20 min read
If you’ve been working on your blog consistently for at least six months, there’s a good chance you’re gaining traction, attracting an engaged audience that wants to learn from you, and steadily growing your email list to hundreds or thousands of subscribers.
And inevitably, as your site and audience grow, you’ll start to attract companies and brands that want to work with you to create sponsored content.
Wait. Right there.
How did your insides feel when I said “sponsored content”?
Were you psyched or did you shudder a bit? Did the walls of resistance start to come up?
If working with brands excites you, then great! But if not… I totally know where you’re coming from.
In 2009, I started Effortless Gent, a men’s style website teaching guys how to dress sharp and feel confident in the clothes they wear. In the beginning, my business was primarily digital products. But over the past few years, brand partnership revenue has far surpassed my digital product sales.
If you talked to me a few years ago, there’s no way I would’ve imagined brand partnerships to be such a significant percentage of revenue. For a long time, I avoided doing sponsored articles and all forms of advertisement. I absolutely feared reader backlash. I had nightmares of receiving hundreds of hateful emails in my inbox, SCREAMING AT ME IN ALL CAPS and calling me a sellout.
But I eventually got over my fears, gave it a shot, and guess what?
No hateful, all-caps emails, no reader backlash. Everything was totally fine. I even get the occasional email from readers thanking me for introducing them to great products they never knew existed.
Even though you may not be comfortable working with sponsors yet, hopefully this quick guide eases your fears and even gets you excited about sponsored content (and hey, the extra money in your pocket doesn’t hurt either!)
“So how am I able to work with advertisers and create content without feeling slimy and gross… content that my audience enjoys, and even learns from?”
When it comes to sponsored content, I always follow these three general guidelines. Feel free to adopt them if they resonate with you.
Pretty self-explanatory, right? I’ll be referring back to these guidelines, so keep them in mind as you go through this article.
First, important legal mumbo jumbo…
A few years ago, the sponsored content landscape was like the Wild West. Bloggers had no idea what to charge, brands overvalued follower counts, and as a reader or follower, you had no idea if something was sponsored or not.
In many ways, it still is uncharted territory. While brands and publishers continue to figure things out, the government has been relatively quick in establishing disclosure guidelines in the reader’s interest.
So, for example, if you publish sponsored content on Instagram, you must use #ad within the image caption itself; it can’t be buried in a sea of hashtags within a comment a user has to click to see.
If you publish affiliate links within a blog post, it should be stated that you will earn a commission (at no cost to the reader) if they buy through your links, either next to the link itself, or at the top of the post.
If you write a sponsored blog post, you should disclose it at the beginning of the article.
Here’s an example of a disclosure callout I use for my sponsored posts. You can change the language depending on what you’re producing.
So if it’s a review, state that Brand X is a paid partner, you’re reviewing their product in this article, and even though you were compensated, you did your best to remain as objective as possible.
Sometimes the brand wants you to use specific language. In the example above, The Fifth wanted me to mention their upcoming release.
Follow these guidelines as closely as possible– you don’t want the FTC running after you for not playing by the rules, as has happened to many celebs in recent years. And don’t be fooled into thinking that since you’re not The Wirecutter or a Kardashian sibling that you can simply ignore these rules because no one will notice.
First, see Guideline #1 (be honest and truthful) and Guideline #2 (your audience comes first). Those two rules alone should be reason enough to disclose all brand partnerships.
Second, you’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears building your business for months, maybe years. Why put all that at risk simply because you didn’t use the proper disclosures?
And maybe you’re not getting millions of monthly pageviews yet, but if you stick to it, eventually you will. Why not build good habits now so you’ll naturally put them into practice as you get bigger?
As your audience grows, you’ll have to be more selective with sponsors as well as raise your rates (a good thing!). By then, you’ll have a few campaigns under your belt, and you can use them as samples when pitching to those brands you really want to work with.
But in the beginning, you have more time than work, so partnering with a brand, even at a lower rate, is exciting!
Remember Guideline #3? Don’t sell yourself short. Even if you’re still growing, always charge something, even if it’s only a fraction of what you’d eventually like to charge.
Use this as a chance to learn the blogger-sponsor relationship and as an opportunity to create a compelling post or video the sponsor will love. That way, the client is happy, and you’ve created another piece of content you can use in your media kit.
Many companies will want to work with you on an affiliate-only basis, but I tend to stay away from those agreements because there’s no real benefit to you as the blogger.
You most likely have affiliate accounts set up with the big networks, and if not, you can easily sign up, so there’s no real draw in these arrangements other than establishing a relationship with the brand.
