Wednesday, 2 June 2010

South African Food Blogger Explosion, and the thorny Freebie Question

When I started this blog three years ago, food blogs were reasonably plentiful.  Reasonably, I say, because, on a global scale, food blogging was a lesser-known, rather niched activity. Less than a handful of South African - or indeed African -  food blogs existed at the time.

Much has changed. Food blogging is the flavour du jour, if not du decade. The Internet is bulging with hundreds of thousands of food blogs, ranging from professional, beautiful and instructive sites, through charming, chatty food diaries, to some of the most dreadful and dire food nightmares you can imagine.

In the last eighteen months or so, the rise of South African food blogs - pioneered six years ago by my mate, London-dwelling South African Jeanne Horak-Druiff of Cooksister -  has been meteoric.  There are, to my knowledge, well over 120 South African food and wine bloggers posting recipes and restaurant reviews on the Net, on Facebook and on Twitter.  And, as they have attracted more fans, these blogs have become very popular, and somewhat influential.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that there has been a minor storming of the food-blog world from South African food bloggers.  Not a tempest, but maybe a little whirlwind.

This is so heartening, especially given the fact that South Africa is about to be catapulted into the limelight during the 2010 Fifa World Cup. It's also encouraging because South African food deserves to be highlighted: it's about time that the spotlight falls on our beautiful  fresh produce, our superlative wines, our creative cooks, our excellent restaurants and our extraordinarily rich culinary heritage  That razor-tongued restaurant reviewer and gourmand A.A.Gill, in several columns on the subject of South Africa, has often indignantly wondered why South African cuisine - and in particular, Cape Malay cuisine -  has not become famous, and the next big trend.

Well, A.A., one tries.  Certainly, I've tried hard enough on this blog to promote South African foods, and after three years of hard slog, my blog is attracting traffic and interest I didn't dare to dream of three years ago.

Which brings me to my next point.  As any successful food blogger knows, more popular and visited your blog becomes, the more often you're begged for mentions.

So here's the freebie question.  The marketeers, publicity agents and pee-ars of South Africa - and further afield -  have just twigged on to the fact that local food bloggers attract an audience. In the last month alone I've had 42 press releases from various publicists, begging me to take note of their product.  These releases range from a heads-up about a new product, to lavish invitations to free lunches, to 'urgent' queries for my physical address so I can take delivery of the latest liqueur, cookie or boxed cereal.  Or apron, oven gloves, bottle of wine, and so on. All manner of exciting products are dangled before my eyes.

I refuse these - with reluctance - because I want my blog to be independent, and because I see myself first as an impartial journalist and second as a cook and food writer.  I'm not saying that accepting free products, or going to launches and openings,  is any way dodgy: on the contrary, I'm always keen to read consumer opinions of products, and reviews of new restaurants. However, what I would like to say is that I think it's incumbent on a food blogger to declare, upfront, that whatever product, service or meal you're reviewing was offered to you for free.

And I add this piece of advice:  if you're a successful food blogger, you are only so because of your talent and originality.  Don't under-sell yourself.  If a manufacturer, or his publicist, wants you to do a write-up on their product, don't do it for free.  Charge them. Sure, it's nice that they sent you a free sample, but the fact is that they didn't do this out of a sense of love and altruism, and genuine admiration for your blog.  They sent you that sample because they wanted free advertising.

In short: decide what you want your blog to be.  And stick to that formula.

And finally, having said all that, I declare that I won't, henceforth, be featuring any Verlaque products on this blog because they've appointed me, in my capacity as a professional journalist, as a consultant for their brand.
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Jeanne @ CookSister! said...

Well, said! I wish I'd had more time to expand on this at the SA Food Blogger Conference earlier this year. I think I did touch on it - it's been a huge issue here in the Uk too. As you said, there is nothing wrong with receiving a free meal of a free product, but your readers need to know that what they are reading is a review of something you got for free. The US has passed laws saying that any blogger receiving free goods or services of some other form of sponsorshiop MUST disclose this fact if they blog about it, and I think that can only be a good thing. I do acept the odd freebie, but only on the understanding that I reserve the right to say something negative about it, and I won't review anything that I would not ordinarly use (so Canderel can offer me freebies till they go blue in the face - it ain't gonna happen!). If a full disclosure of the freebie/sponsorship is mare, you can't really go wrong. I think the water gets murkier if you are actualyl being PAID to review something - then you are in quasi-employment and more likely to feel bound to say nice things, however unfounded...

Nina Timm said...

