Study: Free Stuff Won’t Convince Bloggers To Write About Your Startup

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Once upon a time a startup sent me a full gasoline can full of coffee beans. These beans, once infused by the malodorous fumes of the plastic container, were useless. The can, which was fairly small, was never used and eventually recycled. In the end, a PR company probably charged a startup $10,000 to send me and about 200 other bloggers trash. The pitch was memorable in itself but I cannot tell you who sent these beans nor did I ever write about the startup.

And thus we learn that no, free stuff doesn’t sway bloggers. This has been proven, in fact, by Marcia DiStaso, associate professor of public relations at Penn State. She studied about 200 bloggers and video reviewers, asking them basic questions about review behavior.

After the announcement of FTC rules that said bloggers had to reveal compensation they received from companies for reviews, DiStaso asked a number of bloggers about how they reacted to PR people offering free product or even cash for a review. What she discovered is that bloggers would rarely if ever offer a positive review for free product and that the PR/blogger relationship actually “empowered” the blogger to be more critical. Many of the bloggers studied ran tech blogs, a space that is rife with free product giveaways (Side note: all of the bloggers, to a (wo)man I have ever worked with or met refused freebies outright and return all product. Some try not to even take food at events.)

“Of course, bloggers might receive a new iPhone, or whatever latest tool or product that’s out there, and that’s why they are writing about it,” said DiStaso. “Technology is the most common area where this happens.”

But the bloggers surveyed agreed that “writing positive reviews for bad products would hurt their credibility with their followers and that might hurt their readership” and that ethical PR companies “would not enter into that type of agreement.”

I’ve been blogging for 15 years and I’ve reviewed products regularly. I have a basement full of boxes for gear ready to go back and the simple thought of having another gadget enter my home is exhausting. Therefore I’m with DiStaso: if you’re a blogger who’s in it for the free junk then you’re probably not going to do very well. If you’re fair with companies, open with PR companies, and level-headed with reviews then you’re going to have a long and happy life. The take-home for startups, however, is that they should stop sending swag like gas cans full of coffee beans. Don’t send trash.