Op-Ed | Fashion Blogging Has a Transparency Problem

Front Row Fashion Bloggers | Photo: Yvan Rodic, Facehunter

Today, in a guest Op-Ed piece, Jennine Jacob, founder of Independent Fashion Bloggers, exposes  a transparency problem that threatens the future of the business of blogging.

NEW YORK, United States — Old media often seems to portray fashion bloggers as publishers gone rogue: online personalities thirsting for free product or paid public appearances. Ruth La Ferla’s recent piece in The New York Times, “New York Fashion Week Street Style Is Often a Billboard for Brands,” suggests that it’s common practice for bloggers to accept payments from designer brands in return for wearing their product at fashion week with the goal of being shot by street style photographers.

Numerous media outlets picked up the story. But when pressed, several people who were interviewed for the original article denied having first hand knowledge of an actual, specific instance in which a brand had paid a blogger to wear its products for the purpose of being photographed for street style sites.

Nonetheless, many people believed that the activities depicted in the story could very well be true. Evidence or not, they sounded plausible enough. More that anything, I think this points to the fact that fashion bloggers have a serious transparency problem. They are far too hush-hush about the business side of blogging, which can lead people to assume the worst.

Bloggers need to generate income. Brands need to reach consumers. Partnerships are natural. And when a partnership between brand and blogger is successful, it can work wonders for both parties. The Man Repeller’s collaboration with Gryphon and From Me to You’s work with Tiffany, Veuve Clicquot and Oscar de La Renta come to mind.

Indeed, for me, the critical issue surfaced by La Ferla’s piece isn’t that bloggers are partnering with brands, but the obvious lack of transparency around some of these partnerships.

Unsurprisingly, many bloggers are shy about discussing the brands they are working with for fear of losing credibility with their audience. But if a blogger doesn’t feel good about disclosing a particular brand partnership or they fear a revolt from their readers, they probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Unfortunately, traditional fashion media doesn’t set a particularly good example when it comes to transparency. While newspapers like The New York Times enforce strict ‘church and state’ separation between their editorial and advertising departments, many fashion magazines preach these principles, while, in reality, adopting ‘pay for play’ policies that ensure top advertisers get favourable editorial coverage.

Bloggers often act alone, or in small teams, meaning that content decisions and business decisions are often made by the same people and true ‘church and state’ separation can be impractical to implement. Nonetheless, bloggers should strive to be more transparent and clearly distinguish between editorial and advertising.

Shouldn’t readers know if a bag a blogger fawns over in a post was gifted by a brand? Shouldn’t they know if a blogger was paid to write a post about a certain pair of shoes?

Thus far, perhaps not enough bloggers have lost their credibility to enforce a universal code of ethics around this issue. But I believe strongly that the community could benefit from a more transparent approach. Do readers need to know the financial details of a blogger’s brand partnerships? No. But the difference between editorial and advertising should always be clear.

Come to think of it, bloggers have a responsibility to be more transparent with their brand partners, as well. Honest campaign reporting, using inexpensive tools like Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, Hootsuite, TweetReach, Statigram and Bit.ly can help brands better understand and quantify the impact bloggers can bring to the table.

Ultimately, greater transparency with both readers and brand partners is in the long-term interests of fashion bloggers, because businesses built on smoke and mirrors can only work for so long.

Jennine Jacob is the founder of The Coveted and Independent Fashion Bloggers (IFB), a community resource for fashion bloggers.

