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How to Blog for Money Without Being Fake, Hating Your Life, and Ending Up Bitter

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I’ve been blogging on this website for eight years. Over time it went from a hobby, to a very expensive hobby, to a full-time job for not much money, to a full-time job for a decent amount of money, to a part-time job for the same amount of money, which feels pretty darn good. And I really like what I do, so I’m very happy.

I make money on this site in several different ways. Affiliate sales and sidebar ads bring in a little money, but most of it comes from sponsored posts – writing about a product or brand and getting paid for it. I also sometimes write for brands on their sites.

It’s very difficult for me to give an unbiased opinion of myself, but going by what other people have told me, I think I’ve managed to strike a balance between making money, staying true to myself, and keeping my readers interested.

Do I love every aspect of this job? Of course not. Who likes every single part of their job every day? For me, anything visual is torture. I hate making Pinterest-worthy graphics so much that sometimes I won’t write because then I’ll have to do the part I hate. And I’m terrible at it, too. I keep meaning to hire someone else to do them, but I’m also terrible at outsourcing.

Answering emails also kind of sucks. And to be honest, at this point I get way too many to answer anyway. Maybe you hate invoicing. Maybe you hate going to events and networking with brands. Maybe you hate taking pictures. Hating some small percentage of any job seems normal to me.

But if you just hate blogging, if you’ve somehow dug yourself into a deep hole of writing about things you have no interest in and shilling for companies that make your stomach turn, if you find yourself dreading opening up your computer, you’re probably doing this blogging thing wrong.

The wonderful thing about blogging as a job is that you get to make a lot of the rules. With so many different ways to do it, why in the world would you arrange things in a way that makes you hate yourself?

As my high school acting teacher used to say, you might as well just go get a job at a bank, Gertrude.

I love what I do. 80% of my success and happiness is about making good choices regarding who I work with. Here’s how I do it.

I Say No Almost All Of The Time

I’m not the breadwinner in my family, so let’s be real here: saying “no” is a whole lot easier when you’re not the one paying the mortgage and putting food on the table. I’ve seen people I know make choices that they hated because, simply, they needed the money. And I have zero advice for those people. If this is you, if you’re under a lot of pressure to make money now, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help you, because the key to my success was slow and steady growth through careful choices. If I’d needed to make money steadily from the beginning, I probably would’ve gone to work for someone else.

I’m really speaking to the people who are looking for some extra money, looking for a way to add to their household’s income while still being able to work around their kids’ schedules and work from home most of the time.

Years ago when I first started getting offers, I accepted a lot of terrible ones. I was so amazed that companies wanted to pay me for my hobby that I said yes a lot. I was afraid that if I said no, the offers would stop. But I didn’t like the direction I was headed in. So I started saying no a lot more, and found that not only did the offers not stop, they got better.

Marketers have a really difficult job. They need to match the right product to the right writer with the right audience. They’re not going to take you off of their list just because you gave them a polite “No.” They’re not going to shoot themselves in the foot that way.

If a pitch isn’t right for you, thank the person for reaching out, and ask to be kept in mind for future opportunities. It’s that simple.

I Say Yes to the Right Things

So how do I know what to say yes to? I always ask myself three questions:

1) Is the topic/product/brand something that I’m excited about?

2) Is it something that my audience will find interesting or helpful?

3) Does it pay?

If I answer yes to any TWO of those three questions, then I usually do it.

If it’s a yes to #1 and #2, then I don’t necessarily need to be paid. Because here’s the thing: if I cram too many sponsored posts into my blog, I’ll just be a walking infomercial and people will stop reading. So I’m always on the lookout for interesting topics, whether they’re paid or not.

Now, admittedly, I rarely find these from pitches. I usually get those topics from Facebook, Twitter, the news, my kids, wherever. But sometimes I do get a story idea from a pitch.

Just remember: if you’re not getting paid, if it isn’t a sponsored post, you have no obligations to the person who pitched you. Sometimes I’ll get a pitch that looks like it’s sponsored, with due dates, talking points, graphics to include, and how many social shares should be sent out. But when I ask about money, I’m told there’s no budget.

That’s fine, I might still write about it, but then I’m on my own and can ignore the “requirements” in the pitch.

Jim Lin has a fantastic post about this.

If I answer yes to #2 and #3, then it’s also a yes, because this is a job, and not all of it has to be personally fascinating. There are some topics where, even though they don’t make me jump up and down, I can see how the info would be really useful to my audience, and I like to be helpful, I truly do.

