Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blogger Product Review Uproar

The blogging world has been a focus of major controversy in the last couple of days. It began on Sunday, with an article published by the AP Newswire that the FTC plans to monitor blogs for claims and payments. The opinion held by the FTC is that "Many bloggers have accepted perks such as free laptops, trips to Europe, $500 gift cards or even thousands of dollars for a 200-word post. Bloggers vary in how they disclose such freebies, if they do so at all." They are considering regulating that bloggers must disclose whether they have received free products or compensation for their product review, and that they are misleading the average consumer by posting a review of a product without specifying that they did not have to pay for the product they are writing about. I've yet to meet a blogger who got the real nifty perks worth thousands of dollars; more like a handful of samples. One would think that the average person already knows that those display ads running on blogs are affiliate links, for which the blogger gets a few pennies if the reader clicks on them.

Since I'm in the beauty industry (oh, by the way, I don't purchase any of my products when I post about them here, but I think that's kind of obvious), I'd like to focus strictly on beauty blog reviews. I get a lot of customers from reviews of my products on other blogs; they are essential to my business. I am a small, independent company; I do not have thousands of dollars to spend on ad campaigns like the drugstore brands. Let me tell you a secret: a lot of people who blog about my products didn't pay for the samples they tried. I've had people purchase products from me and review them without my knowing that they were purchasing for that purpose, and I've done the opposite where I've sent free stuff out for bloggers to test. Do I do that to assure a good review? No, I do it so that they have something to try and perhaps write about. I've had glowing reviews and I've had lukewarm reviews. I've sent products to people and never been reviewed. Just because someone gets something for free doesn't equate to an automatic positive, gushing promotion for the products. But let me get to that part later in this post.

The fire was further fueled today by Emrah Kovacoglu, founder and CEO of Total Beauty Media. I woke up to find everyone I knew on Twitter up in arms about an article he wrote claiming that "Beauty Brands Should Not Be Working With Bloggers".

I am so frustrated with the self-serving, self promoting piece of (expletive deleted) that I'm having a hard time even writing this post. Let's begin with his arrogant view of bloggers (including his own members) who are less polished and cannot spell correctly, and shouldn't trade free products for integrity. Excuse me? People read blogs because they have personality and are not dry, boring newspapers. Carleen Pruess, author of Beauty and Fashion Tech is an attorney. Meredith Edwards-Cornwall, who writes Daily Dose of Coffee used to be a journalist. Guess what, guys? I have an MBA and can write with the best of them, should I so choose!

To add insult to injury, Emrah goes on to say that bloggers should not deal with beauty brands directly, they should do so with his "Sneek Peek" program. Guess what his bloggers got (free, by the way) as their last sneek peek?

A lifetime supply of Q-Tips!!! Do you really need to read a review on Q-Tips? Total Beauty's sneek peek program is composed of sponsored items that are primarily drugstore brands. I queried Total Beauty about this Sneek Peek program. Though they have not responded, I'm willing to bet that those items are not purchased by Total Beauty for their bloggers review; they are sponsored by the manufacturer who either pays for placement or provides the product in mass quantities for free - most likely both. According to this yahoo, "We can ensure a buffer between their blog and brands, so that they are not penalized by a negative review, if that is what they truly feel." Beauty bloggers are not 10 year olds who need to have their hands held. Nor do they live in fear of retribution for writing an unflattering review. Companies, large and small, know that their cannot be all things to all people. We understand this concept. If bloggers should only write about products obtained through a middleman like Kovacoglu, the review world would be severely narrowed down, in addition to being repetitive. It's bad enough as it is - there's no missing whenever MAC introduces a new limited edition something, as a dozen blogs will all be discussing it at the same time. Kovacoglu started out trying to talk ethics and standards, fell into his own trap and lost his credibility by pitching his own program.

OK, back to the "free part" stuff and the FTC.
This was a major topic of discussion when I was on the bloggers panel at The Makeup Show. I have an unusal perspective because I am more or less on both sides of the coin. Let's take this in steps, and tell me if it doesn't make sense. Bloggers with loyal readership blog frequently - usually at least several posts a week, and significant proportion update their blogs daily. If you don't update, you won't maintain readers because you've said nothing new in recent memory.

