Trade or Paid?
I had a positive meeting with a company’s PR rep at a conference a while back, and we emailed back and forth about working together on an influencer marketing campaign for months and months. When it came time to discuss rates for the work, she told me – SURPRISE! – they don’t actually have a budget to pay content creators but will offer two *free* nights in exchange for 6 Instagram posts, daily Instagram stories, a blog post with trackable link, an edited, hosted, 60-second video, unlimited licensing rights to 30 photos, pre-approval all content before it goes live, post-trip reporting and one year of exclusivity. (Meaning I couldn’t work with any other similar companies for a year.)
That’s at least a week or two of work on the platforms I pay for, using the tools and gear I pay for, and declining all other work with similar brands in exchange for… $350 worth of accommodations in a place I wouldn’t be going if not for the project.
If this wasn’t such a common ask, I would’ve cried. But it’s a daily occurrence in the inbox of a professional creator.
What’s the Difference between Advertorial and Editorial in Influencer Marketing?
So what is the difference between advertorial and editorial, paid and earned media, traditional PR and influencer marketing? And why does every publicist and marketer have a different definition and perspective?
What Do I Know About Influencer Marketing?
Before we get into the nitty gritty of advertorial vs. editorial, a bit about what qualifies me to write about this topic. I’m a professional content creator and this year marks my 15th as a blogger. In my past life I worked in consumer public relations at Ogilvy and Golin in Atlanta, and in travel public relations at Weber Shandwick in NYC. I’ve worked as a freelance journalist and TV talking head in both editorial and advertorial capacities. I’m about as deep into this world as you can get.
The concept of editorial integrity was the cornerstone of my PR degree program at University of Florida. Earned media was the bread and butter of traditional public relations back in the day when we made clip books and sent press releases via snail mail and b-roll packages to news stations on TAPE. (I cannot believe I am this old.) Advertising agencies and PR agencies were as separate as church and state.
I specialize in travel public relations, so that means I lead a ton of press trips in my heyday. Destinations never paid journalists to attend those trips, but they all made a living. Back then, all writers traveled on assignment. So while they frolicked with me and the famous swimming pigs in the Bahamas, they still earned their paycheck from Hearst or Condé Nast or whoever sent them on the trip.
All these years later, that model has changed drastically – but not all marketers have caught up.
More Influencer Marketing Content You Might Love:
- 11 Surprising Facts About Life as a Professional Blogger
- 13 Things Brands Want Bloggers to Know
- The 17 Essential Commandments of Influencer Marketing
When did Pay to Play become OK?
I’ve had this post in draft for over a year, but a recent article I read made me realize that there’s no time like the present to publish. The gist of the piece was an indignant columnist up in arms when he found out that a local tourism board was paying content creators to visit the destination and share it with their followers. He was livid that such shenanigans were taking place right under his nose and was confident he was exposing the dark underbelly of influencer behavior.
The response was pretty funny from those of us currently working in tourism. It’s not exactly a scandalous secret that tourism boards spend their budgets to promote the destinations they represent via influencer marketing. In fact, that’s legitimately how tourism boards have worked for years, in various formats that I’ll get into.
Back in the olden days of public relations, editorial pay to play was generally frowned upon. Back then, marketers had a finite number of editorial outlets to work with – mostly the big newspapers and magazines. There weren’t thousands of individual media outlets – blogs and social platforms – reaching billions of individual consumers.
The marketing landscape has changed, so it follows that PR and marketing teams must change, too.
In 2008 when I first began encouraging my clients to work with bloggers, it was a free-for-all. PRs invited bloggers on trips and to media events, but the deal was almost exclusively experience in exchange for editorial content. PRs had no idea how to measure the value of what bloggers provided and certainly didn’t have a long list of deliverables in exchange for an invitation. (At that point all we really had were personal Twitter and Facebook pages – this was pre-Instagram.)
