about.

    I’m having trouble at the moment, my main blog is pitching a product (kids DVD) that I personally dislike, but my daughter loves. Lots of pressure from the company to present it favourably and look, while I can, because it’s for my kid and she loves it, I’m having a hard time knowing that I can’t say even the smallest negative thing.

    But I also know that I am really broke and every sponsored post helps a lot (the company I work with pays good $$$) so, it’s hard.

    I think I’m making myself feel better knowing that I need the money and that sponsored posts occur once a month, at most and normal posting between sponsored posts is honest, good content (insomuch as mummyblogging can be considered ‘good’ content).

    That said, I’d like to know honestly what my readers think of the sponsored content, without the cheerleading that happens within comments sometimes. I’d like the silent readers to speak up.

  17. Sep 14, 2010

    This is interesting. I’ve only read a few sponsored posts, because I read only a few mommyblogs, and this trend hasn’t hit my genre (and probably never will, because my genre is in 2004).

    I do think there’s a big difference between doing it for an Etsy vendor and doing it for a huge corporation. I think of those Etsy vendors as fellow SAHMs who are trying to eek out a living…so I root for them in solidarity. I don’t feel that way about big companies. On the flip side, I haven’t heard of any Etsy vendors *sponsoring* posts…it tends to be more of a I-found-this-and-it’s-cool thing, without compensation.

    I will say (and I hope she doesn’t mind my naming her): I thought Jonniker did a good job with the Huggies posts. Part of that is because I was following along when Pampers started sucking and she tried out new diapers to replace them (we were doing the same thing), and part of it is because I thought the posts sounded more or less like her regular self. It didn’t feel awkward or forced to me.

    I think you need real writing talent and an extremely good brand fit to make that work though…I don’t think I could ever pull that off. I mention brands I like all the time (Pop Tarts, for example), but if the Pop Tart people actually called me and offered me money to write about them, I’d say no. It wouldn’t be worth it, and even though I love them and I’ve said so often, I don’t think I could write anything that wouldn’t sound icky.

  18. Sep 14, 2010

    I agree with the comment above that the brand itself can definitely influence the amount of trust you check out of your trust account. Mom-made, Etsy, and sometimes eco-friendly products come across a lot better than say, Pampers or something super mass-market-y, imo.

    I don’t think anyone does or has done it 100% right because I think no matter what, SOME readers are going to not want to read anything remotely commercial. That’s something you have to accept when you partner with a brand in any way. Even running ads, depending on how sensitive the reader is to that kind of thing.

  19. Sep 14, 2010

    I agree — the reception is different based on the quality of the writing and the placement, that can make a huge difference. But even when the placement is done really well, from the writer’s side, I think there is sometimes a problem. I think the problem, strangely, comes with the requirement to disclose, as strange as that sounds. If you could just have it shown and receive compensation, the way they do in movies, that would probably not be as bad, but that’s not allowed in blogs. I’ve found that the ones that are well done I have much less of a problem with, for sure, and I am always WANTING to be happy with the placement, too, but it’s just really hard sometimes.

  20. Sep 14, 2010

    Well, the thing is, though, that the Etsy stuff and the mom stuff is not usually a paid placement. It might be a giveaway or a “meet the sponsor” thing, so it’s not a completely disinterested relationship, but it’s not the same thing as you’re getting a grand to mention it.

    I do agree, though, that there are some readers who are hyper sensitive and who will object to anything, including sidebar advertising. I generally don’t give a shit what those people think, though. Those people are absurd — they think we should just be providing free entertainment for them out of the goodness of our hearts for the rest of our lives — they are whackadoo.

  21. Sep 14, 2010

    See, that’s especially tough because it’s not just a sponsored post, it’s also a sponsored post with content control. I’ve been seeing sponsored content where it appears to be completely free from any kind of editorial control, and it’s well done, and I’m still not sure that it’s not creating a problem for the writer long term. I might be wrong, I hope I am wrong.

    But the money, the money is so hard to resist. I do wish the readers would chime in on what they think. Because from this side it’s much harder to be objective.

  22. Sep 14, 2010

    The money doesn’t actually seem that great to me (and it’s not like I’m super wealthy or anything). If you blow your credibility for $3K…well, geez. What do you do then? Once your credibility is shot, it’s hard to get it back. It’s like losing your virginity.

