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Let’s Talk About Sponsorships (2021)

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This is maybe my 8th attempt at articulating my evolving stance on tool brand or retailer sponsorships. Each time, the conversation just feels awkward, and I end up trashing my draft. But, I’ll give it a go once more.

Warning – this is a long post. This is something that I spent a lot of time thinking about, and there’s no quick and easy way to phrase my stance on sponsorships.

Every year, brands, retailers, and marketing firms ask for our media kit, which is basically a summary of website metrics and advertising rates. About two years ago, maybe a little earlier, an increasing number of those potential advertisers started asking for my sponsored posts rates. Well, I don’t have a sponsored post rate.

“We’re not buying banner ads this year, but we’re happy to talk about sponsorship opportunities.” A pattern emerged.

So, I started thinking about how to move forward with the industry on my terms.

This was the case last year when in a similar post I said:

Saying “yes” to opportunities I agree with allows me to say “no” to opportunities I don’t.

If you don’t grow and adapt with an industry, you get left behind.

This is not as recent a shift as you might think. I was talking a potential advertiser 6 years ago, and I remember this because I was home with my infant son at the time, and they were interested in talking about advertising options and also “organic content” opportunities. I never pitched a story to them, but it just shows how far back brands started shifting towards sponsoring content creators.

Thinking back, I participated in occasional sponsored partnerships over the years, when they aligned with my ethics and interests. Early on, tricked myself into believing they were something else. I’d say I could do the review for free, but I’d see they wanted me to sign a photo release – ah, that’s what they’re paying for. I’d throw in banner ads to further convince myself of advertising-editorial separation.

The shift to mobile has also created advertising complications. I can create new placements for mobile and also flip a switch to boost performance (meaning revenue), and while I’d get paid a lot more at the end of the month, it would absolutely harm your user experience.

I had time to think about things.

But, the industry is shifting in multiple ways. I took part in a sponsored campaign last year, and I am fairly certain that I would not have been privy to the product launch if ToolGuyd was not included. Meaning, I doubt I would have had access to a product manager or review samples outside of that arrangement.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about ToolGuyd’s revenue streams. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but here is where all the revenue comes from: banner advertisements (direct and ad networks), and affiliate links. I used to freelance for magazines to help boost revenue, but I don’t have time for that anymore.

I have always strived to provide readers with the type of experience I desire from the websites, magazines, and channels I visit.

Readers are everything I love about my job. Your questions, comments, emails, tips, requests, suggestions, social media messages, encouragement, and shared passion for tools – this all means so much to me. All of the joy I get out of this stems from you, our readers.

But also, you guys are critical to ToolGuyd’s upkeep and support.

What happens if I add too many banners? You would lose interest and leave.

What happens if I am too forceful with affiliate links? You would lose interest and leave.

What happens if I faked enthusiasm to sell you on sponsored messaging I don’t believe in? You would lose interest and leave.

What happens if you lose interest and leave? Less ad revenue, less affiliate revenue, fewer and smaller partnerships.

Do you see the commonality? A small boost in revenue now would absolutely negatively impact revenue later. But not only that, everyone that visits ToolGuyd regularly, even the very many that don’t desire to join in on the conversations, are a big part of why I do this. A big part of our audience comes from search engine results, but without those of you that are reading this, there’s no community, and with no community, this becomes a job instead of my passion.

In other words, it’s in my best interest to be aligned with your best interests. Engaging in any behaviors that would push you away would always be the wrong move.

I can understand the pushback about sponsorships, but I spent about two years thinking about policies and practices that will help me adapt to ongoing marketing trends and developments.

Consider a chef that owns their own restaurant and often also uses their personal time to cook for friends and neighbors. They plan to use the weekend to test out a new brownie recipe for their restaurant, and this is something they’ve wanting to do for a while.

