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To Pay or Not to Pay: A Closer Look at the Business of Blogging

The love affair between bloggers and fashion brands and retailers is entering its next phase, and money is a big part of the question.

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The love affair between bloggers and fashion brands and retailers is entering its next phase. And like in many relationships, money is a big part of the question.

There’s been some backlash from designers and brands as they question having to pay bloggers from $5,000 up to $50,000 to work with them. Skeptics question whether paying bloggers results in significant return on investment, especially in comparison to a magazine or television ad. Besides, some brands contend, if bloggers are journalists, journalists aren’t paid for writing about a company.

Bloggers argue back that their fees have substantial ROI because blogs can drive millions of page views a month both on their sites and the brand’s Web site. So why shouldn’t they be paid? And while some bloggers are journalists in the true sense, most of them don’t consider themselves journalists on par with those at The New York Times or the The Wall Street Journal. They are more like columnists, expressing opinions about what they see.

“When you want to work with a blogger in a way that you would with any influencer — whether it’s a photographer, a stylist, a designer for your windows, a public endorser of your brand, advertising or a design collaboration — that’s where you have to compensate because you would compensate anyone for those things,” said Karen Robinovitz, co-founder and chief creative officer of Digital Brand Architects, who considers herself the pioneer of “blogger agents.”

She pointed out that if a brand sends a blogger a box of clothes with the intent of having them create four dedicated full looks that they need shot for posts, the talent has to location scout — and is responsible for styling, hair, makeup, photography, art direction, retouching, copywriting and posting.

“That takes a magazine sometimes 20 people to pull off,” Robinovitz said.

The tension between brands and bloggers is resulting from the ever-evolving world of the Web. As brands increase their involvement with bloggers in terms of coverage and projects, the line between what they should be paid for and what they shouldn’t is growing increasingly blurry.

For between $5,000 and $20,000, a brand can work with an influential blogger to host an event (plus airfare, hotel and entertainment, of course) — one that gets upward of a few million page views a month and will cross-promote the brand on the blogger’s site (although the jury is still out on proving ROI from page views, with sales being the only concrete measure). Starting from $20,000 to $25,000 (and up), a company can book a blogger for various weeklong projects during Fashion Week — with some bloggers fetching nearly $50,000 for even longer-term partnerships. In 2010, Bryanboy’s Bryan Grey Yambao boasted that he made more than $100,000 a year from blogging (and got a lot of flack for it) — which by today’s standards seems quite low for a top-tier blogger, especially when one factors in the partnerships with advertising and other heavily integrated projects.

But how can brands know the money is well spent? Neiman Marcus measures the effectiveness of a campaign by tracking page views, uniques, impressions, referral traffic, as well as engagement through “likes,” comments, retweets, replies, brand mentions, shares and increases in in-bound and out-bound links, according to vice president of corporate public relations Gabrielle de Papp.

She recently voiced a complaint about the going rates for bloggers at a panel with Song of Style’s Aimee Song at the Lucky Blogger Conference in Santa Monica, Calif., where she said, “editorially sized budgets” sometimes hinder the ability to work with bloggers.

De Papp later clarified her comments, explaining that although she believes bloggers are as integral to the brand as traditional journalists, there needs to be a differentiation between a blogger getting paid for a campaign (which is more advertising and p.r.) versus editorial outreach. “This is where the boundaries are murky,” she said, justifying that the retailer will pay a blogger a rate that climbs into the tens of thousands of dollars for advertising or e-mail campaigns because the company is in effect hiring talent to validate the brand name and who can also leverage their followers.

“From an event perspective, we don’t have enormous p.r. budgets, so if we have to pay $10,000 or $20,000 for a blogger to host an event for us, that can be really challenging and not always realistic. It’s a shame because there’s so much value in having blogger-hosted events. They have authenticity and followers, and it brings their audience into our store,” de Papp said.

She drew a distinction between blogger appearances for the retailer and advertising, though. “We don’t pay for celebrities to host events or to wear our clothes, we don’t pay for designers to come to our store, and we don’t pay them a fee to make a designer p.a. at the store,” said de Papp.