From about 2010 to let’s say, 2014, everyone was winging it and muddling through and for a few years, that arrangement worked. Then, more social networks flooded the space and creators got really, really good at creating compelling content that converted to sales in a measurable way. Marketers discovered this whole new way to reach consumers that didn’t involve traditional advertising.
Fast forward to today. Content creator / influencer / blogger is a real job that pays real money to a select few. These professional influencers* create comprehensive, long lasting, long form, bookable, trackable marketing campaigns. This explains why, for the relatively small number of professional travel content creators out there, trips for us are a business proposition, and not a free weekend away.
*Not every single person who calls themselves an influencer or a content creator actually is one. It’s a tiny percentage of overall “influencers” who merit enough true influence to require significant payment for content, and it falls to the marketers to know the difference.
Navigating how bloggers/influencers/creators fit into a media strategy with clients who might not understand how drastically things have changed is not an easy task. I’ve tried successfully with some clients and had others who just couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of paying for content.
So I see you all. Change is hard and the struggle is real.
“The fact is that all boats get rocked eventually; the only question is whether that disruption comes from within, or if it is forced by outside circumstances and catches everyone off guard. Shutting down new ideas by taking the ‘it’s always been done this way,’ approach is the quickest path to obsolescence for leaders, teams and organizations,” said Robert Glazer, Founder & CEO Acceleration Partners in a recent newsletter.
“Even if you are running the best horse-and-buggy repair shop in the world, you don’t have a viable business today. The reality is that one of the few constants in life is change, and that fact requires for us to be adaptable.”
It’s the same with PR and marketing. What worked in 1995 or 2005 or even 2015 won’t work now. If used correctly, content creators are a viable tool in the marketing toolbox. It follows that such a valuable tool requires a line item in the marketing budget.
So, You’re Telling Me Everything is Pay to Play?
It’s true, a lot of what you see on social media is sponsored content. (If that gives you agita, I understand. But know that it doesn’t mean the creator’s opinion is purchased. Just the content.) Every creator has their own threshold and comfort level for how much branded stuff they post.
But there’s more. Wanna know the worst kept secret in media? It’s almost ALL pay to play.
The next time you read an “editorial” article in a big travel magazine, look for the accompanying paid advertisement nearby.
Pure editorial is about as real as organic growth on social media these days, which is to say, not real at all. Much editorial comes as a result of an ad buy. And anyone who tells you different either doesn’t know or is lying to protect the mirage of 100% editorial integrity in print. There, I said it.
Moral of the story? There is a budget to pay for content most of the time.
Remember the company I mentioned at the beginning of this story? They advertise in all the top travel publications. And they had enough budget to hire a PR agency to attend a blog conference and request a heap of work from content creators in exchange for a “free” hotel room.
If you dislike “pay for play,” you’re really gonna hate the ethics of asking business owners to “work for free.”
There’s plenty of marketing budget to go around – they just don’t want to spend it on influencer marketing and content creation. Instead, they spend it on splashy full page magazine ads that cost exponentially more and may or may not be as effective; they spend it on sending a PR agency to a conference to ask for free work; they spend it on branded mugs to give out at events. There’s a better way to budget, y’all!
And I don’t mean to harp on this, but it’s insulting to know that a brand thinks your content is great enough to email you and ask you to create for them, but not great enough to warrant payment.
Not a day goes by when I don’t get an email from a brand asking for weeks worth of work in exchange for a few nights at a hotel or a 60-minute bicycle tour. Don’t believe it?
- From Kristin Luna of Camels and Chocolate: “There’s a PR firm in Nashville who continues to invite content creators to ‘special PR events’ where your ‘Top Golf game and sampling will be complementary [sic] in exchange for posting photos on your blog/social media accounts, and sharing your experience with your followers.’ It’s laughable—that a $50 experience equates to the amount of work being asked of a veteran journalist—and these kind of asks are what give PR people a bad name.
