Secret diary of a travel blogger
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Travel Blogger Integrity: Are You Being Paid For Positivity?

I really wished I’d handled the question better. At a recent panel I was on talking about travel blogger and brand relationships the question once again came up about blogger integrity.

But if you’re paid for a press trip aren’t you obliged to write a positive review?

You’d think after several years of hearing this comment I’d be better placed to answer it smartly, but the truth is the question still hurts. I take it personally, feeling as if the speaker is questioning my own integrity, and often end up getting a little too defensive.

But now the dust has settled and I’m feeling less offended I’ve been answering this person’s question in my head far more eloquently. When I push aside my own ego I can see why this would be something someone on the outside might want to know more about.

The ethics of being paid to blog is a minefield not just unique to travel bloggers. Bloggers are part of a fledgling, new band of businesses and every single one of us operates our business differently.

[Tweet “Whether a blog is ethical comes down to the ethics of the individual writing it”]

But I want to clear the air and explain a little about how I personally deal with such paid blogging projects and how I wish, with hindsight, I had answered this question in public.

This may not be how everyone works and you may not agree with everything I have to say but as a champion of transparency I thought I’d share how I do it.

Please don’t troll me though. I’m not good at confrontation, it makes me cry!

Always Retain Full Editorial Control

I’ve never promised anyone a positive review. Any brand that works with me understands I retain full editorial control over what appears on my website. In 6+ years of blogging I’ve only ever had 1 brand ask me to stay at their hotel and then wanted to sign off on everything I shared on my blog and social media. I walked away from this project (after explaining why this was a terrible idea) and to the credit of the agency who was arranging the project they paid me anyway as we’d spent a lot of time going back and forth over the arrangements of the campaign before this deal-breaker was mentioned.

Never Recommend Things That I Wouldn’t Recommend To My Friends

I have a simple golden rule that helps me decide what does and doesn’t make it onto my site and that’s ‘would I recommend this restaurant/hotel/attraction to a friend?’

What makes a blog different from a traditional publication is the personal relationship we have with our readers. I know readers often follow in my travel footsteps because they send me emails and messages telling me so. If they found something I’d recommended substantially different from what I’d said I’d lose their trust and probably also their readership.

A blog’s nothing without readers so it’s my job to do everything I can to retain that relationship.

[Tweet “Before writing any blog post ask yourself – would I recommend this to my friends?”]

Only Take On Projects That Are A Perfect Fit

Part of my responsibility to the readers is to make sure I only take on projects that are a perfect fit. If your blog is doing fairly well you may be tempted by all types of free trips and dosh for sponsored posts but readers are very good at sniffing out a phoney – publish a few posts that don’t fit your usual themes and you’ll quickly be labelled a sell out. (Readers are hot on stuff like that!)

That being said, many travel bloggers (myself included) don’t have an endless pot of gold that enables us to keep travelling and feeding the content-eating beast that is a blog. So often we partner up with brands that fit our audience in order to keep publishing.

Personally, I like to do this in a variety of different ways.

Most of the time I will organise my own travel plans around my personal interests or events and then might reach out to a hotel or tourism board in that destination and pitch them some coverage or content to relive the financial burden/make a living. I pay for and organise the majority of my own trips though, it’s an obsession I have that was the foundation for this blog in the first place!

Other times I’ll work with a brand I have a personal relationship with and we’ll custom create an itinerary that will help me get the best content for my readers.

Every now and then I’ll join a group press or blog trip if it’s covering something I’m dying to see/write about. In this case I’ll often extend my time in the destination in order to explore on my own and research additional content away from the tour group.

In each case I make it very clear to the brand I’m partnering with the way I work and what they can expect in return. I draw up worksheets to that effect prior to the trip so there’s no confusion over what I will and won’t provide.

Read: What goes into getting a sponsored blog trip

Air Problems Offline

Sometimes, even if you’ve thoroughly researched the place you’re visiting and had detailed conversations with the person organising the trip, things can go wrong. Travel is an unpredictable entity and sometimes you and the brand can’t predict the future.

In the very, very rare case that I arrive somewhere or do something and it’s not good enough my recourse of action is to contact the PR/brand I’m working with offline. I treat travel blogging as my profession and thus want to act professionally at all times. Rather than ranting on Twitter I often give the PR a polite call or email and air my concerns. Often it’s something small they can fix and so I give them the opportunity to do so.

[Tweet “If you want to know if a blogger has integrity just ask their readers!”]

Write Nothing But The Truth

Once in a blue moon, however, the problem won’t be fixable. Sometimes a restaurant/hotel/spa is just a bit shit! In these instances, unless I’ve told readers I’m going to them in advance, I will omit these places from my recommendations. My blog is mainly a place of positivity and helpful tips – people come for the good bits – so unless it’s absolutely crucial that they know a certain Pad Thai was sub par this won’t be part of my story.

If I’ve said in advance I’m going somewhere though and it would be dishonest to omit details then I will simply tell the truth about my experiences. Travel is not always rainbows and cliches and readers will quickly get bored if everywhere you go is great. They come for first hand experiences, honest impressions and will no doubt switch off if everything is AMAH-ZING!

Readers are also very smart and if I’m not raving about something they can generally tell that it was just so so – I don’t need to go full Watchdog for them to know a travel experience was disappointing.

In these type of instances I will generally send a follow up email to the business with my feedback so that they have the opportunity to improve it in future. (Unless it’s a country overall that I didn’t get on with, in which case it’s probably not them but me who has a problem!)

Read how travel writer Nick Boulos retains integrity on a press trip

Why Travel Bloggers Should Be Paid

This should probably be a separate blog post in itself but I wanted to include a short note on how I justify being paid for travel projects even when I’m getting content and a free trip out of it.