If you write about a different product everyday, and had to purchase all the products you blogged about, you'd only be able to do so if you were a) independently wealthy, or b) charged a membership fee to cover your costs. Most likely, it's a mix of the two - freebies and your latest haul from (insert store name/website here). I get requests for samples from bloggers on a daily basis. Do I send everyone stuff? Nope. Your prices would go up to cover the costs of sending goodies to everybody and their brother who claim to be a blogger.

Who gets stuff? First, I look at the posts made on the blog to determine if it's even the right audience. My customers tend to be umm... not teenagers (to put it nicely). Most of them are not into bold, bright colors. I'm also not the cheapest product around, so if I see that the blogger writes towards those demographics, I will thank them for their interest, and respectfully tell them that my products are most likely not a match for their readership. I look at how many followers the blog has, whether many of the posts have comments to indicate that people are reading and responding to the author, frequency of posts, etc. When I do send out products for review, most of it is sample sizes. Not knowing what they may or may not like, I'd rather send a little bit of a variety of products than a full size of one or two items. From a business standpoint, it increases the likelihood that there might be something that they really do like.

Does knowing that the reviewer may not have paid for some of product XYZ that they're gushing about change your view of the author? What if they're writing about a product that they got a free sample of at the cosmetic counter at Macy's? Do they have to disclose that too? You can only gain the trust of your readership if they feel that you are honest - not whether the product was free or not. I've seen many blogs that will post the pluses and minuses of the product they're reviewing. Others may not have many negative posts at all, with perhaps a sentence here or there that they wished (fill in the blank). It all depends on their writing style and the approach with which they are comfortable. Some are believers in the saying, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all". Those are the products that they still received for free, but didn't say a peep about it anywhere.

I'd love to hear your opinions and comments. It's taken me all day to sit still long enough to try to write this cohesively!

Here's a list (which will be updated as I find 'em) regarding both Total Beauty's fiasco (now coined TB-Gate) and the FTC issue:


  1. I WISH I were getting paid to blog, LOL. Then I could afford all the beauty products I review. I actually buy a lot of them!! For every product I do get for free, you can bet I've probably paid for 10.

    If they are going to say that bloggers NEED to disclose that they received an item for free (and btw I keep it no secret, I just don't feel like I need to put a friggin' disclaimer on all of my posts) then why have they not required all magazines to disclose "oh by the way this list of top 10 picks was actually chosen according to who has the best publicist"...??? Anyone?? GIVE ME A BREAK.

    Oh and I may not have a degree but I was in MENSA and I am a published author; I certainly know how to spell. But true story-- EINSTEIN couldn't spell. Should he have had a buffer too?

  2. Robyn, What a wonderful response. I can tell you were emotionally attached to this subject and I think that is why we all are a bit upset by what happened. We put hours into these articles and reviews and to have someone treat us like children who need a supervisor is just inexcuseable.

    Also, I truly appreciate your unique perspective from "both sides of the fence".

    Here's to a better day tomorrow,

  3. Oh goodness. When the Q-tips arrived I thought how in the world will I write about this? What beauty product user does not already use Q-tips?

  4. "Kovacoglu started out trying to talk ethics and standards, fell into his own trap and lost his credibility by pitching his own program".

    EXACTLY! This goes to the heart of the hypocrasy that many of the bloggers are feeling. Maybe through this experience, Emrah will learn the value of working directly with a PR agency. Hell hath no fury like beauty bloggers scorned!

  5. Here is a secret: I still haven't written about the Qtips, because I'm flummoxed as to what to say.

    Even those of us who are "trained journalists", which qualifies just about everyone who has taken any sort of upper level English class, find this whole thing appalling. The beauty of blogging is that you are just blogging as yourself, and writing about what you're passionate about. That doesn't require a four year degree in journalism ethics, even if such a thing existed.

    Bloggers, keep doing what you do, and the companies who know better will continue to work with you. I don't think there is anyone out there buying Total Beauty's concept of "interfacing" with bloggers.

    And this is a fantastic response. I'm looking forward to hearing what the rest of the current Total Beauty community has to say.

  6. Well said, Robyn. What is further disheartening is that for someone so "tuned in" to the blogging world, it's amazing that Emrah has yet to respond to the uproar that he caused. Poor social media skills, poor crisis management.

  7. Man, Robyn!

    Your response was amazing. I knew you had to be a bit upset but you managed to express yourself eloquently and with dignity. Bravo Zulu!

  8. Thanks for your insight on this. It is interesting to see the response of a person who is not just a publisher, but is also a beauty brand. I think that direct relations between bloggers and small companies such as yours are one of the wonderful things about blogging. I have discovered so many fabulous companies and products that way (yours included, I rave about your foundations to people all the time now!) and I enjoy sharing these finds with my readers.