- From Caroline Makepeace of YTravel Blog: “The most insulting exchange offered to us was from one of the biggest camera companies in the world. They invited us to attend a cruise where we would shoot photography for their latest campaign. The photos we’d take would be used on all their marketing materials for the campaign, including billboards and print. We’d get nothing in return except a cruise which we couldn’t enjoy as we’d be working the entire time.”
What’s the Difference Between a Press Trip and an Influencer Marketing Campaign?
As you can tell, what marketers are asking for does not always line up with their budget. There are so many terms thrown around – press trip, fam trip, influencer campaign, ambassadorship – and no mean understanding of what any of those actually are worth.
No wonder everyone is still confused. It usually takes me a handful of emails with marketer to discern if an invitation is editorial vs. advertorial, and that’s a waste of everyone’s time politely getting to the bottom of what should be a priority piece of information. Paid or trade?!
So how do we fix this? Let’s dig in.
Press Trip / Earned / Editorial / Traditional PR
A traditional editorial press trip is designed to give the media an experience they can cover as they see fit for their outlet. So, let’s say the Sokovia Tourism Board invites a travel writer from the Westview News Herald (yes, I’m watching WandaVision right now) on a press trip to promote the annual Avengers Peace Conference. They may cover travel expenses and provide experiences for the editor to write about, but the writer is paid by the newspaper – not the tourism board. There’s usually no contract in place for this type of agreement.
There’s an unspoken understanding that the newspaper will cover the event in some way, but the tourism board doesn’t have any input into what that coverage will be. There are no guaranteed deliverables whatsoever. In keeping with all principles of traditional journalism and PR editorial standards, the tourism board would not have the freedom to tell the newspaper how many Instagram posts to publish, how many words their story should be or how to word their headline in a favorable way.
Editorial means the creator / writer / editor / publication / TikTokker has all control of the content and the brand/DMO is providing access and nothing more.
Examples of Trade / Editorial Opportunities:
- A full-fledged DMO-sponsored group press trip
- 2-night visit to a client’s hotel
- Attending a media event
- A tour or experience, e.g. new gourmet food tour of your city, escape room, tickets to a sporting event
- Product seeding / gifting / unsolicited media mailers
Marketing Campaign / Paid / Advertorial / Influencer Marketing / Sponsored Content
The hallmark of a paid marketing campaign with a brand is more direct input and collaboration from the company. This almost always includes guaranteed deliverables, a specific number of Instagram posts, blog posts, licensed images, TikToks and YouTube videos, and can also include event attendance, public appearances, a period of exclusivity, etc. It likely will include firm deadlines, collaboration on messaging (notice I didn’t say control, because ewww. No.) and a contract to formalize the agreement and protect all parties.
Let’s use our Sokovia Tourism Board friends again and this time, a content creator named Wanda. Wanda has a popular travel blog called SuperheroNotSpy.com and a few hundred thousand followers across social media platforms.
Sokovia Tourism researches Wanda’s audience and past work and discovers that she’s a great fit for their current advertising efforts. They invite her to participate in a 7-day marketing campaign to promote the country. Deliverables include daily Instagram stories, 3 feed posts, 2 blog posts and one TikTok per day, in addition to 3 licensed images and a 30-day exclusivity clause that she won’t post about neighboring countries.
Travel, meals, accommodations and activities are obviously included (how else would Wanda experience Sokovia to be able to create compelling content?!) and does not count as part of the payment.
In the same way that business travel for a traditional corporate job is not considered a part of the job’s salary, travel required to gather the content as part of a marketing campaign is not a part of the payment. It’s a part of the job.
Ideally, Sokovia Tourism presents all this info in an introductory email along with the budget they have in mind. Wanda can accept or negotiate based on what she charges for this level of deliverables, and both sides will sign a contract so there are no surprises with deadlines, ownership of content, sharing specifics, exclusivity requirements, etc.