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  1. Dear Jennie,
    Thank you very much for the appeal to a blogger’s honesty!
    However I’m sure it’s more like our idealistic dreams. As to me, I do both: blogging (www.swotstyle.blogspot.com) and fashion blogs monitoring. It’s obvious that the main motivation for such activity nowadays is caused by the main reason: to attract fashion business’s attention. Rookie stylists, journalists, models, illustrators and people with just a wonderful taste want to promote themselves to work in this field and gain money for their creative skills. In this case they are advertisers. Moreover, workers are likely to stay independent from supervisor’s strict control. That’s what bloggers are fighting for. Reader’s attention is the second thing they are stand up for. The higher level of page browsing they have the more attention they reach from the toppest brand managers.
    Nonetheless, blogger’s popularity depends on editorial mastery. If the material is illustrative, original and personalized, readers believe it much better, cause they feel it like an individual, independent view of a blogger.
    To sum up, if bloggers follow your advice and become transparent, they will lose both: brand partners and readers as well. And, unfortunately, it does make sense…
    (I apologize for my English :) )

    linacoco@yandex.ru from Moscow, Moscow, Russian Federation
  2. Excuse me, please, for the spelling of your name, Jennine Jacob.

    linacoco@yandex.ru from Moscow, Moscow, Russian Federation
  3. Our experience with some bloggers (including some IFB members!) has been that they are usually quite notorious even with brands.

    We have advertised on some very large and influential blogs, and after finishing the campaign asked for simple numbers from Google Analytics, the agency handling the same seemed to suggest that this is a”premium” service that is offered only to selected clients. If one of the print magazines that we advertise in, said that circulation numbers are for selected advertisers only, we’d ask them to **** off. But the bloggers get away with the same

    Another experience that everything seems so staged and not real was with a “young” blogger who in her introductory email indicated her “rates” for including our products in her posts and not really telling readers that the post is sponsored or paid for.

    If the bloggers go the road of the publications in the end, there is no more real reason to read blogs. I really hope they realise that their USP is an independent voice that is their personal opinion and they do not start getting so influenced by brand endorsements that they do things only for money.

    Everyone realises and appreciates that bloggers, and any professional for that matter, need to earn a living, but the way in which this is done and the excellent point about transparency already made in the article, is going to be crucial.

  4. Blogging is a though business, and whatever are the reasons you have to start doing it, it usually envolves self-promotion.
    As it’s common knowledge is more and more an effective way to promote someone’s creativity and work (photography, styling, writing, etc.).
    As a blogger myself the temptation to give in is big: I don’t have a large following but creating parternships with brands might help me to gain more and more exposure.
    Also, blogging is something that people do alone. Sometimes with the help of a friend, but usually it’s an activity that altough public to others it is solely managed by one person. That implies some hard decisions that might not always be the best. But you live and learn.
    The truth is, as far as I’m concerned, I think that followers are smart enough to understand when something ‘fishy’ is being done.
    Having said this, I do agree that there should be honesty and transparency, but like I’ve just said, the truth is people can tell….

    I would like to stress out something that most people tend to forget and that you, Jennine, only spoke about in a short paragragh: magazines are paid to promote products and brands.
    And it goes far beyond from the obvious publicampaigns that we sometimes find. I know this from self-experience, because I worked in a magazine for 2 years. And people tend to completely forget this matter.
    What about the beauty products that magazines receive? And the collection samples?
    What about when a brand wants to promote the opening of a new store in another country? Is it the magazine that pays for the trip? No!
    What about those magazines that only publish products of their advertisers in their pages?
    And what about all the goodies that are offered directly to editors, stylists and others?
    These things are not often told to the public, yet nobody complains.

    If there is to be total transparency (which I find altogether impossible) then it should take place everywhere, from print to online. And not just for a few.

  5. So do we also get a list of celebrities who got paid to sit front row, wear such-and-such designer on the red carpet?? Some things need a bit of discretion or ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ in this industry. Fair enough you can declare a sponsored post or even a freebie frock but I don’t see how you can do the same for appearances, or being snapped on the street ‘Excuse me Mr Sartorialist, can you please tag my photo as c/o Burberry’! It is also difficult where to draw the line between editorial and advertising. What if a blogger is given a skirt, does a brand feature post but then wears the skirt numerous other times in general style posts. Does each post end up classed as advertorial? I just think with all creative industries is should be left up to the blogger and the brand to work out the appropriate ways to present a collaboration to their audience rather than have to adhere to any set regulations. If you create laws for blogs I think you would have to apply the same to print and television media and what a mess that would end up! Magazines are built on a little give and take.

