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.

A Week in the Life of a Non-Influencer

Or “Blogging for the Small Potato.”

Inspired by Tracy’s recent post at Fanserviced-B, I’ve been thinking a bit about what blogging means to me and what advice I would give to someone who was thinking about starting a blog. Because, you see, I’m a lot closer to where you would be than someone like Tracy is. While I have almost ten years’ worth of defunct blogs under my belt, I’ve only been at this space for a little over two years and have therefore built up two years’ worth of audience and “influence.”

And I’m just now starting to feel like a “blogger” rather than a person who happens to have a blog. That said, I don’t neglect much of my daily life in favor of blogging or social media. I don’t spend money on the blog, other than what I would already spend to “treat myself.” Because this isn’t strictly a beauty blog, I don’t have to keep a constant influx of product to maintain a review schedule. Honestly, I feel like I’m posting more beauty reviews that I would really like lately because I have a backlog of things I want to share with you because I’ve enjoyed them or because I have other opinions on them. And then there’s always tea. My goal is to post three posts a week, which has lately been one beauty review, one tea post, and one wildcard, but that has been known to change. Basically, I’m not making any money off this, not even to cover my costs, so I don’t feel terrible letting it fall by the wayside on weeks when life picks up.

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Here, I’ve decided to share what a week’s worth of blogging activities looks like for me, a small-time blogger. I have a full-time job and commute 2+ hours each day as well. After my week, I’ll also share some tips for the new blogger, from someone who hasn’t made it big.

Thursday:

On Thursdays, I telework, which means I wake up at 6-6:30 a.m. like normal, but I have a couple extra hours in the morning that I don’t spend commuting. I usually use this time for blog-related activities (although wedding planning has crept in at the edges sometimes).

Blogging: I usually try to post on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so I looked at my blogging drafts and the photos I had and planned what I was going to post on Friday. I wrote the post reviewing my favorite deep conditioners and got it ready to post. I also took a bunch of photos while I had sun coming through the window.

Social Media: I actually joined an online course about increasing Instagram engagement since I’ve come to realize that Instagram is my preferred form of social media. But I need to be better about engaging with people myself.

Friday:

I managed to wake up on time and so I had some downtime in the morning before work to work on my blog post. In the evening, we took off to go to Philadelphia, which is halfway to New York City, where we planned to spend Saturday.

Blogging: I posted my review of hair masks.

Social Media: First Instagram lesson was optimizing your profile, so I updated my profile a bit. I also posted a bunch on my Story as we made our way up to Philly, plus my travel evening skin care routine.

Saturday:

Other than a few shares early in the morning (including a makeup routine selfie), I was largely radio silent on Saturday. We had our trip to the opera, which I talked about on Monday, but the main things were that 1.) our hostess didn’t like it when anyone pulled out a device during lunch (heavens forbid I’m that person with a phone out during the opera!), and 2.) no one else had their phones out to take photos, other than one family at the restaurant taking a family photo. I just felt gauche taking photos, even though I kept seeing things I wanted to share.

Blogging: None

Social Media: Posted in the morning and evening on my Instagram Story, plus posts of my makeup and a philosophical post after finishing a book. Instagram lesson was about cohesion of my feed, so I thought about how to tighten the visual theme of my images. I also started trying to increase my commenting on Instagram.

Sunday:

We were up early and on the road before 9 a.m., getting home before noon, but we were supposed to help out a friend who’d recently moved, so my afternoon was filled with that. Plus I was just dying of allergies.

Blogging: Sketched out the posts I wanted to put up for the week, including starting to write my opera review. Too dark to take photos by the time I got to blogging in the evening, though.

Social Media: Instagram lesson was about strategy, which I thought about. Decided to actually make an effort to post 1-3 times a day, spaced by at least eight hours.

Monday:

Teleworking again because of subway construction, so I had extra time to devote during the day.

Blogging: I used my extra time to finish my opera post and write a post for Wednesday. I also took photos while I had morning light.

Social Media: Instagram lesson was about focus, which I lack, both in my blog and my Instagram feed. I actually made the decision to write a general lifestyle/personal blog, rather than just writing a beauty blog or just writing a tea blog because this blog is a personal labor of love, not an attempt at starting a business. So I guess a little lack of focus is to be expected. But I’m hoping I can try to tie things together a little neater.

Tuesday:

Slept in because seasonal allergies are the pits. But I had some free time later in the day after work.

Blogging: Polished my Matchaeologist review and did some blog housekeeping. The Matchaeologist review made me break the seal on affiliate links, so I added an Affiliate and Referrals page and put up some referral links from other places that I frequent.

Social Media: Instagram lesson today was about using Instagram to sell products, which isn’t really useful to me right now. But hey, if there are any brands itching to do a collaboration, I put up a contact page so you know where to find me. Most of my progress was just keeping up the engagement. I should do an “Instagram Engagement for Introverts” post because I find it really hard to comment on other people’s posts because I get into my head and worry that no one cares what I have to say. Maybe they don’t, but it’s nice to get comment replies. I also discovered that standing on the platform waiting for the train is a great time to fit in some Instagram commenting. I also shared my blog page on my personal (i.e., non-pseudonymed) Facebook page, which was actually a big step. So now at least I know my mom reads my blog. After more than two years.

Wednesday:

Wednesday was a particularly big blog post day because I was posting a review of something I got at a discount in exchange for a review. Now, I’m a small-time blogger. I don’t get brands knocking on my email to offer my promotional products. Every free or discounted item I have ever gotten to review I have gotten by asking the brand’s PR team if they would send me something. This is a touchy subject among bloggers, so I’ll say this: The trick to asking for free stuff is to be gracious and accepting no matter what the response is. When I asked Matchaeologist, they said they could offer me a deep discount, but not something for free. And you know what? I probably would have bought something anyway because it was a thing I was interested in.

