Recently, a bit of a firestorm has arisen in the garden blogging world. It began as one thing, and, as details about that issue came out, led to a bigger, more serious issue. The event that led to this is less important, and the specifics of what happened will, I’m sure, probably come out elsewhere. The details aren’t relevant right now, except that they made me finally sit down and write about something that has been bothering me for quite some time.
Garden Bloggers and Free Stuff
As a garden blogger and professional garden writer, I get probably more than my fair share of free products: plants, tools, books, seeds. I’ve gotten a few big-ticket items, such as rain barrels and compost tumblers. I’ve had companies provide products for giveaways here on In the Garden Online. So I am no novice when it comes to free stuff.
And “free stuff” is at the crux of this latest issue. Apparently, a company provided a blogger with free products. The blogger, who had generally posted positive reviews of this company’s products, published a negative review, pointing out some things that the company should have been grateful to hear about (more on that later). This blogger was essentially “cut off” from receiving further products from that company, and, worse, the company sent other garden bloggers to her post to refute what she’d said in the review.
There are so many things wrong here. But it offers us a good chance to take a look at our relationships with companies, and how to protect our reputation, both in the garden blogosphere and out of it.
Companies That Offer Free Stuff
There are a few things I want to say to companies that provide free products for review for garden bloggers. I think (hope?) that most companies understand this, but let’s go over it anyway:
1. Sending a blogger something for free provides you with two opportunities. The first is to get your name out there when the blogger posts about you. If it is a positive review, wonderful. But it also gives you a bigger opportunity. If they’ve written a negative review, this gives you an opportunity to seriously look at your product. Is it as good as it could be? Don’t write off a bad review just because “everyone else loved it!” Maybe they did, or maybe they were too insecure to write a negative review. Negative reviews are gold. Treat them as such.
2. No matter how much free stuff you’ve sent to a blogger, you do not own them. Ever.
3. Sending products for review does not guarantee that you will receive a positive review.
4. Sending products for review does not guarantee that your product will be reviewed, period. A blogger can choose to write about your product, or not. They are not beholden to you to write about you just because you sent them something for free.
5. Learn to tell the difference between sycophants and honest, objective bloggers. It’s easy for the rest of the garden blogging community to tell them apart. It should be for you, too. If you’re working with the same bloggers, over and over again, you’re not getting a diverse opinion of your products. And you run the risk of only working with sycophants, who are great for giving you glowing reviews, but are generally not respected much in the community at large.
But my concern is less with the companies (who are only interested in their bottom line, after all) and more with garden bloggers themselves.
Garden Bloggers Who Get Free Stuff
1. Getting something for free does not mean you should take to Twitter/Facebook/your blog squealing about how excited you are that someone sent you something for free. A bit of dignity is in order here.
2. Getting something for free does not mean you have to write about it, and definitely does not mean you have to give it a positive review. Write honestly, or don’t write at all. I dislike giving bad reviews. I don’t find them helpful to my readers. So if I don’t like a product, I don’t write about it. As a result, I receive WAY more products to review than I actually write about. If it’s not useful to gardeners, I’m not going to waste my time writing about it.
3. Don’t go on and on about how loyal you are to a company. This may gain favor with the company itself, and with other companies that are looking for bloggers to give them positive press, but it tells the rest of us that you are biased when it comes to this company. And we wonder, when you review other items, how biased you are on their behalf, too.
4. Companies do not give you legitimacy. I’ve seen some bloggers get excited to receive free stuff, and they often make it clear that they feel that, having gotten something for free, they now have some legitimacy in the garden blogging world as well. As if we’re not worthwhile or important until some company deems us worthy of free stuff. I understand. I do. We do this whole blogging thing, often at the amusement of family and friends, watching (maybe) the pennies from Adsense trickle in. Free stuff seems like payment of a sort. And to be recognized by someone else in our industry — well. The only legitimacy we have is that which we strive toward with quality work and honesty. It comes from us, not from someone else.
This situation has become a mess. At this point, how does a reader know which blogger to trust and which is not being objective? How to tell which gardener has devoted herself to servitude to a company, and which one just does her own thing? How to tell who is hoping to be one of the “popular girls” and who is more concerned about being true to herself and her readers? Garden bloggers have created a mess. We are heading down the road that the mommy bloggers traveled before us. And we see how well-respected they are, as a group. Do we want the same for ourselves?
Because if we don’t start acting with integrity, with honesty, and as professionals (yes, even bloggers who aren’t making any money should act professionally!) then that is exactly where we’re headed.