    As for disclosing a blogs analytic’s after a campaign this is all fine – but the advertiser must also understand what they are asking / expecting from the campaign. They need to be aware of the differences between placing a link for SEO and a call to action link – shockingly some advertising companies/ brand PR’s do not seem aware of these basic differences.

    It is an interesting topic but I’m not sure there is any definate answer to it.

  6. I’ll give you an opinion from the other side: There are too many bloggers who think they have influence when in reality they do not. I’m a small designer with a great website. My products have been on several blogs and sites where PR told me it was going to be an “amazing” result. What a huge letdown. Sure we had clicks, but absolutely no orders. I look at my log files at least 5 times a day. I know exactly where every order comes from. Larger corporations and designers must not be tracking as well or they wouldn’t be throwing so many products and money towards bloggers. There are only a handful of bloggers that matter and move product. Only about 5 and that’s it. The arena is too crowded and just because you have a blog does not mean you are influential.

    guthrie from Abingdon, VA, United States
  7. Vivek, I’m so sorry to hear that it’s difficult to get analytics from some bloggers. I feel that it might be something that will become more standard as the industry matures. At IFB we do advise bloggers to track their traffic, links and twitter reach to get a better idea of how to grow, and how to communicate value. When we do provide services, we share this information with our clients. Unfortunately, there are not standards to share with younger bloggers, some networks like Glam require a disclosure when a blogger takes part in a content marketing campaign, but not all, and not all bloggers have figured out what works best for them. Hopefully that changes.

  8. You are absolutely right that a blogger should disclose if they got paid to write a blog post, with the word “sponsored” or similar. However, I do not think this necessarily applies to products they were given. I write my own blog and for one of Canada’s big online magazines, and we are often given samples to test. If we love the product, we write about it, if we don’t, we ignore it. There have been many occasions where our features have resulted in a very positive outcome for the brands featured, and this would not have always been the case if we had not tried and tested the product. Our readers trust us and assume that when we feature a product, we have firsthand experience with it. We also don’t have a budget to buy and try all of these things, so we often get sent samples, and I don’t think this is unfair or unethical. I should also note that we often write about brands that haven’t gifted us, but for many products, it helps to see the item in the flesh, or to try it, so that we can give our readers a genuinely good review.

  9. I would like to reply to Guthrie’s comment: It sounds like the PR you worked with failed you not the bloggers. As you say you got hits but they weren’t converted to purchases. Personally I would question if the blogs were your target audience, for example if your bags cost £200 but your target blog had an average readership age of 16-18 years then this isn’t the correct demographic to be targeting. Also another example could be geographic location, for example if the blogs readership is UK based but your company is US based and so on. You said you did get hits so perhaps you also have to consider your own website too, was there enough call to action etc? Of course I don’t know all the details of your case but as I made in my above comment it is all too easy to blame the blogger but often it is the brand or PR’s fault for not assessing the collaboration accurately. I work with a lot of brands and I have also turned down many because I know what I can offer and what I cannot. Speaking as a blogger every week I get emails from companies simply offering me a ‘gift’ which I might like to feature on my blog. That is all very nice and yes it does generate publicity for the brand but without discussing any type of sales strategy then it wouldn’t be fare to say I failed them in some way if they don’t make 1000 sales from my site. People can be lazy they want to use bloggers to make a quick buck, but it doesn’t work like that, it take a lot of hard work on both sides for both parties to benefit. Since I work in both sides of the coin I see things more clearly. I have worked with social medial / SEO marketing and even the big companies cannot guarantee you sales they can drive the traffic yes and give you advice on your site, but at the end of the day it’s up to the brand to sell based on product and cost.
    P.S I am happy to help you if you want some advice.

