With bloggers reviewing everything from hotels to beauty products to baby strollers these days, brands are willing to pay for such seemingly spontaneous word of mouth.
Enter the blog post-advertorial: sponsored blog entries involving free or discounted trips and products, and around which an entire ecosystem has sprung up - from bloggers' agents to companies that liaise with and supply bloggers with goodies.
Public relations firms say that as social media marketing takes off, they now draft formal agreements between their clients and bloggers: A typical contract covers the required number of posts and pictures, and the types of social media channels that will be used by the blogger, in exchange for payment in cash or kind.
Yet, with paid blog posts becoming increasingly common, surfing through blog reviews becomes more complicated too.
Housewife Jenny Tan, 32, who looks at food blogs regularly, finds that she constantly has to evaluate what she reads: "If the blogger is supplied a particular food item and is paid to use it, then how credible are the recipes, since he is obliged to say the item is good?"
So does a paid post, which is not flagged clearly by the blogger as such, affect a blog's credibility? Would one feel obliged to write only good things if the stuff is free? SundayLife! asks these questions and more of some prominent local bloggers:
The bloggers' market
Blogger Wendy Cheng, aka Xiaxue, a former personal assistant to a doctor, started blogging full-time in 2005. She now has about 40,000 daily visitors to her blog, and says she can make a five-figure sum in good months.
Ms Cheng, 30, says she used to approach brands she liked and offer them coverage. These days, however, clients such as Subaru and L'Oreal go to her. She receives up to five requests for event coverage a day.
Similarly, full-time blogger Brad Lau, 27, who goes by the online moniker ladyironchef and runs the site with his fiancee Melody Yap, 25, says he receives so many invitations to go for free tastings that he no longer accepts them.
"We need to prioritise our paying clients," he says. He does campaigns with clients, which he declines to name, marketing their products with their approved messages.
His Ladyironchef blog, started seven years ago, gets an average of 2.5 million page views a month.
Nuffnang, a blog community and blogger management agency, was set up in Singapore in 2007 and helps its network of about 60,000 blogs monetise their space.
Says Ms Yang Hui Wen, Nuffnang's regional director: "Advertisers know that bloggers' influence and opinions may be valuable tools that they can incorporate into their plans to generate online chatter, spark opinions and create an image for their brand.
"Blog marketing is almost always in the marketing plan now."
SundayLife! spoke to 10 bloggers, who all say they charge for advertorials, ranging from hundreds of dollars to five-figure sums.
Ms Cheng says she used to charge $300 for an advertorial, but now commands about $4,000 for such a post.
She adds, however, that if the cost of what she is offered is much more than her fees, then she may waive her charges.
Mr Daniel Ang of DanielFoodDiary.com says his popularity has allowed him to revise his fees upwards five times over the last three years. He usually charges a four-figure sum for advertorials. His blog gets 1.2 million page views a month.
Some consumers are uncomfortable with how some bloggers who used to blog because they are passionate about a topic now accept payment. They feel that objectivity is compromised as a result.
Says marketing support specialist Magdalene Lim, 26, who reads beauty blogs every other day: "A blogger could be reviewing many skincare products at the same time and deem them all good.
"But how can she tell what her skin is really benefiting from, since she is using all the products simultaneously?"
Civil servant Chloe Lee, 27, who reads beauty and food blogs every day, asks: "Where is the reality in the testing when you are paid for the post? You have to say something good about the product, right? Would you be mean about a free lunch?"
Professor Mohan Dutta, head of the National University of Singapore's department of communications and new media in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, says the best case scenario is where a blogger writes about a product or service without receiving payment.
"This creates a space for objective review", he says, adding that it prevents any room for bias.
However, Nuffnang's Ms Yang says that bloggers have the editorial freedom to air their experiences.
"We pre-empt companies by telling them that reviews, if any, good or bad, will have to be at the discretion of the blogger," she says.
Bloggers say that if they accept payment, it is for work done.
Says Mr Lau: "This is my career; it's what I do for a living. You would not go to a newspaper or a magazine and expect free advertising.
"If I can do something I love and get paid for it, why not?"
Mr Daniel Ang, who works full-time as a polytechnic mass communications lecturer, says there are "labour costs" involved for bloggers.
"I spend three to four hours at an event and then another three to four hours editing and researching before my post goes up. That is about seven hours worth of work.
"If I am to spend such effort helping a company, some monetary compensation would be helpful," he says.
There are bloggers who alternate between accepting payment in cash and in kind.
Blogger Kelvin Ang of three-year-old family blog cheekiemonkie.net has taken his family on trips sponsored by Hong Kong Disneyland to check out the theme park and by milk powder brand Friso to Amsterdam. He says he does not know the worth of these trips, as the companies did not reveal the cost to him.
Mr Ang, 37, a financial planner, says that for certain sponsored trips: "I decide whether to charge or not, on a case-by-case basis."
Bloggers interviewed say they do not write about a product they do not like.
Ms Cheng says if the experience or product was very bad, she even refunds the money she was paid.
Mr Daniel Ang says he only invoices clients after his blog post is up and he also does not feel the need to write a glowing review just because he was paid for it.
"I think it's important to be truthful, so I do put in negative comments and highlight areas the company can improve on," he says.
A question of credibility
Accounts manager Jasmine Lim, 35, says she often realises only at the end of a post that it was an advertorial.
She adds: "Sometimes, the font used in the declaration is smaller than what is used in the rest of the post and I almost miss it. I find that somewhat sneaky," she says.
The bloggers SundayLife! spoke to say that they do not try to hide the fact that a post is sponsored.
Ms Cheng, for instance, says she makes it clear on her blog when posts are advertorials. These are flagged and labelled at the beginning with the word "advertorial" - something she has been doing since 2005.
"It's my reputation on the line," she says. "If I get found out that it was a paid post, people will not believe me anymore."
While it is not unheard of in the industry for bloggers to not declare that a product or trip was sponsored, Mr Kelvin Ang says to fail to declare any sponsorship of a post is to not be "open and upfront" with readers.
Mr Daniel Ang says he always rejects requests from companies to omit the word "advertorial" from a post, so as to not make it "obvious" that they had sponsored it.
"Money can't buy integrity," he says.
Mr Lau, too, indicates at the bottom of his posts with the words "this post is brought to you by" if the post is paid for.
"Transparency is very important to us," he says.
Prof Dutta says such declarations ought to be placed right at the top, "so that readers reading further on are already sensitised to the conflicts of interest".
Personal codes of conduct
Parenting blogger Meiling Wong-Chainani, 42, who has been blogging for the past two years at Universal Scribbles and has about 20,000 visitors a month, says she returns products for review if she is uncertain how safe they are for children. "I need to be very careful and take responsibility for what I write about," she says.
Agreeing, Ms Cheng says she does not write about things that she does not like or believe in.
She adds: "I would never write about cigarettes, as I am against smoking. Once, I rejected an offer to try sex toys. I am not comfortable talking about such topics on my blog."
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