Someone comes along – “we’re having a party and want to hire you to cook a feast for 50 of your friends and neighbors, and can you do it Saturday?” Sorry, the chef is busy. Maybe next month. “We’d like it to be Saturday, and we’ve got a budget to pay you.”

Time is my most valuable resource these days, and it has been for a while. There are simply too many things that deserve to be worked on and posted about.

In the chef analogy, there are three possible responses to the hiring request, and they apply here as well.

1) I’m interested, and would do this for free, but I don’t have the time, sorry.

2) I’m interested, here’s what I’d like to do.

3) I’m not interested.

There’s one other option, to stick a hand out and say “sure, show me the message you want shared, I’ll sign my name,” but that’s not me.

Earlier in the year, a reader requested that I review a particular router. I’d love to help them, and I made some guesses, but there simply wouldn’t be a way to shoehorn it into my schedule by the time the reader wants to make their purchasing decision. It’s not about interest or not wanting to oblige, but about not having the time.

But – that brand has since signed on as a ToolGuyd sponsor, and I can rearrange my personal projects plans a bit to accommodate that review. That sponsorship funding will also go towards other reader requests for reviews or comparisons.

Will my review process or assessment be any different? No.

You might say – “but if you don’t shower the product with praise you’ll never get another sponsorship again.” That’s the thing – sponsoring brands know what I and ToolGuyd are like. And if not, they learn fast. Some of my professional relationships go back more than 10 years. If we can’t come to an agreement, maybe there will be something more favorable down the road.

With unfamiliar brands or companies, we don’t always come to favorable agreements at all, ever. Two years ago, a brand wanted me to showcase tools of my choosing, and then things devolved into “we want you to video yourself shopping our Black Friday deals online.” I declined and will not work with that firm given their low quality expectations.

Here’s another analogy. Let’s say you have a pickup truck. Sally is moving and wants your help. You oblige, as you’ve been friends for a long time and they’d do the same for you. John, Larry, Peter, Amy, and Carol from the book club are all moving too, and they all want your help next Saturday. You’d ordinarily be willing to help at least some of them, but what can you do? You also already have plans to build a LEGO set and watch a sports game that day. John offers you gas money and a pizza. It turns out helping them will take two trips. They throw in a bag of your favorite chips.

Oliver is a bit of a jerk, but you try to be friends with them anyway – “I need you to help me move.” Sorry, you’re busy and aren’t driving into that part of town at all. “I’ve got pizza and gas money.” Sorry, it’s laundry day.

Sam also wants help. “Can you help me buy two sheets of plywood this weekend?” Next weekend works for me better, is that okay with you? “Thanks!”

Sponsorships are something a lot of companies are very interested these days. My time is very limited. There are advertising limitations due to mobile vs. desktop and the desire to provide a quality reading experience. Some exploration opportunities are increasingly exclusive to sponsored partners. There’s a long list of reader requests and content in the queue, waiting to be funded.

All of these things point in one direction. Getting on-board with sponsorships is an inevitability, and it’s better to do so now, on my terms, then in a future where I might lose that luxury.

Consider Brand O, who I have a great relationship with. “Can you make time to talk to a product manager about our new launch? Are you interested in testing it?” With many things going on, an interview or presentation might be hard to schedule for a couple of weeks. I might be able to test the tool, but a full review might take a few weeks (or longer) depending on different factors. Sometimes the work involved in testing a product would means 5X work today than in 4 months. “We’re launching the product in two weeks.”

Sometimes it’s not possible to do things as part of regular editorial content.

I have some ground rules, and all of them basically revolve around “no manufactured enthusiasm.” Sponsored content is about going above and beyond what I can accommodate as part of regular editorial editors.

Last fall I was approached in November about doing a product review. I came up with an idea – I can cram it into December as part of a sponsored campaign, or in January or February as part of regular content. They sent me the product and told me to take my time.

If they had a budget to offset the high opportunity cost that is tied to holiday season work, my post would have read the same but with a note that it was part of a sponsorship or partnership.