Examples of Paid / Advertorial Opportunities:
- A full-fledged group press trip with a contract for # of Instagram stories per day
- 2-night visit to your client’s hotel with guaranteed Instagram posts, blog content, video, etc.
- Attending a media event with specific content deliverables
- Licensed images or b-roll
- Product seeding / gifting in exchange for a branded TikTok video or product review on blog
It all makes sense to me but my inbox still overflows with confusing and frankly, cringe-y requests.
The crux of it all is that many marketers want the budget friendly benefits of an editorial press trip (a.k.a. they pay for travel but not for the content) but they also want all the guaranteed deliverables of a marketing campaign and they want to tell you when to publish it and where.
Who doesn’t want to have their cake and eat it, too?
Why Should Influencers Get Paid to Travel For Free?
Ten years ago, the motivation for travel blogging was different and the mechanisms for delivery were different. It was easier. It was cheaper.
Now, professional content creators not only want to travel to cool places, work, write and take photos, but we do all that and have the expertise to ensure our content actually makes it to consumers who want to see it, for years to come. There’s so much value in that for creators and for the DMOs that brands that hire them – in fact, that’s where the value is in influencer marketing. The number of followers should be wayyyy down on the list of priorities. (I know, I know. It’s shocking.)
And though there are still holdouts on the PR side who’d rather swallow a live grasshopper than “pay an influencer to travel,” the marketers who are evolving along with the media landscape are the ones finding new ways to drum up awareness of their clients’ destinations and products.
If you think about all the creator types / Instagrammers / TikTokkers you know, they likely have a variety of skills from writing to filming to editing to photography. And those skills are highly prized by brands and the publicists who represent them. That’s why our inboxes are filled with requests for work.
Is it rocket science? It’s not. But neither is plumbing or painting or public relations, for that matter. And frankly, marketers don’t need rocket scientists. They need content creators who know how to A. Tell an incredible story and B. Ensure their audience actually sees it.
If the skills are valuable enough to hire a PR agency to ask a creator to do them, they’re worth paying the creator for.
How Much Time Does It Actually Take To Do a Travel Influencer Marketing Campaign?
Longer than you think. Years ago, a creator could travel to a destination and write a blog post and share on Facebook and Twitter. Outside of actual travel time, you could expect to wrap up that level of content in 5-8 hours. Easy peasy, on to the next one.
That is not at all how it works now. Don’t just take my word for it though. I asked three professional creators who are far more successful than I am how long it takes to complete a travel marketing campaign.
- “I would estimate that for every day of the campaign, there is about a corresponding day negotiating for and preparing and planning the campaign, as well as a full corresponding day (at least!) completing the campaign — editing photos, fact-checking and writing content, and publishing, promoting, and reporting. So a one week campaign can be a minimum of three weeks of work.“ Alexandra Baackes, AlexInWanderland.com
- “It’s hard to put an exact number on it, because you’d have to track all the hours upfront—the client calls, the brainstorming, the proposal phase, the back-and-forth negotiation, the contracts, the invoicing on the back end—plus the amount of time actually in the destination, which for us focusing on domestic travel is usually four to six days. But the real work happens when we return: the hours spent doing follow-up research, fact-checking and any necessary phone interviews; the photo editing (we typically come home with a gallery of 5,000 images which must be culled to 100); the writing, of course; then the scheduling and blasting on social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) for weeks after the post goes live. The final step is the reporting of the campaign metrics months later. Taking all that into account, I’d conservatively say for us a campaign that does not include video and only spans one in-depth blog guide takes upward of 190 hours, which for a team of two journalists on a $7,500 campaign only averages out to $19.74 an hour per person. For perspective, I made $25 an hour at my first job out of college in 2006. So really, at a $7,500 price point, we are dramatically underpricing our time and cumulative 30 years’ of industry experience.” Kristin Luna, CamelsAndChocolate.com
- “Typically it takes several weeks of back and forth emails and phone calls for the planning stage – about 5 hours. Campaigns are of various lengths, usually at least 3 days to as much as two weeks. We work from sunrise to late evening taking photos, and video, and collecting ideas and thoughts for content. Then after the trip it would take at least two days just to craft one blog post, a day to edit photos, a week to edit videos, and a day to craft social media content. Then it would take several days to promote the content, engage with our community, and collect data for reports.” Caroline Makepeace, yTravelBlog.com
WHEW! Can you see why those 2-night hotel stays with a pile of deliverables are so unappetizing to the professional creator?!
