All you wanted to know about the food blogging business model
Blogger and wknd. columnist Kari Heron tells us about the financial implication of a culinary passion
This article has been long in the making. It is one of those that I have drafted and reopened ever so often. now the time has come to put it in print. I have had the privilege of being both a paid columnist for this column as well as a professional blogger with over 17,000 followers for my chefandsteward.com blog over all platforms, and I can tell you that one thing I know for sure is that food bloggers should definitely not work for free. Here is why.
I have been blogging for 10 years, and professionally for six of those. Over the years, I have had many proposals by marketing and PR professionals who are eager to associate with my blog due to the credibility we have developed in the market and our influence. While some of these proposals acknowledge the value of the association, many have assumed that all bloggers, especially food bloggers are in it for a free meal or just "exposure".
One of the reasons I am so passionate about this topic is because I started out in media pretty early on in life. At 16, I received professional training to become a TV host and eventually made the cut from nearly 300 people who auditioned for a TV show. I got a cheque for each show I appeared on. This was what led me to study Media and Communication up to the graduate level. While in university, I bartered at the largest production training facility to receive master-level training in other subjects like photography, voice and speech. I produced my first TV show, a children's show, at 19, as part of that barter. Due to all the work I had done before and during university, which I got paid for, I was able to secure a primetime TV job hosting the weather on a national free-to-air station.
I learnt the art of negotiation because I was valued. I was paid. You cannot be called a professional unless you get paid for your work. There has been much debate on this topic in the blogging world over the years. It seems that the divide is in three groups.
Group A: Consists of bloggers who are simply "hobby bloggers", who do it only for the fun of it and have no desire to ever earn from it.
Group B: Those who may eventually want to earn some day but are trying to build their following in order to attract paid work (via advertising, brand associations, sponsored posts, etc).
Group C: Those who are aware of the costs of blogging and have put a value on their work and expect to be paid for work in cash or kind.
From what I have noticed, for the most part, most bloggers (including food bloggers) operate from the category of Group A. They are in it for the love and freedom of expression. There is no pressure to create and readership is likely to be lesser than other groups. Many of these bloggers are happy to be read, but are perfectly fine with just the ability to publish. They operate on free platforms and only share the foods and dishes they have either cooked themselves, or bought with their own money. Those in the Group B category understand the earning potential of blogging but may just be starting out and are eager to get "exposure". By this, I mean that bloggers are willing to create content for free in order just to be published. The last category of bloggers have placed value on their time, energy and efforts, as well as the costs of blogging, including the cost of food for recipe development, the cost of photography equipment, and the costs of maintaining a high quality blog, including domain registration, self-hosting, and marketing costs.
In order to understand the value of your blog post, tweet or Instagram post, you have to understand that your time has value. Your creative work has value. In essence, "If yah love it, then you got to put some cash on it!"
Make no mistake, blogging is work. Unless you are gainfully employed and have no wish to ever quit your day job - or gainfully unemployed and have no desire to ever earn a dollar - giving away work for free is not economically viable for most people. "Exposure" cannot pay your DEWA, FEWA or SEWA or phone bills, freelance licence fee, rent or blog hosting fees. You cannot deposit "exposure" in a bank account. And I guarantee you the people asking you to work for "exposure" are themselves getting paid.
When bloggers create content only to be published for free exposure, people who have made their living by providing those services get sidelined. In fact, everybody gets shafted. No one benefits when the market is saturated with free content. If publishers get used to not paying for content, eventually no one will get paid, because anyone will do it for free.
Do not get me wrong, I am not knocking the value of exposure. However, there are ways to give away work without payment, without losing out.
How to convert your passion into a business opportunity
WIFM: You have to ask yourself and the person pitching, what is in it for you as a blogger and for your readers. If there is no value to you or your followers, let it pass.
Develop a rate card. You cannot understand your value without having a guide to your costs. Itemise costs for sponsored posts, photography, writing, recipe development and restaurant reviews (if applicable).
Get featured instead. If you are being featured as the subject of an article, by all means you can and should supply images. By this I mean that you are interviewed (in person or by written question and answer) and that you are not the one actually writing the article.
Charge for recipe development. If you are putting out recipes, then you should charge something at least to recoup the cost of the ingredients and some of your time. For reference, general rates run from Dh350-750 per recipe.
Consider a barter. If it is a brand, product or restaurant you like, consider trading in kind. You need to definitely have your rate card on hand so that you have a frame of reference for the kind of barter and relative costs.
