Travel bloggers and freebies

I read a lot of travel blogs. There are roughly 60 in my blog reader right now, and I visit others via links from various social networks. However, I myself am not a professional travel blogger. My wife and I travel for our own enjoyment, at our own expense, and sometimes I write about it.

I tried allowing advertisements on Pilgrimito for a while earlier this year. After seeing a number of less-than-desirable advertisements show up next to my words, I decided it wasn’t worth it to me. Occasionally I also create affiliate links for specific products I mention in posts. If you end up buying a product from the vendor, I get a small cut.

So if it sounds like I’m trying to fault travel bloggers for wanting to earn some money from their sites, I’m not. If I were, I’d be the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.

Recently, though, I’ve been noticing a proliferation of travel blog posts that are outright bought and paid for by vendors. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that either, assuming the reader understands the nature of the transaction.

What does bother me is the shameful extent to which bloggers are eager to deny there was a transaction, even going so far as to disclaim their own disclosures.

Last week, I read a travel blog post casting a positive light on a hostel. I won’t say where. It was more than a mere description. It was a glowing review.

As the review went on, the blogger revealed running into several other travel bloggers who were staying in the same hostel at the same time. Quelle coïncidence! By this point it was obvious what I was reading was effectively sponsored by the hostel’s management, but I continued on.

Then, some 1,000 words into the post, I got the disclosure dropped on me. It read something like this:

Disclosure: I received two nights of accommodation from ABC Hostel. However, my acceptance of complimentary products and services has no influence over the content of this blog.

The first sentence in the disclosure is a statement of fact. The second sentence is, most likely, an outright lie.

In order for us to accept the idea that the complimentary services had no impact on the blogger’s content, we must believe the blogger would still have spent two nights at this hostel, spending his own money, and writing the same glowing review, if he had not received the free nights. That seems unlikely.

We must also believe the blogger hadn’t solicited any other hostel for the same two nights or, if the blogger had instead been offered two free nights at a different hostel, he would still have chosen not to write about it. That too seems unlikely.

As if the reader hasn’t been sufficiently insulted by this type of disclosure, a few bloggers have the nerve to tack on a brief rant about journalistic integrity. When I see that, I attribute it to some form of delusion.

By the way, it’s well known most people don’t read more than a few hundred words of a typical blog post. Burying a disclosure deep in a long blog post and adding a lot of photos is how professional bloggers ensure most readers won’t read it.

Since I do read a lot of travel blogs — and I read many posts all the way to the end — I’d like to offer two unsolicited suggestions to any professional travel blogger who happens to stumble upon this post.

  1. Move the disclosure closer to the top of the post, making it perhaps the first paragraph after the jump, or no later than the third paragraph. I don’t want to be 1,000 words into a blog post when I find out I’m the product being sold.
  2. Embrace the gift you’ve received rather than trying to make excuses for it. The honesty would be refreshing. If you describe the transaction in detail, I might even walk away from the post with a renewed appreciation for your entrepreneurship.

If it were me, I’d try something like this:

Being an influential travel blogger, I asked the management of ABC Hostel for a two-night complimentary stay, which they graciously offered. In return, they asked me to share my impressions of the stay with my readers. I’m pleased to say all were positive.

Seeing this kind of disclosure as the second paragraph of a post about a hostel stay — or any other complimentary product or service — would be a breath of fresh air. It would demonstrate a degree of humility on the part of the blogger while letting the reader know exactly how the post was paid for.

Disclosure: I once accepted a free burrito from Chipotle after complaining about slow service on Foursquare.

14 comments.

  1. First off, I love your Chipotle disclosure. I agree with you – honest, up front disclosures are refreshing and actually build more trust with readers. I’m not a superstar travel blogger (yet! haha) but if I’m ever accepting free stays/activities/food/etc for a blog post, I’ll ensure I keep your tips in mind.

  2. If I reach one superstar travel blogger, my work here is done.

  3. Great post on a difficult subject. For the moment my blog is free for advertisement and sponsored posts, but for the ones who make a living of travel blogging there certainly must be money or freebies in it to survive. It`s not easy to though to find the perfect balance. I love your points of being open about the process and informing the reader what this review is all about!

