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Selling Your Soul: How I Refound My Ethics In Blogging

This post has been in my head – and my heart – for a long time coming. It’s a bit windy, so bear with me. And I realize I am burning some blogging bridges by what I have to say. And I am OK with that.

When I first started blogging, on my Trail Cooking blog, it was a long time ago. Two platforms before what it is on now (and under a different URL even), I was started blogging in 2006 (the website dates back to 2004).

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It was a different world back then. Back when we wrote for ourselves – so excited to share with the world. Around 2008, suddenly everyone I knew was starting a recipe or personal blog and I couldn’t resist, and Gazing In was born (in its first version). It gave me a place to talk food, and share all the new things I learned. As I had more children, it became my personal space to hide in. I had encountered the negative side of the outdoor industry: when the majority of your readers are men, they might not want to read about children. I encountered some very nasty men who publicly told me I shouldn’t write about my kids. So I ran to my other blog, and it was a wonderful safe space. I had this awesome following of mostly ladies, and comments poured in like rain drops. Those years were the most amazing ego booster.

I don’t remember exactly when the change happened, but it just did. Social media was on the climb and suddenly bloggers were hot property. And you know what? Of course it felt awesome to be wanted. I’d be a liar to say that isn’t so. If you were hosting on WordPress.com, you got yourself self-hosted quickly, so you could monetize your blog. (WordPress.com doesn’t allow it) Suddenly you knew your Google Analytics by heart, you had it screen shot. You knew your stats, Alexa score and were on every form of social media, even if it made no sense. Twitter is horrible, Facebook is a wasteland for fan pages. But it didn’t matter, if you were not on them, you wouldn’t get jobs. Blogging had started off as a hobby for most, but suddenly it wasn’t. Posting multiple times a day on social media, cross posting, and most likely? Annoying your readership. It became a full-time job, without a full-time income, for most. Some bloggers bought followers (and still do) on social media, to boost their numbers. No one talked about it out loud, but it was there. Was it the cost of doing business? Or selling out of ethics?

Unless you…..

Monetize

To me, that is such a dirty word. Every blogger conference, every blogger guide spewed it out: You HAVE to monetize your blog. Or you are not a “real” blogger. Even recipe and food bloggers. The money made it easy. Brands were approaching, PR companies that worked with brands and found bloggers to work, they kept popping up. Some were great deals really – develop a recipe, get paid. Those I had no issues with. It was no different from the freelance writing I was creating at the time. But then came the outright ads, using “authentic voices” to sell it. Selling all sorts of things – from social messages (such as avoiding certain illness in babies – which I am OK with doing) to the outright bad – Influence Central and BlogHer working with Monsanto to have bloggers write positive messages about the company. If you are writing about or tweeting about that…your ethics need a sharp look at. No matter what you are paid.

Want to cringe? Here is your reading list, and this is just a start (on a side note, Monsanto has worked with bloggers recently as well, I was sent a pitch for it, via IC) :

Egg Lobby Buys Bloggers.

Unilever and the Egg Lobby being bullies.

Monsanto Hiring Mommy Bloggers.

Nearly a year ago, while at IFBC 2014, I had a huge revelation on what I wanted my focus to be. If I didn’t want to burn out (and this is so common in blogging), I had to write for myself again. I had lost myself so much, I didn’t even know my niche anymore – on either of my blogs. I was stretching boundaries as much as I could, to fit into campaigns, all for a paycheck. And more than that: I dreaded writing. Every sponsored post gave me writer’s block. There was nothing “authentic” about it. It was the mandated amount of words, the campaigns bullet points and many times, the required language. So I stepped back, went back to writing about food, recipe development, fiber crafts, DIY, and my found love of homesteading. On my outdoor blog I went back to hiking with my children, recipes, gear, and everything that it had been back in the day.

All for money. 

When you have to start planning sponsored posts (let us just call that what it really is: “Ads”), so that your readers don’t get overwhelmed, well you have lost your way. At least for me, that is.

Still, I didn’t stop immediately. The money does make it easy to lull your ethics. And why not get paid for writing?

Until I attended a “conference” (in name only) held by SoFab.

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The crassness level floored me. It was the first conference I had gone to where I wanted to leave within an hour. I had been expected to write a fluff piece for half price admission (which for a well run one isn’t a bad thing). But the conference was all about selling. Selling for them I might add, as SoFab/Collective Bias is selling bloggers to companies for sponsored work. And the insult was we PAID money to be there. And so did some of the attitudes there, and that I saw after it. I had been surrounded by other bloggers for years, who truly were nice people, who wanted to help others and there…it was a group of vultures, who’d peck at another blogger to get a deal with companies like Kraft and Walmart to write about crappy processed foods. That made me step back sharply. It was one thing to develop a recipe for an ethical natural foods company who needed an army of bloggers to boost their presence, but to advertise candy and food full of artificial coloring and preservatives? For me, that was a show stopper. My ethics said no. That isn’t to say others shouldn’t. If you are fine with it…go for it. You at least will know you have no competition from me. But spending $50, plus parking, to sit through what amounted to a MLM pep talk? It was a major let down. By the end of the day it was $100 out of pocket to be told I wasn’t a real blogger unless I sold out.

Not too worry too much, they sent us this sweet swag a month or so later:

blech

Yes, that was a single serving of Crystal Light, and an expired single serving of peanuts, a low-grade “lipstick” battery charger, a sticker and a luggage tag. I had to throw the entire envelope in the garbage as the peanuts contaminated everything. Thankfully I was warned by another blogger ahead of time to open it outside (due to my youngest son’s allergies). Yes, bloggers love swag – no hiding that. But crappy swag? Did someone open up a desk at work?

