The Price of Free Toothpaste: Mom Blogging and Brand Ambassador Programs

By , November 8, 2012 11:05 am

What happens when a giant, multinational corporation decides to pay brand ambassadors in free product and “fun opportunities”? A case study.

The back story:

I received an email a couple months ago inviting me to spend a day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto learning about various Proctor and Gamble brands. Joining this “blogger ambassador” program would involve displaying a P&Gmom badge on my blog, writing and tweeting about the event and the products and regularly sharing news about new products and promotions and hosting giveaways.

The invitation closed with this paragraph, “As a P&Gmom, you’re part of our family. Throughout the year, you’ll be involved in unique programs, be first to try new products and have access to our experts. Our hope is that by providing these opportunities, you’ll share your experience with your readers.” How heartwarming.

Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to providing a brand with cheap publicity, if I think there’s something in it for me and if the brand is a good fit. I’m hustling for a freelance buck any way I can. So I replied to the email and asked for clarification. These future opportunities? Would they be paid? Even if I didn’t get paid for my time at the Four Seasons, I might consider joining the program if it meant a series of sponsored posts or some other form or payment down the road.

The response I got was this: “The P&Gmom blogger ambassador program does not involve monetary compensation, although involvement involves compensation with exclusive access to events, products and other exciting opportunities.”

I declined.

But even if, hypothetically, they were willing to pay me, I still would have had a decision to make. They were asking me to become a brand ambassador, to link my name with their brands and to proudly display their badge on my blog. They were asking for an ongoing relationship in which I would be a mouthpiece for their brands. So even if they were offering to pay me (which they weren’t), I would have done a lot of research and asked a lot of questions before deciding if that was something I was willing to do.

The action:

I declined to join the ambassador program, but many others did join. And, honestly, I don’t judge. A day at the Four Seasons, for me, would mean a giant childcare headache, a subway commute downtown and then being home in time to cook dinner. If I was getting flown in from another city and put up in a swanky hotel for a night, it might have been a different story. Who knows?

And, full disclosure, I often go to brand events and throw up a few tweets with their hashtag in exchange for whatever experience I’m getting and I don’t usually do any research or ask any tough questions. If I am promoting a product on my blog or getting paid to do a sponsored post, I do a quick Google background check looking for any controversies or PR disasters I should be aware of. But I can certainly do better. My standards are mediocre at best.

There are a couple smart mom bloggers, however, who hold us all to a higher standard. Annie from PhDinParenting is one woman who doesn’t believe in giving brands a free ride –  and certainly not giant, multinational corporations with whom we entrust the health and safety of our families. And when Annie starts asking questions, her 66, 278 Twitter followers and countless blog readers tend to listen.

So Annie got wind of the P&Gmom program (which is happening today,  by the way), and started voicing some concerns. Here’s a taste:

And my favourite because Irene would totally eat these.

We’ll see what happens, but somehow I don’t think the P&Gmoms  are feeling quite as special as they did when they first got the email that read, “We have scoured the Canadian blogger landscape to find the top 40 influential and upcoming bloggers and found you.” I mean, it’s flattering, it really is. Hey, I had an “aw, shucks” moment when I read that.

The lessons, so far:

Mom bloggers, if you are going to link your name and your blog to a giant corporation, you do have to be ready to answer tough questions (or at least ask them). I would love to see more bloggers standing up for their own worth and demanding that big, multi-billion dollar corporations pay them for their trouble.

Repeat after me, mom bloggers, “I will not work for toothpaste.”

Brands, you do get what you pay for. If you want spokespeople who are going to be able to respond to questions like Annie’s with poise and to deliver your message eloquently, accurately and effectively, you are going to have to really do your research, find the perfect fit and then make it worth their while.

Because Annie and others like her are not going to stop doing what they do. In fact, you should probably start listening to their concerns.

Comments

“The Price of Free Toothpaste: Mom Blogging and Brand Ambassador Programs”

  1. melissa says:

    Great post Rebecca!

    I get that PR is not something brands usually pay for (in dollars, anyway) either online or offline. I do think it’s gross for huge, multi-national billionaire brands to use these grassroots/viral methods of promotion when they have millions at their disposal for advertising.

