Thursday, 13 March 2014

Do Me A Favour

“A suggestion, kindly meant: you need to establish relationships with individuals and organisations before asking them for favours.”

I sent those words in an email to a certain nutritionists’ directory in November 2011. It was in response to perhaps half a dozen emails they had sent me, requesting links to their site from a website on which I work (some of the latter ones written as if contacting me for the first time; I declined several times as they weren’t relevant), followed by an email to me directly requesting a link on this blog.


Fast forward over two years and I find them in my in-box again, again asking for a link, again offering nothing in return:

“I recently came across your site and can see that you have lots of great content. Would it be possible to include a link to XXX from your links to articles section here? Here is a link to our coeliac disease page.”


(Had they bothered to consult the ‘great content’ in that section they’d have learned that those articles are mine only, collated in order to help my readers catch up with stuff I’ve written, or re-read articles they’ve previously found useful.)

Other bloggers received a similar request. We had a little online moan. We ‘only email if we think our site would be of value to your readers...’ came the apology, which I found disingenuous. Their source of income appears to be nutrition professionals advertising on their site. They promise ‘high search engine rankings’ in their ‘About us’ section. What’s a terrific way of ensuring high rankings? Links – of course.

Everyone wants something for nothing …
Being asked for one-way favours by strangers is the theme of this blog, and it has become apparent that the free-from online community is being increasingly targeted. I’ve enough personal examples for a blog many times this length. I’ll cherry pick.

* The ‘blogger engagement specialist’ of a now well known ‘free from’ company who contacted me “to enlist your help … to ask your readers what they’d like to see” in the way of new products. It was acknowledged to be a “cheeky request”. Still: “Any help in gathering this feedback and making the coeliac community even more awesome would be great.”

* The marketing consultancy representing a pharmaceutical company (who as we all know operate on breadline budgets), proposing to launch some allergy gadget, looking for allergic interviewees and who asked for “permission to mail information to your followers”. Essentially: help with their recruitment and apparently access to my mailing list.

* One from the marketing team of a company inappropriate to my blog (a herbal drink), written as if from a very polite boss to his employee, giving careful instructions on posting their press release on my blog, and “please remember to tweet and Facebook it as well”.

* A PR planning to pitch for a mineral supplement contract who wanted my answers to a clutch of questions about allergies and those suffering from them – a few hours’ work, I imagine. “Thank you so much, this is hugely appreciated” was what I was offered – the wording throughout assuming I’d pre-agreed to offer pro bono consultancy.

* An approach from an overseas ‘free from’ company who appeared to be looking for advice and information in securing them distribution in this country – specifically at a major coffee store chain.

* Not business-related, but hard to omit: a request from a consumer for the chapter on gluten-free labelling in my book on coeliac disease, because “I don’t need the rest”.

The firm repeatedly asking me to RT their (self-serving) blog posts ... countless calls to write articles for websites in return for ‘good publicity’ ... TV production companies asking for help to recruit participants ... a flurry of ‘vote for me / us’ requests from randoms who evidently consider amassing the most internet clicks from indiscriminate sources a prize worth spending hours online pursuing, irrespective of whose backside is pained as a consequence ... I could go on and on, but going on and on would turn this fury in my belly into active reflux and from there you’re a belch away from a vomit.

This is from strangers, you understand
It’s not that I mind strangers approaching me, per se. If you’re introducing yourself, with a view to perhaps forming a mutually beneficial working relationship, then great. If you’re offering me a gig, bring it on – naturally, I’m a delight to work with.

And, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m happy to hear from readers or followers; to give my thoughts on coeliac home test kits (mostly good), or gluten-free oats (mostly good), or nuts on airlines (ban the ana-triggering choke-hazardy bastards), or whatever, to food sensitive folk who ask, or who are in need of other advice. Established business contacts, good acquaintances and social media pals – it’s always good to hear from you. I’ll help if I can, and if I can’t I’ll say so – but I never mind.

It’s never that. That’s the good part of what I do. I like the ‘free from’ community, and I hope it likes me.

No. It is people who come looking for you when they need you, when you suddenly might be useful to them, and not before, who enthuse about “looking forward to working with you”, but when the subject of reciprocation or remuneration is broached, turn out to be not quite looking forward as much as they’d initially claimed.

It is being asked for free business consultancy, professional copywriting or online marketing by individuals who I would not be able to recognise in a police line-up – but would dearly love to put there.

It is those who make nice noise out of nowhere when – and this genuinely shocks me – they are asking someone they have never spoken to or met to do their work for them.

Why is this happening?
I can speculate. Several possible reasons.

Free from is now big business and all that big business chat is conducted online. In the absence of a print journal devoted to allergies and sensitivities, bloggers, social media users, and web-based resource sites have become the allergy media: we are providing most of the ‘free from’ journalism there is. We are the only ‘experts’ who consistently and determinedly write and interact. We have value. We are therefore sought out.

