For the last week or so, I have been reading about the whole situation with Elle Darby – the influencer with over 80k followers on Instagram and 90k followers on YouTube who asked for a few nights’ stay at a Dublin hotel in exchange for a review on her social media channels. I won’t name the hotel because I am loathe to give them any more publicity but a quick Google search will catch you up on the news. In fact, most of the major news outlets have carried the story in one form or another and I’ve seen discussions about it across my own social media accounts including quite a few private Facebook blogger forums and Twitter.
Oh dear. I admit it’s not so much the reaction of the hotel that has floored me. The hotelier in question is clearly a bit of an arse: a wanna-be Katie Hopkins / Piers Morgan-type who enjoys stirring up controversy to his own advantage, basking in the media attention it provides. He’s admitted to wanting TV fame and he clearly quite enjoys being as ‘politically INcorrect’ as possible. I think his reaction was ridiculous – rather than a simple no, he decided to post Elle’s email on his Facebook account with her name not very well disguised – within minutes the witchhunt began. It was also clearly over-the-top: he’s publicly banned all bloggers from his establishment as well as sent Elle a multi-million Euro invoice for the publicity. But, given the type of person he is, well, then I’m not entirely surprised.
What did surprise me, however, was the reaction of the general public. Why the hell did I continue to read the comments on these articles? Perhaps I’m a masochist here, I don’t know but I couldn’t help myself.
As a result of this story going viral, over and over, I saw the same kind of vitriol about bloggers and influencers. That we are all freeloaders, that we have the audacity to ask for things for ‘free’ when good, hard-working people have to earn money to do the same. That it’s disgusting and tacky and that Millenials are all self-absorbed entitled narcissists who wouldn’t know how to earn a living if it bit them in the arse. Comment after comment after comment saying bloggers don’t do ‘real’ jobs. Who the hell do they think they are asking for free things?
I hesitated to write this post. I hesitated to even get involved in all the publicity surrounding this for fear of drawing some of that vitriol myself. But I really just wanted to set the record straight. I am a blogger but, surprise surprise, I am not a Millenial – in fact, I turn 45 this week. Having worked since I was 16 years old, I have decades of experience under my belt working for other people. I only started working full-time as a blogger for the last 3 years.
Previous to that I have worked in retail, in sales, in customer service. I was a Legal Secretary for a while, there were a few years when I was the head estimator for an architectural company and long ago, I ran a call centre. I’ve been a barmaid and a waitress, I’ve worked in sales, in marketing, I was a Product Manager, I’ve been a content creator, I’ve been an editor. I’ve done lots of different kinds of work in all sorts of different industries and sure, in comparison to other high-stress careers (doctor, firefighter, nurse, teacher, social worker), perhaps I had it easy at the time. But the sad truth is that all those various jobs that I did hold in years past seem to carry a lot more respect than what I do for a living now. The truth is, I work harder as a blogger than I’ve ever worked for anything in my life.
Is blogging even a “real job”? The fact is, the industry is relatively new. I’ve been blogging for nearly 8 years now and even 5 years ago, it was barely seen as any kind of career. There’s been a huge shift, there’s no doubt about that. PRs, brands and marketing executives understand the power now of “influence” (and yes, I cringe at that word but well, it is what it is). The whole idea that someone can start a career from their bedroom writing about something they love and turn it years later into a career – well, that’s baffling for a lot of people. I get it. I worked for years doing things I didn’t love because I knew that was just the way to get by. I didn’t have any hand-outs as a kid, I didn’t have any real connections. Hell, I didn’t even go to university in this country. My options would have always been limited. I had to work.
Starting my blog opened up a world of opportunities, yes. The fact that I enjoy what I do, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t work hard. I think that’s where the confusion is as well. So many of us (me included – for years) work jobs we don’t love because we have to. The idea that someone can make money from something they love to do – well, that hardly seems fair, does it? And god forbid the person in question is just a young girl. How dare she forge a successful career without actually deserving it when so many can’t or aren’t willing to put in the work to make it happen? (And just in case there is any confusion, yes, that is sarcasm.)
And yes, whatever ignorance may be out there – it’s work. It’s hard bloody work. And it’s never-ending. Here is a list of skills you need to be to be a successful blogger:
- A writer
- A researcher
- A photographer and photo editor
- A website designer
- A social media expert
- A marketer / PR exec
- An SEO expert
- An entertainer
And ya know what? Most of the people who juggle all of these well-respected-jobs-in-their-own-right learned these skills on the fly. They learned it because they had to because it was the only way they could make a success at what they were doing. They do all of these many jobs and learned to do them on their own time and on their own dime. Many of them are doing this now and still juggling a full-time job as well – so basically working two full-time jobs in tandem.