    If people are being paid, that’s one thing – the brand is are using their millions to pay bloggers to help with their advertising. Right now, so much of these methods feel like big business trying to take advantage of people who aren’t corporate sharks. Who don’t know they can negotiate terms that are mutually beneficial. Who are being ultimately being courted so they’ll put in hours of time to shill stuff for free product.

    It’s one thing if your blog isn’t your main source of income, and you’re doing this for pocket change or swag (and to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that). If you’re trying to pay the bills, this method doesn’t work, and frankly lowers your hourly rate in the eyes of people who will pay you for your time.

    I’m not sure there’s a way to come to a solid standard around this stuff. If someone is willing to work for free (or for product), that’s how business will continue to pay. Will you get good results? Sometimes, but eventually, the best ambassadors will want to be paid in real money, not toothpaste. And everyone loses.

    (This is quite a rant for someone who doesn’t blog for money right now. Please feel free to correct anywhere I am wrong.)

  2. Emma says:

    One of the biggest, most toxic companies in Canada is now receiving a bunch of positive word-of-mouth marketing because they paid (such a small amount) for some people to gather in a hotel and to give them product samples. Well done, Proctor and Gamble!

    This time, I have to do more than shake my head in disbelief.

  3. SaraBeth says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve felt this way so many times before and have set rules on what I will and won’t promote and how I’ll promote it. So many acclaimed mom blogs have just become ad spots for companies and a number I’ve stopped reading because I get enough ads. I loved these blogs for their stories and content not for constant ads. I’m all for promoting certain products you use but genuinely and honestly. Once a blog becomes a giant ad spot I’m no longer interested.

  4. Ginger says:

    I will not work for toothpaste! That was great. Enjoyed the read.

  5. Marcy Berg says:

    when I see campaigns like the P&G on i wonder if we need to start the women’s movement all over again. It appears so exploitative to me. Good for you.

  6. Pamela says:

    This is a great post, and provides valuable insight into the brand/blogger dynamic. I am the Community Manager for a new Canadian retail store/brand. We have one store now, in Ottawa, but intend to expand across the province/country in the coming years.

    Part of what I do is community and blogger outreach. Admittedly, we are not paying bloggers cash to be brand ambassadors, but then we’re not there yet either. We just opened two months ago. We’re also not asking anyone to wear a badge. I am paying a few of them to write stories for OUR blog, and I’m working with some on other initiatives.

    The key though, is my priority is developing mutually beneficial partnerships with these bloggers. I spent months researching which bloggers I thought would be a good fit for our company (an eco department store) and I try to find interesting ways to engage these individuals.

    Sure, I want the company I work for to get talked about, but I want it to be because they WANT to do so, because they get real value from a relationship with my company.

  7. Paala says:

    Thanks for this post. I will definitely keep it in mind if anyone ever tries to woo me into selling my soul for a little cash or free product.

    Also, I hope you don’t mind if I share this post on my blog today – http://doublethink.us.com/paala/2012/11/08/is-there-a-100000-hits-club/

  8. Excellent post. This is even worse than the mcd moms – at least they got paid.

    I maintain 1 or 2 ongoing, mutually respectful, mutually beneficial relationships with brands. I don’t feel special when brands try to take advantage of me.

  9. Fabulous post. I think the big issue is that bloggers are all on their own journey. Sadly, we are going through times of scarcity where it’s taking more than two to make a decent family income. There are bloggers who are doing it for the free stuff because if they didn’t, they would go without. Some are doing it for the “outings”, while other’s are creating a true brand for themselves. Honestly, I support all of these ladies for making it happen for their families. At the end of the day, why else would we spend tireless hours behind the screen?

    As a blogger myself, I live a very sheltered life where change rarely happens, so trying something new for a review is a welcoming experience. My blog is my hobby.

    But with that said, I do believe that a true spokesperson has to ask the right questions. Even though my belief system is much different than many of the bloggers out there, I respect their stance and I believe answers from the brand should be expected. It’ll be interesting to see the blog posts over the next few days. I believe controversial questions were asked and I’m hoping that the answers will follow.

    • rebecca says:

      I think anyone, spokesperson or not, has the right to ask questions. Certainly many bloggers have used their relative influence to find out more from corporations and provide valuable feedback. But a spokesperson or “ambassador” is typically someone who links their own name and persona to a brand and its message. It just seems like a lot for a giant corporation to ask without monetary compensation.

