Do you have a blog or Instagram account that includes ads, gift and sponsored posts? For example, did the owner of a sewing or fashion business give you something for marketing purposes? In my sustainability writing I’m forever talking about transparency and greenwashing, and after seeing some chat online I was thinking this also links to the way we do sewing business marketing on social media.
What’s the problem with ads?
There is a lot of “gifted” stuff going around with almost always positive reviews. But the amount of sponsored / gifted posts and ads is only a problem if it annoys you personally. However, I suspect there is often an accuracy problem in the language being used. Gifted usually implies an ad (more on that later) – and knowing if something is an ad might affect how you view a brand or the person posting the ad.
Can we really be unbiased if we did not pay for items?
Instagram captions or blog posts of gifted/sponsored items can feel rather disingenuous, if the language is always positive. Knowing something is an ad might lead you to subconsciously (or consciously) thinking – is the person really unbiased? Do I really trust this? I’ve often written “all views are my own … “ but is this really possible if I’ve been given the item and didn’t pay for it? Even if I’m conscious of it there might be some kind of subconscious bias going on.
Part of this might be due to the party that has given the item. There are a LOT of solo and small sewing businesses that rely on Instagram land for traffic, and if you’ve been given something you probably feel bad about giving bad press. Better to say nothing at all right? Someone asked me recently if I’d ever seen a negative review of a gifted/sponsored item and my answer was … actually, no (but maybe I’m not spending enough time on social media or reading captions closely enough).
There are rules around social media advertising
Given the rise of social media advertising in recent years, the relevant bodies in each country make rules for bloggers and instagrammers. These relate to different ways that you should be labelling your posts (depending on what you’ve agreed to do and how much the brand can influence what you post). Here are some useful links:
- UK: Read the blog post by Alex (Sewrendipity) – she went as far as to email the Competition and Markets Authority specifically about sewing and what to write
- US: see the FTC page here (scroll halfway down the page for examples of specific situations which can apply to sewing)
- Netherlands: The Dutch Advertising Code (in English) specifies what to do with social media – see page 61. Spoiler: they want you to use hashtags.
Terminology and language
From my reading of the UK, US and Dutch rules, what they do have in common is that you have to disclose when items have been given to you for promotional purposes.
The most common terms I see being used on Instagram (and I’ve used them myself) are terms like “gifted” or “for free in exchange for a post” or “gifted for review”. But…
A gift does not require you to give anything back.
So unless you’ve been given something with no expectation to talk about it unless you want to, then it’s not really a gift … is it?
Thanks to Jay Jay @thecamdenstitch for highlighting this to me in an earlier conversation.
Now I’ve thought about that I’m going to stop using the word “gifted” on my posts. A friend giving me a fabric gift is different from a sewing business giving me fabric or patterns and wanting me to post about it – what I’m receiving from a sewing business is not a present.
“Gifted” is a term that sounds nicer than “ad”
Similarly, “ambassador” sounds better than “promotor” or “representative”. I wonder if the term “gifted” makes us feel validated in some way. I guess it depends on your definition of success as an influencer. For the ones that make an actual living from being an influencer, I would imagine that it largely relates to the ability to make money from your blogging or socials. From my limited understanding of the influencer sphere, the relationship between influencers and brands is not yet seamless, and there is room for improvement on both sides.
Brand/blogger relationships need to be shaped to be valued and viewed as a positive opportunity to grow your business, instead of being seen as a necessary evil.Be More Hive, a London based brand consulting agency
Psychology of social media ads
What do you think of social media ads? A quick survey of my sewing buddies ranged from not caring, to glossing over them, liking the picture, ignoring the picture, to downright annoyance.
Then I came across some (obviously non sewing) academic research from The International Journal of Advertising. This paper looked at consumer reaction of IG sponsored posts on snack bars and how it differed depending on disclosures and wording (e.g. positive view / balanced view / clearly stated that it was an ad etc). Of course there were limitations, e.g. the participant population was small (c400). But there were some interesting high level outcomes:
- If it was clearly stated that a post was an ad and people recognised it was an ad, people switched off from the brand and it negatively impacted the credibility of the influencer.
