MINI PENNY: "We Don't Have a Marketing Budget" // The Dirty Side of Blogging

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"We Don't Have a Marketing Budget" // The Dirty Side of Blogging

Let me begin by pointing out the amazing irony that the name of my blog is Mini Penny. Yep. I started this blog many years ago to chronicle my thrift fashion. This blog and social networks have drastically changed my life in ways that I never could have expected — I've moved from city to city, gained a high-level position at a major fast-fashion corporation, and then left to follow my dream of blogging full-time.

That's right. Full-time. So many of you have followed me through this journey. Some of you have seen me struggle both personally and professionally — I've laid it all out on the line. And in the grand scheme of things, I'm happier now than I ever have been. Every day I wake up, check my calendar, and sit down to write and photograph for upcoming posts. When I feel sufficiently ahead, I go pick merchandise for the Vintage Shop. Every now and then, I attend a variety of different events — invitations that come through my email via brands, PR agencies, and other groups. And, in a business aspect, I deal with sponsorship opportunities.

See, the tricky part about writing in this manner full time is figuring out how I'm going to pay my rent. How am I going to buy tomorrow's meal? How do I make sure I budget myself as to not end up out on the street? And at the same time — how do I keep content genuine?

When Mini Penny first started, I never dreamed I would have companies sending me clothing, let along paying me to write about them. At the end of the day, I'm not even sure I'm a good writer. Slowly, I was getting attention and there were outlets picking up my content. Buzzfeed, Brit.Co, and HiConsumption all picked up my bike rack DIY, never once asking permission to feature it. If it were any personal blogger, I would never take issue — but we're talking about huge blogs with budgets and ad share revenue. They never contacted me. They never offered a penny for my work. They used my content, are generating traffic, and believe that simply linking to my blog for "exposure" is enough of a payment.

Let's talk about this.

Exposure is the biggest scam in new media.

Time and time again, brands contact me to help them launch a new product or a new app or a new website. I have a template that I always send back thanking them for reaching out to me and giving them a list of rates for the services in which we can partner on. Fifty percent of the time, I never get a response. 1% of the time, brands are happy to work together on a contract or agreement. The other 49% of the time, I receive this message:

"Sorry, but at the moment we do not have the marketing budget. We are willing to pay in the form of exposure."

Exposure, folks. My body doesn't digest exposure well. And I'm sure that if I took an envelope of exposure to my landlord of the first of the month, he would request another form of payment. Exposure is this magical thing to holier-than-thou brands in which they explain to you that if you do things for them for free, then they will share your content. The outcome, I suppose, is the thought that if more people see your work, you will eventually get paid.

Nah, wrong. In my experience, the more people who see my work, the more people I find want to use my work for free.

I know what you're thinking. Start-ups have such a small budget! That's sort of shitty for you to call out beginner businesses like this! I'm not talking about start-ups. I love working with small start ups to find solutions that work for them — if I love their product. I'm talking about major brands. Brands to love "social influence." These brands know that we're more likely to listen to our peers and our friends more than a banner ad on CNN or a magazine ad that we may never see. Our social influences are valuable to these brands. With that in mind, what big brands "don't have the marketing budget" for advertising? Who's trying to pull the wool over our eyes?
Hi Jessie,
Hope you’re well! My name is [redacted for privacy] and I’m the Online Media Manager at Warby Parker. I just wanted to let you know that I am a huge fan of your blog-- I love the aesthetic and layout (clean lines and organized)! We’re really excited for the upcoming launch of our [redacted] collection, which will include five new frames that we were delighted to collaborate on with the designer. [...] I wanted to ask you directly if you were interested in helping announce our newest collaboration within your editorial calendar. Would you be willing to write a post on launch day, Tuesday, December 3rd? Because this is an extremely exclusive and time-sensitive effort, I’d be sending along some materials before the launch date containing product and model images of the new collection, as well as editorial copy about the collection’s inspiration. [...] 

Be sure to let me know as soon as possible - I’d love to have you on board to help launch this collection!