    If I did it and muffed it, I’d lose my readers, which is bad…but also, I’d lose the ability to attract people who will pay me to provide services other than blog content. If all you do is the blog, and you’re 100% certain that’s all you’re ever going to do, okay. But who among us is 100% certain they won’t ever want to expand into other areas (consulting, reality TV, whatever)? It’s a huge risk to take.

  23. Sep 14, 2010

    Money = good. I’m happy when people make money. I’m not going to read commercials even if someone I like writes them. That’s the bottom line, I guess.

  24. jcristg
    Sep 14, 2010

    There was a blog I used to love to read – a blogger I even corresponded with over email — and while there was some sponsored stuff sprinkled in from time to time, it was tolerable. And it was tolerable because the personal, funny, and entertaining tidbits from her life far outweighed the sponsored posts. All of a sudden though, it went from “here’s a funny story” to “you know what gets me going in the morning? BREAKFAST SAUSAGE!” She turned on a dime, and the personal posts all but stopped — with the exception for a lead-in on a product placement. Every time I see her now, I can’t help but wish for the old blogger back.

    So I would definitely say trust capital is very real. And very disposable.

  25. Sep 14, 2010

    My blog will never be monetized because it’s primarily about my dead baby. I used to read a few British mummyblogs. Over here there’s this huge media obsession with Mumsnet women and how they’ll vote/ spend/ choose. It seems like they only blog to make money, which is terribly dull.

    There was a particular thing with Nutella that was all over the British mummyblogs recently. Essentially it was a pretty good candidate for the internet’s most contrived controversy ever. Like breastfeeding but with breakfast spreads. I stopped reading because it was so very, very boring. And I suppose that’s my issue with sponsored posts. I think they’re boring.

  26. Sep 14, 2010

    I was going to offer up Jonniker/Huggies as a good example, too. I didn’t mind reading the sponsored stuff becuase 1) I knew she already used and was a fan of the product from earlier posts about finding diapers and 2) the posts were 100% still her voice and her opinion and weren’t all gushy. She also very rarely does sponsored posts and made it totally clear up front what the post was so you didn’t get duped into reading it only to find the disclaimer at the bottom.

  27. Sep 14, 2010

    I agree with you. I think you have to be really careful with charity. I am so burned out on charity pleas after the Pepsi Refresh nonsense. There’s only so many important causes that we can take in before we start desensitizing to it. I’m starting to burn out a bit on Do Fun Stuff, too. I appreciate the passion and creativity and, yeah, I feel like a bitch whenever the sight of the little green monster makes me click away, but I have my own causes, too. Why is yours more important?

    That’s where you start expending your trust capital with charity causes. You have to convince me that because it’s important to you, it should also be important to me.

  28. Sep 14, 2010

    I think Jonniker is a great example. The posts did seem to fit with her current life situation and the non-sponsored lead up. When I first saw the sponsored posts, I thought, “Well, that makes sense. Nice catch, Huggies.” And from what I saw, she did good job with them. But I didn’t read them. I saw “sponsored post” and went away until another day. And if she did another campaign this year, I’d probably stop reading. But I have a particularly low threshold for this sort of thing, I’m aware.

  29. Sep 14, 2010

    It’s great compared to what you get for advertising, particularly if you are a blogger with not a lot of traffic. And I’m saying this because I don’t think most people are thinking that they are blowing their credibility by doing it. Because not all situations are clear cut. For example, if you endorse a product that is bad, clearly, on your blog, then fine — that’s a clear cut case of blowing your credibility.

    But not everything is even close to that. Did I blow my credibility by writing about Treehouse Social Club for money? Did Jonniker blow her credibility by writing about Huggies? We both endorsed those products before we were paid to do so. But still . . . there’s something about the monetary relationship that complicates things.

    Then, you have something like Rebecca Woolf’s recent sponsored post:

    http://www.girlsgonechild.net/2010/09/gone-style-play-clothes-sponsored.html

    The content was *completely unaffected* by the fact that it was sponsored. The stuff that is in the post (clothing) is not even the same brand as the brand that is sponsoring the post (Old Navy). But it’s still a sponsored post. How does this affect credibility? Does it?

  30. Sep 14, 2010

    Yeah, that was a great placement and most of them aren’t. But even with that, the blogger can only do like, maybe, one of those per year. Or maybe even one per five years or something, without pissing off their readership. So . . . it’s tough.

  31. Sep 14, 2010

    Now I’m dying to know who this is. Because . . . Breakfast sausage?!