- If the caption stated that the post was not an ad, consumers generally had a more positive reaction.
To advertise or not to advertise?
That almost suggests that it’s not good for anyone to be doing any advertising. But I and others I know have definitely bought things or at least increased brand awareness by seeing people advertise things on socials. Now that my own IG is at around 8.7k and day job is freelancing for pattern brands (rather than banking), it is sometimes nice to be able to sew with fabric and patterns I like and don’t always have to buy myself … because I do a lot of sewing!
Also, if you like the products that are being offered to you, you have control over what to make and when to make it, and it was something on your wish list anyway, then why not? Here’s one of my ads (I’ve recently updated the terminology).
What to write if you do advertise?
As well as following the Dutch guidelines and stating when things are ads, I think in future I’m also going to give context for the reason for the post. Something along these lines:
- “Pattern/fabric was provided in exchange for a blog/Instagram post/review”
- “Pattern/fabric was provided for review with no obligation to post”
- “This was made as a design test using a rough draft of a pattern as part of the pattern development process.”
- “Item X was made during a sewalong as part of my work for @fibremood”
Pattern testing is not the kind of work I do for free, but if I do see others post it online I’d love to see a delineation between pattern testing vs promotion. If it’s promotion, just say it’s an ad! Also I think it’s important in general to be balanced in the caption or post or keep it factual (e.g. modifications I made). Chances are, there are things you liked and things you didn’t like in a project.
And whilst I don’t know of anyone in sewing who is as big as Michael Jordan advertising Nike (am I showing my age here?) I reckon many of us have friends and/or followers that are genuinely interested in our opinions on something. So why wouldn’t you want to be as transparent as possible?
Finally, I haven’t worked out what to say if I made something using a pattern/fabric that was provided to me, and then I decide to post the garment again later (no request from the brand). Is this a case of once an ad, always an ad? Or is it only the first time when I’m actually obliged to post? If you have any ideas on this please let me know!
Till next time (I’m off to edit some of my old posts now and mark them as ads….)
I am always leery when I see the phrase “all views are my own.” Maybe it’s my cynical nature, but I think if you accept something free, and want to keep getting free items, you will write a positive post. In general I find very few truly honest posts, from ambassadors to pattern testers. Getting more cynical as I get older.
Hi Ellen, thank your for your comment and you are right on the positive posting and the inherent bias – this was what sparked me to write this post! I think the best you can do for your followers and readers is be neutral, highlight the goods and the bads and be authentic as you can – and state your bias. Though obviously the companies providing the items would obviously prefer the enthusiastic positivity!
And I forgot to mention the pattern testing. In my opinion, pattern testing is entirely different from pattern promotion. Will update my post to mention this. Also, I don’t do pattern testing because I don’t do that kind of work for free. I understand why some want to and why it’s useful for the pattern brand – but it does skilled people no favours in what is already a challenging industry to try and make a living.
