One of the things I hear most often from people stepping into the world of sponsored content is that they find it awkward. We worry our readers resent it, that it sounds false and salesy, that nobody will stop to read what we have to say.

And honestly? A lot of the time that’s true.

Great sponsored content and weak sponsored content are miles apart, and often when we feel uncomfortable with what we’re putting out there it’s because we know, deep down, that it isn’t quite hitting the mark. The good news is, that feeling can be our guide, and help us find our way to crafting content that works for us as well as our readership.

Here are my favourite ways to keep your sponsored feeling content organic, honest and valuable – to you and your readership.

Ten ways to make your sponsored blogging content feel less awkward

1. Post about other things. If you only ever blog when you’re paid to do so, nobody is going to read your blog. It’s like having a magazine that is 100% adverts, or a TV channel that only shows commercials.
Personally I think a good ratio is around 8:1 – so, 80% non-sponsored content to every sponsored post. That means if you’re taking a lot of sponsored content and your ratio is wrong, you might need to be writing more of your own posts to maintain your integrity and level of income. All of this work – the maintenance, the posts in between, the stuff that brings people to your site – should be part of your costing when you quote for any sponsored work. They’re paying for a post on an active, valued and dynamic platform, and the time it takes to build and maintain that.

2. Provide take-away value. A really great blog post has some value the reader can take away with them – be that something practical like a recipe, or something more emotional, like feeling uplifted or inspired. It can even just be learning something new! What it can’t be, however, is just learning about a sponsored product – because, except in very specific occasional circumstances, that’s not why they follow and love your posts.
Brainstorm ways to include extra value in your sponsored posts, so that even someone who the product was totally inappropriate for would find the post useful and illuminating. A free download, a playlist, a recipe, a link. You’ll feel much better about the post, and your audience will continue to read whatever you write.

3. Tell the truth. I don’t know where this idea came from that bloggers need to write effusive, glowing reviews of everything ever in order to be successful. It is simply untrue! Never sign a contract that asks you to state anything other than your honest opinions, and fight back if a brand tries to request unreasonable changes to your work.
It is not your job to sell people a product they do not want. I’ll say that again, because I know it can feel quite radical: your job is not to persuade your readers to buy the product you’re posting about. It’s simply to share the product and its message, and let them make their own minds up. Blogger outreach and influencer work is all about exposure and kudos – the company wants the kudos of your personal brand and all that’s associated with it, and they want wider exposure to your audience. If they’ve done their design and branding right, it’ll already be covetable or useful to their target customer. Your job is just to let those people know that it exists.

4. Write a post you would have written anyway. Linked closely to number 2, approach sponsored posts as posts you would write anyway, for yourself and for your readers. So, if you wouldn’t have written about that second hand clothing sales app, think of something close that you would have covered, and weave the app back in. So for me that might be decluttering my wardrobe, ways to let go of old clothes, things I did when I was broke and really needed an extra income. The result is a post with more authenticity, more value and more you.

5. Take photos you would have taken anyway. Likewise, with photography, whether for your blog or your instagram, don’t be seduced into taking photographs like you’d see on a billboard or magazine ad. This isn’t a catalogue shoot and you’re not a product photographer – so take the photographs that you usually take, and let the product be a part of that. Sometimes brands will request that labels or branding are clearly visible, but that doesn’t mean it has to be front and centre at the expense of realism. If it’s a blog post, you can share photos that don’t show the item, too. Let the product be a smaller part of the bigger whole – share the story, not the thing.

6. Remember your core values. When considering if a brand collaboration is the right fit for you, check how it aligns with your core values, and those of your readership. This should go without saying, I know, but when a potential paycheque lands in our inbox in a tricky month, it can be easy to get blown off course. The content that feels really gross is that which we know, deep down, isn’t the right fit for us – and our readers will know that, too.

If you’ve accepted a commission and it feels like a bad fit, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that up front. “As you all know, I’m pretty skeptical about alternative remedies, so this was a chance to put my cynicism to the test…” is far more honest and interesting than a sudden about-turn where you pretend to be someone you’re not.

7. Disclose openly and without awkwardness. UK law requires that sponsored content is disclosed clearly and openly, before the client clicks through to the content itself. So, on YouTube, you’ll see sponsorship disclosed in the title of the video. On Instagram, there’ll soon be a banner above sponsored posts to cue people in. And on your blog, you really ought to be including the word ‘sponsored’ or ‘ad’ in the title of your post, if possible.

Many of us flinch a little at the thought, assuming people wont read our posts if they know before clicking it’s a sponsored post. But of course, that’s precisely the point – and truly, do we want to trick our readers into wasting their time on something that isn’t for them? I always add a note at the bottom of my posts too, explaining I was paid and disclosing any products I received for review as well. My philosophy here is – if a post deserves to be read, it will be, whether it’s sponsored or not. The more great sponsored content you write, the more people will come to know it’s worth reading.

8. Actually use the product. It always, always shows when a blogger has only used something for 5 seconds before writing the post. Make sure there’s enough lead time between receiving the product and hitting publish (and if there isn’t, ask for an extension!), so that you have a chance to thoroughly road test it. Then, make sure that experience comes across in your copy – ‘I find the app sometimes freezes and you have to restart it’, or ‘my friend’s three year old dropped it and it was still completely fine!’. This stuff is always missing from posts where someone has just said yes and flung a post together, so use it to your advantage to stand out and do a better job.

9. Tell a story. If you’re lost for where to go with the post, start by telling a story. Does the product remind you of a funny thing that happened, of your childhood, of a time when something went wrong? Is there an anecdote you can tell people about? Really great sponsored content isn’t about a product – it’s about something funny or interesting or relatable, and the product is just a part of that whole.

10. Learn from your mistakes. You will say yes to things that prove harder or less comfortable than you thought. You’ll work with companies that make you want to bang your head against a wall. You’ll post about products that not everyone agrees with, and get some passionate responses. These things are all fine, and part and parcel of navigating a new and evolving industry. No mistake or misstep is wasted as long as you’re learning from them, and making better choices for yourself and your blog in future. Stay honest, stay authentic, stay you, and there’s nothing you can’t work out how to write.

What are your do’s and don’ts when it comes to sponsored content? What makes it enjoyable for you, and what turns you off as a reader? Who do you follow who always gets it right? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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