She stressed that her team pitches bloggers the same way they do journalists — and if the pitch doesn’t work with their blog then that’s fine. What she calls challenging is when a blogger responds saying they will write about a product or concept, but for a fee. “We would never do that. We don’t pay journalists,” de Papp said. “I have the utmost respect for the blogger community, but I don’t have a budget to pay for product placement and the line between what’s advertising and what’s editorial just needs to be clear.”

Song’s blog, which received 2 million page views in April, has worked with Seven For All Mankind, True Religion, Fossil, Levi’s, Smart Car and Macy’s — all for compensation.

“Although bloggers aren’t celebrities — a lot of us have a decent audience, and sometimes with social media, we can have [even] larger audiences,” Song said, pointing out that when she posts an article of clothing and links to it on an Instagram post — where she has over 100,000 followers — the item can sell out that day. “Before, when I was super naïve and starting out, I would collaborate with brands without getting paid and do it for free,” she said.

She is currently traveling cross-country with Macy’s on behalf of its Bar III collection, and said fees range from a couple of thousand to be at a store hosting all day — tweeting and uploading images to Instagram throughout — up to about $50,000 for a collaboration deal with a brand, which she declined to name (she is, however, in talks to work with them again).

Coach has been at the forefront of collaborating with bloggers — in late 2009, it became one of the first to enlist bloggers to design, style, blog and even appear in its ad campaigns such as Leandra Medine, Hanneli Mustaparta, Into the Gloss’ Emily Weiss and The Glamourai’s Kelly Framel.

“We see bloggers as editors, influencers and entrepreneurs who reach a very specific and unique audience,” said David Duplantis, Coach’s executive vice president of global Web and digital media. “We find great value in working with those who are relevant to our brand, and are willing to pay fairly for projects.”

Duplantis believes the relationship between brand and blogger to be symbiotic — and it’s not just about the monetary reward. So, although the brand benefits by reaching a blogger’s audience in addition to its own, the blogger also benefits from the cachet of working with a brand as large and influential as Coach.

“We don’t look at our blogger partnerships as advertising. For us, this is about content creation and the opportunity to work with a very creative, vibrant community,” Duplantis added. “It’s incredibly valuable to work with bloggers. They are creating so much interesting content, we’d be remiss not to partner with them. It’s fascinating to see how they interpret our brand through their eyes.”

More recently, Coach has begun to work with lesser-known bloggers, opting to discover online talent still relatively unknown to the fashion masses and introducing them to its audience in place of established bloggers — such as Downtown from Behind (a series with photographs of subjects riding their bicycles from behind — all snapped in downtown Manhattan) and Things Organized Neatly (recent college graduate Austin Radcliffe’s blog of aesthetically pleasing, highly organized imagery). Coach remains just as interested in working with established digital influencers (it will reveal projects with several well-known bloggers in the near future), and Duplantis added that as long as a blogger is original, creative and has a genuine affection for the brand, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been blogging for one month or five years.

Robinovitz, who represents Song, The Glamourai’s Framel, Ramshackle Glam’s Jordan Reid and From Me to You’s Jamie Beck, believes the role of blogger partnerships is increasingly important industry-wide. More and more brands appear to agree.

BCBG Max Azria Group tapped The Glamourai’s Framel to style the BCBGMaxAzria ready-to-wear resort presentation on Wednesday and Thursday — the first time the brand has ever worked with a blogger in this capacity. According to BCBG Max Azria Group creative director Lubov Azria, Framel was paid a fee of $5,000 for her role as a stylist, which includes a tie-in with the brand and Framel’s respective Twitter, blog, Facebook and Instagram posts (the number of posts wasn’t specified, as Azria wanted the partnership to be “natural”).

“We took a fresh approach to styling resort this season,” Azria said. “Kelly has a chic, effortless sensibility and approach to fashion that is very BCBG — and clearly she’s very influential. We’re just obsessed with her.”

A BCBG-clad Framel will be on hand during one of the days of the presentation for several hours to walk editors through the collection, and she also attended the CFDA Awards Monday night with Azria and model Selita Ebanks. Tonight, she will co-host an editor and blogger dinner in New York City — wearing the brand, of course.

