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The Ethics of Bloggers and Sponsored Posts

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Posted by Alex Gaggioli
November 16, 2015

Over the past few years, travel blogging has become a lot more popular. And with this growing fad, hotels and travel companies often pay or incentivize these internet personalities to write about them to their niche followings. But, it has been long debated whether or not travel bloggers provide honest reviews, or just positive reviews in order to make money. Here we’ll explore the ethics of travel blogging and how you can navigate this unique marketing channel if you decide to pursue it.

The Case for Travel Bloggers

Travel bloggers offer a unique perspective on travel that connects with a unique audience

In many instances, travel blogs are an excellent way to promote your property to people who would otherwise not know about it. Many travel bloggers operate in a niche, whether it be budget travel, adventure travel, luxury travel, etc. When you work with a blogger who caters to the same consumer base that you do, the opportunity for new guests is ripe.

Here’s an example of a trendy, upscale travel blogger called Trendland. They focus on style, luxury accommodations, and unique worldly styles. Another example is Hostel Girl which focuses on budget, hostel travel around the world. If you take a moment to look around their websites, you see that they cater to two very different audiences.

If you are looking to extend your property’s reach and willing to explore creative marketing outlets, sponsoring travel bloggers might be a great tactic.

How to Approach and Respond

If you have decided to work with travel bloggers, do your homework first. Before you reach out to someone, identify a bunch of options. As mentioned above, bloggers tend to occupy certain niches. Therefore, find bloggers who meet your criteria. For one, it is highly unlikely a credible travel blogger would accept an assignment that doesn’t meet their personal brand. Second, it doesn’t make sense to advertise to an uninterested audience.

For example,

If you run a hostel, you could approach blogs focused on backpacking and budget travel such as A Backpacker’s Tale, and This American Girl. These blogs are interested in experiencing the most for as cheap as possible. But, it would not be a good idea to approach a blog like Passported, because they focus on luxury family travel.

And this works both ways. Often, a travel blogger will reach out to properties themselves. If this happens, research their site thoroughly and see if their brand matches yours. We highly advise that you use a website such as Alexa.com to gauge how popular their site is. Unfortunately, there are a lot of scammers out there who may claim to be well-known bloggers, when in reality their site hasn’t been updated in years. In order to avoid these, use tools like Alexa to verify their monthly traffic, and check out their community. If they have a thriving community, and if their reviews get dozens or hundreds of comments each, then they are probably a worthy target. If, however, Alexa says that there is not enough data to rank them, and if their blog posts have no comments or lots of spammy-looking comments with seedly links and broken grammar, then skip them.

Also check out how popular their social media accounts are. Do they have hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, or even MILLIONs of followers, or are they relatively inactive? These are things to take into consideration when deciding if and how much to give away.

The Ethical Debate

Remain ethical when dealing with travel bloggers, so that you, the blogger and your potential guests receive the best benefit

Skift wrote an article awhile ago criticizing the practice of travel blogging. They make a case that bloggers are more marketers than journalists.

Many of them would like to be labeled journalists but don’t abide by the standards of disclosure, or put the consumer first when they’re happily hashtagging about the destination footing their bill.

Bloggers and travel brands ethics are often brought into question because it’s unclear whether what is shared is truthful. Skift’s criticism argues that a blogger’s number one priority is satisfying the property or company footing their bill. Whereas journalists are often held to different standards and put their readers, not their subject matter, first.

This makes travel bloggers seem self-serving. But, I think after reading many different blogs and posts, most are genuine in their reviews. It’s important to note that the properties that pay them or incentivize bloggers to write about their property are likely to have a positive experience, because the property itself is invested.

It would be really unfortunate for a subpar property to pay a blogger to stay there and expect a positive review.

These days, consumers are pretty savvy. It’s difficult for a travel blogger to portray a sub-par property as being exceptional. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig–sure, you made an effort, but it’s still just a pig. Consumers are on to this. That’s why consumers often don’t care when they see sponsored or promotional content from a travel blogger. The property being reviewed often stands on its own merits. The property may have given the blogger a free presidential suite–but the presidential suite is truly amazing, and that is what readers care about. As long as the travel blogger gives an honest, critical analysis, and demonstrates that the property is worthy of their positive review, then consumers often can ignore the fact that the review was solicited.

The United States Federal Trade Commission created guidelines that require anyone who sponsors a tweet to disclose it in the tweet itself. But, there are not solid rules around how a blogger is supposed to disclose a sponsorship on their website. In fact, it’s usually pretty hard to determine which posts were sponsored or incentivized at all.

For example, this post from Spencer Spellman discloses that his stay was covered by the property. But, how many sites don’t disclose what they’re getting for that seemingly authentic review? The FTC does require that if you are going to endorse a property and you’ve been compensated, you must disclose that. However, the FTC does not require traditional journalists to disclose anything in their pieces. This is because a consumer more clearly understands that a journalist working for a newspaper, magazine, etc. is paid to write and is supported by the paper.

But, consumers don’t understand that it is common for companies to sponsor bloggers and pay for their reviews. The FTC created these rules to protect consumer’s perception. A good blogger shouldn’t necessarily be upset about giving disclosure, because it shouldn’t matter to begin with.

How to Remain Ethical

So how do you remain ethical in times when travel bloggers and sponsorships are under scrutiny?

  1. Be upfront about the sponsorship. Make sure the blogger puts a disclaimer in their piece that you have paid them to write the review or expose or whatever it is.
  2. Choose a site that matches your brand. Don’t try to deceive potential guests by pretending to be something you’re not. For example, if you own or run an adventure hostel, a blog that covers luxury accommodations probably isn’t your best bet.
  3. Know what you’re getting. If you’re willing to give away free nights, discounts, food, etc. make sure the terms of the deal are laid out. How many posts, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagrams, etc. need to be shared in order for you to get a positive ROI? The terms should be negotiated so it’s beneficial to both you and the blogger.
  4. Do your homework. Know how popular their site and social media channels are. Is the bang worth the buck?
  5. Don’t do anything unethical. Seriously. Don’t purposely deceive the blogger or your potential guests. The blogger trusts you to come through with your part of the deal just as you trust them to do as they say.

Potential Blogs:

Hostels and Backpackers

Independent and Boutique Hotels

Bed and Breakfasts

Luxury Hotels and Travel

Conclusion

If travel bloggers have contacted you before or if you’ve been thinking about exploring this marketing channel, we say try everything at least once. Find a travel blogger within a similar market as yours and see what type of traction you can make. Make sure to disclose any and all sponsorships so that your potential guests don’t feel swindled or lied to. Consumers do not respond to deception well, so stay true and honest to the business you have built.