I couldn't agree with you more. After the Foodblogger's conference I also received numerous offers like that. My problem is this....if we all receive freebies, let's say from Juno'sSpice Company and everybody is reviewing their product for free,it kind of shoots me in the foot if I want to appoach them with an offer to advertise on my site, you understand what I am trying to say? We as foodbloggers will never be seen as "the way forward in advertising" if we keep giving it away for free. Maybe advertising is not your thing, but this is just my 5c worth!

Rose&Thorn said...

I really enjoyed reading your post, and it has made me think about the products which I endorse. I have only ever received 2 freebies, and both only came after I had already reviewed products which I had already paid for myself.
This is something I am going to keep in my blogging memory bank and apply as my yard stick. Great comment from Jeanne and Nina too.

lavender & lime said...

Firstly, well done on the appointment - it is a fantastic product. I think a post about a product or service received free should start with a disclaimer. That way, people know from the beginning that the post may be influenced by the fact that the product / service was not paid for. This is more so with restaurant reviews - it should state from the beginning that the meal was free. I would do a review of a product I was sent gratis, but with the company understanding that my review may not be what they expect - and if they are not paying for it, they cannot see it beforehand. It would be lovely to be paid for reviewing products, but you could end up with compromised information. I think the best reviews are for product / services we pay for with our own hard earned money - we can be upfront and forthright and our readers would appreciate that more.

Kim Maxwell said...

I believe that entering into commercial arrangements with companies ie charging them for product advertorial muddies the waters so I never do. But declarations are essential if you go that route.

As a fulltime food and wine journalist (now part-time blogger) if somebody sends unsolicited product samples I don't feel any obligation to write about them. But if I'm impressed with what I find and write about it, I will be positive yet honest if I find shortcomings. Not everybody has a huge mkting budget or knowhow and it feels good to help the little guys sometimes.

Restaurants are a far murkier area as few understand the complexities of independent reviewing vs advertorial and even unpaid editorial features with photo shoots and recipes.

If I review a restaurant I pay for it. But if I'm hosted for a meal sampler or chef's table it tells me something re the chef, place or ingredients that an independent visit might not (might have a badly informed waiter) and I might spread that around. I'd never dream of labelling that a review however.

Jamie Who said...

Great article. I wrote something similar ( explaining my take on freebies. I have relaxed it slightly by accepting invitations to restaurants on the basis that I am not necessarily going to give a good review. This was pretty evident when I was invited to Maze and proceeded to write a scathing review.

My blog does have endorsements which I write about but do not receive money for. These are just products I love. They send me samples and I write them up but again, it is my opinion. They don't "sign off" or approve content.

I have a project soon to launch which will involve having advertisers and I have often wondered how this will weigh-up in terms of losing credibility. My eventual conclusion was this:

Think of your blog as if it was a magazine. Magazines have advertisements which do not (or should not) have ANY IMPACT on their editorial content. As long as your blog is the same, and you are always honest, I have no problem accepting invitations.

Marisa said...

Great post and some great comments! I agree with what most have said in that I feel perfectly okay with accepting freebies (hey, it's really cool to get things for free!) but I really don't feel obligated to write a review (positive or negative) regarding anything I receive.

For the very few reviews that I have done, I have clearly stated that I was offered the product for free, but that my opinions are my own. I truly feel that that's enough head's up for the readers, but I will definitely review this as time goes on.

I tend to agree with Jeanne as well that if you actually get paid to do a review, you would feel almost obligated to write a positive one. Which would lead to your independence being under suspicion.

Congrats on your appointment with Verlaque and I do think you've made the right choice not to feature them on your blog in future especially given the independence concerns.

Kit said...

Great post, Juno. I've just received two offers of goodies, I think because I am on the FBC list. I said yes to the one from Lindt... I couldn't possibly turn down free chocolate and they are willing to drive it all the way to me, outside Cape Town!
I totally agree on full disclosure of free samples and Jeanne's comment about reserving the right to say something negative if you want to.
Great about your appointment with Verlaque.

Juno said...

Thank you all so much for these insightful and interesting comments. You make very good points. I was a bit reluctant to publish this post - I didn't want to come across as preachy - but, reading your remarks, I'm glad I did now. Nina, you have an excellent point about freebie-posts undermining your ability to attract advertising. Indeed, why should an advertiser pay for an advert on our site if he can get free advertorial on another blog?

Koek! said...

I agree with Kim. I accept any marketing 'gifts' with grace and then go ahead and write whatever takes my fancy: which may or may not relate to something that was sent to me. That's what blogging's about isn't it? That's the part we enjoy.

It doesn't keep me up at night though :-)

Congratulations on your appointment!