Lockdown has given a lot of us a kick in the butt, together with a bit of a ‘yolo’ perspective on things we want to start or to improve. In my network, a lot of that has involved people starting, rebranding or retargeting a blog – and that has made me reflect on my past blogging mistakes. If you’re looking to rebrand, reconsider the direction you’re taking your blog in, or are just interested in me messing shit up, here’s a blog post about blogging things I would now do differently.
A Bit About Me, This Blog and Blogging
Disclaimer: this is not The Blonde Salad. I’m no Chiara Ferragni, and this is not a post about how to grow your blog so you can live off of it forever.
I have been blogging since 2011, when I needed some writing to show I wasn’t a complete basket case before my BA Journalism. I started blogging in Italian, kinda made a name for myself in my niche, then moved onto English – more info here. So while I’m not a blogger with incredibly successful paid collaborations, I have been blogging for just under 10 years, and I’ve figured out what works and what counts as a win for a medium-sized, niche blog.
Throughout these nearly 10 years, I’ve made mistakes, worried about my reputation, my drive, my writing, and if there’s anything I grew, that’s my anxiety. So I want to share these little learning points and mistakes with you, in the hope you can avoid them and that they can help you continue an activity which can be fun and rewarding (most of the time).
#1 I would be careful where I put my work into
Some people feel that guest blogging, writing articles for various publications and striking brand ambassador deals can be steps to grow your blog. I have mixed feelings about all of these due to personal experience and I’ve reconsidered the time I spend engaging with them.
Guest Blogging and Writing For Other Publications
You may be tempted to think that both guest blogging or looking to submit an article to a major publication can help you get noticed, grow and establish your blog and writing persona. You may be receiving guest blogging requests by other websites asking you to write for them (or requests from other writers to guest blog for you), or you might be considering to share your blog’s views on national newspapers and websites’ opinion sections. I have done a bit of both and I have a lot of opinions.
While it is true that guest blogging for a relevant site with an audience that might be interested in your work can help both in terms of awareness raising and SEO, it’s also worth wondering how much of what you’re doing is just essentially free labour.
Let’s take a few examples. I have done guest blogs, link exchanges and the like with my friend Emma’s website, A Girl In Progress. Emma’s readership, although it might not necessarily be 100% my niche, aligns with what I do – and to this day, a lot of the hits this blog gets are from her blog. So, for me, this was a worthy collaboration: we wrote for each other’s sites and exchanged links.
I have also written for a lot of mainstream news and lifestyle websites. The reasoning behind doing this was, for me, that I’d get my name, blog and writing in front of a lot more people if I did so. Looking back, however, I’m not sure how much of this was true and how much I just ended up in a lot of anxiety inducing situations.
Some mainstream websites accept opinion pieces and/or reviews and treat you like a freelancer – which means you get paid, however much or little. This is great, because through a piece you both earn some cash for your writing and get your name out there, while still keeping the freedom of not being a member of staff (and therefore being able to write whatever you want elsewhere).
Other mainstream websites, however, trade an opinion / personal stories / blogging page for visibility, meaning that they don’t pay you for your writing. This can make sense if it’s a one-off or fairly sporadic event, meant to push whatever agenda you may have at the moment (e.g. you don’t earn money from the blog post, but you get free PR for yourself). However, if you end up treating this as other blog work that you do for free, this might end up taking up more of your time and resources than actually benefiting you. So here’s a little story.
I have a six-year experience in PR (with agencies and solo) in between London and Sydney. Throughout that time, I’ve given journalists a lot of freebies – products, restaurant meals, free passes to events, travel and so on. Through some events, I met journalists from sites that allowed blogging from people that weren’t members of staff. This meant that you submitted a blog, got reviewed and approved by the team, didn’t get paid but received some visibility in exchange. You couldn’t promote one brand only – that would be an advertorial – but you could write opinion pieces or round-ups.
When PRs who followed me because of my blog started noticing I wrote opinion pieces / personal essays for these sites, they started offering me freebies in case I wanted to include them in round-ups for sites with bigger readership than mine. Knowing that the blogs I wrote had to be approved by the sites’ teams, that I disclosed freebies and that the sites’ journalists themselves accepted freebies (because I had given them to said journalists), I said yes.
