In the Shadow of Big-Name Partnerships, Are Fashion Bloggers Being Exploited?

Some fashion bloggers feel they have been exploited by big brands. Photo: Skech/Shutterstock.com

As elite top-tier fashion bloggers hit the news for their prestigious partnerships and staggering fees, most fashion bloggers are, in fact, struggling to negotiate fair deals and paid collaborations with brands. We take a closer look at an industry built on exposure, not paychecks.

The ultimate fashion blogger cliché thrives on a collective fantasy of effortless glamour and easy money. The world is sold on the scrollable mirage of #sponsored posts, exotic holiday deals and privileged access to exclusive events.

Sure enough, in the fashion industry everyone from Louis Vuitton to Target has collaborated with blogging heavyweights, and it is clear that, if brands are willing to pay $15,000 (around £9,500) for an Instagram post, they are confident about investing in top influencers in the market.

But just as a selected group of style crusaders have managed to turn their original online fashion diaries into economic powerhouses—grossing over $1 million, as reported by WWD last year—for most of their lesser-known competitors blogging can become a costly affair and even result in losses. As in many creative fields, flattery and exposure remain strong currency, allowing businesses to trade promotional activities for, well, nothing.

Cardiff-based fashion and beauty blogger Holly Cassell, of The Persephone Complex, is pretty straightforward about the realities. She says, “For the majority of people, I would definitely say the reality is that blogging costs them more money than they get from it.”

At 24, she has been growing a loyal following for three years and her blog generates a small income that she’s happy to integrate into other work. As any other small business owner, she keeps track of all her expenses and makes sure to only focus on valuable projects but admits, “It can be hard to keep up with trends or product launches if you have more financial responsibilities than the average teenager.”

Indeed, to keep up is mostly to spend. And not only on makeup and clothes, but also on photography equipment, editing tools, website maintenance and travel expenses.

So, what about all the free samples and special treatments? Beware of the onscreen swag, it might be a little less VIP than expected.

In an outspoken post last October, Cassell spells out some of the most common ways bloggers end up giving out way too much without an adequate reward.

She explains how reviewing a preview event or agreeing to feature a gifted product, for instance, often results in hours of work that no one in any other job would accept for “a £10 lipstick in return.”

In a recent interview, she adds that it’s rare for brands to offer cash compensation for a write-up and that they often take advantage of more “young/inexperienced bloggers,” who are naturally thrilled about being noticed and willing to write for free—or better yet, for exposure.

“A lot of bloggers promote brands for free just so they can say ‘I worked with such and such a brand’ when in reality they just got conned by such and such a brand,” Cassell says, clarifying that while she is happy to negotiate with smaller businesses, she would never do free advertising for a huge global brand. “I probably wouldn’t even buy their products ever again.”

It is true, unfortunately, that for the sake of exposure many bloggers fall for unfair deals.

Joelle Owusu, from FebruaryGirl, remembers a bad experience with a beauty treatment that she ended up having to pay for herself. The company involved had promised to reimburse her travel expenses and to promote her review on Twitter to their 60K+ followers.

But after spending money on the appointment, taking photographs and writing about the experience on her blog and social media accounts, all Owusu received was a disappointing ‘favorite’ on Twitter—which, in the social media world, means something close to nothing.

She warns, “That, to me, was exploitation and it happens all the time to bloggers, who are flattered when an established brand wants to work with them.”

Owusu, who has been blogging for the last six years, is now a 21 year-old geology student. She has had the necessary time to get her head around the business side of blogging and develop a frugal attitude toward it, but believes it can be especially hard for those starting out who are not represented by an agency. “It’s important to know where you stand with brands and advertisers,” she advises.

And she is right.

According to Daniel Saynt, chief creative officer and CEO of Socialyte, a NYC agency that represents fashion and beauty bloggers, it is clear that brands are not only on the look out for cheap promotional opportunities, but they may also profit from naive bloggers in other unexpected ways.

For example, Saynt says, “A brand will sign a blogger to be in a campaign, and will continue to use their images for years, not paying for their continued use.”

