Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reviews, sponsored posts, and why it matters

Reviews, recipe development, sponsored posts ... as a blogger, I get offers for all sorts of opportunities. As a reader, do you know what the differences are?

Does it matter?

I think it does matter. Reviews and sponsored posts are very different things, at least to me. Other people might have different ideas. And that's fine, too.

I have to admit it's good to make some money from this blog. But I don't take every opportunity that comes along. If it doesn't seem right, I refuse it. And I get a lot of offers that are just plain wrong.


Reviews are ... well, they're reviews of products. In the world of print, reviewers get products from the publications they write for and have no contact with the company they're writing about. That way, the review is as unbiased as possible. Bloggers don't have that same setup. The reviewer is the publication, so there is a relationship with company. It's a little harder to be completely unbiased.

I try really hard to be unbiased in my reviews. I don't take money from a company for writing a review of their product, but I often get the product for free. And I disclose that in my review.

When products arrive here for review, I have the option of writing about them, or not. I am not obligated to write nice things. However, I tend not to write negative reviews, simply because I don't agree to accept things that I know I wouldn't like. If someone offered me a lifetime supply of coconut, I'd refuse. If someone offered a lifetime supply of chocolate, I'd write about it. A lot.

That's not to say that all of my reviews are positive. Most of them include pros and cons, because most products do have cons. And some reviews, like this one, are mostly not-good - I think the photos tell the tale best. I gave my opinions, but I know that some people might love the product, so that's what I said.

Some of my reviews - many of them, in fact - are republished from other sources who pay me for my work, just like in the olden days of print publications.

Mike and Ike: A Review

One of the most recent items I got for review was some Mike and Ike candy - the Lem and Mel version and the Cherri and Bubb. Both of those are retro, brought back for a short period of time.

To be honest, I don't remember either of them.

Lem and Mel is lemon and watermelon. Lemon was as expected. Lemony. Not super-tart, but also not crazy sweet. Watermelon ... hmmm ... I don't think I would have picked it out as watermelon. I liked it, though. I mean, it's candy, not gourmet food.

Cherry was pretty good. I like cherry-flavored candy. Ah, but the bubblegum! I don't chew much gum, so the bubblegum flavor made me happy. I had the flavor without all the chewing. No bubbles, though. But that's okay.

I've been munching on these things since they arrived. They're pretty addictive, but one or two is enough of a little flavor burst and then I move on. And that makes me happy, too.

Recipe Development

Sometimes a company will say, "we want you to write some recipes for us," and I receive something for this service. Money is nice. When I am doing recipe development, I am not reviewing the products in question, nor am I endorsing them. I'm simply using them to create a recipe.

In many cases, the recipe could easily be made with a different brand. In some cases, the product is unique.

My posts for Fooducopia are all about recipe development.

Sponsored Posts

A sponsored post means that a company is offering me something in exchange for writing a post. Often that "something" is cash, but it might also be products. Sponsored posts can contain elements of other categories. For example, some sponsors might require a recipe.

Since a sponsor is giving me something in exchange for my posts, and I'm obligated to post, I wouldn't take a sponsorship for a product I didn't like. And I'm perfectly willing to give pros and cons of products, because none of them are perfect, and my posts are my opinion.

In this sponsored post, I pointed out that one item was a little too sweet for my taste, but that's the one my husband liked best. I'd never tell you that I loved a product if I didn't.

Some sponsored posts aren't looking for talk about the product itself, but are looking for posts about concepts like memories or mood. This one, for example, was more about memories than the product itself.

Blogger Programs & Brand Ambassadors

Blogger programs (sometimes referred to as brand ambassadorships) are somewhat like sponsored posts, except that the relationship is long-term. A sponsored post is a one-time thing, but a blogger program might last six months or a year, with multiple posts over that period of time.

The benefits of being in a long-term program is that the blogger really gets to know the brand and its products. The details of what a blogger gets and what the brand expects vary a lot, depending on the program, and just like any other relationship, that should be disclosed* within the post or at the end.

If I'm going to sign on to do something like that, for sure I'm going to be selective and only work with products I love, because we're going to be in a relationship for quite some time.

The Republic of Tea: I'm on the TEAm! (A blogger program)

Recently, I got an offer to become part of The Republic of Tea TEAm, which means I'll get getting a lot of tea products from The Republic of Tea, and I'll be posting about tea. Over the next six months, there will be four required posts, including some recipes.

*The disclosure here is: "I'll get getting a lot of tea products from The Republic of Tea..."

The first box I got included four different teas, plus some tea tongs - little bamboo tongs meant for removing a teabag from a hot cup of tea. It also included some instructions for how to brew different types of tea. So that's good. My posts will be a little bit educational. And I also plan on doing some recipes.

It's gonna be pretty awesome. Look for the first of the sponsored posts coming soon.

The benefit to you (besides a bunch of tea talk) is that The Republic of Tea will have special offers for my readers each month. Through March 8, you can receive a complimentary Cheerful Cuppa tea mug when you make a purchase from The Republic of Tea when you use the promo code #COOKISTRY.

Paid Endorsements

Product endorsements are probably not something you'll see from me. Those are things like having your photo on the front of the Wheaties box. Some day, I'd like to endorse a new car. But I doubt that's gonna happen any time soon.