The very simple way of looking at it is this:

When a brand/tourism board approaches me to work with them they are not doing so because they want me to go on a jolly holiday. They get in touch because they want to reach my audience. They want me to create awareness of their destination, generate unique content, often come up with the concept of the campaign and perhaps share a specific message about a new product too. They have briefs and targets and KPIs because this is business.

It’s business for me too.

As my audience and experience have grown so has the value of what I offer these brands. Every project is different but generally I look at the value of what I am being offered in terms of travel and offset that against the value of the exposure and services they are requiring of me. I then charge a fee for any services or content that are over and above what I would offer in exchange for the free trip.

It’s slightly complicated, basic mathematics!

This post is a couple of years out of date but gives a little taster of how I make money from travel blogging.

Travel blogging has become a business and for most of us it’s a business we strive to run with integrity. Whether it’s ethical to be paid for blog posts really comes down to the ethics of the individual writing them.

And if you ever want to know if a blogger acts with integrity just ask their readers – they’re often the first to spot if something’s amiss!

Thoughts?

Are you a travel blogger approaching things differently or a brand frightened by what I have to say? I’d love to know your thoughts. Keep it polite though please. I offend easily!

10 Comments

  • Reply
    Annika
    August 26, 2016 at 6:46 am

    I love everything that you mention here – and those tweets are awesome too 🙂
    I want to add that readers need to realize something too – you have the choice to read a blog and/or a magazine. Nobody would expect to get the magazine for free because content needs to be paid for. If you think that advertisers in a magazine who pay for printing and part of the content with their ads don’t have some editorial control of what a magazine shows, you need to think again. They do! That starts with fashion spreads and end moves to travel. Unlike bloggers though there is no ethics to mention sponsorships or payment, in fact some journalists are not even allowed to mention if they get invited or something was sent to them for a review.

  • Reply
    Cherie City
    August 26, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Yeah, Annika is right that when brands spend on advertising with a mag, editorial ‘support’ is most often part of the package – they even have dedicated roles to ensure the right amount of coverage. There is however a requirement to mark sponsored editorial as a ‘promotion’ or ‘feature’ in a mag, but do paid travel bloggers declare this collaboration? I haven’t done this type of paid press trip before, so am interested to hear about disclosure there 🙂

    • Reply
      Annika
      August 26, 2016 at 3:18 pm

      Well, some content is marked in magazines. But if you see regular fashion spreads – a lot of the brands featured are featured according to the money they spend on ads. I remember when I worked in fashion, we would get a list with advertisers that we needed to show and that is never marked in a magazine.
      On the other hand I think bloggers are more aware of being ethical and declaring any kind of sponsorship but yes, there is always black sheep.

    • Reply
      Jayne Gorman
      August 27, 2016 at 12:03 am

      I have no experience of working with magazines so cannot comment on that point but with regards to disclosing sponsored content this is absolutely something that is required for blog projects and in my experience we often discuss the best way to do so at the time of creating the content/work agreement.

      Often there are several partners that need mentioning and there may be a few bloggers on the same project so the disclosure wording will be set between the partners and included in the paperwork so everyone knows exactly what they need to write on every post. Some collectives/agencies I have worked with even get you to include a link to a page on their website which explains what exactly sponsored content is – for anyone that wants to know more about what the disclosure means. I’ve seen some bloggers who also link to a page on their website which explains their editorial policy and way they work with sponsors and think this is quite a smart way of disclosing.

      In some cases there will also be the requirement to announce the project before it takes place – especially if it involves a social take over or live broadcasts – although this is often done on social rather than the blog.

  • Reply
    Seana
    August 26, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Good to read a comprehensive and well laid out post covering complex issues. I agree with Cherie that it’s important to know about content that had been paid as well as hosted travel. As long as we are clear and honest, readers know they can rely upon our judgement.

    • Reply
      Jayne Gorman
      August 27, 2016 at 12:05 am

      I completely agree Seana and after writing my response to Cherie’s comment below am thinking I might create a page about editorial policy that spells things out a bit more clearly. Most readers are very perceptive but I agree it’s good to be as transparent as possible if you want to retain trust.

  • Reply
    Yulia
    August 26, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    To the point as usual! I have started my blog recently and this question popped into my mind many times, especially after reading up on the topic of sponsored traveling and fining out that some of the travel bloggers who I really look up to, consider it bad practice.
    I completely agree that it all depends on your integrity and paid trips are part of the job of a travel blogger. But the fear that readers will think I have sold out is very strong.

    • Reply
      Jayne Gorman
      August 27, 2016 at 12:11 am

      I think it’s all about the balance Yulia and doing what works for you. Often the blogs who don’t accept sponsored travel run adverts on their site and monetise what they do that way instead. I prefer to work with brands or destinations I would visit anyway and showcase them to my readers in an engaging way rather than having ads in the sidebar – it’s a case of personal taste really.

      I was also worried about readers thinking I have sold out but from reader surveys I have learned that they don’t mind if my trip was sponsored as long as the content is written in my usual helpful and honest way and that there is a mix of trips I paid for still in there too. In the early years I definitely took some press trips just because they were offered to me but I learnt the hard way that if my heart wasn’t in it it was very difficult to create passionate content as a result. Long term, it benefits everyone if you only say yes to the things you really, really want to do.

  • Reply
    Cherie City
    August 27, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Thanks Jayne, that’s really helpful to know and as always you set a good example in travel blogging. Paid travel sounds like a great idea when the expectations are discussed and you retain control, like you mentioned in the post.

  • Reply
    Caroline Eubanks
    August 28, 2016 at 1:23 am

    All great points! I’ve certainly felt pressure to keep things positive, but a few times I mentioned the downsides of a tour or hotel/hostel to keep it balanced.

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