However, when the freebies got bigger – e.g. travel-related perks – a PR checked with one of the sites I blogged for whether I worked for them. The outlet was global, and the PR checked with the editorial team in the wrong country, a team that didn’t know me and that I didn’t work for. I got a very angry call from that team, threatening to ‘expose me’, most likely for what they thought was impersonation. However, I wrote for a blogging team in another country, and I had never impersonated anyone: I was just guest blogging (for free). That episode is still one of my biggest anxiety triggers, but reflecting on it now I realise that it should have bothered me not because of the ‘exposure’ of misunderstood sins, but for the concept of labour surrounding it.
Through blogging for these sites, I had provided my free labour. These sites did not provide payment, and I accepted this thinking I’d be getting free PR for my writing and the occasional freebie. However, these sites were not OK with me getting freebies – rightly, they’d want to control their brand and who was associated with it, although accepting freebies wasn’t forbidden by the collaboration guidelines. So this meant that my work could not get payment or freebies, but it would get the website hits.
Having done a BA in Journalism, worked in PR and taught journalism to undergrads and MA students, I know too well how the creative and media industries run on free labour and unpaid internships – which is why, since I don’t have the budget, I don’t accept guest writers. By continuing to write for a website without any exchange of payment, you are perpetrating a cycle of privilege where only who can afford to not be paid for their work can continue writing and be heard. Basically, you are allowing websites to still not pay for the hits and work they get, leaving other people like you (or in less privileged positions than you) in the lurch.
So, looking back, I would pay way more attention to where I’m putting my work into: if I do write for free, it has to be for a very good cause (e.g. a charity), or for sporadic episodes that somehow benefit me or projects I’m engaging with. Which brings me to my next point.
Brand Ambassador Scams
We confuse notoriety (e.g. appearing on a big website, or adopting certain ‘titles’) with success. Take brand ambassadorship deals: I used to think that being an ambassador for a brand meant I was ‘legit’ as a blogger. Yet, while receiving attention in the attention economy is a good thing, a lot of the ambassadorship deals you receive via email or Instagram are either a waste of time or outright scams – e.g. asking you to buy the product and promote it without trying it, and then making very little amounts from sales.
Often, these ‘deals’ are sent via bots on social media who unfollow you if you ask for more information, ignore them or refuse. They flog bikinis, jewellery, leggings and the like, simply because you may have used a related hashtag. While before I used to politely respond to these DMs and ask for more information, I’ve now realised these products do not align with my brand, and that their offer is not convenient to me (or to anyone, really), so I don’t even bother replying. I just delete. So repeat after me:
Answering emails and DMs is work.
Writing blog posts is work.
Speaking with journalists, editors, PRs is work.
And I will not work for free.
#2 Having a blog doesn’t mean I have to be blogging about / commenting on everything
I am a digital activist and blogger. I use my platforms to raise awareness of global issues – particularly related to the Internet and online inequalities – and to voice my opinion on things I’m passionate about. But, during the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, I reconsidered the “speak about everything, fast” approach.
You can read my full blog post about it here, but basically I noticed how many people, brands and influencers jumped to writing their hot take on the issue and wrote something insensitive, or something that didn’t hint to any actionable change of their actions, or something performative and self-centred. I got things wrong myself – e.g. posted a black square and then deleted it – but I tried to share other people’s relevant content instead of centering things on my experience. When I did write something, it was about a side of the debate which I felt had an insight on.
As we are seeing with a variety of Internet reactions to current affairs, a lot of people want to be seen to be doing or saying something. My unpopular opinion is that, while you need to support causes, amplify voices and generally use your platforms for good, it’s worth taking the time to analyse whether you’ve actually got something meaningful to say. Sometimes, sharing other people’s words amplifies voices with more of a right to speak and prevents you from sounding like a damage control press release.
#3 I would stop only paying attention to social media numbers
There used to be a time where I was trying to play the numbers game. I wanted to have a specific amount of readers or followers, thinking it’d open the gate to I don’t know what benefit or notoriety. Towards this, there was a time when I posted on Instagram three times a day, got into engagement pods, liked a lot of accounts’ pictures, used all of the hashtags in comments etc. It was exhausting.
