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.

Tea Review: Craftedleaf Teas

NB: This sample set was sent to me for the cost of shipping for review, but all opinions are my own.

Recently, someone from Craftedleaf Teas got in touch with me and offered me a chance to try some of their teas for just the cost of shipping. Honestly, I was on the fence about getting more review samples, but I’d seen a few other friends on Instagram raving about their Bilochun and I was intrigued by their Lapsang Souchong, so I accepted. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen me tasting them over the last few weeks, and you may have caught my recent video where I tasted one of their teas, but I thought I should organize my complete thoughts into a longer-form review here.

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First of all, their website is rather gorgeous, and relatively easy to navigate. Every listing gives the full information for the tea, along with instructions for brewing gongfu style and Western style, which is nice, particularly if you’re like me and lose the little packet of instructions that were included in the box! It’s nice because the instructions are obviously tailored to each tea, rather than just giving the same instructions for everything.

I received the Fullhouse Sample Set, which retails for $23 and includes 10 grams each of six different teas, two oolongs, a green, a white, a raw pu’er, and a black. Shipping from Hong Kong to the US was $8, and it arrived twelve calendar days after I placed the order. They also included a 5-gram sample of another dark tea. Looking at the prices, Craftedleaf tea is not as inexpensive as a place like Yunnan Sourcing, but they’re not outrageously expensive, especially for quality tea. Plus, the extra information on the website and the sense of curation suggests a higher-touch experience. Interestingly enough, the founders of the company both come from the two regions of China that lay claim to the origins of gongfu brewing. I particularly appreciate that they are able to use language on their site to express their careful curation, without resorting to calling themselves “luxury.”

When my tea arrived (much sooner than I expected), I broke into the box almost immediately. The seven sleek, white envelopes were carefully packed along with a little book of paper slips containing the information and brewing parameters suggested for each tea. While I jumped on the Bilochun right away, it didn’t take me long to try every tea, sometimes brewing more than one per day (something I haven’t done since before I got pregnant last year). I’ve now tasted all the teas at least once, and some more than that.

Tasting Notes:

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Spring 2019 Dong Ting Lake Bilochun: Because this was the first tea I tasted, I tasted it three ways. I first brewed it gongfu style, using 5g, as suggested; then, I tried it Western style with 3g; finally, I brewed it grandpa-style, by simply putting the remaining 2g into a mug and sipping on it throughout the day. This is a remarkably delicate tea, with a sweet fragrance and mild liquor. It doesn’t get bitter or unpleasant, even brewed for a long time. And I was able to re-steep it even when I brewed it Western style.

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2017 Ba Da Shan Wild Tree Raw Puerh: This tea, I steeped using Marco’s ten-step tasting process that I outlined in my last video. It is a remarkably well-balanced tea, with the aromatic complexity I expect from a sheng, but without the bitterness you might fear from one so young. And, wow, I got some serious energy off this one, even after just one steeping.

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Spring 2019 Wuyi Golden Horse Eyebrow: This was the extra sample that was included in my order and I’m so glad they included it. This was an absolutely fascinating tea. The damp leaves after the first steeping smelled of rich, black pumpernickel bread, and the tea itself had that flavor at first. But then, over later steepings, the most glorious sweet rose scent and flavor came through. Of all the teas I received, this is probably the most likely that I would buy for myself (once I’ve gone through my stash!).

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Spring 2019 Song Dynasty Old Bush Milan Dancong Oolong: This was the most disappointing of the bunch. Despite the description, I found the roast on this to be too heavy. I love Phoenix Oolongs and I was sad that the roast seemed to obscure a lot of the honey and orchid flavors, to my tastes. But it was still enjoyable, especially if you like a smokier tea.

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Spring 2019 Golden Tip Lapsang Souchong: This was the one that both excited me and worried me. My only experience with Lapsang has been the smoked Western-style variety and I am not a fan. I felt a little thrill of contrary joy when a tea sommelier on a podcast I listened to recently called it “bro tea” because I felt somewhat vindicated. But I know that Lapsang, as a category, is well-loved, even among tea connoisseurs. So I was eager to try this one. And it did not disappoint. It has a pronounced caramel sweetness and a rich body, but with bitter notes more akin to really good chocolate than an astringent tea. I even got a bit of pine aroma from the leaves after the last couple of steepings. And I got a bit of energy off it.