Best, [redacted for privacy]

Hi [redacted for privacy]! This sounds great! I love Warby Parker and have a slot available on 12/3 in which I could write about the launch. Please see my Sponsored Post rate below: [...] Feel free to let me know. I hope we can work together and have a great holiday! Best, Jessie

Hi Jessie, Thank you so much for your response and your interest in Warby Parker-- and for your kind words as well, they mean a lot! Unfortunately, right now we not able to provide any sort of compensation via sponsorship-- I am really sorry about that. If this is a route we take in future collections I will be sure to reach back out to you. If you do decide to post we would love to have you on board. If not, that's no problem at all and it was wonderful talking with you. I hope you had a great holiday as well! [redacted for privacy]
Warby Parker is just one example of a brand that I've loved and supported time and time again. But their quest for free advertising (in the form of giving a woman with 20/20 vision, uh, free glasses?) has me on the fence. A company that raised over $50million in funding between 2011-12 and has been killing it ever since their launch doesn't want to pay for grassroots advertising. Sure, my social influence is important to them, but they're banking that I love their brand enough to see past the fact that they want me to work for them for free. I have similar exchanges with Saks Fifth Avenue, Reader's Digest, and more.

The list goes on and on for this — the amount of big brands that don't even respond to price lists is even more staggering. In fact, I've found more success dealing with smaller, community-based brands than any other. Heck, even in my last job at a major corporation, the PR manager would audibly complain when bloggers requested monetary compensation for sponsored posts. Why does this happen? Why are so many large-budget brands unwilling to pay us for our work?

If we want to make a living off of what we do, we have to take ourselves seriously. We have to know what we want and be upfront about what we want. We have to stand up for ourselves. We have a world against us — big media, Martha Stewart, and a sea of people who (unfortunately) don't think we deserve to have influence. But it's important to know that we can make a huge change in how brands react to us.

Sometimes it's uncomfortable to ask to be paid. I've worked as a photographer, as a graphic designer, and now as a (for a lack of better terms) blogger. Everyone wants something for free. Keep yourself honest, keep your partnerships honest, and be upfront about what you expect. The truth is that our media is still media, and in many circles we can have a bigger influence on who buys what than fashion magazines (which I haven't picked up in years) or television slots.

And then there's this elephant in the room. If anyone was aware of yesterday's Twitter conversation, I had a bit of a snag with my membership with Chicago Blogger Network. I'm gonna start out by saying that I've been a proud member of Chicago Blogger Network since I've lived here. I've met a lot of awesome people through it. It's really, really great to have a community like this.

When I moved to Philly, I was so butthurt about Philly's "network." It wasn't a network. Philly Blog Net required a paid membership. It was elitist as all get out (sorry, real talk time). I never had any interest in being part of that community. I couldn't take it seriously. I would rave to my roommate Lou about how well CBN was and how they actually had their shit together — they are respectable. Brands like them and want to partner with them because they are big and diverse and have a lot of reach.

So, fast-forward to me moving back to Chicago (love love love love love) and being back in the Chicago Blogger Network (love!). Yesterday I received an email from CBN asking if I would be interested in appearing on a television segment on a WGN morning show. Keep in mind that WGN is part of the Tribune Company — who had $3.18 billion dollars in revenue in 2010.

TV spot? Well that sounds awesome. I emailed back that I was interested and that I normally get paid for that type of endorsement or appearance. CBN responded:
Hi Jessie!
Unfortunately, WGN is looking for bloggers who would like to participate in exchange for the exposure. Understand if this doesn't work for you but wanted to offer you the opportunity in case you were interested!
Bummer. Well, exposure for a blogger sort of sucks when you start to consider who is watching local news channels on a Thursday morning. It's a fun thing to share on social media, but then again, who's really gaining? If I'm sending traffic and click troughs to WGN's website, they're just going to put those numbers in a glossy presentation to sell more ad space to Farmer's Insurance or Audi or whomever. In an indirect (but direct) way, they're using us. WGN pays their writers, their anchors, their janitors — but they don't pay bloggers who are taking time out of their days to work on this type of content for them.

So, in my response to CBN, I asked why there wasn't opportunity for payment. Honestly, I included that I felt insulted that my content was being requested for free time and time again. And again, honestly and simply, wanted to know how CBN is continuing to benefit me as a businesswoman when it seemed as though they're getting free content to help push their business contracts.

