the state of blogging: authenticity as an aesthetic, sponsored storytelling, rampant shills, and the business of cash money

Pintxos&Blogs VI - ¬°Queremos saber!
A stylish mom who lives in a well-draped home snaps photographs of her children using products that sponsor her posts. A well-known photographer calls her writing “reportage” and “travel diaries” when her jet-set lifestyle is bought and paid for by luxury brands, and as a result, she’s devolved into a shell of the talented woman she used to be, preened and pretty, and always posing in front of the camera. A whimsical creative films a five-year-old’s birthday party, whose products and experiences are then used for a car commercial. A succession of posts on a blogger’s site always conclude with the following: This post brought to you by Brand X. Thank you for supporting the brands that make this {blog} possible!

It’s become such that blogs are no longer the place to forge meaningful connections, they’re the portal in which we transact, where the ultimate objective is conversion. When the bottom line is a sale. I’ve witnessed prolific, passionate storytellers and artists swathe themselves in banner ads, sponsored posts, SEO monetization tactics, and pricey finery to the point where they’re unrecognizable, and their writing is robotic, rote, and devoid of the passion which once drew the masses.

A few weeks ago Jane wrote a post on aesthetics, which lingered with me for days after I read it. She goes on to say:

I’ve been wondering a lot lately why authenticity has been confused with an aesthetic. And if the perpetrators even think about the language they’re using, the dissonance they’re creating, or if they’re just capitalizing on this economic moment, packaging a product with a deep and visceral need (a spiritual one, even).

While it’s true that our online manifestations are edited, they present a specific view of our lives, I wonder if our blogs are too myopic, too architected, where we’re summoned to create elaborate fictions because we know the business of I’m just like you, but only slightly better is a lucrative one. The true jetset are too unattainable, too aspirational, but these bloggers, women with children and jobs, feel familiar. We cleave to that which is familiar, yet seek a level of escapism and aspiration that exists a level above the ground beneath our feet. The bloggers who told us stories, took us into their homes when we would’ve never had trespass otherwise — we feel we know these strangers in some way. But we don’t. We never truly know them, because while the blog is something like an x-ray and we’re given access beneath the surface as it were, we’re never a surgeon’s hands going in. We never hear the sounds after the laptop closes and cools. We only know the life we’ve been presented.

In marketing, you learn about the sales funnel. It’s a simplistic linear diagram that takes a brand through the varying stages of a consumer’s interaction with it. First, “prospects” need to become aware that a brand exists, they have to “consider it” {i.e. weigh this newly introduced brand against a competing similar product}, and the brand’s USP or unique selling proposition balanced with some kind of carrot dangled, drives the next stage: acquisition. After the consumer has bought a product, a brand wants them to engage and form a deeper relationship beyond the singular transaction: engagement. Finally, they’ve come to depend on this brand, they adore the brand and have transformed into a human megaphone, an advocate. While we can pontificate if the funnel is now a loop or a square or some sort of exotic geometric shape, the core journey remains mostly unchanged. As I think blogging it occurs to me that the stories people once told, the publications and outlets that had shuttered them, how their online voices were a deviation from tradition — suddenly, these voices have morphed into the shape they once rallied against. Their online space has devolved into a simple graphic taught in basic level marketing classes.

They are what they sell.

Remember authenticity? Remember I’m just like you, but slightly better, thinner, more organized and own white furniture? Now it’s an aesthetic. It’s a positioning statement, a marketing vehicle, a way in which one garners trust in order to drive transaction. Remember when your favorite bloggers told stories? Long ones? Remember when their sites were free of the planted, awkward sponsored content that tried to architect something familiar against a backdrop of BIG BRAND? Remember when the blogs you loved didn’t publish post after post of affiliate links and sales drivers? Remember when bloggers weren’t hosting online classes on blog monetization? These round-ups with affiliate links do not make you a unique snowflake. Ten bloggers writing about their couple dating experiences, brought to you by a well-known dating site, within a span of a week are mind-numbing. In the end, these bloggers feel like photocopies of one another, down to the photoshopped collages and link-baiting, in hopes of currying the favor of the “top bloggers” and “premiere brands.”

Remember when people simply wrote? I do.

Admittedly, as someone who both works with brands and agencies in a certain capacity and blogs, I’m faced with a conundrum. While this seismic shift in the blogging space benefits brands {native advertising, anyone?}, how does this benefit readers? How does this benefit children who are constantly prodded to promote products in front of a DSLR camera, whose developmental moments are used as advertising? I don’t fault bloggers for wanting to make money, I don’t, but I wonder about the means to the end and the tactics employed for that end. I’m all for books, business and product lines and transparent advertising, but the story shills are grating and ubiquitous {this tender familial moment, this very personal break-up story has been brought to you courtesy of Brand Y!} This fawning adoration of experiences feels very much like I’m watching a commercial on a loop.