  10. Yes, Fashion magazine especially in the Beauty department have done this for years !!! Even vogue America only puts a designer on the cover who advertise in the magazine. There is no disclosure about that in the magazine their is no transparcy. Im sorry for all the people in the mag industry who are loosing their income because of the indirectly free blogs. But dont go around accusing people of the same thing you have been doing for years. Its unethical. But I forgot nobody especially in business cares about ethics and morals anymore and guess what that leads to ? A lack of trust >>> Witness the financial mealtdown. This is a global modern disease Dishonesty which evens clutches its claws in the supposedly beautifull world of fashion.

    ps on a nother note I really like BOF but Im really uncomfortable with the disclosure of location at the time of posting a comment. It feels like my privacy is being in invaded and I dont know what the added value is of knowing if Im posting a comment from Holland or China or the USA ?

    nena from Den Haag, South Holland, Netherlands
  11. I absolutely agree with your opinion. I’m a fashion blogger from Russia, and we do actually work in a small team on our blog. Unfortunately, there are not so many good professional fashion bloggers in my country, but our big bloggers in other fields do so. they disclose their partnershis or right at the top of the post: ADVERTISMENT, their disclose their statistics and honestly say: Hi there. This my blog. About 1.000.000 unique users’ve come to this blog in August, so I want 5.000 per post. And honestly, as their follower I’m OK with that, because I understand that they’d like to have some money from their super popular blogs.
    I think that we all have to be honest, especially with our readers, then, I hink, we won’t lose our credibility.
    Thank you!

  12. Pearl, I have a similar experience to Guthrie and I think it is not fair to discount his personal experience. First, some designers are small operations, just trying to get by, definitely without the budget for PR — which is completely legit. It is how all the biggest names, from Louis Vuitton to Prada started. If you have hope that promotion of your product/service through a blog would translate to at least some sales, there is nothing wrong with that assumption, especially with the promises made by many blogs and sites prior to the collaboration.

    That many would refuse to release their stats to the designer as Vivek attests only adds to the smoke and mirrors being built by the blogging industry. A small company recently exposed up to 80% of the hits and likes on their fb page as fake accounts. Without directly saying that fb created those accounts to generate ad revenue. So look, small businesses are onto something, because they have less money to spend on marketing, and usually have a more direct way of tracking effectiveness of each marketing campaign they engage in.

    If I were you (Pearl) I would be taking Guthrie’s claim very seriously instead of trying to dismiss it as the fault of a PR he probably does not even have. For smaller brands, I have found blog-based marketing to be better for hype than for sales. Not bad, just different.

    Elie from Muñana, Castille and León, Spain
  13. Well, if Nokia want to give me a free Lumia 920 for blogging about their products then I am more than happy to accept their bribe. Not so sure about the iPhone5 though – although I am open to having my opinion changed.

  14. Thank you for your reply, Pearl. I’m well seasoned in doing PR for myself and other designers. I’ve also worked with outside PR. I knew the outcome would be minimal from previous blog posts on my products. It was just interesting sit back and observe the PR I was working with blow it so far out of proportion. As if being on a blog was “MAJOR”. Being on Style.com is major. Being on personal style blog is not major unless it’s something like Man Repeller. Our site is visually nice and easy to navigate. When we are in print, the orders come in so fast. People see it in the magazine, log on to our site, and buy it. For us, print is still king.

    I agree with Mickey Drexler about social media being hyped up: http://www.wwd.com/media-news/fashion-memopad/drexler-sounds-off-6287575

    As far as SEO, it’s even now somewhat dated. Blog posts mentioning our products do help in that respect, however I think fewer shoppers turn to Google. We are on page one for a major keyword combination and over the past 2 years, the clicks have diminished. However, clicks go up with Facebook. When someone shares our product with their friends, the response is amazing. But being on blogs is not something I would ever pay outside PR for again.