  32. Sep 14, 2010

    Well, it takes talent, again, to make a sponsored post anything but boring. Video or pictures are much easier to use for placements because you can just put something in without having to mention it. But blogs you can’t do that anyway, everything in the US has to be explicitly identified as a paid sponsorship relationship.

  33. Sep 14, 2010

    Yes, it definitely takes talent. I think I’ve yet to read one that has captured my interest in a genuine way. For the record, I love posts that recommend a product that the blogger is genuinely impressed by, or something they have made themselves. That’s a totally different kettle of fish.

    BTW I liked that post you wrote about Design Mom’s mayflower deal. I don’t read her blog, but her story (as told by you) was a great illustration of how this can be done successfully.

  34. Sep 14, 2010

    Yes, and not coincidentally, that was done before disclosure was required. So she did it as a product placement without disclosure and it went so much more smoothly. I know a lot of people object to that kind of thing, but I guess I would rather that everybody just read things with a degree of skepticism, figuring there may or may not be a commercial relationship and figure it’s not their business and then we’d all be better off, LOL.

    Though, yes, I do the sharing of stuff I like just because thing all the time on my commodity fetishism blog. I don’t get compensation for that stuff.

  35. Sep 14, 2010

    No. The Girls Gone Child post actually INCREASES her credibility, because it takes balls to pick another brand of clothing when you’re sponsored by Old Navy.

    And the Treehouse Social Club post was fine, because I know you went there even before that, and would have had the party there anyway. And Jonniker’s posts were fine because she was using Huggies. And MariaMelee’s posts about baby shampoo are fine, because she’s been talking about that for some time (in fact, I switched shampoos based on some of her tweets/links, long before she signed up for that).

    But if you did a post saying that McDonald’s is the BEST place to have a kids’ party, that wouldn’t work. Not because it isn’t, but because I know damn well you aren’t having Mini’s party there in this lifetime. If Jonniker did a post for Pampers, I’d talk all kinds of smack about it. That’s a big part of it, for me: knowing the blogger well enough to already know that she liked that brand (or would have been extremely likely to use that brand) prior to the money entering the picture.

    It’s interesting to me that people are so allergic to sponsored posts, but they don’t seem to mind affiliate links. Like, if Jonniker had done a regular post about her diaper woes and had an affiliate link to Amazon to buy the Huggies that worked for her, would that have been as objectionable? Because really, a commission salesperson is almost always more full of shit than a salaried one…and in this case, the reaction seems to be the reverse of that.

  36. Nic
    Sep 14, 2010

    There are a handful of bloggers I have stopped reading because of the amount of sponsored content. I read blogs for the content produced by their authors. As a reader, I want the blog author to at least have some respect for me as the reader. I don’t want to feel that someone is selling me a product or that the voice isn’t genuine. I don’t want to feel like the author is posting only in effort to build their traffic (posting more than once a day, picture only posts, truncated feeds). If it starts to sway from the content I originally came for, I delete the feed.

    To be honest, I’m starting to find this is becoming more of an issue with blog authors who have multiple writing gigs and are spread out throughout the blogosphere. I wonder if their content or creativity is watered down from the amount of obligations. But then, on the other side of the spectrum, are people who are trying so darn hard to make it big their efforts end up being overt and obnoxious.

    Design Mom does have product placements and ads and I just don’t care. They fit into her lifestyle blog and you can tell she works hard to control the tone and appearance of her brand. Her blog is informative and friendly, and really freaking pretty to boot. She does a great job.

    Smitten Kitchen has truncated feeds. However, her snippet includes a long intro and a picture of the recipe at hand. I know her content is always worthwhile so I click through. I’ve made a bunch of her recipes and when her cookbook is released, I will absolutely pony up for one. She’s very, very consistent with what she does. (Same goes for 101 Cookbooks.)

    And for some reason, I trust Pioneer Woman. She always just seems so nice and honest. Plus she doesn’t have to cow to any brand’s specifications at this point and is able to be authentic. She did cook up some things with sponsored pita chips a few years ago that still make me a little sick to my stomach to think about but I’ll forgive that little transgression.

    There are others of not; however, bloggers who can balance it well are dwindling in numbers. It’s probably not polite for me to list the ones who have fallen down the rabbit hole so I’ll try to abstain…

  37. Sep 14, 2010

    Hey, thanks guys! I appreciate it. And I agree with all of this: I never would have done any of it if it wasn’t a product I already used. And someone raised the question earlier that it’s a wonder Huggies paid me at all, because they didn’t really have to, since I already liked the product enough that I talked about it a few times.