Thank you for this thoughtful post. I am not an influencer, just a small time insta user. I tend to take posts referring to gifted items with the same grain of salt I take for those outright ads. I like instagram and blogs for sharing information about sewing and other crafts. The “gifted” posts are still reasonable for this in terms of seeing styles in particular fabrics and on bodies like mine, however it is rare if ever that I buy the fabric or even from the related business as a result of seeing the post (usually too expensive anyway when you include postage!). I might buy a pdf pattern (lower outlay) but only after looking closely and with eyes wide open. There is a particular newish indie pattern brand that seems to virtually swamp the insta universe each time their new magazine comes out – I find this quite annoying as the hundreds of posts for that day or two feel really disingenuous and can actually make me feel a bit excluded – like all the cool girls get it for free, why should I pay? It also makes me question any review I see on their patterns as nearly everyone got it for free so why would they post a negative review and then perhaps get blacklisted for the next free distribution? Gosh, sounding very cynical aren’t I? This is all part of the general underlying issue with social media, and I know I can simply not engage if I like… 🙂
Hi Jo, thank you for your comment. I left my IG free of ads for a long time, but seeing as you read my post you know my stance on that. I go to IG for inspiration and to see what my friends are making and if a pattern they made up might interest me. Or I search pattern hashtags to see how a pattern looks on different bodies etc. Fabric – I don’t buy from seeing IG posts (ad or no ad), especially distinctive prints. Then it feels a bit too “samey” for me, one of the reasons to sew is to be unique! But I guess what the post does do – and the endless tagging for that matter even on non-ad posts which is pretty standard for sewing – is give brand awareness. I do wish there were as many good pattern brands with styles I like as there is RTW …
Fantastic post, Kate!!! Such important and modern day issues for us to ponder. I’ll have to say I care much much more about the work and skill of the sewist, using gifted products or not, in creating unique garments in their own style. That is why I follow them in the first place. If I like the pattern or fabric company I am probably already following them too, so wouldn’t be needing the ad to know about the new products. If I discover nice fabrics or patterns through an ad then it benefits me as well and why would I be mad about it. Actually sponsored or not, I don’t read captions of sewing posts too closely, no matter what the reviewer say…my experience with any product will always be different and relative to my own skillset/preferences/needs. Though I may skip the caption a bit more (about the product itself) if it’s an ad, just because I’m usually not one to be influenced by bias anyway so there’s even less reason to read on, unless I’m interested in purchasing said product. I’m usually on instagram for the pictures and inspiration only, not actively looking for things to buy. Oh, long ramble about my views…what are your own experiences?
Hi Sil, the feedback I’ve been seeing on my IG today about this is that ads turn people off, and they stop reading the caption. Which begs the question – does social media marketing actually work? It must do on some level otherwise companies and brands wouldn’t do it. Is it just the people who are commenting (a very small subset of the whole market) that have a strong opinion on this, which is usually in the negative direction? I don’t mind seeing ads myself. But by now my absorption level is more brand awareness rather than immediately wanting to rush out and buy a certain thing. Last week I bought a coat pattern after I remembered seeing it 2 years ago when it was released. That’s how long it takes me LOL
i agree with ellen above, those ‘all opinions are my own’ always gets me, mostly because those opinions are always positive (even when person writing them is usually more opinionated when they write about something they payed for).. i actually got offered few of those ambassador offers, back in a day when i was more active on my blog.. yes, free stuff is nice and all, but it was always expected of me to make a blog post in return (and with a deadline), and i always said no to those offers.. probably only sewing gal saying no to free fabric, but what can i say, i love my remnant box finds more 🙂
that being said, i don’t mind different kind of collaboration.. i make clothes and have an actual brick and mortar shop in downtown belgrade, so i often team up with one or more of my friends that also make stuff, be it clothes, accessories, shoes, and we do photoshoots together.. i don’t have problem with that kind of marketing, probably because nothing is gifted or sponsored, it’s just a styling exercise (but yes, i realize it’s also an ad)
Nah, you aren’t the only saying no to free stuff. Because the value of the “free” stuff is pretty low compared to the time and energy you need to put in to make a post. Fabric isn’t RTW that you can just photoshoot immediately and be done with it. Though I would bet there are more fashion bloggers being paid for their work than sewing bloggers … Anyway, because of that, I only agree to make things if I really like it and/or it was part of my (loose) plan. But the photos and blogs are harder work than the garment itself!
Firstly Kate, thank you for your insightful post!
As a blogger starting out in the sewing industry; my ultimate goal is turn my hobby into a full time career. This will involve paid partnerships and ads on my social media platforms.
I believe brands “gift” items because it is cheaper than actually paying the influencer/blogger to post. And the influencer feels validated because an established brand wants to work with them. Whilst I will occasionally accept “gits”, they will not pay my rent or bills, so I will only do so if I genuinely want to use the item. I sew because I enjoy creating unique garments and don’t always want what I make to be dictated by external brands.
It is time consuming, creativity draining and finically burdensome to create content. So I hope people will understand that gifts and ads enable influencers/bloggers to continue to produce high quality content that their followers are able to consume for free through their social media.