ALWAYS disclose any paid work. I am HUGE on integrity and ethics of blogging (a passion of mine) and feel it is critical to disclose to your readership that the content provided has been paid for or sponsored. Your readership deserves to know.
Bloggers from the UAE, GCC and across the world weigh in on this topic.
Minna Herranen, blog editor at www.nakedplateblog.com
"Ultimately, it's everyone's own choice how they want to value their own work. I would not work for free, but my blog is not my work. I always ask, "What's in it for me?" Or rather, for the audience who follow my blog.
I promote and endorse a cause or product, which I honestly like and fits my lifestyle. It is more often free than sponsored. I do not accept anything in return if I have found something worth writing, cooking, styling and photographing and like to share it on my blog. I have set rules to myself as a blogger and treat my blog partially as a business. Certainly I always consider all opportunities coming my way. I value my time and am dedicated to creating and editing content, which I consider good quality. It's okay to decline offers which are not win-win."
Paul Morrison, editor, www.mypatoo.com
"I definitely believe that food bloggers, like any other professionals, should charge. Quite simply, there are overhead costs to conceptualising, producing and maintaining the website. Not to mention there may be recipe developments to be made on the part of the bloggers and collaborators. In addition, we are providing a service, particularly for these restaurants and caterers, to continue refining their end products. Simply put, every service has to be quantified because I guarantee you the costs are real."
Sharon Divan, www.picklemyfancy.wordpress.com
"My food blogging journey has never been about money! It is not my day job, although I do know of some bloggers who make their living from it. I do it because I am passionate about it and my differentiator has been Chef Talk - a segment where I try and bring out a little more of a 'personal' side of the person who puts the food on my plate at a restaurant. For me to charge for meeting such diverse, driven and delightful individuals, would take away from the joy of what I do. I also believe that bloggers are often judged based on their 'popularity' on social media outlets and not on content - which unfortunately takes away from those who genuinely put in their time and creativity into their blogs. I believe brands who are looking to tie up with those who develop recipes of their own - whether for magazines, recipe books etc - should pay them for their time, experimentation, creativity. So a lot depends on the type of blog you write and the reasons for which you write it."
Ishita Saha, www.ishitaunblogged.com and www.foodemag.com
"If you are using the word 'work', then it doesn't imply a service without payment. However, if a blog is born out of passion and is not expected to give you monetary returns, then anyway you shouldn't be terming it as work. It's a hobby. Working with brands in terms of content generation and visual conceptualisation is work and has to be remunerated. However, I can't fathom paid restaurant reviews. But aligning a brand's USP to its target audience is work - more like what an advertising agency does when it does a marketing campaign. That requires skill. I think the confusion arises because most bloggers aren't transparent with their disclosures. Also, probably in the beginning, a blogger who's started a blog as a passion tends to take up the opportunities he/she gets in terms of invites/products, etc, but soon when they realise that this takes a lot of time, that's when they think of turning it into a profession. And why not? Nobody complains about a doctor taking fees or an actor being paid for a brand endorsement."
Sachi Kumar, www.wheresachi.com
"There might be many bloggers starting new blogs every few minutes, but that does not mean that if one blogger charges, then brands get to find an alternative blogger who can work for free. Brands need to understand that bloggers who charge are providing quality content which has been curated with a lot of effort and time. They shouldn't work for free because their style is different from others and the charge is justified with a certain reach of audience, quality and individuality. Sure, it wouldn't add to the brands' marketing costs, but brands need to be more smart with whom they work with to ensure their marketing objectives are met."
Aneesha Rai, www.omnomnirvana.com
"Just because there seems to be an oversupply of food bloggers in the UAE, doesn't mean that companies/restaurants should expect to work with them for free. People need to sit up and realise that we don't just spend effort on content generation, but also our time. Content generation can include writing copy, styling and editing pictures for their blog posts as well as social media, which could take hours. Most bloggers receive compensation in kind, than in cash, but sometimes that is not an adequate barter for the job that they do. If compensation is received in cash, bloggers are not aware that they need a business licence to receive it. There also seems to be a sort of dilemma in terms of complete disclosure; it is encouraged, but not regulated. I think food bloggers who create their own recipes have it better in terms of collaborating with brands because it's a softer endorsement in my opinion. However, the restaurant reviewers have a bit of a struggle ethically and face regular PR pressure to write a good review."