      • My term spokesperson is two-sided. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it is what it is. Whether you’re a spokesperson for or against any product, you have the right to voice your opinion and ask the questions.

        I believe that these new ambassadors were fairly compensated for a day information session. I have attended several conferences in my career and was never offered a night at a brand new swanky hotel and meals included. It is today where their journey begins. How each blogger handles their business individually will be indicative on how many ambassadors are left standing at the end of the day. Some will remain for free while others will tire of it. Either way, I support their decision because it’s ultimately their choice.

  10. Good for you! I’ve turned down several similar “brand ambassadorships.” Not sure why so many brands think they can flatter us into writing about them.

  11. Hi Rebecca,

    The other side of this discussion is the bloggers who attended – took it as a knowledge sharing experience to ask and answer these topics. . .and brought up ROI and compensation at the P & G round table – *waves hi*.

    I don’t blog for free toothpaste.

    • rebecca says:

      I’m glad to hear that, Caroline. The invitation and fact-sheet I was sent didn’t give the impression that P&G meant for this to be merely a “knowledge sharing experience.” I would love to hear about any headway you were able to make re: compensation or what other kinds of “return” you get out of the experience.

  12. [...] Then, as it happens, P&G was hosting an event in Toronto today for its Mom Ambassadors (see Rebecca from Playground Confidential’s great post on that event). The timing couldn’t be more perfect for this great guest post laying out the problem with [...]

  13. Hi Rebecca. This is a very well-written piece, and I love that you made a conscious assessment of the opportunity and made the decision that was right for you and your family. Kudos!! (I mean it. That’s really important.)

    But, there are a number of assumptions here and in the comments that I find rather insulting to be honest. I don’t blog for toothpaste. I build relationships with brands I use, know, and trust. I have integrity, and I am a smart blogger (and a rather accomplished and intelligent human being). If others don’t trust the brand due to their beliefs, that is totally up to them. But I use a huge array of P&G products and have for years. They work for my family.

    No one has been asked to blog anything at this stage. We were invited to join the program and come to learn and share information, as Caroline said. Expenses were paid. There was lots of discussion at the focus groups, including how best to work with bloggers, and this is only the beginning of a much longer conversation. Let’s see how it all develops over time. We have a seat at the table. Think what we can do!

    • rebecca says:

      Deborah, I really hope you know that I did not mean to insult any of the women who attended the P&G event. I took great pains to admit that I do all kinds of brand-related PR stuff and that I may even have considered attending this if my circumstances were different. The toothpaste line was a bit of hyperbole to get attention. (Clearly you guys got toothpaste AND shampoo AND Tide Pods, right? I kid!)

      I do want to make clear that my invitation explicitly said that P&G expected an ongoing relationship that included posting a P&G Mom badge on my blog and sharing my experiences of the event (and future promotions etc.) with my readers. (I assume that means blogging!) Certainly everyone in attendance was tweeting with the hashtag.

      But even that is fine! I honestly and truly make no judgments about what people will and will not work for. I just want mom bloggers to be aware that when you align yourself with a brand, you had better be prepared to take some heat for any issues people may have with that company.

  14. Loukia says:

    I don’t know many bloggers who do blog for “free toothpaste” but if they chose to? That’s their business, totally, and wouldn’t make me look down upon them. To each their own, right?

    I wish I was at the P&G event that some of my friends were at—it sounded like a great event, well planned, and there was even an Olympic medalist in attendance! (I think that is cool!)

    Also, just because someone is not paid in cash dollars does not mean they’re not being compensated. I consider a flight and a stay in a top-notch hotel compensation even, sometimes… As well other goodies received at certain events. (Not just at the P&G event; in general.)

    Even if I personally disagree with a specific event that’s going on, I try to remain respectful to my fellow bloggers, and realize that there is no right or wrong way of doing things in the blogosphere. I’m glad we are such a diverse group of women (and men) who cover a whole bunch of different topics and interests.

    Just my opinion! :)

    • rebecca says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Loukia. I certainly tried to remain respectful to everyone involved in this post. Again, to be clear, I look down on NO ONE. I have blogged about products and events for far less than a year’s supply of toothpaste.

