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.

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