There is some bandwagon-jumping in the industry, but there is innovation and there is competition to get ahead too. Growth has been fast. There is pressure to get results quickly. Perhaps the industry is simply ‘rushed’? Has the investment of time needed to develop working relationships become a casualty?

Blogging is generally unpaid; everyone knows it. A wise journalist I know called Linda Jones once said that people do not appreciate what they get for free – and that has stuck with me. If you’re prepared to donate what you do on your blog, are the PRs and marketing gurus lazily assuming you must be happy to give away some more – in the way of links, favourable reviews, research, recruitment, writing, consultancy and anything else we’re now routinely asked for?

What can we do?
Each case must be judged on its own merits and sometimes the bigger picture trumps my annoyance. I have swallowed hard in the past, done what was being requested for the greater good, and moved on. Doubtless I will again.

But on other occasions, I have politely explained that a professional service is being requested of me. I have also complained outright. I have also quoted a fee. I have also called people straight back and caught them off guard (great fun). I have recommended approaching allergy charities and making a donation. I have ignored many.

I have tried various things, then, but what I have never tried is to make unreasonable requests in response. Perhaps I should. Or perhaps now I’ll just send a link to this post.

I suggest this. You may run your blog for fun, as a hobby, but if you’re dealing with businesses from time to time, however amicably, then I’d urge you to be business-like. Understand that you’re being approached because what you have has value. Have a PR statement on your blog. (I have a brief one here, soon to be added to.) Say what you will and won’t do. Consider approaching some companies you’ve supported and saying ‘Hey, how about sponsoring my site?’ Don’t be shy.

What can ‘they’ do?
Show some respect and sincere interest in what we are doing. A standard email to which you’ve added ‘Dear Alex’ (or worse, 'Dear Blogger') at the top is not good enough.

Some of us make our livings from this business, and have worked for years to build up the knowledge, expertise and contacts you are trying to tap into: don’t be ignorant of this.

Don’t pretend you have no dosh. If you want to build relationships you could do a lot worse than steer a little advertising budget in the way of one or two of those bloggers out there who have the attention of the people you are trying to reach. It may turn out to be a good investment. And most of us – me included – would not charge much.

And finally, should you ever make a totally unreasonable request, and this is pointed out to you, do not then respond that “We just thought you may have wanted to help the allergy community”, thereby attempting to deflect shame, greed or guilt our way. Because, in all probability, that’s what you should be feeling, not us.

* Identifying details in some of the examples have been changed or generalised. Please do likewise if you comment from experience.

10 comments:

  1. With all due respect, you do the same to an extent. You expect/want people to follow/retweet/like/whatever the things you write and say.... but you don't necessarily reciprocate?

    While I agree with most of what you say, many people who blog (and I don't because I don't want to feel obliged to be less critical of something I would be otherwise because I got it for free) treasure the 'freebies'. Otherwise, why would they do it? I see countless positive reviews for the same products.... do I believe them? No. Do I buy products because of the reviews? Only if they sounded 'real' - if they listed some negatives and not just superficial ones. Or if the pictures are so bad that I think it can't possibly be the product's fault!

    Anyway, as you say, it is a bit of a 2 way street, give and take.

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    1. With all due respect, Anonymous, I do not directly ask strangers to do those things for me - but of course I'm pleased and grateful for the support many of my readers give me.

      I do reciprocate in sharing informative tweets, blogs and so on, when I consider the material interesting or relevant. This does not apply to a blog by a GF cake company on how tasty their products are, however.

      But this really isn't about liking or RTing or whatever - and it's not about freebies either. It's mainly about well paid marketing and PR staff asking for not inconsiderable professional favours from people they don't know.

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  2. Ah Alex, don't get me started. I have been so deluged lately too that I have started to respond with a link to my 'advertising' page and you know what? Some of them are actually taking me up on the offer. I must get at least a dozen requests a week.
    Some suggest my readers really need a link to their amazing health remedies website but refuse to provide even a link back to my blog. They tried the guilt trip too, "What a shame, your readers could have really benefited from this lin. NO - THE ONLY PERSON BENEFITING IS THE SELFISH GREEDY COMPANY EXPECTING STUFF FOR FREE. They can get lost.
    It seems bloggers are seen as a free advertising channel and It drives me crazy, but much as I love writing my blog (whatallergy.com) it takes my time, precious time I never have enough of. I have started to be very particular about what, if anything I share on my blog because let's face it, my reputation is at stake here too.
    I've even turned down people who wanted to pay to advertise because I didn't believe in or like their product. Now THAT feels good I can tell you.
    What I love most about blogging is that amazing feeling when I do discover some brilliant new product. And I may well review it for free if I really love it, especially if I've been sent a free sample. Who doesn't love a freebie? But I don't want to feel obliged to review something stuffed so full of sugar that I just don't enjoy it. I don't ever want to feel obliged to blog about someone's products and sometimes I do feel that a bit. Especially when you get a huge box of goodies.
    Allergy and coeliac blogs are often the information sources of choice for people who are struggling to get a diagnosis, newly diasgnosis or living with a life changing/ diet changing condition. With that in mind we do have quite a bit of power. I am only just realising that.
    But sometimes, I will blog about stuff, for free, without being asked, just because I can, because inspiration strikes, I have a good relationship with the company etc. etc.