Jill B from CBN wrote me a really long, well-explained email about how not all of CBN's opportunities to bloggers are pro bono and that she now knows what I need and can keep it in mind in the future. Good, right? Right. She then went on to speak of how CBN is a business and needs to make a profit. Okay, uh, cool, so am I. That's fine, that's fine, keep reading, I thought. She then spoke of the community aspect of CBN and how nice it is to have us all together to have our little chats, work off of each other, etc. Very true. Sure, yes, I was feeling a bit better about the whole exchange. I still had some questions, but I was in the process of heading out the door, so I was gonna sit on the whole thing until the next morning.

Oh boy I was wrong. What happened next, for a lack of better terms, sucked.

I got CCed on an email that I wasn't supposed to be CCed on. Another Jill responded to Jill B's email with, "Kelly, I'm HAPPY to explain to this girl why she should be more appreciative." I've posted the screen shot on Twitter, so I don't really think there's a need to post it again. That single line made my skin crawl.

This is the community that is supposed to be backing us. This is a person who belittles me as a "girl" when I am very much a woman. This is a business that is making money off of bloggers — and when I ask a simple question as to why I'm not getting paid for my work, the notion is that I should be groveling at someone's feet for the chance of exposure.

I should be more appreciative, because I couldn't do this on my own. (sarcasm)
I should be more appreciative, because I wouldn't get partnerships without CBN. (sarcasm)
I should be more appreciative, because I work for them. (super sarcasm)

Just ew. How many times has this bully-esque banter happened behind closed doors about bloggers? I was disgusted, screenshotted the email, and tweeted it. CBN was quick to respond that the person who sent the email is a freelancer for them and doesn't actually work for CBN. But yet the email came from a CBN thread, so in my eyes, this person was representing them.

I wrote a long, disappointed email in response to them. I appreciate their apologies, but still. It happened. And I can't shake it yet. CBN sent out a member-wide email that somehow at the same time took the blame and pushed it away. Gloss it over and it never happened.

In their late-night member wide crisis-control email, CBN insisted that they love their members. I don't doubt this. They made a point that they don't make money off of WGN or R29 spots and they do it for their own exposure as well. But this only brings me to bigger questions:

If we are a community, and we want to see each other succeed, why isn't CBN helping us spearhead this? Why aren't we asking more questions to help us all? If CBN has the connections with these large media outlets and are finalizing the terms (and we know they know that exposure doesn't pay the bills), why aren't we asking them to push the envelope and get us paid content from groups who obviously have a budget? Why do we let them let us work for free so often?

I bring these questions to CBN and the blogging community with the upmost respect. If we all want to help each other, brands and communities should be held accountable for their bullshit — whether said bullshit is intentional or not.

Not Becoming Jaded
Blogging is a tough gig. It's fun and has lots of perks and I love it. And working with brands makes the Milo in me stand up and say I Quit. The facets of being a feminist and a businesswoman and a punk rock kid at heart don't intersect well at times. But at the end of the day, why do I do this? It started for me. It was always about me at the beginning. And now, through my growth, it has become so much bigger than that. I can't explain to you guys how many of your emails have left me in tears — teenage girls who feel out of place who tell me that my blog made them feel comfortable with being a little different. Woman who reach out to me with similar, hostile work experiences who want to vent. Guys in fashion school who stop me on the street to take a photo with me. Seriously. I fucking cry because it makes me so happy that I have this blog and that people care. And with that, I can't help but take it personally when bigwigs want to use my voice and think I won't notice that my bank account is low. In media, there's the risk of standing up for yourself — this blog post could put a nail in my coffin. Most bloggers won't touch this subject with a ten-foot pole. Brands could read this and say, "Hey, whoa, no way. This woman is not fluffy enough and speaks her mind more than we'd prefer." And to those brands I say good riddance. I'll keep writing per usual and through that, I'll keep finding brands who respect our community — and I'll keep sharing them with you in the same way that you all share with me.

Please feel free to discuss openly in the comments! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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