“I worked in the fashion industry for years before founding my site, and I appreciate when brands see that I have more to offer than a p.r. gimmick,” Framel told WWD.

Late last month, Dove Hair revealed it inked a one-year deal with Ramshackle Glam’s Reid, the brand’s first ambassador. In her role, Reid will cross promote and interact with fans on her blog and on Dove’s Facebook page, as well as test new products, attend events on behalf of the brand and even host reader giveaways. According to her blog, she will serve as a “real world” counterpoint to the celebrity stylist who works with the brand, Mark Townsend.

Technology giant Samsung tapped three of the most prominent fashion bloggers — newest cast member of “America’s Next Top Model” Bryanboy’s Bryan Grey Yambao, Susie Bubble’s Susanna Lau and Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine — to mark the launch of its Galaxy Note smart phone tablet hybrid during New York Fashion Week in February.

“Not only could they take photos, but they could comment and sketch directly on the images and share their opinions with their followers. Consumers across the nation experienced Fashion Week in real time, [and] in a completely new and personalized way,” said Samsung Mobile’s chief marketing officer Todd Pendleton.

The bloggers were responsible for attending 40 shows over the course of the week, tweeting and uploading images on the devices.

Yet as the number of brand partnerships with bloggers grows, they bring a recurring issue to light: the journalistic integrity of bloggers.

On the one hand, bloggers want to be considered journalists but forging partnerships with leading brands and designers creates what some believe to be a conflict of interest. Bloggers argue they aren’t “traditional” journalists in the same sense that an editor at a newspaper or established magazine is — and say this is starting to give way to a fast forming, hybrid type of journalism.

For starters, the new breed of online journalism is generally transparent. Bloggers don’t pretend to be unbiased — more often than not, they’re unabashedly self-promoting. The FTC ruled in October 2009 that a post of any blogger who receives payment or accepts gifts is considered an “endorsement” of the party he or she accepted it from. The ruling went on to state that “bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

This further blurs the already murky line of what a traditional blog is, compared with content in a magazine. And, like in magazines, bloggers do have lines they will not cross in terms of promoting a product.

“For the sake of maintaining integrity I won’t trade product for blog posts, but if someone sends me something, I don’t send it back,” said Man Repeller’s Medine, who receives about 2 million page views a month. “If Isabel Marant wants to pay me to blog about them, it’s basically just an awesome fee on top of work I would already be doing, not that Isabel Marant has ever paid or gifted me anything,” Medine said, firm that this is her “whole m.o.,” and there is a note on her site that clearly states this. “I know I’m not an editor at The Wall Street Journal and that’s fine. I don’t have to have an unbiased point of view. Blogging is about subjectivity.”

She went on to liken talent on the digital medium to the “new supermodels,” — not aesthetically, but because her and her contemporaries have transformed the notion of blogging into a new medium used to convey a message and product.

“Ultimately, everyone in this world is trying to make a buck, and I don’t see why bloggers would be reprimanded for trying to turn hobbies into a business,” she said. “I do consider myself a writer with integrity, and I believe in everything I put on the site.”

Case in point: paid partnerships such as a recent collaboration with e-tailer Bauble Bar, where Medine created her signature “arm parties” for sale on the site, or styling Christian Louboutin shoes in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue, were very “on brand” for Medine, and the content was cross promoted on each brand’s respective site, manrepeller.com and on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. She also maintains an affiliate partnership with Shopbop, and the e-tailer, although it doesn’t pay her in dollars, does give her a monthly gift card to Shopbop.com. The gift card amount is based on the amount of traffic and sales Medine drives to the site from manrepeller.com, which has increased significantly since she began working with the site in 2010. 

On the flip side, there’s The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman, who considers himself the counter to the many bloggers jumping into branded partnerships. He is adamant about keeping his seven-year-old blog “clean,” meaning that it doesn’t contain any sponsored editorial content.