If it’s a yes to #1 and #3, or to all three at once? Well, that’s a home run. I get to write about something I find fascinating and I get paid for it. Happy dance.

I Know My Worth

My rates have risen steadily over the years. A sponsored post on my site now usually costs 6-12 times what it did when I started. I charge more when I’m working directly with a brand, because there’s usually more responsibility on me to come up with ideas and figure out logistics. If I’m working through a company that connects bloggers with brands, I often accept less money because the campaign is being presented to me fully formed, and I just have to write.

Knowing what to charge is difficult. There’s no formula. Maybe you have kick-ass writing skills and your posts get a lot of comments. Maybe you have mad SEO skills and you bring in a ton of traffic. Maybe you have a huge social media following. There are so many different factors that go into what a person can charge, it’s difficult to even give guidelines, so I’ll say this: do not think of what you’re getting paid for a post merely in terms of how long it takes you to write it and promote it. You’re not renting your blog out hourly or by the word.

If you’ve spent years building up a community or a social media following, that’s worth something. When you write a sponsored post, yes, you’re spending a concrete amount of time on it. But you’re also renting out space on a website that you’ve been working on for years. It took you a long time to build up a readership and a community, and that’s what the brands are paying you for.

Now, some people will tell you that if you’re starting out and haven’t built up that community yet, you should write for brands for free, so that when you do have more readers, they will pay you. I think that’s terrible advice. All that will do is get you a reputation as someone who will post for free, period. And word will spread.

If you’re newer, it can be frustrating to watch other people get things that you want. The best advice I ever got when I was starting out was, “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”

I’m Authentic

There’s nothing I hate more than seeing someone write about a product that I know they don’t like, or that is all wrong for them. It comes out in the writing. You’re not a PR person, being paid to promote whatever is on your desk. You’ve built up a following based on your own personality, likes, and dislikes. People keep coming back to read your words because they feel like they know you and trust you. Why would you throw all of that away for some short-term success?

Only you know who you are, and what you like, and what products you use in your real life and are devoted to, and which ones you just use out of habit. There are some products that I’m so loyal to, no amount of money would convince to write about a competitor. I would feel so incredibly fake. I don’t ever want to feel fake.

There are other products that I just use out of habit. I get most of my groceries delivered, and it’s just so easy to keep checking the same boxes online each week, without exploring other brands the store has to offer. In those cases, if I’m asked to write about a product that I don’t normally use, it’s totally fine. I don’t feel like I’m betraying anything or lying. Sometimes I go back to using my old product when the campaign is done, sometimes I switch. But the important thing is that I didn’t go into it just to get a check from a brand I didn’t like. I was open to trying something new.

Also be careful of writing about products that are totally against your lifestyle. I’ve seen people who only shop organic for their own families pushing crappy food on other people’s kids through their blogs. I’ve seen people who don’t let their own kids play video games talk about how great a game would be for your kids. Ugh. Don’t be a hypocrite.

I said yes to a campaign about a fitness product once that seemed like a perfect fit for me. One red flag that I ignored was that I was supposed to purchase the item at a particular store, one that I hate and try to avoid in real life. But I told myself that it was stupid to say no to this great campaign for that one tiny reason, so I did it.

Well, it turned out that the store I hated had a much more prominent place in the campaign than I thought it would. I just couldn’t make myself say anything nice about it in my posts. I would do the bare minimum by just mentioning it, and leave it at that. I wasn’t happy. I suspect the people paying me weren’t happy. And I learned my lesson.

That same store has come up again and again over the years, and now I know that even if I like the actual product, I have to stay away if promoting that store is part of the deal. It’s not me. It makes me feel icky. It’s not worth it.

I Don’t Ruin Experiences by Making Them a Job

Blogging has given me some amazing opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way. (And these are rarely paid opportunities, but I’m going to include them here anyway, because doing cool shit raises your profile as a blogger and often leads to more money down the road.) My kids got to play with Tony Hawk. I mean, take a look at the smile on my son’s face. It was the best moment of his young life.

Fiona, Jake, and Tony Hawk

I’ve flown in helicopters. I’ve interviewed Hugh Jackman not once, but twice. I’ve peed in the White House. I’ve gone behind the scenes in Disney World and traveled to beautiful places. I’ve gotten VIP treatment and met fabulous people. The effort that I had to put into covering those things was totally worth it. I wouldn’t have been able to do them any other way.