    As much as I hate to admit it, that’s a great point. Then again, though I wouldn’t have talked about them as much, and in that context (the right one for them) if they hadn’t.

    That being said, I can name fewer than five brands in the entire world that would have the same draw for me to do it on my regular blog like that, and Huggies just happened to get lucky to be one of them. If I did it more often, no one would believe me, and why should they? I’d look like a total liar.

    This trust capital thing is dead, dead on.

  38. Sep 14, 2010

    Hee! Well, I’m doing one more campaign with Huggies now, but it’s mostly on their site, so fret not. But I’d work for them again in a heartbeat, so I can’t promise anything.

  39. Sep 14, 2010

    HA! This reminds me of a pitch I got once from a bagel company. The opening line was, “We love your blog and we know how much you love a good bagel first thing in the morning, so this fits right in with your readership!”

  40. Nic
    Sep 14, 2010

    One other aspect to this, I tend to think BlogHer facilitates the loss of trust capital in the way they handle their campaigns. Like Gap Magic. It was so obnoxious and intrusive I honestly didn’t want to shop at the Gap. Or Crystal Light. When 10+ people are all writing about the same item on the same day, it loses authenticity. Then everything has to go on a separate review blog for those bloggers and you have to click through and, basically, it’s ridiculous.

  41. Sep 14, 2010

    This is a good point. It’s interesting you bring up Pepsi Refresh, because that is a charity cause linked to a commercial brand, and I wonder if that makes a difference, too. That was something that kept coming up, it wasn’t something we could just plug once and be done with it. We had to keep plugging it, and that was part of what was kind of annoying about it. I’m really glad Kevin’s thing won, and I’m glad I helped, but I think that this was one downside of that thing, was that Pepsi’s involvement ensured that it would have to be mentioned eighty five bazillion times, just so that Pepsi’s name was all over the place, and people were thoroughly annoyed by the thing before all was said and done. Not all charity is going to necessarily have that problem.

  42. Sep 14, 2010

    Yeah, me too. I want everyone to make money, but it’s so hard to make a commercial that’s worth reading/watching. You have to be very, very talented to do it, and sometimes it still doesn’t work.

  43. Sep 14, 2010

    That’s it. I’m never reading your blog again. You’re a corporate shill.

  44. Sep 14, 2010

    Well, who doesn’t love a good bagel in the morning? They seem like a perfect fit. Wait.

  45. Sep 14, 2010

    Design Mom is unusual because she is very good at balancing her content AND she has a niche that is well suited to sponsored content — her readers want to know about pretty stuff, so you know, it doesn’t matter so much if it’s sponsored, just as long as it’s still pretty stuff. But she’s also exceptionally good at it, she’s a very rare blogger.

    Mommybloggers have it a bit more difficult because they get pitched by big brands that want you to do placements for laundry detergent and it’s like, how can you be super excited about laundry detergent? Either it works or it doesn’t. There’s nothing exciting about it. I’ve thought about sponsored content on Commodity Fetishism but the idea behind that blog is that those are products either that I have and love or that I’ve found and think are really cool and want to point out to you because they’re unusual. You don’t usually get pitched sponsorship deals from products like that, so it’s tough to get a product placement deal going there, it’s much easier to just keep it uncompensated and have sidebar ads. But companies all want to be in the content column these days.

    I think PW was experimenting with content column back then with that pita chip thing and it didn’t work, I remember that. You can’t really blame her for trying, but yeah, it wasn’t a good thing. We are all sort of unsure what is going to work in this space. I think what is good is that she sees what works and what doesn’t, tries to keep the integrity of her blog based on that. Since then I’ve seen some things like “recipe card sponsored by HP” or whatever, but that’s a little different, that’s not much different from a sidebar ad.

  46. Sep 14, 2010

    Well, they also don’t care because there is always another blogger. You can lose trust capital, it doesn’t make any difference to them, because there’s going to be a wait list for people to get on that ad network and get the $50 or whatever to do that stupid review (for which BlogHer is getting paid 500% more, I would guess).

  47. Sep 14, 2010

    No kidding. Give a girl an inch and she’ll sell you a mile.

    (Um, that was a joke. Right, guys? Guys?)