How Much Does it Cost to Be a Travel Influencer?
What many marketers and really, anyone outside the industry might not understand, is that in addition to the time it takes to create quality content, maintaining real estate on a creator’s blog and social channels costs them actual money.
The industry does very well selling the idea that you can start a travel blog and “travel the world for free.” Except nothing’s free.
In 2006, my annual business budget was around $0. Now, it runs anywhere from $30,000-$60,000 per year. Because I run my websites as a business, there’s a for-profit model going on that’s no different in principle than any other publisher out there.
- A staff journalist or editor is paid by the magazine or newspaper employing them.
- A TV correspondent is paid by their network.
- A blogger/influencer may be paid by a mix of advertising, brand campaigns and a dozen other options.
On a media trip with journalists, bloggers and TikTokkers – journalists shouldn’t be the only ones making a living if indeed the content creators’ work is also of value to the destination / brand. And it must be if they were invited, right? The mechanism for payment may be different, but content is content.
I believe that everyone who considers themselves a professional creator – of words, video, paintings, digital media – deserves a paycheck the same way any other service provider does.
EXTRA CREDIT: Kristin wrote an in-depth piece about the cost of running a website that flies in the face of the idea that you can just jaunt around the world and get paid and it won’t cost a dime. Highly recommended!
When It’s Ok To Ask a Creator to Work for Free
Almost never. Seriously.
As with anything, there are exceptions. Sometimes there’s a trip or an experience that’s so valuable, we can swing it as an editorial opportunity. Example: a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica or like, the Moon.
But a one-night stay at a chain airport hotel is not it, Scooter.
Alex said, “I really struggle with the offer of one-night hotel stays. It is absolutely impossible for me to capture the amount of content necessary to share a hotel experience with my audience while also authentically experiencing it in any way to story tell. It’s difficult to do so even when being paid for my time — to do so as a “perk” is actually a net negative for me.”
Per Caroline, “The only time I except trade projects is if I can leverage it into some other income. I may be able to visit a destination for trade only, if I have a sponsor by way of a brand, for example, Allianz Travel who we are ambassadors for. Or if it’s an high-value experience I really want and would do anyway, and I know it would resonate with my community and bring me long term value by way of passive or advertising revenue then I would do it that way. But, if I can’t leverage any opportunity for future growth or income, it’s a no. I don’t need a free trip.“
Kristin added, “Journalists and content creators alike are being forced to sign contracts that ensure coverage, which does not in fact fall under the editorial umbrella. The blurring of lines by PR agencies had me giving up that style of travel years ago. I work with a lot of great DMOs and marketing firms where we come to their city to explore on our own terms and write about the destination with the very clear understanding that it is a paid campaign where we also have editorial liberty. This is what separates the pros (both content creators and PRs) from the green ones.
We have a collection of excellent CVB and DMO clients who get this, and these are the ones we will continue to work with vs. the ones who expect our hard work to come for free. In other words, no trade is worth it for me, unless you’re going to outfit my kitchen with $20,000 in high-end appliances, in which case, Viking or Wolf, call me ;-).”
Every creator has their own limits and desires, so this is a wildly varying spectrum. Some experiences are more valuable to family travel bloggers than they might be to me, and thus a family of 4 might be more willing/able to do a trade trip than me on my own.
THE POINT: High value experiences obviously are more likely to warrant a trade, but they still don’t guarantee deliverables.
