On Affiliate Links, Collaborations, Sponsorship, and Making Money as a Blogger

So this comes up more often in the beauty community, but every review blogging niche has some sort of relationship with brands and affiliate networks. While I’m a relatively small-time blogger, especially by beauty-and-lifestyle measures, I’ve accepted products in exchange for review and used referral links in the past. I’ve never done a fully sponsored post and video, but I would be open to it, and my contact information gives the guidelines I set out for such a collaboration. But I see people all the time either belittling bloggers and social media users who accept sponsorship or review samples, or else proudly proclaiming that they don’t accept products for review or sponsorship, and I thought I’d share some thoughts I have on the subject.

On the face of it, it seems like refusing to accept any compensation, whether in product or currency, for your blogging is admirable. You can’t be bought, and there’s no worry that you’ll give a product a good review because you feel bad criticizing it when you got it for free. Well, Tracy at Fanserviced talked about that a while ago, and, as she points out, concrete “stuff” is not the only “compensation” bloggers and social media users get for mentioning products in their spaces. It can feel warm and fuzzy when a seemingly-unapproachable brand notices you because you said something nice about their product. Getting mentioned by a brand can be a fantastic way to increase your visibility on some channels, and mentioning their products is a good way to do that.

But that discounts something even more insidious about blogging, particularly review blogging: it can be a really expensive hobby. I mean, if I still reviewed beauty products, how much readership would I still have, given that I haven’t really added a new product to my routine in months? I certainly wouldn’t be able to post every week, since I just don’t buy that much new product. And if I did, even if it were a moderately-priced range like The Ordinary, I would still probably be spending at least $100 per month to keep posting twice a week, if I were just reviewing products. Even as a tea blogger, I spend a lot of money on tea, but I’m fortunate enough to consider that “fun money” rather than something I need to do (I have plenty of fodder for Tasting Tuesday from my own stash and haven’t bought anything special for it yet). But someone who doesn’t have as much disposable income as I do wouldn’t necessarily be able to showcase as many things on a blog. And that means they wouldn’t get much traffic.

Now, as I said when I talked about switching from reviewing to tasting notes on teas, taste is subjective, just as beauty products are often intensely personal. So I’m not here to tell anyone they should or shouldn’t buy a specific tea. But because I spend my own money on tea, I’m looking at things like “value” from the perspective of my personal budget. So while I might not be willing to spend $150 on a cake of raw puerh, I would be perfectly willing to spend $65 on the same size cake of aged white tea. But let’s be honest with ourselves: these are luxuries. And $65 is solidly out of the budget of plenty of people. So me saying that a $65 cake is “worth the money” doesn’t mean much to someone with $5 a week to spend on nonessentials. And my honesty that I loved the $150 cake, but it’s too expensive to repurchase if I hadn’t gotten a sample for review, might actually be more applicable to more of my readers, especially since it leads me to talk about ways to try the tea for less money (i.e., samples).

So given that review blogging can be an expensive hobby, do we really want to make income a barrier to entry for the people we trust as “more authentic” sources of reviews? Would you rather read a review of a $100 face cream from someone who has hundreds of dollars of discretionary income to spend on luxuries each month, or a review of a sample of a $200 face cream that someone got for free and wouldn’t have been able to try otherwise? Do you want to limit blogging to a hobby for relatively wealthy people, or would you rather support bloggers who try to earn some income from their blogging so that there is more socioeconomic diversity in the field? These aren’t questions I can answer for anyone but myself, and it bears thinking about all sides of this. But, given that there is already a recognized correlation between financial wealth and good skin, I’m concerned that limiting beauty blogging, in particular, to those with the independent means to support it will limit reviews to those who might already have good skin to begin with (or at the very least, more access to other ways to improve their skin besides over-the-counter products).

And then, for me, there is the fact that not everyone who reads this blog has my exact tastes in tea, and I’m not only writing this blog for myself. Let’s be honest, if I were only writing for myself, I would keep it as a private journal, not a public blog. And as I dive deeper into the tea community, I’ve realized that the snobbery that sometimes underscores a lot of specialty tea writing doesn’t do us any favors. So why not feature some products that offer convenience or variety to those of my readers who aren’t looking for the funkiest puerh or the most obscure yancha? Which is part of the reason I accepted my recent review samples from Tea Sparrow — as a North American-based company that offers high-quality flavored teas, they’re poised to appeal to a larger variety of people and can help me bring quality loose leaf tea to more of my friends and family (I have already gotten my mother and my coworker hooked on their teas). Would I buy myself a box from them? No. I am not generally a fan of flavored teas. But was it probably helpful for some of my readers who enjoy flavored teas? Hopefully. And apart from that, I hope that sharing notes from teas like that helps foster a sense that there isn’t a hierarchy of tea purity where you’re not a “real tea lover” if you’re not drinking a specific level of tea. I’m not a fan of that attitude. If you want to drink pina colada tea with sugar and milk (coconut milk might be fun), you do you.