The only time I’d consider doing a sponsored post on an affiliate-only basis would be if the company agrees to a higher percentage revenue share (say 25%+) in perpetuity, or at least for an extended period of time (one year, eighteen months, or more).
Is it ever OK to do free work for brands? Most bloggers would quickly yell out, “No way! Never!”
I’ve changed my tune a bit over the past year or so. I think it’s OK to do free work… if you’re doing so strategically and playing the long game.
First, always remember Guideline #3: Don’t sell yourself short.
And while it’s important to establish yourself as a blogger that takes her business seriously and charges what she’s worth, there are times when doing a branded article without getting paid is OK.
1. You want to build the relationship with a potential client and show you can foster engagement (plus click-throughs and sales)
I know this contradicts what I said a few paragraphs earlier about always charging something, but hear me out.
This approach makes a lot of sense in the beginning when you have few (or no) paid campaigns to show as examples. It also makes sense if you’re looking to establish a relationship with one of your dream clients.
The fact is, you probably already do this without thinking.
For example, J.Crew is a brand I’d love to work with. I recommend their products to my audience all the time, but I’ve never done a paid campaign with them.
If I wanted to pitch them on why they should work with Effortless Gent, I could create a post that my audience would love and find useful– something like How To Dress Sharp in The Winter: Three Different Casual Looks and all three outfits happen to feature a majority of J.Crew product.
I would treat this like a paid campaign (i.e. put my all into it) and make sure it’s something my audience wants to know (y’know, so they actually read the article). Best case scenario, I use the post in a pitch to J.Crew, and they want to work on a sponsored campaign with me. Worst case, I wrote a useful article that will help my readers, and I can earn money through affiliate links.
A few months ago, I started laying the groundwork for more lifestyle-focused articles. I wanted to see if my readers would be interested in posts about cocktails, food, travel, and interior design, and I also wanted to start building up a library of content I can use to attract advertisers in these related niches.
So when Bulleit (the whiskey brand) contacted me, I told them I was interested in creating more cocktail-related content and would love to feature their bourbon. (What they didn’t know was that I normally drink Bulleit and probably would’ve used it in my content anyway, but shhh, don’t tell.)
In any case, they sent over a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, and I used them in my post about batch-making Old Fashioneds for your next party.
Yes, the brand got free content, but I’m playing the long game:
I’ve also let them know I’m interested in sponsored content, and I’m confident that we’ll set something up in the near future.
And best of all, every article I create adds to the list of cocktail-related content in my portfolio which I can use to court other liquor brands for sponsored content in case nothing pans out with Bulleit.
Whether you’re the one reaching out to companies or brands are reaching out to you, it’s important to ask yourself these questions. How you answer them can help determine whether or not it’s worth the effort in the first place.
Working with a company should be a no-brainer. If you love using their products (even without getting paid), that’s a brand you should contact. You NEED to be working with them.
Sometimes a company reaches out to you, but you haven’t tried their products yet… or a new, untested brand wants to work with you. If it looks interesting, it may be worth requesting a sample and testing out for a few days or weeks before fully committing to a paid sponsorship.
A few years ago, I worked with a new startup brand for a sponsored piece, and after my experience I vowed to never work with them again… even though they reach out to me regularly (even to this day) and would willingly pay thousands for a single article.
They never did anything to me personally, but the way they presented themselves online was completely unprofessional.
The founders would hop on forums and website comment threads berating past customers who talked about their less-than-stellar experience (even if it was a simple critique, nothing particularly bad), they’d badmouth competing brands (brands that have been around for 90 YEARS), and in general acted very obnoxious, snarky, and condescending.
I don’t want my brand to be associated with a company whose founders act that way, so it was an easy decision. You want to be as in-control of your brand as possible, so work with companies whose teams you like and respect.
Effortless Gent focuses on well-made menswear that, while not always the most affordable option, are designed with intention, constructed with quality materials, and meant to last years.
So if Walmart approached me to promote one of their clothing brands, I’d be flattered that such a big brand wants to work with me, but I’d have to politely decline.
It can be tough, especially as you grow and are able to command higher rates, to turn down revenue… but do your best to keep in mind Guideline #2: Your audience comes first.
They’re super smart! When you don’t act in their interest (or when you put profit over something as simple as product or brand alignment), they can tell, and you erode that trust.
Will Brand X’s products or services be useful and benefit your audience? Or is it a stretch to have them as a sponsor and you feel slightly dirty promoting them because deep down you know their product or service isn’t truly aligned?
If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it. Like I mentioned in the section above, your audience can tell when you’re doing something for the money.
Again, this is in line with Guideline #2.