Then I started noticing how many accounts with a high following had poor engagement (back in the bot follower days) and how, when focusing on the audience I already had, my posts would go down better than when I was trying to people please and write something generic. People would share them, comment on them, resonate with them – and so my writing travelled further.
Don’t get me wrong: I would love to get verified and hit that 10K following to get the swipe up feature on Instagram. But a lot of followers don’t mean more engagement with your writing and your account. In fact, because of the mysteries behind how algorithms work, a lot of them may not even see your content.
So while social media are a big chunk of my blog promotion strategy, paying for a SEO plugin to make sure my posts are searchable on search engines and experimenting with different social media sharing techniques – e.g. the Insta graphics that are now all the rage – I’ve had way more readers on my blog than I used to by pursuing followers.
Basically, what I’ve stopped doing is thinking that a higher social media follower number will 100% mean more engagement with my writing. While I still play the social media game heavily, focusing on SEO, good content and my own PR has been way more beneficial towards getting me new readers than trying to post more than once a day and liking all the pictures on IG.
#4 I would pay more attention who I associate my blog with
You may think that, as a blogger, you are selling your writing. That’s part of it, but what you are selling, really, is your identity – that’s what people resonate with. And your identity only sells if you have a good reputation, or a reputation that matches your brand. The identity / reputation binomial is what often throws me into a wild panic when someone wants to work with me and my blog. This is the story of a time when I messed it up and kinda turned it around.
Last Spring was the first time a well-known international pole dance competition came to the UK. At the time, before I even competed, I got excited and interviewed the organiser, giving her a platform to promote the event and her new studio. However, the day before the competition, it became very clear that it was going to be the pole dance Fyre Festival, that the pole was unsafe, that the promises the organiser made were false, and lots of international and national competitors pulled out. I ended up competing and writing about my experience, showcasing how dangerous and frankly appalling the whole competition was.
The reason why I got away with it was that I was honest in the blog post about what went wrong. But the truth was, sometimes it’s better to test something before promoting it and giving someone you don’t know the opportunity to associate themselves with you. Otherwise, if things go wrong, you’ll have to distance yourself from them, which can be a bit of a headache.
#5 I’d remember blogging isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow
I used to think it’d be fun to work for yourself and just live off of your blog. However, following a variety of news stories and the experiences of bloggers I speak to, it turns out that, unless you are on the Chiara Ferragni end of the blogging game – with sure deals with brands that pay a lot and on time – you might not even make rent.
Having a small to medium sized blog might mean that brands won’t pay you a fee for reviewing their content, but will give you a freebie. Back in 2017, Racked did a whole project on freebies, evaluating how many free products they got, their value ($95,000!) and whether they actually used them. The cost of never-ending freebies that may then get chucked is high both to the environment and to people who write and actually need a salary rather than free shit.
The thing is, freebies are great if they’re products you genuinely use or need and that you’d have to buy otherwise – but they’re not money. You are not gonna buy food with that cute new #gifted crop top, and while it might get you some new content and it might look great on your Insta, consider if you want to keep accumulating goods that you have to write about but that won’t pay for your food.
The amazing Beth Ashley recently wrote an article for Vogue Business showing that influencers are unionising to fight issues such as pay gaps, delays in payments or lack of compensation. Sadly, as the world of journalism and PR have already taught me, people don’t seem to value creative work enough to pay for it and to pay for it on time. If you’ve left your job to be a full-time blogger, and suddenly, say, five big clients at a time are not paying, it’s not like you can tell your landlord you’ll pay them later.
So now I’m trying to focus on freebies that, I think, are worth my time – and the rest of my efforts goes into work that actually gives me money, like a fee for a post, or affiliate marketing for products I believe in and use. And even then, you have to make sure that brands pay out the affiliate earnings frequently, and that you drive those sales.
So the bottom line is: even if your blog is going well, remember that all it takes is a few late payments to risk you can’t pay for basic needs. Consider making blogging your only job very carefully, no matter your following.