Once the provenance of earnest fashion fans on the fringes of the industry, blogs have evolved into legitimate media sources and, more importantly, big moneymakers. Just look at today's WWD story highlighting "hot fashion bloggers" like Bryan Boy and Susie Bubble. The feature goes on to detail how each notable blogger makes their money, how many monthly page views their sites get, and presents an important question: "Bloggers sitting front row have become commonplace—as have partnerships with leading brands and fashion houses that often blur the nature of what they do: Reportage and criticism or marketing and promotion?"
Whether it's by partnering with brands, styling shoots, receiving payment (or free product) for writing posts or getting commission on the sale of items they post about, some bloggers are seriously cashing in on their influence. Of course, there's nothing wrong with making money. These bloggers work hard, are dedicated to their followers and add a unique voice to the fashion dialogue. "Bloggers produce original content; they have a unique talent [whether it be photographing, styling, writing] and it's obvious," says Karen Robinovitz, co-founder and chief creative office of Digital Brand Architects, an agency that reps "top tier bloggers." "Why would you, for instance, hire any stylist when you can hire just as talented a stylist but one that also has 75,000 followers?"
But as blogs make the transition from personal style diaries to profit-turning businesses, some readers have begun to feel that original and unbiased content, once the keystone of what made blogs so relevant, has taken a hit.
READERS READJUST THEIR EXPECTATIONS
"At the beginning of the fashion blog uprising I loved the rawness of it all," Fashionista commenter Kathryn McMorries Heller recently wrote beneath a post in which Cathy Horyn advised bloggers not to be "shady." "Responsible and active readers have always had to keep in mind who owns/sponsors/advertises any print or TV media. Now, you should keep that in mind with many blogs as well."
Another Fashionista commenter, Andrea Stark Ratner, agrees, writing, "Now, for many of the "top" bloggers, they are "sent" clothing, shoes, accessories, etc., flown and sent to events all over the world, with everything paid for, and then there is a blog post about the "gift" or event and a link to where the reader can purchase the item or get in on what is happening...This practice takes the 'pureness' out of blogging...the blogger is no longer doing it for pure love of fashion, but is now a shill for a brand."
Of course the practice of receiving free swag isn't exactly a secret: Most bloggers disclose what products they were "gifted" in their posts (we get swag and tell you when we write about it). But not all of them do. Moreover, some bloggers feel pressure to wear or write about a certain product in order to maintain a good relationship with a brand, in hopes that either more free product--or a paid gig--will come their way as a result. One popular blogger we spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, told us, "Right now, all brands are doing the same thing: They’re sending free product to bloggers or to online fashion publications and having them feature the product. It’s a slightly vicious cycle of bribery.”
BLURRING THE LINES
So when is writing about a product, received for free, a form of paid endorsement--or even an advertisement--and when is it merely a review?
For some bloggers the answer is fuzzy. The same anonymous blogger maintained that she preserves her blog's editorial integrity, but also said that she usually sent copy to brands for approval before posting. "[On a recent project] I sent copy for approval and they were adamant about me including two buzz words in the title, so I made that change for them," she told us. For the post in question, she did not disclose that she was receiving payment, and, as a practice, she says she does not reveal if a product was given to her for free "because whatever I'm wearing are things that I would've purchased anyway."
Leandra Medine of Manrepeller isn't coy about making money off her blog. "I don't do work without getting paid," she told us. "I feel like asking me to write something or style something without paying me is like asking an accountant to file your taxes without paying them." However, she makes sure she only partners with labels that "jive" with her brand saying, "I won't partner with designers if I know that I don't like their brand. I tell anyone who is sending me clothing that I may or may not post it. I definitely don't want to lose my credibility in that capacity."
For Kelly Framel of The Glamourai, editorial integrity is rigidly maintained. Framel always makes a point to disclose whether or not an item has been gifted and makes it clear to her readers when she is being paid by a brand. Like Medine, she says she's wary of partnering with brands that don't align with her sensibility. "I'm very adamant when I go into a brand relationship about making sure that I have [editorial control]," she told us. "I recently walked away from a sizeable offer from a brand because they wanted to dictate what the verbage was and how I presented their product. They were assuming that we could have the same relationship as they would have with an advertorial.”
While Framel passed on the deal, other, less scrupulous (or uninformed) bloggers may not. And, as it turns out, such deals, if left undisclosed, are in direct violation of the Federal Trade Commission's guidelines which state: "The post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service." However, even the FTC seems fuzzy on the issue, saying, "decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis." In an email, Betsy Lordan, a rep for the FTC, added that, "The [FTC]’s revised Guides governing endorsements and testimonials are guidance. They are not rules or regulations, so there are no monetary penalties, or penalties of any kind, associated with them."
In other words, there is not necessarily any incentive for bloggers to disclose whether they are receiving free product, commission on a sale (which one blogger admitted to doing undisclosed), or even payment for featuring a product. Some of them might be content on cashing in on their audience's attention, while others might just be ignorant of the proper practices, and the repercussions of their actions. Keep in mind that, unlike in the print and traditional media world, many of these bloggers did not study journalism, or have work experience and they don't have any corporate guidelines to follow. (WWD pointed out that "Besides her blog, [Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast] has never had a job that’s lasted more than a month.") Which is probably why the FTC says, "We’re not monitoring bloggers and we have no plans to...If law enforcement becomes necessary, our focus will be on advertisers, not endorsers."
But penalties and rule-breaking aside, how has the monetization of blogs affected the quality of their editorial content? "If it's done properly [integrating ad content] won't ever impact editorial integrity," said Robinovitz, who reps Framel as well as Sea of Shoes' Jane Aldridge and Jamie Beck of From Me To You. "Every single blogger that we work with, before we even discuss what the opportunity is, we do a litmus test for their passion for the brand and for the content because if it's not something they would have done organically to me its not worth doing just for money. We tell our clients that just because they love a brand, doesn't mean they have to do that exact opportunity if that opportunity doesn't feel like the best fit. You cant rush into things, you have to be very careful. I think everyone can tell when something is inauthentic."
There was one thing everyone we spoke to agreed upon: Blogs, once hailed as the democratic voice of fashion, have become brands themselves, questions about their authenticity and originality have rightfully been asked. How these questions will be answered is, for now, up to bloggers. What sort of guidelines do you think they should follow?