      The P&G Mom campaign, however, is an on-gong (one year long, I believe) commitment. (Perhaps some of the bloggers are now rethinking how committed they are. That’s great.) I just wanted to remind bloggers that when you accept a “free” trip to become a brand ambassador, you are opening yourselves up to the criticism that people may have of that brand. We can all do well to think a little harder about what our worth is and how much flack we are will to take for a company.

    • I’m not sure how you would define remaining respectful, Loukia.

      To me, asking questions and sharing information is respectful. I feel like if P&G is going to use the voice of moms to share positive information about their products, then I have the right to use my voice to share the other side of that story.

      Twitter is a shared space and when P&G and its ambassadors choose to enter that space with their promotional tweets, I think they need to realize that others will be playing in that sandbox too.

      • Kerry says:

        and I think they did manage it well. The crowd was very well educated and had no problem asking tougher questions..either of the products and about monetization and using bloggers. Most there made it clear that ‘convenience’ for mom was not the be all and end all and what was in the products and how it was made was more important. We told them that our integrity was important too us as that is why people read our blogs. Free stuff and hotels may not be payment for all…but in the blogger world it is…and for many it helps their family costs out. I think you have to realize that the majority of moms who blog and do product reviews are very savvy about the world they have entered. I was very impressed with the women I spoke to…many who I have never met before. These women know exactly what they want from the brands and how to ask for it. Not are dazzled by lovely hotels to say marvelous things….it takes a bit more than that.

        These women like me use P&G products are are not blithely ignorant of production of said products.

  15. Loukia says:

    *even = enough. :)

  16. melissa says:

    I’m glad to see that the event went well for those who went and have commented here.

    I feel like I need to clarify my earlier comment that *I* do not think for one second that anyone who attended is not business savvy or able to fend for themselves in business. I just worry when terms I hear about seem so small compared to the amount of work people are doing (and to be fair, I’m hearing secondhand so I don’t know all the details). I worry that big business is trying to pull a fast one. Pulling out all the dazzle and glossing over expectations. I know I would struggle with it if I didn’t stop and ask myself and those around me thoughtful questions. It sounds like this session wasn’t like that from what I’m reading here.

    I just don’t want anyone to think I was being disrespectful because that was absolutely not my intent.

  17. Thanks for the reminder. As bloggers, we need to remember we have a voice that can do some good. Use it for the greater good, not just a freebie.

  18. [...] as part of their blogger ambassador program. The purpose of the invitation was specifically (via Playground Confidential): As a P&Gmom, you’re part of our family. Throughout the year, you’ll be involved in unique [...]

  19. Galit Breen says:

    This is wise and thought provoking.

    I agree that everyone needs to gauge for themselves what a good fit is, but that’s the rub, isn’t it?

    Think it through, remember the message you’re sending. Always.

  20. It’s 2012 and while I think bloggers should be held accountable to do their research and make wise decisions, I think the brands DEFINITELY know better by now and should be learning from past mistakes made years ago (anyone remember Nestle?) They should be informing bloggers up front about the bad and the good and how to respond professionally on social media if they decide to be an “ambassador.”

    Steph

  21. [...] new readers. Come for an exposé of public relations practices in the mom blogging world but stay for some oversharing about postpartum periods. Not only am I a [...]

  22. Jodi Shaw says:

    I worked with P&G for their family movie events which was great! However I also blogged today on responding to a pr agency (unnamed) who asked me to blog for scones. Each blogger has to make a choice for themselves what they are willing to do or work for. I have blogged to get a product to help my teenager with acne, and I have refused big name companies because they simply want to use my readership to boost their sales. You make a good point each brand you work with you are affiliating your name with and promoting them without taking a responsible look see for yourself can put yourself and your blog into jeopardy. Great post and thanks for sharing! :)

  23. [...] So please, next time you do an influencer outreach campaign, don’t be cheap – pay influencers for their time. It’s the right thing to do – after all, they can’t just live on toothpaste! [...]

  24. [...] the combat boots and Molotov cocktails.) Then everyone hugged and made up. No they didn’t. The same old show will be coming soon to a branded tweet up near in the near future, to be [...]

  25. [...] supposed to wade through the ceaseless string of tragedies and know when to stop tweeting about our toothpaste giveaways? The show must go [...]

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