“If I work with someone like Levi’s, who wanted me to shoot something a year ago for the Curve ID jeans — they wanted something more integrated into the blog which is a content thing instead of an ad. I said no to that [and] it was a lot of money. I don’t have a problem taking money for taking pictures to put in an ad — I’m a photographer. That I have no problem with,” Schuman said, ultimately calling the situation a win-win. He wound up featuring the Levi’s ads as advertisements on Thesartorialist.com and Style.com featured the shots as part of its editorial coverage of the campaign.

A similar situation occurred with a project Schuman and blogger (as well as real life girlfriend) Garance Doré worked on with Tiffany & Co. Although the two of them declined to feature the images they photographed for the brand’s campaign on their respective blogs, they mentioned the project and were happy to have their work live on pop-up sites elsewhere.

Calling his the “first to go after advertising in a serious way,” Schuman’s blog counts Style.com as its first advertiser (the site is no longer an advertiser). To date, 75 percent of his revenue comes from this channel, with the remaining split among personal appearances, print sales, designer collaborations, the syndication of his images and book sales (his second book comes out soon, which might change this percentage by year’s end). He said he’s selective in who he deals with and there’s absolutely “no touching the content of the blog,” which even during the slowest months of May and June can see up to 12 million page views (March had close to 15 million) and average about 1.8 million unique visitors a month. For the last several months, Schuman has seen about 30 percent growth each month compared to last year, and current advertisers include Chanel, Bottega Veneta, Net-a-porter, American Apparel and Cole Haan. Schuman declines to reveal the price of an ad on thesartorialist.com.

“I don’t command a fee, I negotiate. It’s a business [just] like anyone else’s,” Schuman said of his distaste for the term “commanding a fee,” and politely declining to discuss numbers. “People get a lot more mad at bloggers for making money than they do at other artists. They get mad at us — unlike a designer who owns their own business. Somehow they don’t seem to get as mad when a designer increases their sales by a certain percent. We don’t need to tell people how much money we make. We have to be very conscious. It’s not that we’re being coy — when I talk about money people get mad.”

Although not as opposed to branded content as Schuman, Into the Gloss’ Weiss has been hesitant about featuring this variety of content in the year-and-a-half since she launched her beauty blog. Her policy is not as strict as his (she contends she can count the number of sponsored posts she’s done on one hand), but she said the blogger-brand line is one she’s tiptoed along with trepidation, until now.

Weiss counts leading brands such as Dior, L’Oréal, Bumble & bumble and Coach as advertisers on her site, while Lancôme was the site’s exclusive first advertiser. Most of Weiss’ revenue comes from ads, and she maintains she’s not under contracts with any companies as a brand ambassador.

She is about to sign with an agency — a “traditional photographer, hair, makeup artist” and non-digital agency — in order to facilitate projects outside of Into the Gloss, such as a modeling gig with Louis Vuitton earlier this month or creative directing and styling a film for Love magazine.

While the aforementioned are several examples of the leading “pure” bloggers, Derek Blasberg, editor at large of Harper’s Bazaar, V and V Man; author, and blogger at Mr Blasberg, part of the now Fairchild Fashion Media-owned NowManifest blog umbrella, embodies the new hybrid kind of online journalism from a more traditional perspective.

Blasberg’s work is not limited to the three magazines that he’s “contractually obliged” to (he’s a contributor for Garage magazine and compiles a weekly best dressed list for harpersbazaar.com). It’s enabled him to leverage his career to a point that allows him to straddle the “traditional” journalist and blogger roles.

“What’s important to me is that my blog is still fun and fabulous, but grounded in real experience as a fashion professional,” Blasberg said, counting the best part of his job as that, on one hand, he can work with long lead publications but on the other, he can go off on his own blog and “say something that’s entirely from my perspective.”

While he might interview Lady Gaga or Daphne Guinness for Harper’s Bazaar or V, he can post personal family pictures or snapshots from a night out on Mr Blasberg.

“Five years ago, if someone called me a blogger I would have probably scoffed and been offended. But things have changed and it’s a digital world now. If someone calls me a blogger today? I’m flattered and I feel relevant,” he said.