  4. Very interesting article. The blog post I read just prior to yours was actually some sort of paid guest post. I found it very strange. It read like a tourism ad for a certain town, did not sound like the blogger’s voice, and did not disclose the writer (at least that I noticed). I always appreciate when bloggers say up front “I did not write this post but posts like this help me to continue blogging. Thank you for your understanding.” or something to that effect.

    In short, I agree with everything you said. That tiny disclosure at the bottom isn’t enough.

  5. Curt, I don’t think you should cut yourself short on being a professional travel blogger, we come in all types, size, shapes (you get the idea!) I never thought as myself as a professional blogger until the last conference I went to, and I discovered I was just as “professional” as the next person. About ads: I don’t agree with ad’s in general, I since I use an Ad Blocker on my browser, I am not even aware that people do have ad’s.

    About disclaimers: Most people I know, who go on press trips or pitch and receive free stays/meals/tours, write their personal opinions and not what they think they should do because it’s free. I was recently advised to put on the bottom of my blogs where I list other companies “all contents of the blog are my own” as not to confuse readers that it might be paid for by the PR company or Travel company that sponsored the event. And a lot of people do stress, give the advise of, reaching out to places you would stay when you travel somewhere, not somewhere you wouldn’t normally stay. I like to add interesting links to my blogs and I do that if I was sponsored or not. So I want people to know these thoughts are my own, but I don’t see why I should make a big deal out of it and add it to the second paragraph, I think that is as tacky as ad’s and unless it has something to do with the specific blog, should remain a disclaimer at the bottom.

    Good thoughts though, I enjoy your blogs!

  6. I state if my stay was complimentary in the first paragraph of my hotel reviews, so that the reader can factor that into their assessment of my review. I do write good and bad things about the hotels at which I stay, whether these stays are complimentary or paid for; fluffy advertorials are of no use to readers.

  7. Honesty is key. I know I appreciate it as a reader. Thanks for your comment!

  8. I think what you described is a similar but slightly different phenomenon. I’ve received a few requests to put paid, pre-written posts on my blog. I’ve always ignored them, since this is a one-man blog, and it won’t work with multiple voices. If paid posts put food on the plate for some bloggers, so be it. Still, just like with the freebies, an honest, up-front disclosure like the one you suggest is invaluable.

  9. Thanks for your kind compliment! I don’t see a lot of blog posts that come off as completely dishonest, and I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression above. For example, in the post I read last week — the one that prompted me to sit down and write this post — I didn’t get the feeling the blogger was trying to put a spin on a dumpy hostel. However, an earlier disclosure would have let me know, if nothing else, this wasn’t some place the blogger stumbled upon by chance. More frustrating, though, was the fact that the blogger almost begrudgingly disclosed the free stay, then, in just a few words, seemingly disowned the disclosure. If you take the freebie, own it! Heck, be proud of it!

  10. Hey, that’s all the readers can ask for. Thanks for your honesty and for your comment here!

  11. I disagree that accepting a free night at a hotel means that a positive review is therefore a lie. That’s not fair to the blogger. I’ve written negative things about places that have hosted me and Ive written positive things about places that have hosted me. I write the truth regardless of who pays.

  12. Thanks for your comment, Matt. I think you may have misinterpreted what I wrote. What I said was that certain bloggers aren’t being completely honest when they receive a free stay, then write a post — good or bad — reviewing it, then write a disclosure of what they received, then back off that disclosure with something about how receiving the stay had no influence on the blog’s content. Even a bad review couldn’t have been written if the blogger hadn’t stayed there. So why did the blogger stay there? If the stay was free, we have to assume that’s why. And like I said, I don’t have a problem with that, when the blogger makes it clear. However, as a reader, I’m insulted by the disclosure-denials that have been popping up on certain blogs. I’m sure you’ve seen them.

    For what it’s worth, Matt, you’ve always been up-front with your disclosures.

  13. It is just a matter of time till the FTC comes after us as they did the Mommy Bloggers a few years ago. But since so many bloggers are doing travel I don’t think a big enough target exists yet.

  14. FTC enforcement should be a concern for U.S.-based travel bloggers, regardless of their size, if they decide not to disclose at all. Maybe I’m being naive, but I’d like to think that isn’t happening often.