    No, I’m fully aware that I get much more annoyed with this than your average reader. I’m a peace and love, why-can’t-we-all-just-share kind of blogger with a fairly strong anti-consumer streak. I’m the kind of person that gets annoyed that disposable diapers are imprinting my child’s brain with Elmo. So, it’s safe to say I’m not the target market for sponsored posts. (And also, I use cloth diapers.)

  48. Sep 14, 2010

    I think you are right on that in the act of disclosing it makes things feel a little mucky. Because, you are not just disclosing that you and this brand have a relationship, but that you and this brand have a monetary based relationships. Which in turn makes it sound like “they paid me to write this.”

    When you support a brand on your blog that you truly use and love anyways (like Rebecca and the Gap and you and the Treehouse place) it is hard to communicate that yes they paid me but I really do love them. Especially, when there are brand/blogger partnerships that might not be the best fit.

    It is kind of like: I SWEAR I am not lying I DO love this brand. Which can be frustrating.

    However, disclosing relationships with brand is an essential part of being a blogger now. So, we must find a way to get passed this if this model is going to continue to be successful.

  49. Sep 14, 2010

    That could be a whole other topic. Trust capital between ad companies and their bloggers..

  50. Laura
    Sep 15, 2010

    I don’t like feeling tricked into reading a blog post that is actually an ad. There was a blogger I read for a couple of years who drained her trust capital account with me. When she first started blogging it was mostly about life with two little boys. Then, the posts started changing into things like: Oh, mornings are hard around here blah, blah, blah… click over for more… that’s why Quaker Oatmeal is a lifesaver for us! Blah, blah contest, Twitter about Quaker, Facebook about Quaker, tell me about your Quaker morning breakfast routine…

    GAG.

    The thing is, she is a really good writer and she got me a few times with this set-up. Personal story, tie in to brand, contest announced at the end. I finally got so fed-up I no longer read her blog. It’s really, really weird to say this, but I felt betrayed by the “sponsored content” being buried underneath a personal anecdote.

  51. jcristg
    Sep 15, 2010

    I’m with Laura — I felt betrayed for falling for it as well. I am even somewhat bitter about the blogger (yes, I know, step away from the internet) because I feel like everything she says is just a sham. It’s disappointing when you’ve grown to adore the blogger.

  52. Cheryl
    Sep 16, 2010

    I read this post a couple of days ago, and have not had the chance to comment until now. (With the bonus that it’s my first comment on your blog, which I’ve been reading for several months!)

    I don’t have a blog, so this is entirely reader perspective. I don’t like posts sponsored by big corporations not because I feel like the blogger has sold out, but because I feel like the company is insulting my intelligence. Like they’ve said, “Well, this woman doesn’t shop at Sears now, but maybe if her favorite blogger likes it she’ll change her mind!” When it’s a smaller, less-known company trying to build recognition or just get its name out, that’s something different.

    Admittedly, I have not read Jonna’s masterwork with Huggies. But what mother hasn’t used the ubiquitous coupons for both Pampers and Huggies, and decided one works better than the other based on the diameter of her kid’s thighs and the relative prodigiousness of the kid’s pee? When it’s diapers, or laundry detergent, or goldfish crackers–something I, and any mother not living under a rock, know about and can easily find and try for myself–the sponsored posts are just yet another place where those brands are in my face.

    When it’s a more major purchase like, oh, a washer and dryer set; or something where there are so many choices and it’s difficult to try them all, like car seats, I can see using the experience of a blogger I trust as one more datapoint in my decisionmaking. But I really don’t understand, and am a little offended by, both a brand and a blogger who think I’ll start going to McDonald’s more just because money changed hands in a different place than television.

    So, in short, for me as a reader: sponsored posts OK if I’m not duped into them and they truly provide information; not OK if it’s just another marketing channel.

  53. Sep 16, 2010

    Laura, you bring up a good point: it’s not just THAT you have to disclose, it’s sometimes where you disclose that’s important. If you disclose at the end it can feel like a bait and switch. Although I would argue that’s another form of bad placement, because it’s tricking you. Sometimes the best placements are the ones that are over-the-top obvious — for instance, I thought the fact that Dooce did the money sign thing with the mentions of Verizon in the video was actually good because it made a joke about it instead of trying to hide it. I remember BHJ doing something like this once with a sponsored post he did for a small Etsy jewelry shop he plugged, and it worked similarly well. If you are very over the top, that often works better than trying to hide it.

