Whether it’s adding a link to an old post, sharing a review via Instagram, or even dedicating an entire blog post to a product that’s been sent your way, it’s inevitable: some brand, some where, at some point, will ask you to promote them without monetary payment. So the question…should you?
My first instinct is to say no, because you should always think through how much time it’ll take you to complete a project in relationship to what the pay off is (and we mean both monetary and otherwise!). Additionally, think about all the time and energy you’ve spent building your audience, and how much they trust what you have to say. Access to that shouldn’t be free and open!
But. There are four instances in which you can weigh your options and consider working for free. Here they are:
The brand is offering you something you really, really need or love, and with clear terms.
For example, it’s common for decor companies to offer product in return for a home tour feature on a blogger’s site. I’ve done this personally — in the past, companies have offered me home furnishings in exchange for a set number of posts and/or social media posts. In some cases, the value of the furnishings were likely more than I could have (or would have) commanded for a sponsored post, and we really needed to get our place decorated, so it made good financial (and life) sense to accept product as payment.
It’s a passion project.
At its core, blogging is about sharing. And sometimes, there are brands or products we discover and adore so much, we really want to share them with our readers, regardless of sponsorship. I mean, I’ve definitely written about a brand that sent me free samples, even when I wasn’t getting paid to do so, just because I loved them so much! It’s always a joy to share these types of finds with readers!
So if you discover a new brand — especially a small start up, who doesn’t have a budget — and are passionate about promoting them, go for it! But here’s a big, important thing to note: if you’re sent something from a brand that you end up featuring on your blog or social media channels, you must remember that these ‘free’ samples count toward your blog’s business income. If you rack up more than $400 of blog income annually, these “free” items must be reported to the IRS as income, and you will be taxed on them. So make sure you truly love the brands you’re featuring (although that should be a given anyway)!
It’s a gateway project.
This is a big gamble, though worth considering nonetheless. Sometimes, a brand might want to work on a smaller project with a blogger before offering a larger (paid) one down the line. If a dream (and we mean dream) brand has approached you and won’t offer compensation, but has alluded to the fact that they’d be interested in continuing a paid partnership later, think carefully about what that future collaboration would look like, were it to happen. Is this brand easy to work with? Do you believe your readers will respond well to the collab — unpaid or not? Has the brand told you what the future compensation would be, if things worked out? Knowing all of this can help you decide whether it’s worth the risk. While at minimum, working with a brand for free is certainly another line you can add to your media kit, there’s no guarantee that anything will happen in the future, because marketing plans and budgets can change quarterly. Roll the dice, but frankly, we think the brand and the potential opportunity has to be prettttty amazing to want to gamble on this one!
You’ll get paid with (legit) exposure.
This one is also a gamble! Occasionally, you might have an opportunity to work with a brand who has a large social media following, and is promising to promote you on their digital channels in lieu of pay. If they were to share your post on their Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, that could result in new readers and followers. Again, we’ll emphasize: could. This is incentive enough for some bloggers, though we recommend you evaluate the scope of work required before agreeing to this. Carefully consider how many new followers would make a labor intensive project worth your time and effort. It’s also a good idea to see what their engagement is on the platform you’ll be featured on. It’s great if they have half a million followers, but if their engagement via likes on their last 15 photos is than less .01%, does that matter?
If you decide to move forward, we also recommend that you a) get something in writing from the brand in which they agree to promote you across their social media channels and b) find out what the promotion will include and when it will run (this can include details which specify they will link directly to your site, tag your social handles, post a minimum of X times, and also share the posts on certain days/times). Because it’s really going to suck if you assume you’re getting a dedicated Instagram post, complete with a handle tag, photo tag, and Instastory tag with swipe up prompt… and instead, the brand posts something at 11pm on a Saturday night via Facebook without tagging you at all. As with any other business dealing, get something in writing!
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For what it’s worth, back in my full-time blogging days, I had both experiences: sometimes a brand’s huge social media following didn’t really result in much traffic or new likes, and sometimes, it did. I do find most of the time, the “exposure” brands promise isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and getting paid is always preferable. However, I’ve seen better results when brands link directly to mine or clients’ blogs, tag bloggers clearly in captions and images, and (this is a big one!) share content multiple times to reach as many of their followers as possible! These are all things I encourage you to negotiate for if “exposure” is the only form of compensation you’re going to be getting from a brand (that is, if you even want to negotiate a non-paid deal at all!).
What about you guys? Are there any other instances in which you’ve worked with a brand for free and been okay with it?