Editorial trips can be a wonderful way to get story ideas — when presented as editorial trips and not saddled with a heap of actual advertorial requirements. Pre-pandemic we would go on 1-2 editorial trips a year if we had time. But it’s always to an amazing destination we wanted to visit anyhow and there are NEVER guaranteed deliverables.
Also note, if the creator contacts you about working in exchange for product or perhaps travel to somewhere they’re already going, then it’s perfectly acceptable to work on a trade basis. Generally if I’m asking for a couple nights at a hotel, I’ll let the property know what I can create for them in exchange. But if they reach out to me with a laundry list of tasks… well, you know.
What Do Influencers Make for Content Campaigns?
It all depends on the creator’s experience, reach and the deliverables, deadline and exclusivity. For us, campaigns range between $2,500 to $25,000. I have friends who make $50,000+ per campaign. We are not talking about small potatoes here, so it’s unfathomable that some brands are still asking professionals for that level of expertise and content in exchange for a couple hundred bucks of product or hotel nights.
So what counts as payment for a content campaign?
What about resort credits at our hotel?
No, thank you.
How about swag?
No, thank you. Swag is fun, but hairspray, lip balm, sunscreen, a hat, a water bottle do not pay for website hosting fees, advertising, computers, camera gear, computers, conferences. The many expenses that go into running a successful publication.
How about a discount code for your readers?
No, thank you.
What about free hotel nights and meal vouchers?
No, thank you. Anything the person needs to experience to create the content on behalf of your destination – travel, flights, activities, hotel – is not part of the payment.
What about free concert tickets?
Gray area. If the concert tickets are front row, hard to get and include a meet-and-greet with Taylor Swift or Britney Spears, then we can talk.
How about exposure? We’ll share your Instagram with our followers!
Instant spam folder. Don’t you know exposure kills?
How Do Publicists Know Which Influencers to Pay?
Since there’s no barrier to entry and no degree to earn, marketers will never struggle to find “bloggers” and “influencers” who will create content for free. If it’s just about checking off the “Work with Bloggers” line item on the annual marketing plan, then mission accomplished.
But does their content convert to sales? Do they have a track record of expertise and an audience that listens to their recommendations?
Will their followers book a $1,000/night hotel based on their recommendation, or are they more interested in buying the cute hat the influencer is wearing while at the luxury hotel? Nothing wrong with either business model so not throwing shade here. The trouble is when marketers aren’t aware there’s a difference.
Remember RACE? Research, Action, Communication & Evaluation. The backbone of any PR Campaigns class.
As marketers we are always in crunch time and everything’s an emergency. To save time, we skip the research and goal setting phase as marketers and go straight to “working with bloggers.”
That’s a fundamentally flawed approach, but the majority of publicists reaching out to us are skipping ahead and doing just that. When the boss says, “Hey, let’s work with influencers,” we go straight to Action instead of researching not only which influencers to work with, but also WHY we want to work with them. This is why when I hire creators for campaigns I’m looking right past the large Instagram following for someone who can connect storytelling and SEO in a seamless way.
If publicists and marketers don’t start with goals in mind — because that’s the only way to engineer a successful blogger visit — they will not find value in influencer marketing.
Just because influencer marketing is the newest tool in the toolbox doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply the standard PR thought process to it. Your research will bring your needs to the surface and your specific needs will illuminate whether your trips should be editorial or advertorial, group or individual, video or Instagram, etc. Research can be the difference between a successful campaign or a failure, so don’t skip it.
I think I’ve ranted long enough for this particular post, so I’ll call it a night and go back to my paint-by-numbers and WandaVision. Would love to continue the conversation in the comments, so feel free to drop me a line with your thoughts.
- For creators, what’s the most insulting or cringe-y request a brand has ever asked from you? What experience or trip would be worth a trade for you?
- For marketers, why do you think there’s such a disconnect from agency to agency about content campaigns and paid vs. trade? Do you find your clients more or less willing to allocate budget for influencer marketing this year than in years past?