Granted, I don’t have a solution. How does one post stop a train hurtling a hundred miles an hour? But this is what I know: the blogs I used to secretly read and aspire to be are largely crafted fictions. Yesterday, my friend Summer posed an interesting question, Ask yourself: what are you consuming on these blogs? Why do you visit them? What void are they filling? These bloggers are people, just like the rest of us, and their success and aesthetic don’t account for our life, our real, waking life, and how we live it. Success for them may not be attainable for us, or even equate to what we think success is. I know to become suspicious of a blog that has shifted from stories to products and placements. I’ve learned to take everything with a grain of salt. I’ve trained myself to read less. I deploy steadfast rules for this space and hold myself accountable to them.

I quietly mourn the evolution of the blog from an online diary to a branded, curated, edited, aspirational, inspiration, fictitious, business.

Photo credit.

18 thoughts on “the state of blogging: authenticity as an aesthetic, sponsored storytelling, rampant shills, and the business of cash money

  1. This post really resonated with me because I have a love/hate relationship with blogs, especially fashion and lifestyle blogs. Some of them feature such beautiful photography and inspiring content, while others are brand-saturated and interchangeable.

    But as a person who once tried to support myself from creative endeavors and then went running back into the arms of corporate America with my tail between my legs, I can’t judge any of these bloggers. In fact, I celebrate them because they’ve found a way to exist outside a capitalist structure that devours any and all free time while demanding that we embody the walking contradiction required for corporate success in the Lean In generation.

    A mom shilling her child’s birthday party for referral clicks isn’t any different, or any worse, than child modeling or acting. In fact, it’s better because the child remains in a controlled family environment. The vast majority of consumers either don’t have the taste level to recognize authenticity, or they don’t care. The kind of content that is successful in the realms of music, movies and television is no more authentic and no less brand-saturated than the typical blog.

    Authenticity is a luxury item, and not in the logo-laden way that has become shorthand for luxury today. If a blogger wants to maintain authenticity and still find a way to generate income from their blog, they should brand it as an exclusive product and charge readers a subscription fee for access to most of the content (kind of like the New York Times or most mildly successful porn actresses are already doing).

    Just want to say again that this was an awesome and thought-provoking post!

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    1. Alex P – Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I actually discussed it with one of my friends, as you’ve mentioned something of which I’ll have to respectfully disagree. I do think there is a marked difference between child modeling (I’m not actually a proponent of a child working, period, btw) and a commercialization of their home experiences, and how their private lives are documented for the world to see. In the former, the family’s personal life isn’t hung out for display, and there’s a clear delineation between fiction (modeling) and creative non-fiction (a parent’s “creation” of a story to suit an advertiser). One is transparent about being unnatural while the other blurs the lines to the point of confusion.

      I absolutely applaud bloggers who want to make money off their properties — I just think there are a myriad of ways to do it without sacrificing their integrity.

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  2. a very interesting post. I can very much relate to where you are coming from. most of the blogs that initially pulled me into the blogosphere have changed beyond recognition and have therefore disappeared from my reading list. they are hard to replace, though, as most blogs these days are endless shopping lists and look at me look at me look at posts. on the other hand, I do want to see great photos and to read well-written articles, so most of the really diary-like blogs with blurry pics and random notes don’t appeal to me, even though they are probably the most authentic ones out there. not everyone can be a great photographer or writer, but why shouldn’t they share their stories.

    I also agree to some extent with what Alex said before me. a certain amount of monetization is ok if done carefully. I find it worrisome how some bloggers (ab)use their children, but there are as many bloggers that do it in a reasonable way as bloggers that are reckless and calculating.

    in general the quality of blogs is declining, though. let’s be honest, for a lot of people it’s their window into a bit of online fame, their 15 milliseconds of imagined fame. the competition is stiff. and there is not a lot of collaboration going on anymore. or if it is, it’s among very small groups of bloggers that tend to form small elitist circles. but it’s still a fairly new medium, and I believe everything new goes through different stages, vacillating from from one extreme to its opposite until a somewhat stable middle ground can be developed.

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    1. Completely agree, Petra. I think we’re seeing the extremes within the blogosophere and honestly, the result of democratization. In a sense, it’s amazing because everyone has a voice, a medium for that expression and a means to connect with others. On the other hand, sharing one’s stories is markedly different than marketing one as a brand, and not everyone is skilled or deft enough to see the difference and do it authentically.

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  3. I agree with so much this post and thanks (again!) for the link to my own.

    I’ve written about monetization before on my own blog, and my own decision to opt out of ads, even though I am very much pro bloggers and content-creators earning money.

    I think one of the challenges is that the market forces a standardization of ad offerings, so that when one or two or three major bloggers begin hosting giveaways or posting sponsored content in editorial spots, it sets a precedent. Then when a blogger accepts ads on their blog (even selectively), they become part of that community of sponsored blogs. And when that community is moving in a direction that you don’t much like, it’s difficult as a single blogger to single-handedly reset those advertiser expectations.