I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Dooce is a great example of what happens when you get red-hot and burn out – and this interview/article in The Atlantic on “Is It Possible to make a living as a Mommy Blogger?” is spot on. Also see the NY Mag article, in which she really gets it on why monetizing takes over your life.

As I walked into the month of May, I finished up all things owed and have not taken on ANY sponsored work since then – my last work I did I was called a “mommy blogger” to my face in a snarky tone by an employee. That was when I knew I was truly sick of it. I still do reviews, here and there, for things such as books and products, but not for money. Only in kind. And only for things I can say I would actually have paid money for. But I don’t see myself doing paid sponsored work anytime soon. I don’t need, nor want, to write about sex lube, adult underwear, my kids wetting the bed at night, how I remedy constipation, my period, or any other TMI subject where I am offered a few hundred bucks. My pride is worth more than that. And so is my family.

But more than that…it gave me back my “blogging mojo”. Suddenly I found love again for writing. But the most important thing? In writing for myself and not worrying constantly about searching for my next paycheck. I post less, but it is from my heart now. I spend a LOT more time with my kids, I had a wonderful summer in my garden. Being a story-teller isn’t a horrid thing, I actually kind of love it!

Because in the end, I cannot tell you who I last wrote for, and why it seemed important then, but I can tell you every step I took with my kids on every hike we did this summer….and that is what really matters.

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Because I only get so many days with my kids, but selling my soul, I can do that at any point.

PS: Yes, you can still earn a living a blogging without monetizing. And it sure feels a lot cleaner.

9 thoughts on “Selling Your Soul: How I Refound My Ethics In Blogging

  1. I really enjoyed this post and couldn’t agree more, it is sad people are selling out. I can’t say I don’t write sponsored post occasionally and have at one point felt like I lost that “writing for myself” feeling and so I decided to cut back and really only take on companies I like and realize how much my time was worth.
    (new follower by the way)
    Tabitha recently posted…I have a 2nd graderMy Profile

  2. Hmm…I swear we’ve had this conversation!! 😉

    I love what Meg Houston Maker had to say about the art of storytelling in her post-Wine Bloggers Conference article: “Take a cue from playwriting: Start your story in the middle of the action. The great screenwriter Billy Wilder once said, “An actor enters through a door, you’ve got nothing. But if he enters through a window, you’ve got a situation.” (source: http://www.makerstable.com/2015/08/the-story-only-you-can-tell-advice-to-wine-bloggers.html).

    That fantastic piece needs to be read by bloggers of all walks of life. I don’t care if you’re a food, Mommy/Daddy, fitness, wine, beer or (insert category here) blogger…if you call yourself a blogger, you need to read that piece.

    It should also be required reading for “Blogging 101”.

  3. I’ve been reading with interest the various blog posts and articles you’ve shared about sponsored posts because of a shift – over many months of inner struggle – in my own feelings about why I blog. Although I’ve received offers to write (or in some cases, NOT write, but post someone else’s words) sponsored posts, I’ve always turned them down. I don’t like the idea of having an unknown party/person posting on my site, and I have never been interested in the products/companies/ideas. I can see that there might be times when the fit is right, but that hasn’t occurred for me. However, I’ve found over the years (and I’ve been doing this for a far lesser time than you have), blogging has changed, just as you’ve outlined here. More ads populate the side bars and sometimes in between paragraphs within posts (hate that!); there is a huge push for brands to recognize individual blogs and bloggers, everyone wants recognition all. of. the. time. – and it’s this grasping that has really turned me off. When I revamped my website this past winter/spring, I removed all of the ads – even the Amazon affiliate banners. (Interestingly, I now get more $$ via Amazon. And PS, I completely understand why bloggers want ads – it’s just not right for me.). Also, for a while there, it seemed as if all I was doing were cookbook (and the occasional product) reviews – so much so that my own content was being pushed off and delayed. Burn-out, big time. Just as you say here, I dreaded writing. Everything sounded stilted and blah and my mojo dried up like a prune! So, I decided that I needed to a) reduce the amount of reviews I accepted, and b) post a lot less. I’ve also severely reduced my social media presence because keeping up with it all stressed me out and became a dreaded chore – a stone around my neck. I was constantly comparing my success with others – and this is just toxic. I’ve still got some things to do to get back to a time when I was excited about writing and blogging. When I really didn’t care how many “followers” I had and how many likes and shares I got on FB or Twitter or Instagram. Anyway, thanks for being so honest about this topic and for making me feel that NOT wanting all of the blogging trappings is okay. It’s enough just to want to write and share.

    1. Annie,
      EXACTLY! And when I met you years back, along with Somer, it was a wonderful time to be a blogger. Miss that!
      PS: I despise ads in the middle of posts. Some lately have had 2-4 ads, between paragraphs. Yes, they might make more than a side bar one, but oh….it turns me off quickly.
      ~Sarah

  4. Interesting. I never managed to try to ‘monetize’ my blog and I’m not sure just where (if anywhere) my blog is going, but I have never felt like spending a huge chunk of my time on social media, so that closed certain avenues. How ironically perfect that they sent you peanuts.
    Mary @ Fit and Fed recently posted…Vegetarian Mushroom ‘Bacon’My Profile

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