Plus, there is the idea of compensating creators for what they create. Apart from the monetary outlay of purchasing products for review posts, writing takes time. I’m fortunate to have a reasonable amount of free time and a talent for writing quickly, but I still probably spend at least a few hours every week writing content (and that’s not even getting into the time I spend on my YouTube channel) and promoting it on various social media channels so people actually see it. Yes, I write because I love it, but it still takes time, and I’m a firm believer that if you appreciate the work a creator makes, you should support it monetarily, either by donating to them (as I do to my favorite podcast and my favorite radio station) or by supporting their efforts to monetize their work through ads and affiliate links. You wouldn’t expect an artist to give you their art for free (don’t answer that; I know many people do), so why is a blogger less worthy of receiving compensation for their time, effort, and talent?

I suppose all of this rambling is also a bit of an introduction to my own affiliate practices. While I’ve used referral links in the past (for Glossier, most notably), I’ve recently decided to start using some affiliate links to see if I could offset a little of the cost of running this blog. I currently make exactly zero money from blogging, and even if I could start making enough money to support my half of the bread that I currently win for my family, I probably wouldn’t quit my job. I like my day job. But I still sometimes feel compelled to buy things specifically for a blog or YouTube idea I have, and this might help offset that (especially with my historical videos). And, at the end of the day, I don’t really think that having the money to spend on a blog should be a badge of honor.

On Being a “Beauty Blogger” but Also Being Kind of Lucky

This is another of my random, slightly-rambly posts where I work through my thoughts on something that has been on my mind for a while. You see, I consider myself at least partially a “beauty blogger” because I do post about beauty products (mostly skincare). And since I review beauty products, there is an underlying assumption that I think of myself as some sort of authority, no matter how minor.

This train of thought started when I posted a selfie on Facebook and someone commented on my “lovely glow.” Now, I believe this was a pregnancy reference, and I played it off with a joke about being excited about food, but a small part of me wanted to point out that I do spend more time than the average person thinking about my skin and caring for my skin. I definitely have honed my personal routine to have the best effect on my skin that I can get.

But the fact is that I am also somewhat a lucky person. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had struggles and skin issues, but nothing major. And while I credit some of my current success in good skin to proper care, I’ve never had a major skin issue. In fact, if I tried to see a dermatologist in the US, even at my skin’s worst, they’d probably consider me silly. Don’t even get me started on my hair. No, I’m not model-gorgeous, but I have a perfectly acceptable face and figure, and I do have rather nice hair.

And my hair is a good place to start. You see, one of the reasons I have rather nice hair is that my hair is incredibly resilient. I have thick, straight, strong hair and quite a lot of it. It’s graying, but it a somewhat chic way, with a streak that comes through at my part in a kind of Lily Munster sort of way. I’ve even been asked if I dye it in. So when I talk about my hair care routine, yes, I use best practices, avoid heat, wash as little as I can get away with, and make sure to use gentle tools. But I also know that my hair didn’t become any more brittle that one time in high school when I dyed it with boxed dye twice in the space of 48 hours (I didn’t like the color the first time). My hair is a good example because I could probably heat-style almost every day and dye it every month and still have pretty nice hair. At the very least, I have so darn much of it, it would take a long time for the wear and tear to show. So if you have thin, dry, curly, delicate, damaged, easily-damage-able hair, your mileage is certainly going to vary. That’s not to say that I don’t want you reading my blog, but I’m not necessarily going to be as helpful to you as someone with more trouble with their hair.

The same is true for skin. I was blessed with trouble-free skin as a teenager, and had some hormonal issues pop up later in life. I managed to wreck my skin barrier with high-pH cleansers and a lack of proper moisturization, but even when I was “breaking out,” I generally got maybe 4 or 5 spots at a time. It wasn’t even on the same level as some of the truly amazing skin transformations I’ve seen among bloggers I follow. And it’s never been to the point where I would consider much in the way of strong prescription treatment really worth it (I did Curology for all of three months, I think). I will admit that my skin is pretty calm. And since my hormones stopped fluctuating on a monthly basis, it’s been even better (we’ll see how that goes in a few months…). Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read this blog if you don’t have generally good skin, just that most of my beauty reviews aren’t going to feature drastic before-and-after results, but more a sense of how I like the feel of a product and whether I notice its subtle effects.

And I think that’s so important to admit as a person who reviews beauty. It seems like it’s going to damage your credibility to point out that you might not actually need some of the products you tout. But I would rather see a blogger be honest about the fact that their a bit genetically gifted than constantly compare myself to people who are always going to have better skin than I do. And I think it’s even more important to realize that the people who have the “bad” skin might actually be more informative in the long run if you’re actually looking for products that might make a difference in your skin. I’d rather see someone with a chin full of hormonal acne tell me what took them from cystic eruptions every month to just a few lingering clogged pores and residual pigmentation marks than listen to Regina George tell me what she uses on her nonexistent pimples.

It’s why I like to follow bloggers who are over 40 and bloggers who have made their struggles with acne public. No, I do not want to watch anyone squeeze anything on their face. But if I want to try a wrinkle cream, I’d rather see it reviewed by someone with actual wrinkles. And if you’re going to use Botox, yes, I’m thrilled that you’re going to tell me about it, rather than pretending that your flawlessness is entirely the work of your 12-step over-the-counter routine.

So that’s where I am with this right now. I hope my readers continue to enjoy the posts I post, but know that you’re probably never going to get a before and after photo from me because, frankly, the benefits I get from any given product don’t tend to be dramatic enough to show up on a photograph. But hopefully there is some merit to my opinion anyway.