Worse, some companies also agree to certain terms and then refuse to pay for the work.

“It’s times like that that it’s important to have an agent. They can go after what’s due to you and make sure your contracts protect you from not being paid,” he says.

But everything comes at a price, and for agents that is usually between 10-20 percent of a deal—if you’re even big enough to receive regular paid requests and be considered, of course.

Since starting out at The Persephone Complex, Cassell has learnt to better balance her commitments and says, “Nowadays I’m more realistic and can admit to myself that I just haven’t got the time or energy to create a huge post for a tube of mascara.”

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Young fashion bloggers are at heightened risk of exploitation by brands. Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Londoner Jessica Debrah has been blogging for over four years at Look What I Got and decided to take a gamble on her “busy hobby” by quitting her job.

“As I have got more opportunities, it means that I couldn’t work and blog at the same time. So I quit to focus on F.B.L Fashion, Beauty, Lifestyle Bloggers [a blogger network she created] and blogging, to attend networking events, and take my blog to the next stage,” she explains.

A 24 year-old marketing graduate, Debrah collaborates with many brands by writing reviews and attending photoshoots and press events. She supports herself through freelancing and part-time jobs, but she doesn’t think her blog has affected her finances too much. “I don’t really spend for the blog’s sake, to be honest. I am lucky that I get a lot of items to review,” she says.

In her early days, like many others, she worked her way up the digital pyramid writing for “exposure” for brands that wouldn’t even offer a product as a thank you for her work. “I was just flattered that a brand would approach me,” she says.  And who wouldn’t be?

Praise feels good and, for a professional category still struggling for recognition, that makes bloggers a particularly vulnerable target.

Within an ever growing, overcrowded scene of competitive individuals, passing on the first opportunities to strengthen online presence and stand out would mean serving the same opportunities to someone else, who will most likely put them to good use.

And in face of negative experiences like the one Owusu had at the beauty salon, some bloggers may keep quiet for fear of repercussions. “Some bloggers prefer to remain silent about their treatment because they don’t want to seem like a diva or don’t want to be blacklisted by PR companies,” she says.

Just like Cassell, Owusu has also openly addressed on her blog the risks of being exploited by brands, warning others against the usual writing-for-free requests but also other less obvious practices.

In her post, she explains how bloggers get invited to exclusive events they would have to pay to attend, “be it a blogging ‘masterclass’ run by a popular women’s magazine, fancy dinner at a luxury hotel or a meet-and-greet with a celeb,” she writes.

When adding up the costs for participation, traveling to and from venues and possibly even taking unpaid time off work, it is clear that a goodie bag of samples doesn’t quite cut it. And that is not even considering all the writing, photographing, editing and posting that goes into it, during and after the event.

Owusu digs further, bringing up the issue of brands asking her to write about events she didn’t even attend—going so far as to email her photos, links, keywords and hashtags. “I find that incredibly rude,” she says.

In addition to the immediate advertising benefits, being featured in a blog guarantees brands a set of other perks, especially when it comes to blogger competitions. These are the kinds of entries that follow a brand’s brief for the chance to win a prize.

In the words of beauty blogger Kat Clark, from Tales of a Pale Face, these posts are just outdated SEO techniques, specifically, marketing strategies trying to use mentions and inbound links to improve a website’s search engine rankings—without having to pay for sponsored posts.

Following up on her “rant last October, Clark has been avoiding this type of content without any negative impact on her blog or online traffic. She points out, “The only people that really benefit out of these competitions are the one person who wins and the brand the competition is for.”

Indeed, it is hard to define fair practice to serve both parties equally. Brands look to expand their reach but start from a stronger bargaining position, while most bloggers need to establish a status. It takes confidence—and a certain professional weight—to decline unproductive partnerships and it takes courage to speak up when you’re up against more submissive competitors. But things may be slowly changing.

Cassell says she feels that more bloggers are “wising up.” As she puts its, professional bloggers are often expected to feel grateful for everything they receive, however, she notes, “But blogging is work. It should be rewarded. No one can pay their rent with a tube of mascara, and brands should respect that.”