In terms of transparency, the blogger should always share how they obtained the product and the pros and cons. There is no product in the world that is perfect. They should be prepare to risk the brand no longer wanting to work with them if they are not happy with the review. A honest brand should want a honest review. This is so difficult to do but will increase authenticity.
For those who follow bloggers, please continue to support and appreciate their work!
Hi Tammy, I really wish there was as much choice in sewing patterns as there is RTW. By that, I’m referring to brands with a distinct style that might be a bit more out there with attractive photos (Burda has more choice than I can deal with – but I don’t like their photos). Though, that may not make good business sense. And yes the honest reviews are a hard one. There are elements of subconscious bias, and from a business perspective, why would you work with someone who isn’t enthusiastic about your product?
What a terrific, thoughtful post – thank you!
As I commented on your Instagram post ‘gifted’ is a term that I find incredibly irritating because it seems so disingenuous (but even worse is when people are given a freebie and don’t even mention that fact). On the few occasions I’ve been given or won something I’ve tried to stay objective, but I’ve noticed I tend to gush with enthusiasm just the same way everyone else does – it’s hard! A few years back I came across some research into the bias associated with receiving gifts – I need to find it again, but the bottom line was that you cannot have an unbiased opinion after being given something: receiving a gift makes you biased in favour of the giver. So “all opinions are my own” always just reads like a naive aspiration to me… I’m also with the commenter above in my feelings around excessive freebies (hello fibremood) to the point where I absolutely will not buy from them. The prices I would have to pay would be inflated by all the freebies, and that seems really unfair, but also it becomes impossible to find unbiased reviews when the market has been flooded with freebies. I’m probably far from your typical sewist though – I worked on the analytics side of marketing, including building models to predict customer purchasing behaviour, for many years, so I’m probably excessively sensitive to this stuff :0.
Thanks Gabrielle, the last 24 hours have seen way more comments on my IG than I anticipated! It’s veered into all sorts of things about pattern testing vs promotion (likely my next post), paying taxes etc. etc. I’ve been looking for that bit of research about bias but didn’t find it in time for me wanting to just hit publish on the post. But in hindsight I wonder if that matters – the point is, from a business perspective you wouldn’t give anything to someone who isn’t going to be enthusiastic about your product, would you?
I think I’m going to trash any kind of “all opinions are my own” line on my own posts. Instead, give the disclaimer followed by a brief
review of goods and bads (I’m not typically a gusher anyway). Someone who reposted my IG post made a comment about how she dislikes ads and the overwhelming response from her followers that also hate ads was that they glance through the captions and don’t bother reading properly when they realise it’s an ad. But who knows whether anyone will contact me ever again after this post anyway LOL. Fyi I’m totally fine with that, sewing isn’t exactly fashion blogging where you can just chuck on the PR item and take a bunch of photos in the same morning!
Thanks for this excellent and thought provoking post. I’ll definitely change the way I post about patterns or fabrics I’ve been given. It’s interesting to see from other conversations that it might be counterproductive. Like you, I sew a lot and like getting a kind of subsidiary for my hobby. I do only make things I will wear, or I know friends will like.
Suzy X ( @sewing_in_spain)
So interesting! I do tend to glaze over with some people that seem to post the vast majority of their projects featuring gifted or sponsored fabric or patterns. As far as your question about reposting something a second time I say go for it – it would make me more inclined to source the fabric or pattern as you are actually wear the garment rather than making it and wearing it once for a photo then ditching it! I wonder about people that churn out garment after garment with sponsored product what the longevity of such pieces actually is in their wardrobe!
Hello Sarah, thanks for your comment. I think after a lot of conversations with the sewing community that I’ve decided that I won’t be doing much fabric anymore, but I will promote the pattern brands who happen to be my clients. At the end of the day, for me it’s just about being clear about the nature of the relationship so people can decide if they want to see/read it or not, and if they do, they can assess the bias for themselves. As for churning out a lot of garments with sponsored product, I must admit I do a bit of that given my Fibre Mood sewalong work (job). I’ve started to make for other sewists though, else I end up with a lot of things that aren’t my style (and my wardrobe has already exploded!!!)