Product Reviews, Brand Ambassadors and Why They're Two Totally Different Animals

So I’m sitting in a session about Media Kits at Type A Mom yesterday when it was suggested that perhaps bloggers ask to be paid for their product reviews instead of only receiving swag. I’m sure the gasp from our table was one heard round the world and a bit of conversation ensued. The person who made the suggestion was confusing a product review with a sponsored post or a brand ambassadorship.

When one accepts payment in exchange for reviewing for a product, one is crossing a line into unethicality. Since this is a topic that came up more than once at Type A Mom ( Which so far rocks and I’ll be sharing my thoughts when it’s over just as I did with BlogHer), I thought it would be interesting to explore the differences between product reviews and being a sponsored spokesperson.

Product Reviews

A product review is when Brand X sends a blogger their box of spaghetti. Blogger and family eat the spaghetti, discuss, and then the blogger shares her opinion on her blog. She gets her balance on and talks about what she liked and didn’t like about the product. She offers a fair assessment and discloses that she received a free box of spaghetti in exchange for the review. Perhaps even Brand X will send a few extra boxes for giveaways and comment hilarity and short-lived freebie seeking traffic ensues.

Notice there’s no exchange of funds? That’s because once money changes hands the review becomes, as Christine Fletchen from Consumer Search puts it, an “advertorial.” Once you accept money in exchange for a product you can no longer be counted on to give a fair and balanced review. I should know. Last year I took on a sponsor for my blog. It was a company that I loved and most of our agreement was in advertising on my blog. However, if I ever talked about this company I was written off as a “paid mouthpiece” even though everything I said was from the heart.

If you do accept money in exchange for a product review, it has to be disclosed. The blogger has to tell the world that she was paid for her review, which may not bode well in her favor.

So, in a nutshell: Product review = assessment from the heart with no funds exchanging hands. Once money comes in to play the blogger becomes a spokesperson and it’s a whole, entirely new ball of content.

Brand Ambassadors

Brand ambassadorships aren’t product reviews and brand ambassadors shouldn’t be considered reviewers.  They are people who are paid money (or in many blogging cases, conference tickets or swag) to represent a brand or product.  As with the reviews, one must always disclose such an agreement when discussing one’s sponsor – not only because the FTC says so, but because it’s good juju and the ethical thing to do.

Now, we discussed brand evangelism before, so I won’t rehash it too much, but I believe this is what the blogger at Type A Mom was referring to when she suggested bloggers are paid for their reviews.  Brands don’t pay for product reviews (other than product) and I often think they’re counting on bloggers not knowing the difference between product reviews and evangelism (and what each entails) when seeking representation for their products.  There’s a lot of using going on. Brand ambassadorships are more than product reviews, it can mean bloggers talking about the brand on Twitter and Facebook, writing up a certain amount of blog posts, wearing t-shirts at conferences, and a lot more work that doesn’t necessarily justify the compensation. (Also? As it is considered compensation, bloggers might even be required to pay taxes on product and services received in exchange for brand ambassadorships.)

Usually compensation for brand evangelism is a boxload of free stuff or an all expense paid trip for a conference. Brands are getting practically free promotion from bloggers who are just so happy they found someone to pay for their flight.

Do I sound a bit put off by this whole brand evangelism thing? Yes. Yes, I am. As I said, there’s a lot of using going on. Moms are supposed to be the most influential people in the world (or at least this is what brands keep telling me) yet brands that have kajallions to pay celebrities can’t fork up more than a case of spaghetti and perhaps a conference ticket to get a mom to promote their product.

In short: Brand Ambassadorship: Promoting a brand in exchange for money or another agreed-upon form of compensation. Usually swag and conference tickets.

Sponsored Posts

Since we’re going there, let’s get into sponsored posts for a bit. A sponsored post is when someone pays you to write about them. It doesn’t have to be a product review and it’s not evangelising. Brand X paid Blogger Y $50 to write a post about them and Blogger Y did. Money exchanged. Post done. Transaction over.

Blog post + money = sponsored post.

This Isn’t Rocket Surgery

If we can all just get our heads out of our swag bags and focus on the bigger picture, the differences are easier to understand. Once we start accepting compensation or sponsorship in exchange for your review, we are no longer providing a review, we are providing an endorsement, and advertisement or a brand evangelism.

Those are worth way more than a couple of boxes of spaghetti.

  • http://twitter.com/nytshde nytshde

    Thank you for the cliff notes version of what it sure to be a tremendous debate in the near future. (if it isn’t already) While you make a distinction between the three, ultimately I don’t think the reader does. Something of value is being exchanged for the writers words. Whether it’s a $2.00 box of spaghetti, a $200.00 gaming system, or $20.00 actual dollars. My father was a bricklayer and when I was a kid, he’d do work for a mechanic and get the car worked on in exchange, or maybe he’d get an actual car, or cash. It was all the same, it all had value. The question for the “mommies” now is, how much should their opinion be “valued”?

  • http://twitter.com/nytshde nytshde

    Thank you for the cliff notes version of what it sure to be a tremendous debate in the near future. (if it isn’t already) While you make a distinction between the three, ultimately I don’t think the reader does. Something of value is being exchanged for the writers words. Whether it’s a $2.00 box of spaghetti, a $200.00 gaming system, or $20.00 actual dollars. My father was a bricklayer and when I was a kid, he’d do work for a mechanic and get the car worked on in exchange, or maybe he’d get an actual car, or cash. It was all the same, it all had value. The question for the “mommies” now is, how much should their opinion be “valued”?

  • http://awholelotofnothing.net Angie [A Whole Lot of Nothing]

    I wholeheartedly agree with just about everything you’ve said. We, as bloggers and representatives of our influence, need not undermine our worth. We need to put out there what we expect and take nothing less. There are always exceptions, but we needs to expect to be duly compensated for what we do.

  • http://awholelotofnothing.net Angie [A Whole Lot of Nothing]

    I wholeheartedly agree with just about everything you’ve said. We, as bloggers and representatives of our influence, need not undermine our worth. We need to put out there what we expect and take nothing less. There are always exceptions, but we needs to expect to be duly compensated for what we do.

  • http://www.andyhayes.com Andy Hayes

    Interesting discussion! Do we have any good examples of brand ambassadors? I would have thought it would make more sense for a brand to have a blog dedicated to a certain niche or topic, rather than pay a blogger to be on their blog. The world ‘shill’ comes to mind.

  • http://www.andyhayes.com Andy Hayes

    Interesting discussion! Do we have any good examples of brand ambassadors? I would have thought it would make more sense for a brand to have a blog dedicated to a certain niche or topic, rather than pay a blogger to be on their blog. The world ‘shill’ comes to mind.

  • diabetic snacker

    Great article thanks for the tips. I’m here from the list of 50 best women blogs. I have a blog too about product reviews,giveaways,diabetes and food tips. Lots of giveaways too! I’m now following your blog. I would have loved to sit in on that meeting! I love doing reviews in exchange for products but sometimes a bone in the form of a payment would be appreciated. I’m always looking for new pr reps to work with my blog. I hadn’t heard of a brand ambassador before so that’s good to know stuff!

  • diabetic snacker

    Great article thanks for the tips. I’m here from the list of 50 best women blogs. I have a blog too about product reviews,giveaways,diabetes and food tips. Lots of giveaways too! I’m now following your blog. I would have loved to sit in on that meeting! I love doing reviews in exchange for products but sometimes a bone in the form of a payment would be appreciated. I’m always looking for new pr reps to work with my blog. I hadn’t heard of a brand ambassador before so that’s good to know stuff!

  • Pingback: So You Say You’re a Brand Ambassador?