That was a one-time idea, but this is still new territory. Things are falling into place and I’m getting used to the idea. With each brand or post, I look at reader responses to see if the campaign was at all interesting or useful to you.

Let’s talk about why I don’t like reading sponsored content. Well, a lot of the times, they’re shallow advertorials and simply ad copy in editorial packaging. There’s generally no author – it’s a “staff writer,” and nobody is held accountable.

And yes, I know some of you have a problem with today’s post, but that’s something different. If you’ve been reading ToolGuyd for a while, you know that I sometimes get overly excited about tools. I try not to tone down my language when talking about sponsoring brands’ products, but sometimes it slips through.

I’ve been seeing a lot of sponsored content on social media and YouTube, and I see a lot of examples of what not to do, but there are also a lot of content creators who share similar ideals and approaches as I do.

Every now and then someone questions my editorial integrity or motivations, and I LOVE IT. Well, it actually feels lousy, but I want people to ask questions. I try to disclose and be as transparent as possible, because it’s necessary.

Early on, I realized that it can be a problem for one hand to write the content and the other hand to pick up the paycheck. So, I made a rule about affiliate link recommendations. Besides, if I’m too pushy with a junky product, and you buy it and hate it, you’ll return the product, I get nothing, and I lose you as a reader.

I get phone calls and emails from marketing companies claiming they can help me boost my ad revenue. I ask for examples and they only ever show me examples of what not to do to ToolGuyd. If a small box of content is framed by ads above, below, and on both sides, and there’s then a pop-over, I’m gone before they all even load.

With every sponsorship in recent years, ongoing arrangements, and potential arrangements being discussed now, every partner is okay with working on my terms. They know what kind of content creator I am, what is important to me, and how I approach things, and they’re okay with it, or maybe even eager.

Every opportunity is always considered and discussed on a case by case basis.

I recently wrapped up a sponsorship, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the product it involved was of personal interest, but it wouldn’t have easily fit within my purely editorial queue. Maybe I could have tested it a bit over the next 6 months, maybe I could have fit an interview to discuss the product with a manager sometime in August, and maybe you’d see hands-on discussion published by September if I came across a deal post. Getting a big chunk of my attention in a timely manner like it did would not have been possible without a sponsorship.

Some readers have been encouraging me to hire more team members. Aside from liking control and enjoying what I do, where would the money for contributors and maybe an editor to manage them come from?

Another upcoming sponsorship will support several posts and buying guides that have been in my queue for years.

Ask questions. Raise eyebrows. Voice your concerns.

To many large magazines, sponsored content always seems to be advertisements parading around as content. To me, yes it helps support ToolGuyd, but it also creates opportunities for me to explore interesting brands and tools.

If I had to simplify things, I’d say that I see sponsored campaigns as akin to grant money. There’s a general goal, such as “make a dessert with Brand L cocoa powder,” and all I have to do is serve you whatever I decide to bake. There might be some discussion on my end, such as the why behind this particular cocoa powder to help me understand what’s different about it, but that’s about it.

A lot of people believe sponsorships are just about a paycheck, and I once thought the same, but that’s not at all true for me or ToolGuyd.

I’m trying new things over the next couple of months, and I’m relying on you guys to tell me what you think. I am always open to suggestions, requests, and feedback.

In a couple of months, after we try some new things, I’ll be asking for your feedback as to what you liked and didn’t like. Remember, we’re in this together. ToolGuyd has become a big part of my life, and readers have always given my efforts meaning. All of the joy and satisfaction ToolGuyd gives me simply would not be possible without you.

I realize that asking you to trust me requires a lot of faith, but have you ever seen direct ads here on ToolGuyd for brands or retailers I couldn’t genuinely endorse? Have you ever felt that I was bombarding you with ads? Am I too pushy when it comes to affiliate links (sorry, some tools I can’t help gushing over)? I aim to treat sponsorship and partnership content with the discretion.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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