  54. Sep 16, 2010

    See, this is one problem I feel I won’t ever have . . . readers growing to adore me and then me disappointing them by selling out. 😉

  55. jcristg
    Sep 16, 2010

    Ahh Anna, you wouldn’t be the first and you certainly wouldn’t be the last.

  56. Sep 16, 2010

    Hi Cheryl, thanks for commenting! There really is something different about mass market products, isn’t there? Because we do already all know about them, even if they release a new product that is slightly different, the chances are that we have already seen it or will see it within a few days. It’s very hard to pretend like it’s new or novel, and even if we do legitimately like the thing, it’s just hard to sell it. I’ve had this problem in the past when I’ve recommended products on commodity fetishism — there are a few mass market products that, as it turns out, are the best for certain things, like Dove body wash, for example. There’s just not a whole hell of a lot to say about it. Everybody knows what it is. You kind of just say, hey, this stuff is better than the other crap, you should get it.

    Unfortunately, these are the people with the big budgets. I think bloggers have to say no, as a group, to sponsored content, if they want ad people to buy more sidebar content, though. Because the companies are going to do whatever they have to do to get into the content column. They can do that by creating viral content, but that is hard and takes smart, clever people working for them, and there are few people like that. It’s much easier to charm some mommybloggers at a conference, or pay some through these content campaigns. And once mommybloggers start losing trust capital and, eventually, losing their audiences because of it, then maybe they’ll stop doing it. But this might take a few years before anyone notices the pattern, and by that time, the companies will have moved on to the next big thing.

  57. Sep 16, 2010

    I know, but I’ve got that trollish exterior thing that keeps people from adoring me in the first place, so you know, I feel relatively safe.

  58. Sep 16, 2010

    You know what though? I tried the Dove body wash because I read about it here. I had seen ads for it, but those ads all say that their product is fabulous. I saw you mention it, though, and I had liked the other products you had recommended, so I bought it. And I love it. It’s in my shower right now.

    So I actually think that it can work for mass market products, because just by virtue of being “mass,” there’s no way to wade through them all or differentiate between them unless someone you trust says, “Hey, this stuff is awesome.”

  59. Sep 16, 2010

    Right, but you’ve hit upon exactly why trust capital is so valuable. The *ads* all say that they’re great. I said Dove body wash was great because it IS great, not because I was being paid to say it. So, in a really good placement, Dove would have approached me and got me to say that and be paid to do it (this is what happened with Jonna and Huggies), but usually that doesn’t happen. Usually it’s just a crapshoot. And even when it does happen, then we’re kind of not sure what’s going on, because more often than not there’s no relationship whatsoever between trust capital and an ad, so if we see an ad, we are conditioned to mistrust what the person is saying. The problem is that even the good placements start to look insincere just by virtue of being in the same space as all of the other ones.

    You trusted what I said about Dove because you knew I wasn’t being paid.

  60. Sep 16, 2010

    Probably true. Although if I buy something a blogger recommends, I make sure to look for an affiliate link, even if it’s months after the fact (I just did that this morning, in fact, when I ordered some more Mabel’s Labels). Because the thing is–I WANT you to get paid. If someone provides me good information or entertainment, I want them to get something for it. I feel guilty when a blog I like makes little or no money. I feel like a mooch. I’m a little shocked at the visceral reaction some people have, because geez…if you like this person, why do you want them to starve?

    When Jonna did the Huggies thing, I was glad she got paid. I enjoy her blog, but I can’t afford to send her money. If a big company is willing to pay her, then she can keep entertaining me with posts. It’s just the same as how TV works…I get to watch Mad Men because BMW (or whoever) buys ads. There’s no chance I’d ever buy a BMW in this lifetime…but I’m not pissed off at Mad Men’s producers or AMC for taking money from them to sponsor the show. The result of that transaction is that I get to watch the show, so I win. What’s to be pissed about?

    I get not buying the product that the blogger is endorsing, or wondering whether they really like the product or are just saying so to get money. But I don’t get the hostility at all. I want everyone to make a living so they can buy food for their families. I might cringe at how ham-handedly some people handle their deals, but I don’t harbor any ill will whatsoever at them for trying. People have to eat. They’re not obligated to work for free (or chump change) to entertain us.

