On Sponsored Content and Product Reviews

Whether or not you live in a country where there are specific regulations requiring online “influencers” and bloggers to offer an explicit disclosure statement when they are compensated in any way (including receiving “free” samples), it’s very important for you to as a blogger and online personality to differentiate between “honest” product reviews and out-and-out sponsored content.

The fine line between the two is getting thinner and grayer with each passing year. When you read up on a product on one of your favorite blogs, are you getting the honest opinion of the reviewer or are you seeing the product through the rose-hued glasses of revenue and monetary compensation?

Only a Pay-to-Play Model?

In a conversation with a few other local bloggers, the question arose as to what it would take for you to review and/or feature a product on your blog. All of those involved in the discussion are clearly interested in monetization, unsurprisingly, so how this feature would feed into their bottom line was one of the big priorities.

If you want to show up on my blog, they might say, you’ve got to show me the money. You’ve got to pay to play.


A company approached one of these bloggers, offering to ship a small product with a retail value of less than $5. In exchange, the company was expecting a full written review, along with promotion via social media. The blogger laughed in their digital faces.

Some of the other bloggers said that they are willing to review a product without monetary compensation, as long as two criteria are met. First, they must personally be interested in the product in the first place. Second, the retail value of the product must exceed a certain threshold. This could be in the form of a giveaway prize or it could be in product for the blogger himself.

But if the blogger is only interested in doing the review (or social media promotion) because they want to “score” the “free” stuff or they want to get paid for it, is it really an honest, unbiased, and objective “review” anymore? It’s just sponsored content at that point. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the differentiation needs to be clear.

The Unbiased Review

As some of you may already know, a big part of what I do as a freelance writer is to review a variety of products and services. Generally speaking, I am not compensated by the company offering the product or service. Instead, I am compensated by the publication where the review will appear.


When I review a smartphone, I’m not getting paid by Sony, LG or Samsung. I’m getting paid by the online magazine. When I review an affiliate network or web-based tool here on John Chow dot Com, I’m not being paid by the affiliate network. I’m being paid by John.

In this way, I am able to maintain a certain level of journalistic integrity as my opinion is not being swayed by the product manufacturer or the service provider. This is true even though the reviews that appear here may be sponsored.

But What’s in It for Me?

Herein lies a critical distinction that is becoming increasingly challenging as monetization potential shifts on the web. If you’d like to maintain that “journalistic integrity” and not charge companies who wish to have their product featured or reviewed on your site, how do you make the most money possible? Monetization needs to get more creative and that’s where sponsored or native advertising could come into the picture.

Both the blogger and the company wishing to have their product featured (oftentimes for “free”) end up asking the same question. What’s in it for me? Many companies are only interested in metrics and won’t pay for sponsored content unless you have huge numbers to back it up. But your time and effort are valuable. You should get paid for your work. The challenge is figuring out where that pay should come from.

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