But over the years, I’ve discovered that there are things I’d rather not do as part of my job. When I’m invited somewhere in order to write about it, it changes the experience completely. Sometimes that’s fine. My kids know that if they’re going along with me to do something cool, the price they pay is having me on my phone the whole time, taking notes, taking pictures, and posting on social media. That tends to work for us for a few hours, but not for an entire trip. So if I want to go on a trip to write about it, I go alone. If I want to go on a trip to spend time with my family, I pay for it.

I’ve also pretty much stopped attending live theater as a blogger. I love going to the theater, but I would rather pay for my own ticket, pick my own seats, and just enjoy myself without thinking about writing a post.

So when offered an experience, think about how covering the experience is going to affect it. If you’re used to buying center orchestra seats for yourself and you’re put in last row balcony, you’re not going to have a great time. If you want to just be in the moment and enjoy yourself, you’ll end up with no notes and no pictures later for your post. Choose wisely.

I Do My Homework

Don’t let yourself be surprised by a company after you’ve already signed a contract. Do some research before saying yes. You’re against animal testing? Find out if the company does it. You’re in favor of fair trade practices? Find out if the company lives up to them. Don’t let yourself get halfway into the assignment before you realize that you kind of hate the company you’re working for.

There’s a pattern I’ve noticed over the years. Companies that are in trouble turn to bloggers to have nice things said about them. They see us as easy marks. Google the company. Is it involved in some sort of scandal? Is it being hammered in the press over some issue? Do you really want that stink on your blog?

Also, even the greatest products will have lousy requirements for their sponsored posts. Make sure to find out exactly what you have to do before signing that contract. I still get tripped up by this, and I’ve been doing this for a long time! I’ll get excited about working with a company, and I’ll forget to ask if they’re requiring any weird social shares (I had one company ask me tweet about them ten times a day for five days! That was a definite no). I had one recently where every aspect of the campaign was stellar, except that I had to work an awkward phrase into every social media share. I felt really stupid doing it.

If you don’t like something that’s required, ask to have it removed from the contract. If they won’t do that, and you love everything else about the campaign, it might be worth swallowing. But know the terms so that you can make a decision beforehand, instead of going to them in the middle of the campaign and saying, “Uh, I didn’t realize I would have to do this.”

Also, be careful about non-compete agreements. It’s totally reasonable for a brand to not want you to write about a competitor for a certain length of time, but make sure you understand the scope of what you can’t talk about. I had to deal with that issue recently and while it could have turned out very badly for me, I got lucky and the brand interpreted the contract in a way that worked for me. The mistake I made was in assuming that the brand would act in the most reasonable way. They did, but according to the contract they could have been much harsher if they wanted to, and I would’ve been barred from writing about a ton of products for a really long time. If you’re in doubt, have a lawyer take a look at the contract.

And if you really find yourself in too deep and you think that posting something will cause irreparable damage to your reputation? Talk to the company about getting out of the contract. No amount of money is worth it if you’re going to hate yourself.

I’m Careful with My Kids

Sometimes I’ll throw in a picture of my kids with a product if it fits the post, but it’s rare that I’ll say yes to something that requires my kids to participate (and it’s rare that my kids want anything to do with my blog, since they’re in middle and high school and trying to hide the fact that they even have parents). None of the brands want to hire your kids directly, because that gets into a whole other level of rules and regulations. Instead, they want you to want to use your kids in the post. And like I said, that’s fine, if it fits with your family dynamic. But if the brand starts requiring things of your kids, that’s a red flag. Remind them that they hired you, not your children.

There’s a whole broader point to think about here, while I’m on the topic. If you start building your site around your kids when they’re little, you may be in for a nasty surprise when they’re older and don’t want to wear the clothes that you’re being paid to photograph, or they refuse to smile at the food you’re supposed to be building a recipe around. If you think it’s hard for you to be fake for the sake of a paycheck, it’s a million times harder to make your kids be fake for the sake of your website.

That’s pretty much it. Most of it is common sense, and your gut will tell you if something is right for you or not. Just follow those gut feelings, and you won’t have to worry about people finding out that you’re not who they think you are. That’s no way to live.

There's been a lot of talk lately about whether or not bloggers are authentic, or if they'll just say anything for money. Here's how I do it.

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Wednesday 1st of June 2016

This is great. Thanks for posting. I'm starting to say no to more things and feeling good bout only accepting things that suit us. And interesting point about the kids. So far no brand has asked anything of them but they're plastered all over my blog and social I guess it's just expected.

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