  61. Cheryl
    Sep 16, 2010

    I think, too, that we are conditioned to mistrust PR in this space. I read so, so much, especially on Twitter, about badly-aimed PR pitches. And it makes me wonder, since I am not a PR professional, is it general practice to throw the whole bowl of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks? (Which is kind of along the lines of what I was saying about corporations above; they’ve got the money, so why not try one more advertising channel?) If that’s the case, well, then, lots of people are going to get pitches that don’t match them, and the PR firm knows that, and it’s just the industry-accepted way of doing business, like direct mail.

    Or are the PR people tasked with working on this brave new frontier particularly inept?

    I don’t disagree that building trust capital at the blogger level is critical, but I think the ones who need more of it are the brands behind them. We don’t trust big corporations because their ads are everywhere, and we (both bloggers and readers) feel used by them; we don’t trust other PR people because they don’t seem to have any respect for bloggers and their audiences beyond, “Hey, they’re moms!” (Or tech people, or foodies, or whatever broad niche.)

  62. Laura
    Sep 16, 2010

    Anna, I’m probably just not getting this, but why don’t brands hire bloggers to write on the brand’s own site instead of their personal site? Then the bloggers could just charge an hourly rate (like a freelancer) instead of doing the pay per post/free box of cereal/we don’t know how to pay you — type of negotiating. Bloggers could always do a link to the brand’s site from their blog. What am I missing here?

  63. Sep 16, 2010

    I feel the same way: I want them to get paid, and I don’t mind the idea of sponsorship. But, I think it tends to be bad and tends to undermine their brand. Affiliate links tend to not do this, and I don’t know why they don’t, maybe because they are more subtle? I use affiliate links, and I tell people that somewhere, though not on every single link, and that might be bad, some people say you’re supposed to do that, but I don’t because I find that annoying and troublesome in the same way as I find the FTC thing annoying and troublesome: in other words, I think it almost makes the problem worse.

    Like, I don’t care if somebody is shilling for a giant brand, as long as they do it well. But they almost never do, and often even when they do, they are not getting paid enough to make up for the damage they might be doing with some of their readership. Because the fact remains, I don’t think that most people feel the way you and I do when it comes to compensation. Most people are much less forgiving about that kind of thing.

  64. Sep 16, 2010

    Laura, sometimes they do, and I think this works much better. For example, there is Intel’s Life Scoop site that employs people like Asha from Parenthacks and Lindsay Knerl from Wisebread to write freelance style articles on content that they’re known for. The whole thing is centered on Intel and sponsored by Intel, but it’s not like it’s constantly talking about Intel is awesome! or whatever. I think that is WAY more effective. That is what I call the “microsite” model and that gets plugged sometimes on a blogger’s site, but doesn’t really show up as a sponsored post. I think that is a really smart way of doing sponsored content elsewhere without messing with trust capital.

    The problem is, not many companies are yet doing this, so there are far fewer deals like this floating around. It takes money to set up a site like that, and you tell a company that and they’re just going to think, “but we can get more page views by using the blogger’s site.” They don’t understand this stuff. It’s up to us or the vast sea of “social media consultants” to make them understand it.

  65. Sep 16, 2010

    I think that PR employs so many people straight out of college with little training and gives them boilerplate email things and just says, “Send this out,” and that’s what happens. Also, mommybloggers LOVE to brag about getting PR solicitations, don’t underestimate that. I mean, yeah, sometimes you get stupid PR things, but let’s not forget that a lot of what you read on Twitter has to do with wanting to talk about how many people are vying for your attention.

    The brands ABSOLUTELY need to be educated. But the problem is, if we don’t start here, then nobody is going to get this done. Because it’s like, once you move past a certain traffic level and people start throwing real money at you, you start thinking your problems are over, and what I’m saying is: they are not over. You are just moving into a different set of problems.

  66. Laura
    Sep 16, 2010

    I’m so glad you replied to this. You explained it much better than I could. These types of posts remind me of the time I was invited to a neighbor’s house for a “party” and it ended up being a jewelry party. I prefer to know what I am walking into — a social interaction or a sales pitch.
    I also want to see good writers make money. I just think it works better when the process is as transparent as possible.

  67. Sep 16, 2010

    Part of the issue too, is that marketers and PR people want not just the page views but the ability to say “we’re listed on these 92 sites” not just, “we’re on this one site–ours”. PR firms in particular are often under pressure to deliver lots of various locations (in this case URL’s). It’s sometimes more important for them to be able to say “We were on all these pages” even if the overall page views aren’t huge, than to be able to say they got the best review/content/etc.