    The FTC issue is interesting to me. I think that to some extent there is a huge misconception about bloggers getting swag and high compensation. It happens, but not that often, and it is usually disclosed. I would love to disclose a trip to Paris, but I don't see it happening any time soon. Interestingly, Total Beauty gave away some trips to Paris to bloggers last year.....

    In any event, I also don't mind disclosing when I get free products to review or use afilliate links etc. I am a bit annoyed by the idea, but in the end it won't be a big deal for me to do so and I figure won't hurt me in any way. So I am preparing for that if the proposed FTC regulations are adopted.

  9. I even think the proposed FTC regulations is carrying it a bit too far. I do know of bloggers who have been approached for a pay-for-review (usually by large, commerical brands), but don't know of any who have ever accepted the offer. You guys write for the love of your readership - undisclosed pay-for-review would ruin your credibility and subsequently your readership. I can see a middleground, which would require disclosure when a value reaches a certain dollar amount.

  10. Well put!
    Just want to know where I can sign myself up for "thousands of dollars for a 200 word post"...just kidding of course. : )
    BTW i liked how you addressed the part where there would be dozens and dozens of bloggers posting about the exact same thing. That would be mind-blowingly repetitive and would prob cost us readership in the process too.

  11. Nice job, Robyn. What an absolutely ridiculous stance by Total Beauty Media. I too am a bit on "both sides" as the owner of a small beauty company (Garden Girl Skin Care) and a blogger ( I have to say I totally agree with you - we as small businesses have few options to get our name publicized. We can't afford the big advertising campaigns that the big name brands do. But bloggers tend to write honest and straightforward reviews. Just because they were sent the products to try for free doesn't mean that they will be influenced to write a good review. And for those few that do accept payment or are influenced by free products, you as the reader can usually tell right away.

    And as so accurately pointed out, what you read as an "editor's pick" in fashion magazines is simply the result of a strong and very expensive publicity campaign - not necessarily because the editor has tested out the product and believes it is the best.

    This will certainly be interesting to watch! Thanks for posting it!

  12. The MINUTE magazines start clearly stating that EVERY editorial credit line for a product, cover credit line for a product, editorial glowing review, and beauty editor's pick is really part of the agreement between the beauty brand company and it's pr for placement, (that usually went with the paid advertising page) THEN I'll start stating that items I get are paid for, samples, or received by the press.

  13. I'm not a blogger, but I spend a lot of time on some of your blogs in order to research cetain make-up brands (like this one, which I love, and found about on a blog:) and the ingredients that they carry. So just as a reader, I've always thought the fact that bloggers get free samples was obvious – almost all industries work this way. And a free sample and an extravagant vacation are hardly the same thing. And as an informed reader, I'm looking for pros and cons, not all positives – and I simply wouldn't read a blog that only praised products as flawless. I wouldn't believe it, and I doubt many readers would (although I will admit, as a teacher, I'm a big fan of correct spelling... I'm more likely to read and listen to a blog correctly spelled and carefully constructed than one that appears hastily written and not thought through). It seems to me that this Total Beauty article has really missed the mark, and is holding its bloggers – and readers by assumption – to incredibly low standards.

  14. Great response Robyn. It is not the role of Total Beauty Media to determine what are the standards and help enforce them. He is trying to create an artificial role that is not relevant in the dynamic online media world.

  15. I could not agree with all of you more! I think his article was ridiculous. As a PR Professional myself, I love and value the relationships Im lucky to have with so many beauty bloggers out there. Why would I pay a company to seed my product when I can send it to the same person for less of a fee, it makes no sense. Total beauty is completely trying to take away that relationship, the personalization that makes blogging so much fun and so valued to consumers (and me!) I'd say thats one CEO that is completely out of touch with his company. Try checking with your "blogging community head" before posting things like that.

  16. i am new enough to blogging but anything I get to review I throughly review(no using it once and not making my mind up about it)I have been telling my friends about mybeauty finds for years,blogging is just doing so to a wider audience.

  17. LOL. I love this blog...Iv'e actually started my own blog recently, pretty much just for fun but yeah, I buy all my products myself and pretty much review the products i like but then again...if i didn't like it would i buy it? But it seems silly...q tips? Have fun reviewing that one "ummm...they clean my ears well?"
    -becca e


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