    I really do believe in hard-working bloggers and talented content-creators making money. And I don’t think advertising is inherently wrong, necessarily damages editorial integrity or has to make a blog ugly. Nor do I adhere to the more hyperbolic anti-advertising or “ad-free blog” stance. But the standards and practices being set by the major blogs for advertisements are not to my personal or professional liking. And that suite of options has become the expected norm.

    Like you, I don’t think any of this is easy. I do it for my day job too and coming up with creative solutions while still upholding editorial integrity is especially challenging. But it’s been interesting in the past 3 years to see this huge flip: Blogging started out as a refuge from the integrity concerns we had about traditional media. But nowadays I have more heated conversations about blog integrity than I ever did about newspapers. And I can’t help but wonder – at a certain point – if the lack of professionalism underpinning so many (note: not all) of these endeavours is part of the problem.

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    1. As usual, you’ve managed to say all that I’ve been thinking in a much more cogent and eloquent manner. I think I’ve been distracted by those who clearly exhibit poor taste in marketing themselves as a brand at the expense of themselves and the long game.

      I’ve noticed that bloggers need multiple revenue streams: e-books, ad networks, brand partnerships, collaborations and product line development. I think what’s key are balance and transparency. I think Pinch of Yum (pinchofyum.com) is a terrific example of this. She + her husband have ads and other $ tactics, but the reader experienced isn’t compromised. Additionally, they publish monthly income reports, so as to lift the veil, so to speak. In this way, we not only get their great content (and it’s clear they work hard at it), but they’re offering something of utility to their readers, and more importantly — gaining their trust.

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  4. Perfectly articulated. I think some of the bloggers I used to read had depth and now they have a bottom line or a mortgage they’re hoping to pay off by cozying up to brands. The only giveaways I ever accept to run are in support of the authors or, VERY infrequently, the brands I believe in and value. But I too am skeptical of brands who approach these bloggers because it’s 15 minutes of fame and then they’re forgotten, onto the next brand. In a way, I liken it to celebrities who agree to be the face of a brand that, in some cases, clashes drastically with their image or personal values. It’s not only disappointing but raises questions about the type of content they want to put out there.

    I’m still wondering with most of these blogs haven’t lost their readers – it’s nearly impossible to maintain or even generate sustained, deep engagement from peddling products and repeatedly offering prizes. As I often say for some of these unduly hyped restaurants around the world, it’s style over substance and until people throw in the towel and feel driven to consume real stories, this vapid state of blogging will live on.

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    1. I agree! In my professional world, I tend to tell clients this: stop think like a marketer and think like a consumer. Would your customer find this experience valuable or useful? Would they feel spoken to as opposed to engaged with? Often what a brand wants and what a consumer desires are at odds, and it’s our job — whether we’re a corporation or a blogger — to find ways to neatly reconcile the two.

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  5. this is really interesting. some things really resonated with me. i am okay with some monetization or giveaway type posts; blogging is so much work when you attempt to do it daily, it’s nice to have tangible reward or maybe it’s recognition. i don’t know. i am not really into it, personally, it makes me feel really awkward to do those things. i’ll do something like that if i would do it for free anyway. it’s impossible to have a blog and not talk about a brand, so if a brand i love wants to pay me, sure why not. but still that happens like, never. and i never seek it out. on the other hand some blogs i read do this sort of thing a lot but it’s well balanced; it still feels like them somehow, so i don’t mind. unless there is a raffle-copter involved, i tend to have an aversion to those and have been know to never revisit a blog if i run across one.

    as for kids. i am torn on that. i talk about my kids a lot. i have never really “used” them. mostly i just share my life which very much includes them. i see some BIG bloggers that have had and that baby becomes like a real life advertisement and it’s kind of freaky and kardashianesque and sad. on the other hand, maybe these little “see how cute this outfit is on johnny?” allows a parent to be home with their child/ren, or get them clothes they couldn’t afford, or send them to a better school. so with that i think it’s creative parenting and that’s cool.
    there is a lot to think about here and i appreciate you opening me up to all these thoughts!

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    1. Christine,

      Thanks for visiting + you have also given me food for thought. I do mind sweepstakes and giveaways and pictures of children on a parent’s blog — when it feels right and real. When it starts to feel that the world we’re viewing is carefully curated and architected, that children are props in a cash money story, this is when I feel unease.

      Warmly, Felicia

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  6. I love this post. It comes at the perfect time as I was just thinking last week about how some of the blogs that I used to love to read have changed. I feel like every single post I read is sponsored by some store, brand, product, etc. I miss just seeing what bloggers are “up to” in their day to day lives. I have no problem with making money from a blog and having partnerships with brands…it is definitely a perk, however, I still want to see authenticity and posts that are written simply to share activities, feelings, happenings, etc. Thanks for a great read!

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