They trust your expertise and recommendations, and you don’t want to violate that trust!
If the money is good but you aren’t 100% behind the brand, product, or team… or the product isn’t the best fit for your audience, the money isn’t worth it.
Be patient and persistent– you’ll find a brand that perfectly aligns with yours, and is also willing to pay you the rate you want.
At this point, you’ve pitched a brand, they love your idea, and they’ve said YES to working with you. The contracts are signed, you received 50% of the fee as a down payment, and now it’s time to get to work.
How do you create a video for YouTube, write an article for the blog, or photograph a series for Instagram that engages your audience, feels natural to produce, and pleases the brand?
You have to treat this piece of content you’re creating like any other thing you’d film, photograph, or write. You probably have a formula for the perfect video, or a series on your blog that you publish regularly. Work the product into a piece you’d be creating anyway.
For example, we have a series on Effortless Gent called Five Ways To Wear One. We take one menswear item, like brown chukka boots or a pair of dark denim, and we show our readers five different outfits they can put together using this item.
If Levi’s were a sponsor, I could easily work them into our Five Ways To Wear One: Dark Denim article. It aligns perfectly with the site and my readers, and it’s a seamless way to place a product… it makes sense and isn’t at all forced.
Sometimes, a brand wants you to do a review of their product. People will assume there’s some bias since it’s a paid review, but it’s your responsibility to follow Guidelines #1 (Be honest and truthful) and #2 (Your audience comes first).
Be as objective as possible in your product reviews; no product is perfect, so you’re bound to find something that you’ll need to mention as a shortcoming. Smart and savvy brands know you have to be objective, and they will welcome your honesty.
Your optimal amount of sponsored vs. non-sponsored content will vary depending on your niche and website.
In general, I try to have more non-sponsored content than sponsored content in any given month. I give a bit of leeway to products and services that fit nicely into content I was planning on writing anyway, and I make sure no more than half of my monthly sponsored content (¼ of my total content for the month) consists of paid product reviews.
You may be wondering, what are the different types of sponsorships available?
Well, it will depend on your choice of medium and how creative you can get. Brands are usually open to however you want to approach the content. You have a few options, but here are the common ones:
If the sponsor’s product or service fits nicely into an informative article, it’s easy to create something that’s seamless, while at the same time, useful to your reader… like Levi’s sponsoring my article about five different ways to wear dark denim.
In my experience, readers don’t mind sponsored content so long as the product or service is relevant and fits well within the article or video.
So you’ve successfully completed your first sponsored gig. Congrats!
Looking back, you probably learned some lessons during this whole process, and once the project wrapped up, you realized a few things could’ve been done differently.
Determined to do better next time?
Ask yourself these questions to get more clarity and formulate a game plan for how to improve the process in time for your next campaign:
The best sponsors sit back and let you do your thing because they understand you know your audience best. The worst ones try to dictate how to write or film it and what to say. Stay away from these brands.
I give brands plenty of input during the planning stage because that often helps stir ideas in my own head, but once we agree on an approach, I expect to not be micromanaged. I clarify with sponsors that they have limited say in how I present the content, so long as I hit the talking points that are most important to them.
Keep in mind that the company wants to move product, which is why they’re working with you, so you may have to do a bit of selling (i.e. telling your audience why you use the product, why you think it’s great, what problems it solved, etc.), but it doesn’t have to feel dirty.
If you did the necessary prep ahead of time, you’re working with a brand you love and a product you use and enjoy anyway, so promoting it wholeheartedly is easy. This is why it’s important to make sure everything aligns before taking on a brand promotion or sponsorship.
I send the final draft off to the brand before publishing. I want them to have some say in the final product, and I always ask for feedback regarding the way I word their call to action. The brand knows their product best, and to me, it’s helpful having their input for this portion of the article.
I hope this loose guide to working with sponsors is helpful. Keep in mind the three guidelines I mentioned in the beginning, and if you follow those, you’ll never find yourself in a less-than-ideal situation with brands or your audience.
The first step to take (if you haven’t already) is to decide on a set of services and how much you’d charge for each.
It’s also helpful to package up your services in three distinct offerings so it’s easier for a brand to choose. While it’s great to offer services a la carte (i.e. one video, or Twitter promotion, or one Instagram story mention), having three packages allows you to offer a more complete campaign with potentially higher engagement, and you’re able to charge more for your efforts.
Finally, put together a media kit, or at the very least, a Google doc with all the information a potential advertiser needs to decide if they want to move forward on a sponsorship or campaign with your brand.
Download this issue of Tradecraft as a PDF to read and reference at your own pace.