    There are definitely style blogs that are at the top. Going forward, I think destinations such as intothegloss.com will continue to flourish because of their original and fresh content. Sea of shoes once seemed edgy and compelling, but now it almost seems dated. (Trends online move much faster than offline.) Constantly seeing the same face stare into the camera is no longer fresh. It almost comes across as cheesy. Advertisers will start to realize not all blogs are the same or have the same influence. As I stated in first post, only a few really move merchandise. This notion that someone can start a blog and support themselves through adverts isn’t realistic. Again, only a handful of bloggers will be able to do that.

    This isn’t part of the article, but I’m surprised how few people discuss giveaways and blogs. There is a cheap aspect to all of these giveaways. It creates what I call “ghost followers.” Readers get caught up in the FREE frenzy and probably couldn’t even tell you what the product is and who designed/made it. It does make FB and Twitter follower counts surge for a bit, but that doesn’t last after the reader/consumer cleans up their page later on and can’t even remember why they “liked” a certain brand in the first place.

    guthrie from Nürnberg, Bavaria, Germany
  15. It’s too bad Amed chose not to post my response to Pearl.

    guthrie from Bluefield, WV, United States
  16. I see nothing wrong with bloggers promoting brands they use or have used and if they get paid fantastic, but i do feel they need to give an honest option and not what the brand wants them to say, it’s the lies that put me of reading blogs that only have great things to say when in real life you can’t always get the perfect fitting top, shoes, skirt etc.

    sorry rant over.


  17. I think that bloggers deserve to be renumerated for their advertising. I think the whole disclosure debate is over, since most bloggers are as read/credible as fashion magazines… and trust me, fashion mags get free stuff all the time and NEVER disclose it. You can read my thoughts on transparency in the blogosphere here – http://natalieast.com/?p=2646

  18. Thank you so much! Keep visiting and of course, feel free to suggest any posts that you would love to read :)KIA Auto Glass

    john-calvin from Madras, Tamil Nādu, India
  19. I think this is a really interesting topic, especially with the growing popularity of fashion blogs. Fashion and business have always gone hand-in-hand and it’s only natural that street-style or personal style blogs are involved in promotion. I disagree with you on the point that editorial and advertising posts need to be differentiated. I think that the blogger has the right to promote a brand any way they want. They shouldn’t be promoting brands they don’t like anyway, so what’s the harm in them posting about how much they like the shoes they are wearing…etc? Yeah it’s nice if they mention that the company sent them a gift, but even then I don’t think it’s necessary, if the blogger likes the item then they should just wear it… if they don’t, they shouldn’t wear it so no need to post about it. I think it’s a pretty simple system that people are just a getting all worked up about. Fashion blogging is a the new media, it’s the new culture, so it’s totally normal for companies and bloggers to come together to promote one-another and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s the blogger’s choice to distinguish editorial and advertising or to keep them blended.
    Thanks for the interesting article! – Greta

    Greta Ohaus from Ithaca, NY, United States
  20. I think this is a really interesting topic, especially with the growing popularity of fashion blogs. Fashion and business have always gone hand-in-hand and it’s only natural that street-style or personal style blogs are involved in promotion.

  21. Keep up the wonderful work, I read few blog posts on this website and I think that your website is real interesting and holds lots of fantastic info.

  22. Personally I have not paid bloggers to wear my stuff, But if it came to it I might. The bottom line is if people like your thing they will buy it, if they dont they wont. Does’nt matter if paid, or free. If your thing is correct , automatically it becomes transparent.

  23. As an ardent fan of fashion blogs, I agree that greater transparency with both readers and brand partners is in the long-term interests of fashion bloggers. I look forward to more interesting material from fashion bloggers. Cheers!!

    Alvin Cain from Delhi, Delhi, India
  24. I am agree with your thoughts…Keep on posting, i will be back to hear more about this.

    Mrshoes from New Delhi, Delhi, India