    I agree with Alex. If you want us bloggers to do stuff for you, treat us with respect. Get to know us a bit better first and give us a bit of respect and don't expect us to work for you for free. If we don't know who you are, you haven't engaged with us on social media or met us anywhere, don't send a blanket email as if you do know us written in such a way that you expect our cooperation.
    I've even been sent requests for edits on a review I wrote of a product once... really? 10 things you want changing on the thing I did for you for free anyway? Not that is taking the gluten free biscuit.

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    1. Thanks Ruth. Receiving requests for edits is an interesting one - I suspect this comes from PRs who are in turn under pressure from their clients to get results / get favourable reviews / get bloggers and journalists to say what they want them to say. I've experienced it too, and of course the problem with online work is that it can be changed, whereas in print, the best you can hope for is a clarification a month later, by which time it's old news.

      Like you, I like blogging (and reporting, and writing journalism, and writing books ...), and I want to blog to advise people, provide information, and yes, have a moan once in a while - when something needs to be moaned about - but I do feel profit-making organisations are taking advantage - or trying to - of that, and I hope it changes soon.

      Alex.

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  3. Hear, hear!

    I love it when free from companies contact me to talk about their products, but only when it's an actual conversation. (I never ask for free samples and I'm clear with companies that I'll only publish posts about things that I genuinely love and believe are useful to my readers.) Like you and Ruth have said, when companies put in the effort of building up relationships with bloggers they get a much better response when they do want a favour. Too often I receive the sort of email you refer to and it's starting to drive me mad! It's the assumption that bloggers are happy to do the work of the PR/marketing/R&D team for them, for free, that really grates.

    While a PR statement is a good idea, unfortunately PRs don't always read them. I've had emails addressing me with the wrong spelling of my name, asking me to review non-gf products, telling me about products that aren't available in the UK and inviting me to event that have no relevance to the content of my blog. How hard would it be to spend 5 minutes reading my "About" page?

    Great post, as always, Alex. We need to channel Aretha and demand some respect from the companies who want to take advantage of us!

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    1. Thanks Caleigh. Maybe we need some sort of PR-Blogger Code of Conduct drawn up - with guidelines for both sides on dealing fairly and professionally with one another? The thankless task there, though, would be getting everyone to agree to it ...

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  4. Good words, Alex. I think bloggers in general, seem to attract these kind of, what can be at times, really random requests. I think each blogger should definitely not be taken advantage of and do what they are happy to do. I wouldn't begrudge one blogger for doing something for nothing, or another blogger who wants payment for everything. I think you should run your blog and promote what you like within your own comfort zone. I guess the point is to make sure that there isn't that advantage being taken by the PR/marketers out there, looking for a free ride. I suspect there may be bloggers who feel intimidated by some emails/requests or feel obliged to do what is asked of them, and so submit to the demands of strangers.

    Love this and I think every blogger should know it: 'You may run your blog for fun, as a hobby, but if you’re dealing with businesses from time to time, however amicably, then I’d urge you to be business-like. Understand that you’re being approached because what you have has value.'

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    1. Bless you for that, Kel. I do like the idea of the 'comfort zone', and staying within it, and I'd not even previously considered that dealing with official sounding marketing people could intimidate some more reserved, nervous or shy bloggers - or bloggers who through no fault of their own are unsure of how the PR business works. Very good point - and worth all of us bearing in mind.

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  5. Just got another, for some amazing Co2 cleaner that kills dust mites dead. Maybe they could send me a free hoover to test before I feature them on my blog. See what they say to that then...

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    1. And as if they were just replying to add insult to injury... here comes a whopper of a reply with the guilt trip woven in. We're not fooled are we bloggers?

      Dear Ruth, Thanks for getting back to me. XXX are a carpet and upholstery cleaning company who’s services have become industry leaders. As XXX’s natural cleaning does not contain any soaps, detergents, fragrances or bleaches, I thought this would be a useful service for the readers of your blog. I know how important it is for allergy sufferers to find a truly natural cleaning product.

      Unfortunately XXX are not available to offer reciprocal links, which I understand may not sound too appealing to you.

      All that in mind, I still believe XXX could be really useful for your readers. Let me know your thoughts.

      My thoughts? Well unprintable. But no, thanks for the offer of some free work to promote your business. I'll pass thanks.

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