For the majority of parent bloggers their little space of the Internet starts out as a place to record photos and thoughts about their children, family happenings, and other personal bits and bobs. They
Most bloggers are delighted, of course they'd love to receive the 'free' product to review and write about on their blog. They write nice things about the whatever-it-is, about the PR, about the company that made the thing, and more things are offered. On it goes and, at the same time, the blog grows. The blogger writes well, or has a niche, or takes great photos. After a while it's not just friends and family reading but hundreds and then thousands of people.
The 'free' stuff keeps coming, the PRs increase the expectations - see the copy before print, tweak this sentence, deadlines, just do me a favour...
At what point does the blogger move from the sphere of writing for friends and family to being a tool in the huge international marketing machine? And believe me, it is a HUGE machine. Brands will pay advertising and product placement fees to other media, e.g when print magazines run those 'best beach products' features it isn't a coincidence that there's a paid ad for that company elsewhere in the issue. They may not pay the journalist (the mag does that) but they do pay to advertise there. And they will be paying a pretty hefty fee to the PR firm that says they can't pay you, too.
Whether blog reviews are advertising is a matter for debate, but you can bet your unpaid dollar that they lead to sales. Why else would the brands be queueing up to work with us? They know our (hard-won) audience are their customers, so why should we do the advertising for them in exchange for a low production value product (whatever the RRP, production costs are around 20% of that, or less), a goody bag, or just because they 'love your blog'?! Hmm, think I can smell some coffee somewhere...
When Can You Start Charging?
To be honest, I'm not sure there is a definitive answer. Can you request promotional fees after 6 months/when you hit 10K unique visitors/when your Instagram followers reach a certain level/something else? I would say that as soon as you are targeted by PRs (not SEO that's different), you are of value. Whether that value is greater than the value of the tissues/table lamp/tortoise stickers you've been sent is more the point.
After all, PRs will only have a certain number of shampoo or toaster or coat samples to hand out, so if they want to gamble on sending you one it must be worthwhile. Whether your reach is 100 highly targeted individuals or 100,000 more general mums/photographers/vegans, this PR thinks your audience is relevant to their brand and that there is a possibility they will buy that product.
Whether to charge on top of the value of the product is of course entirely personal preference. But why should you research, write and photograph a great blog post for a goody bag when the next blog along is getting the goody bag and payment on top? And, as I said above, you are potentially driving sales of this product, so I personally think some amount of remuneration is in order.
Ultimately though it's down to personal preference. If your blog is a hobby and you are quite happy writing reviews and other promotions for product only, go ahead. If you don't want to monetise your blog, great. If you don't do reviews anyway, brilliant. Each to their own.
But if you are a commercial blog that runs some/lots of product reviews, I think you seriously need to start questioning whether doing so for free is OK.
Do I always charge?
Yes, I know that's your next question, it's OK. Actually no, I don't.
I work with some small companies who I am happy to promote just for product, even just because we have a great relationship and I like them. I run gift guides and regular features, like What's New In Our Kitchen and Bookshelf, that feature products without remuneration. And if a product is valuable enough to my family at that time, I may waive my fee. And we don't usually charge extra for restaurant or travel reviews, although we do expect any out of pocket expenses to be covered.
I consider everything on a case by case basis, and decide my fees the same way too, largely. But after four years growing a very successful blog, I am choosy about what I will cover and how I will be compensated for that.
Like I say, that approach might not be for everyone, but at the end of the day this blog and my freelance work is a business, and product doesn't pay the mortgage. As much as we love craft kits, they aren't going to mend my car or help us move house, and we can't even eat them!
Worried About Your Readers?
I have heard from a number of bloggers that they are worried their readers will mistrust them or even leave if they take on more paid work. Of course, I see their point. After all, the reason we are valuable in the first place is because of our authentic voice. That popularity and respect is vitally important and I'm sure all of us would value that above commercial gain. But surely at the end of the day we have a right, and a duty, to protect that voice at the same time as earning money from it?
For example, I would never start advertising/promoting meat products because I'm a vegetarian and most of my readers know that. They may not be veggie themselves, but would undoubtedly be appalled if I started promoting meat purely for commercial gain. Ditto formula milk or baby bottles. In fact, I was recently offered a very substantial amount of money, far beyond my usual fees, to work with a major formula company on promoting a new product line. Tempting as that sum of money was, I had to turn it down as it is completely against my principles to work with such a company. Commercial doesn't have to equal sell out.
In fact, the power of 'no' can actually make your 'yes' more valuable. Rather than reviewing everything that's thrown at you, think carefully about fit and reply with a polite thanks but no thanks. Then when something great comes in you have more reason to say yes, but we do charge for promotions like this.
Actually, as the reactions to this post have shown, your readers do expect you to be compensated for the work you do.
So, Should I Charge a Brand to Feature on My Blog?
If you want to, and if you think that what you are offering them is worth something.
Does the brand stand to benefit from the collaboration with you? Probably yes, otherwise why would they bother?
So the thing to ask is how much value do they, and you, place on that benefit? Is it worth more than the production costs of a £30 toy? Probably yes.
How much value do you put on your time writing the post, photographing the product, building your blog and audience? Are you undervaluing yourself by accepting a £15 goody bag?
But won't someone else do it without remuneration? Probably. But if the brand really wants you, they will understand your value and respect your request to be compensated fairly for your time and influence. I know a lot of PRs still struggle with this, since they don't have to pay journalists directly (the brand's advertising budget pays the magazine then that + circulation income pays the wages), but many are coming round to the idea that blogs aren't just online magazines, they're a very influential marketing tool.
On the other hand, if your kids need new shoes and a brand offers them, or your washing machine just stopped working and someone will give you one for a blog post, go for it.
The best advice anyone can ever give you about blogging, like any writing, is write about what you love, whether that's your family or the best bubble bath you've ever used. If blogging gives you opportunities you wouldn't normally get, embrace them. Do it for yourself, brands and even readers come after that. Your blog is, and should always be, about you and what you love.
Content may be king, but authenticity is queen. Be you, and if it means asking for remuneration sometimes, stand proud and ask for it. They can only say no.
Addendum 4/3/16: A quick note following the recent CMA findings and advice re. online reviews. The guidelines do not advise against payment for reviews per se, rather they advise against payment being made for a falsely positive review. As long as your review is completely honest, discloses that the product has been received for review purposes, and whether or not you have been paid to write it, then you are fulfilling all requirements.