Blogging: Published my Matchaeologist review.

Social Media: Wednesday is the day when I get up at 5:30 a.m. and go to barre class, so I posted my early morning on my Story. Instagram lesson was about sounding like an authority, which I’m oddly good at, considering I’m not much of an authority about anything I blog about.

So that was my week. It’s far less exciting than an actual influencer, but it gives a little idea about what blogging is like for mere mortals. This will probably never be a career for me, and I don’t expect it to, but I’ve seen a creep in my traffic over the last two years, without really doing much of anything but write about what interests me. So I guess I’ll leave you with my tips for novice bloggers:

  1. Remember that the bloggers that inspire you have been at this for a while. It’ll probably take two to five years build the following they have, unless you want to play games with clickbait titles and topics.
  2. Do this because you enjoy it, at least at first. Especially since it’s going to be costing you way more money than it makes you.
  3. Use what you already have and supplement sparingly. Instead of buying a DSLR right away, see where your iPhone will get you. Or try to find an inexpensive camera to get started. When I started thinking about doing more videos, I bought a tripod for my phone, rather than a new video camera. It’s not the absolute best quality, but I’d rather spend $14 to see if I enjoy something rather than $600 to discover that I hate it.
  4. If you’re planning on doing reviews, make a plan for the products you review. Know how long you’re going to test them and when the review will come out. That way you’ll avoid having a backlog to work through and can try to budget your beauty purchases.
  5. Give it some time to figure out your voice. Things will change. You will look back on old posts and cringe. We all go through it.

So I guess that’s what I have to say about blogging, as a small-time blogger. I think it’s important to see both sides, especially when you’re starting a new blog, because chances are you’ll be a lot more like me than like someone like Tracy, at least at first. Good luck!

On Instagram and my Blogging Evolution

When I was a teenager, I had a diary. I wrote in it erratically. When I was having boy troubles or drama, I would write in it more frequently. It wasn’t pink or have a lock; it was just a regular blank-book journal that I made entries in when I wanted to obsess about something normal teenaged girls obsess about or coo over how many dolphins I saw when we went to the beach. I remember some of the entries, although I don’t have the physical books anymore. My mother definitely used to read it, and even found out things she probably didn’t want to know about me from it.

Then the internet came along. I got an email account and a LiveJournal. I mostly wrote LiveJournal posts back and forth with my then-long-distance-boyfriend. When I was happy in my relationship, I wrote about inane things like taking long walks and having a lovely cup of tea (funny how things don’t change). I even got my first troll, who seemed personally offended by the light, happy, sweet tone of the journal. I eventually abandoned both the relationship and the LiveJournal.

Much later on, I started a Blogger blog about running and cooking. Mostly I’ve always been a fair cook and people always asked for my recipes. At the time, I was a relatively high-mileage runner, and I did long runs on Saturday, so I would blog each weekend about my post-run brunches. I also cooked dinner from scratch every night for my then-husband. It offered me an opportunity to make a record of my recipes and also an easy way to share the links with friends who asked. Along the way, I became interested in various alternative diets.

This morphed into a blog about herbalism, which later on morphed into a blog about Zen when I was going through the upheaval around my divorce. Eventually I realized that while Zen and minimalism appealed to me when I was essentially a nomad and feeling very cut loose in life, I am not by nature a minimalist, and my own personal lightness and fluff (long walks and tea time) started creeping back in.

Which brings us to Tea Leaves and Tweed. This is not an entirely fluffy blog. It’s not just a tea blog or a beauty blog or a style blog. It’s not really a lifestyle blog except inasmuch as it represents my lifestyle. But it’s a place to share my thoughts and hope that maybe someone else finds them interesting to read.

Sadly, I often become too lazy to do all the work that goes into a really good blog post. I don’t take the time to take photos, upload them, edit them, and craft them into a blog post with visual appeal. Sometimes it’s just me at the keys and my thoughts as text. But lately, I’ve started seeing Instagram as a sort of mini-blogging platform. Instead of just snapping a picture and sharing it with an “isn’t this neat?” caption, I’ll write a couple of sentences and share something from my life that goes along with the photo. So anyone who wonders where I’ve gone when I’m not posting here, I encourage you to check out my Instagram and see if that, more bite-sized format is proving less difficult for me at the time.

At the very least, you’ll get to see pictures from my long walks and tea times.

Stirrings and Happenings

I’ve decided to register TeaLeavesandTweed.com as the domain for this blog. The WordPress address still gets you there, but it will now redirect to my new domain. So update your bookmarks! It’s very exciting and fancy! It’s like moving without actually having to move.

Speaking of moving without actually having to move, I don’t know if I’ve officially mentioned this, but Boyfriend and I have found out that we will not need to move and we can stay in our little house, even after our housemate moves out this summer. This is even more exciting because it will be the first house of my own that I’ve had (well, of our own, but still). Even when I was married before, we always lived in an apartment. We’re already starting to make plans for the house, both inside and out. This weekend, we’re working on beautifying the front of the house a little. It’s a quick job because we have a lot of busy weekends between now and the first day of summer, but we’re going to try to add a little something to the garden in the front.DSCN0304EdI’ll leave with this “before” picture, to show you what we’re up against. There’s some neglected ornamental grass that Boyfriend has to take care of. Our landlady did some weeding a few weeks ago, and I did a little more last weekend, but we’re going to have our work cut out for us if we’re going to get something in this weekend!3030