When it comes to blogging about freebies, honesty is the best policy

Spill the beans

Last week I had lunch with two colleagues at a little family-owned bakery and as we were headed toward the door a woman behind the counter asked, “Would you like a treat?” She pointed us toward the day-old basket and we eagerly picked out some cookies and muffins. Once outside, I said, “I wonder if anyone has ever responded to the question, ‘Would you like a treat?’ with, ‘Nah, I’m good.’”

Because seriously, when would you NOT like to have a treat?

And when someone emails you and asks, “Would you like me to send you some shiny free stuff to feature on your blog?” you may have the same gut reaction. Because seriously, when would you NOT like to get some shiny free stuff?

My blog was about nine months old the first time a PR rep emailed me to offer free shoes. I’m pretty sure I actually squealed with glee. Out loud. In the following months, more offers rolled in, and I accepted nearly all of them. Why? Well, in my defense, this was 2008, and blogs had recently become interesting to marketing departments. And I had no idea what I was doing.

Now even novice bloggers know that accepting every freebie that floats your way is unwise and might even end up hurting your blog. Your posts become clogged with sponsored content, your readers become disenchanted, and you end up with a giant pile of new stuff … some of which you don’t really want or like.

But how do you determine which offers to accept? How can you avoid becoming just a shill for any product that comes down the pike gratis? And how do you talk about free items that you legitimately like in organic, non-sleazy ways to your readers? There definitely are some guidelines to follow when you’re blogging about freebies.

Know your brands

When you agree to feature a product on your blog, bear in mind that you’re becoming a temporary ambassador for that product and its parent brand. You’ve been approached for this collaboration because you fit the brand’s demographic and they want to tap your influence.

Brands know that bloggers reside in a sweet spot between famous people and regular folk, and love to leverage that position. So research brands, make sure they align with your morals and messages; be certain that you’d actually recommend their products to people in your real life.

Create a freebie-acceptance quiz

Authenticity is now — and probably always will be — a blogging buzzword. Maintaining an authentic voice and presence in your online space is essential to keeping your audience engaged. So when considering accepting a free item, make a list of questions to ask yourself before deciding if it’s a good fit for you. Some examples include:

  • Is this item relevant to my blog’s main topic(s)?
  • Is this a brand I’m already familiar with? Have I mentioned it on the blog already?
  • Is this a brand whose products I’ve admired but never purchased?
  • Would my readers use items from this brand? Can they afford them?
  • Will I have any use for this item once the promotional post has gone live?

If you accept sponsored posts, that last question might not be entirely relevant. When you’re being paid gobs of cash to write about something, it might not matter as much if you want to keep it. The real point is to examine if this object has a place in your real life, or just in your blogging life.

Be brutally honest

When a company sends you a free item, they hope — and might expect — you’ll write glowingly about it. And if it surpasses your expectations and thrills you, by all means gush away.

But make it clear to the company that if you find flaws, you’ll mention them. Emphasize this before you even give them your mailing address, because you wouldn’t want to write a truly honest review and unexpectedly burn a bridge with a vendor.

Brutal honesty also helps reinforce your relationship with your audience. If you receive and write about new products nearly every day, and rave about every single one of them, you might come off as a shill. Describing the good along with the bad reassures your audience that you’re being upfront, giving them valuable information instead of just a product pitch.

Another policy to consider? If you’re sent an item that is absolute crap, tell the company you’d rather not review it.

After all, unless you’re running a consumer education-focused blog or the product is something that might actually cause harm (a car seat with faulty buckles, an under-eye concealer that made you break out in hives), you’re under no obligation to write exposés. The company is hoping for good press and if you trash them publicly you’ll not only incur their wrath but also make yourself less appealing to other brands and companies.

Always disclose — always

Since 2009, the Federal Trade Commission has required that bloggers explicitly disclose any items they’ve received for free, as well as any content they’ve been paid to write and any affiliate links that will generate revenue. So “always disclose” should be a no-brainer.

Instead of considering this policy to be a burden, think of it as an opportunity to build further trust among your readers. You’re supposed to include disclosure statements in close proximity to any sponsored content, but many bloggers choose to shove theirs off to the side on separate disclosure pages.

When you include a disclosure statement with every post, tweet and status update that includes money-generating content or features gifted items, you’re saying to your readers, “I want to be upfront with you. I hope you’ll support me, but I want you to know exactly what’s going on in case you prefer not to.”

I’m not gonna lie to you — getting free stuff is fun. I’ve been blogging for nearly eight years and I still feel grateful and giddy when gifted with gorgeous goodies.

But there’s an art and a science to deciding which items to accept and how to promote them. So long as you accept things that you’d use in real life, write honestly about them, and openly disclose, you’ll be able to blog about gifted items AND remain in the good graces of your readers.

Image by: P!XELTREE via Compfight cc

Sally McGraw
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, editor, and blogger. She is the creator the popular daily blog Already Pretty, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a Huffington Post contributor, and the author of several books about style and body image. Sally is also a ghostwriter and editor who specializes in non-fiction books and book proposals. She believes that writing is like solving a living, breathing, ever-changing puzzle, and finds the challenge exhilarating. Her favorite word is "crepuscular."