Other Free Bloggy Stuff

Sometimes bloggers get little gifts that have little or nothing to do with the products they're writing about. Spatulas, aprons, key chains, magnets ... those sometimes show up. Just for fun. Awwww.

Like the creamers, above. I had an agreement to do a sponsored post for International Delights Iced Coffee, and it was written and ready to go when these creamers appeared here as a little extra something. (It has since been posted, here.)

Sometimes swag gets handed out at events. Bloggers aren't expected to (or obligated to) write about such things, but often they do. And companies know that. I mean, we're bloggers. We're looking for things to write about. If a product falls in our lap, there's a good chance we'll write about it sooner or later.

Bloggers are new media - expect them to be different

Bloggers are not print media, and they don't operate by the same rules. I'm fine with that. I like the idea that if there's a product I'm curious about, I can write to the company, and maybe they'll send it to me. I don't have to risk my own money on something that I might not like.

On the other hand, I'll admit that it's hard to be completely objective. I've gotten to know some company reps and PR people, and I like them. We're not exactly hanging out together and having beers at the pub, but we're friendly. I don't want to be mean to their products. That's why I don't accept anything that I don't think I'll like.

Sometimes the lines between sponsored posts and reviews gets a little blurred. I'm okay with that, too, because blogging is a new media, at least compared to print. And the rules are still being written. I can't speak for other bloggers, but I try very very hard to not be swayed by the freebies, the million-dollar checks (hahaha - I think I just sprained something from laughing so hard) and the really nice products that I receive. Because no matter what a company sends, I want to be honest with my readers. You guys deserve that.

How many is too many?

I've seen some criticism of bloggers who do "too many" sponsored posts. I'm not sure what constitutes too many, but I think that's up to the individual blogger. There are some blogs that are nothing but sponsored posts, and they're quite popular. Other blogger never do sponsored posts and they're also popular..

I like sponsored posts. And it's not just the money or the freebies. I like being on the "inside track" with food and media companies. I like being one of the first to hear about new products. I like to test and sample and write about things that haven't been written about by every blogger on the planet.

And yes, the income is nice. It helps pay bills and it puts food on the table.


When bloggers are working with companies, the blogger is supposed to disclose that information. Sometimes you'll see that disclosure at the end of a post, and sometimes it will be within the post itself. Either way is legal, as long as it's clear.

If a blogger says, "I got some cheese," it's not clear whether the blogger bought the cheese with their own money or whether the cheese was shipped to them by the company. That's not a good disclosure. It should say, "The company sent me coupons to purchase the cheese," or "The company sent me cheese to work with," or some other wording that makes it clear that the blogger didn't pay for the product.

The blogger doesn't have to disclose the value of the exchange, just that it occurred. So that cheese could be a quarter-pound or it could be a whole wheel. I often do disclose exactly what I got from a company, sometimes by showing photos of the products as in the photo of the products from The Republic of Tea or this post where I showed the cheese products I received. But that detail isn't required.

Some companies provide the language for the disclosure while others rely on the blogger to do the right thing.

While I think disclosures are a great thing, I think most readers are smart enough to spot when writers aren't being genuine. So if a post sounds like it was copied verbatim from a press release and a disclosure at the bottom says, "All opinions are my own," I think most people would spot that a mile away. With or without a formal disclosure, the content is supposed to be truthful. The disclosure is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You can't say your opinions are your own while copying a press release that talks about the deliciousness of the product.

Some bloggers like to hide their disclosures in teeny-tiny print or they say things in ways that make it unclear whether a meal might have been free or not. I really don't see why they're shy about that. Thus far, no one has offered me a kazillion dollars to write about their product, but if they did, I'm pretty sure my post would say, "Oh, wow, look at this suitcase full of money that I got for writing about this product!"

As far as readers go, recently I've read some conversations where some people said they prefer to see the disclosure near the beginning of the post, so they know as soon as they start reading that the blogger received a product, a meal, a free trip, or a bundle of cash.

I often put my disclosure within the posts (where it fits naturally in the flow of the article), saying that I received a product or was given a free meal as part of a blogger group - whatever is appropriate for the situation. If a company requires a specific disclosure or it makes more sense in terms of the flow of the post, I'll put a disclosure at the end. Sometimes it's in both places.

But no matter where the disclosure is, my opinions are MY opinions, and not something that's been fed to me by a company. I might quote from their fact sheet for nutritional information, but my likes and dislikes are all my own.

It's good for you, too!

If I can write about new products, it allows my readers to find out about them, too. When I sample them and I describe them (using words other than "yummalicous") maybe you'll get an idea of whether you'll like the product or not. I don't like overly sweet things, but maybe you do. I like spicy foods, but maybe you don't. Even when I'm giving an opinion, I try to include a useful description so you can decide for yourself.

Because my opinion is my own. Yours may be different.

Another reason my relationship with companies is good for you is that quite often they offer things to my readers. Maybe it's a giveaway, maybe it's a discount or a special offer of some kind. Or maybe it's a recipe or a new technique or some inside information. And those things are all good, too.

The bottom line

A lot of bloggers these days are getting offers and freebies and sponsorships from companies. And the one rule we all have to follow is that we have to disclose our "relationship" with the company. When you see a disclosure, it's up to you to decide whether you think the blogger has been influenced or not. And it's up to us bloggers to try as hard as we can to remain un-influenced.

The BOTTOM bottom line

Thanks for supporting me and supporting Cookistry. You guys are why I do this.