  68. Sep 16, 2010

    In my job as editor of a regional parenting magazine, I get a lot of junk–that is, those same PR solicitations, directed to my e-mail because it’s on the magazine’s website. I marvel at what you describe: the mommybloggers bragging (or backhanded bragging) about receiving inept, boilerplate pitches. What I don’t get: Why is anyone READING those pitches? The subject line usually gives away the game. I don’t waste my time reading; I just delete.

  69. Great post and I like the conversation in the comments. Right now I’m struggling with starting a second blog just for this reason. There are so many things I don’t talk about on my site (like shoes and handbags) because I don’t want people to think I’m suddenly a product whore, but people who know me IRL know shoes are one of my favorite topics. Because I don’t mention shopping too often on my blog I worry that I’ll look like the person in the breakfast sausage example above.

    But, straight up, I’m getting tired of seeing others post about the same things I would talk about and getting paid really well to do so while my bank account stays the same. I never wanted to be a review blogger, but from the blogs I read I’m almost regretting having a personal blog with occasional sponsored content rather than starting out with almost all sponsored content with the occasional personal anecdote.

    I’m not sure what to do but I appreciate all the food for thought in the comments.

  70. Sep 17, 2010

    Lisa brought up a point on your most recent post that triggered a thought for me on this–she mentioned that she felt there was a difference between reviews and sponsored posts. I think might help explain where things can go wrong to me.

    To me, a review is great. I want to hear about new products–I’m always looking for better solutions, new stuff, things that make my life easier/better/faster. To use myself as a little example–I don’t have many IRL mom friends, so I use my blogger friends to help me learn about cool and helpful stuff for the kid. I don’t mind if they make money from it because I get something from it–if I feel like I’m getting an honest review. To me, that doesn’t spend any trust capital.

    But I think what ends up with these sponsored posts in particular is they’re just so over the top. This product is amazing! It’s wonderful! You guys it saved my life! You just have to have it! There’s not a thing in the world that’s wrong with it! (oh and by the way they paid me). Especially when I’m used to more subdued writing from the blogger, or when I’m used to hearing positives and negatives in their life, to see them turn cheerleader (and then the disclosure, where it becomes apparent why their voice is so different)? That’s when they start to lose me.

    Too much of that loss of voice, too little actual REVIEW, and you burn through your trust capital with me. If you can keep your voice, keep your opinions, tell me the good (and maybe even the not so good!) without sounding fake–then, I’m fine with you working sponsored posts in the content column.

  71. Sep 17, 2010

    I think the problem is that when you start getting large dollar amounts it’s so hard not to turn up the volume, even when they aren’t asking you to. It’s like you feel like you should be doing more or something. But I do understand what you are saying, and I’ve seen that phenomenon more than once.

  72. Sep 18, 2010

    Apparently, you’ve started quite a little conversation the in mommyblog-o-sphere. I’ve been thinking about “why” the sponsored content thing burns up sooo much trust capital, at least with me.

    Just a few years ago, the world of blogging was a whole different place. These blogs, these women, were regular people just documenting their lives, their kids lives, their ups and downs. It was the equivalent of the “front porch” conversation only it was packaged conveniently for the busy woman. Real people with real stuff going on.

    When you get into sponsored content, the dynamic between author and reader changes. No matter how well written, or how well executed, author and reader are no longer on the same level. Instead of being spoken “with” the reader is being “spoken to”. The author becomes less relate-able with each and every sponsored gig. The reader becomes more cynical with each sponsored post. The author is no longer the woman down the street, the author becomes the authority figure in a sense. No longer “just like me” or “just like you”. Trust capital is spent with each and every sponsored post, and I venture to say with each post thereafter.

    It has come to light that Elizabeth Gilbert was paid a handsome advance before the journey that ended with her book “Eat Pray Love”. Readers and reviewers alike are abuzz with the news but the common thread in the discussions is “she’s not like us”. She purported to be one of the regular people, she preached that anyone, anywhere could take a journey of their own. Well, they certainly can, but without the advance, it may just be to the next town over. Trust capital account closed. It doesn’t negate her journey, it doesn’t make the story less worthwhile, but it does put her in a totally different place than her readers.

    Blogs with sponsored content expend capital the same way. Up until the “sponsored” thing, bloggers are pretty much on a level field. They are writing and reading for one another a “we’re all in the same boat” kind of thing. Their opinions and recommendations have value precisely because of that. Toss those sponsored posts into the mix, and suddenly, we’re not all in the same boat…

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