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Spring 2019 Organic Wild Baimudan: I may have come to a realization — I don’t think I actually like Baimudan. Now, what does this have to do with this tea? Well, this is probably the most enjoyable Baimudan I’ve ever had. It was a balance of flowers and hay, without too many off flavors, and a pleasant thickness in the mouth without being cloying or syrupy. And yet, I personally found it only okay. But my conclusion is that if I didn’t like this Baimudan, I probably just don’t prefer the tea as a type, because this was a good Baimudan.

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Spring 2019 Premium Anxi Tieguanyin: Tieguanyin is one of my favorite teas, which is why it is odd that I saved this one for last. Perhaps I didn’t want to color my opinion of the rest of the samples if this one turned out to be disappointing. Well, I needn’t have worried. This is an exemplary TGY. It has an unctuous, creamy liquor with a fragrant floral aroma and flavor, the creaminess punctuated by a citrus brightness that is really quite enjoyable. And look at those leaves! They’re huge, and hardly a stem among them.

So those are my honest thoughts on the Fullhouse Sample Set. One thing that struck me throughout my tastings was that every tea seemed very thoughtfully selected. They all had complexity and interest, even those that weren’t my favorites. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to investigate this company that I might not have otherwise found.

Tea Review: White2Tea Reviews Part Three, the Pu-erhs

NB: These teas were sent to me for review, but all opinions are my own. For more about my review policies, click here.

Months ago, when I received an incredibly generous package from Paul at White2Tea, I knew it would take me a while to get through all of it, even just for review. Add into that a honeymoon and two business trips, and, well, here we are. I’ve finally gotten through the last three samples. This is kind of the main event for White2Tea: Pu-erh. Pu-erh, which is a kind of fermented tea, falls into two main categories: sheng (or raw), and shou (or ripe). White2Tea went ahead and sent me 25g samples of two of their raw and one ripe pu-erh. I brewed all of these teas according to White2Tea’s guidelines, and experimented further where noted.

2016 Daily Drinker:

You may remember this photo from Instagram a last week, when I commented that this tea does not work grandpa- or farmer-style. But it is a delightful raw pu-erh. My previous experience with pu-erhs were entirely of the funky, ripe variety, and it was novel to try this style. This tea starts out with a very light color, body, and scent, which intensifies to its peak around the 5th steeping. I noticed a characteristic anise scent and flavor and a sweet taste that, despite my general dislike for anise and licorice, was not unpleasant. I also tried it steeped in 15-second intervals in my fish gongfu set and enjoyed it very much. It tends to get too bitter steeped grandpa-style. At $19 for a 200g cake, I will almost certainly buy this again (although I may try the 2017 instead).

2016 We Go High:

This is a blended raw pu-erh that confused me slightly. The web listing shows a quite light brew color, but this brewed up amber from the first steeping for me. The leaves themselves have a delightful visual variety, and has the earthy aromas I associate with a ripe pu-erh mixed with the fruitiness of a raw one. The flavor is enjoyable, with an almost mineral edge to it and a creamy mouthfeel. This tea also has the strongest “tea drunkenness” effect I’ve ever noticed from a tea. I was buzzing around all day at work on this and found myself both productive and happy, although it became a bit much after a few cups. This is a wonderful tea, but all that said, I almost certainly will not purchase it again myself, as it is $139 for a 200g cake, or $18.50 for a 25g sample, and I’m not sure I got that much out of it.

2017 Old Reliable:

This is exactly what I think of when I think of pu-erh tea. It’s deep, dark, almost coffee-like in its thickness and intensity, but with absolutely no tannic edge to dry my mouth out and sour my stomach like strong black/red tea. This has notes of earth, mushrooms, and leather. In fact, I have a coworker who refers to pu-erh as “shoe tea” based on a previous experience. I found that funny, since this actually is shou pu-erh. Anyway, I got a solid ten steepings out of this before it started to diminish, but noticed a sweetness coming through at the ninth steeping, so this tea is definitely in it for the duration. At $14.50 for a 200g cake, how could I not repurchase this?