There are no paid holidays, no maternity leave, no sick pay. They may get a free hotel from time to time but I can guarantee it is not a holiday of fully unplugging and relaxing – not when you need to create content, take pictures, ask questions and take notes the entire time you’re there. Oh and share it all on social media as it happens too. And then when you get home, the work continues, pouring through photographs (sometimes in the hundreds), editing them, creating a post that others will enjoy reading, scheduling the post, creating emails for your subscribers, scheduling it on social media, creating Instagram posts and promoting it – the list goes on. And I can assure you that Santander do not accept hotel stays or a moisturiser or a free cushion as payment on the mortgage. So bloggers, while providing coverage for brands and maybe receiving the odd gift in return for that, need to also figure out how to earn money too.
Because I can guarantee you that this girl – with her thousands of followers across Instagram and YouTube which I promise you is no mean feat – is a hustler. I have absolutely no doubt about that because even if her niche is different from my own (she’s more a beauty/fitness blogger where I concentrate more on interiors with a bit of lifestyle and travel thrown in) getting that kind of following is HARD WORK. I worked for free for years and years. I still do it – I still create a load more content that’s unpaid than I do paid. It’s part of the job and I’m okay with that.
But you can’t simply drum up a large audience without putting the work in. Without creating content for free, without sacrificing so much time and energy because you have a dream and a passion. Anyone who runs their own business will know this. And yes, blogging as a freelancer is a business at the end of the day. Of course, it’s enjoyable and yes, there are perks to the job but nothing – I repeat NOTHING is free.
No one is providing free hotel stays or free clothing or beauty products or homeware for nothing in return. I spoke about it in this post but brands want something in return for that investment. They want to reach more people, they want their products to become well known. They want the influencer – who has a trusting audience who believes what they say because over months or even years, they’ve gotten to know the blogger/YouTuber/Instagrammer as a real person – to provide a service. And that exchange of product and service is a transaction. It’s no different from a journalist being asked to write about a stay in a hotel to sell papers (and no, the journalist doesn’t pay for their stays either yet no one is crying that the review will be biased) or a magazine where a beauty journalist is provided the latest makeup to review in an article (because they didn’t pay for the product either). It’s common practice in the industry and across PR and marketing. After all, the best way to market to an audience is to find out where your audience hangs out. And these days, a lot of that audience are reading blogs or on social media. It’s the way of the world now – many businesses know how this works as do influencers. It may not seem from an outsider’s perspective to be fair or right but it’s the norm.
At the end of the day, Elle was offering a service. She has spent years putting the work into her following and approached a hotel for a collaboration. Should she have done her research on who she was approaching? Yeah, probably. Was she pushing her luck asking for a multiple-day stay during a busy time to an unknown hotel? Possibly. Do I think she’s a bit naive? Yeah, probably. But my goodness, how many bad decisions did I make at 22 years old? PLENTY. And yet, I didn’t have to face the kind of backlash, hatred and death threats that this girl is going through right now.
What can we take away from all of this? I think more than ever, transparency and communication are key. As bloggers and brands are learning, these kinds of collaborations can indeed be incredibly successful but we also know that that usually means that the audience of the brand and the audience of the influencer align well. That means research needs to take place on both sides to ensure that the right influencer is found for the product they’ll be promoting. It has to not just feel authentic but be authentic. Approaching a hotel who is known to be controversial was a bad move on Elle’s part and she’s paid for that mistake dearly. But to tar every influencer and every blogger as a freeloader is utterly ridiculous.
And don’t get me wrong: of course, there are ‘bad eggs’ out there. There are those who buy followers. There are those who are dishonest with their readers. I don’t know enough about Elle to make that judgement (admittedly, I’d never heard of her before this media circus) but I doubt highly she’s done enough to deserve the kind of hatred that she’s received. She made a mistake and is paying a far higher price for that than she deserves. And sure, she’s got some new followers now as a result of all this but I’m not sure she’d tell you it was worth the cost.
I can only hope that in time, people come to see what influencers or bloggers or YouTubers or Instagrammers are more than just what they show on their pretty channels. I hope that someday people can show a little respect for someone who decided to forge their own way in this world and clearly had some success in doing so. I hope that in time, people will realise that just because something looks easy, doesn’t mean that it is.