The dynamics of expecting brands to pay bloggers

Why bloggers are not being paid in line with other professionals?

Bloggers/Influencers and Brands/PRs have a sort of love-hate relationship. Brands need bloggers for blogposts, links, social promotions, online reviews which would eventually give a brand’s visibility a boost and hopefully get more business. Bloggers hope to get paid for their brand promotion activities or at the least get some value/noteworthy experiences. Due to the emerging nature of the industry and seemingly unending supply of influencers, the concept of paying bloggers for their time, effort and work has taken a back seat. Many try NOT to pay the influencers and get maximum work out of them for free. Thus the concept of ‘barter’ is predominant in the industry. However barter won’t help pay bills and bloggers expect to be paid for their time and effort spent in working for a brand- but with seemingly unlimited supply of bloggers and influencers, there’s always a clash- there’s always someone willing to work for less or free. A senior manager of a brand told me they don’t want to spoil the market by paying bloggers. Many senior bloggers feel others are spoiling the industry by working for free whereas newcomers may feel they’re not getting any opportunity as everything goes to a select few. So where is the balance? What is the right way forward? Because the industry is relatively new, unregulated and has no fixed standards, everyone has to deal with it in their own way. To understand better, we need to get a sense of evolution of blogger’s priorities or hierarchy of needs- similar to what Maslow has defined for human beings in general. Take a detailed look at below picture that I have prepared- read from bottom- it illustrates the various hierarchy of growth, maturity and success for a blogger. Their expectations, work quality and rewards also would vary accordingly.

While everyone dreams of making lots of money through blogging, the truth is only a small percentage have managed to achieve it in reality and more importantly, consistently. But one thing for sure, all of us began at the bottom- somewhere we started a blog, started writing, worried that no one reads, struggled to improve, get noticed, made some money, few quit jobs and went full time and so on. The bottom two stages (Stage 1 and Stage 2) can be achieved easily over time if one blogs good quality content regularly and does some basic promotional activities and interacts with community. With adequate hard work a newly launched blog can begin to get noticed within an year or two, or even sooner.

Stage 3: Once a blogger gets some level of identity and popularity, there're lots of opportunities out there-many agencies, SEO people and smaller brands are on the look-out to work with bloggers but mostly by not having to pay them. They need links from blogs, or lots of blog posts to show to their seniors/customers or whatever they can get without having to spend anything. Thus such people entice to engage with bloggers under the umbrella of barter (in which usually bloggers get some products/services but no cash) or 'exposure'-which is not giving blogger any physical item/service or value but promising to promote the blogger in return- usually on a facebook page that is claimed to have lots of followers. For many new bloggers these opportunities seem like a stepping stone to success- may be they can do some stuff for free now and it will hopefully result in more opportunities/payments in the future.

What I noticed is most people get stuck at this stage 3. Not being able to move up from doing barter deals to make some real money or get opportunities having real value. My thoughts on this are as below:
1. If you keep accepting barter deals all the time, you will get only that- barter deals
2. May be it is OK during early stages of your progress but at some point you need to put a value to your time, effort and publicity you're giving to brands and start rejecting barter deals that don't match this value.
3. There is always someone who can do it for less, for free. No point trying to grab every opportunity out there-leave low value ones to others. If you fear losing opportunity because you've to say No to barter deal, you will never grow. You need to find more valuable things to do, better paying opportunities and move away from barter deals as early as possible.
4. It will take some time for one to realize that "exposure" doesn't pay bills. Someone promising to promote you on their facebook page is often a useless proposition because if they had enough reach they wouldn't have approached bloggers. Earlier you realize this better.
5. If you spend all your time doing barter deals, you will never have time to pitch for better opportunities. Time is money-Time saved by not doing barter deals should be wisely invested to learn new things, chase better opportunities etc and it will pay off in near term.

There're some popular excuses given by brands and PR agencies not to pay. The most popular one is that brand doesn't have budget. Below is how you can cross check such claims
  • Google brand's name, their products or services. Soon if their ads start appearing all over adsense, facebook you know that they're spending enough on marketing
  • Check the events/marketing activities the brand is conducting- if they're spending several lakhs to  few crore rupees on these, it is not hard to spend 2% of that sum to pay bloggers- just that they don't want to or are being told it is not necessary.
  • Check the popularity of PR agency- Do they look like someone who will work for free? If the agency is a premium one charging several lakhs retainer per month, in my opinion brands can afford to pay a bit to bloggers but usually agencies just don't want to propose the idea that bloggers need to be paid.
  • Check within your peer network if anyone is being paid.
  • Try to assess the value of your work- time and effort spent, possible reach. If it is significant value that would cost the brand good money to achieve otherwise, you have all the right to insist on some compensation.
Other traps, such as "we're looking for long term association", "we'll make you brand ambassador" etc are all tried and tested ways to get free work done. Earlier you learn to recognize and overcome these traps the better.

Stage 4: Next stage is where you will get opportunities that carry some sort of value- a chance to explore a new destination or a product or a property and so on. Again, probability of payment is very poor at this stage but the experience may have a value which many bloggers fall for. The definition of value changes from person to person- someone who has traveled around the world may not find a trip to Thailand or Malaysia exciting. But for someone who hasn't got any travel opportunity, even a 2 star hotel stay in their own city might sound very exciting. Thus here again a few may reject/ask for payment while many will happily grab the opportunity. In many cases brands don't cover all the expenses- for example travel to airport or in some cases travel till destination itself n so on..Bloggers pay from their pocket for some part, because they think they are still getting good deal overall.

There're many factors at play here
  • Many bloggers who are part time/hobby bloggers and not focused on money easily get excited by the opportunity to experience new product/destination and won't always think of money
  • Though most FAM trips, experiences are very hectic, highly demanding (deliverable may include several blog posts, social updates, lives all through the trip) many think it is acceptable to do it for free because the same experience from their own pocket will cost huge sum (Example, a 4-5 days Thailand trip with good flight, hotel and other expenses cost 30-50k INR- if you've never been to that destination, money saved is money earned)
  • Businesses do spend on bloggers/influencers in this case- on their flight, hotel etc) but hope to get much better value in return. (To get similar reach through traditional advertising may cost lakhs of rupees, spending 50k on a blogger may sound like a great proposition)
  • Not all expenses are covered all the time- sometimes airport transfer or visa processing (or hotels may say minibar consumption is chargeable etc) are borne by the bloggers  
Lots of tech bloggers who are flown to cover mobile phone launch events do not get paid. (confirmed by Sai Krishna, who blogs at thetrendyblog.net and flies to these launches very often). But tech bloggers often manage to monetize through multiple ways- like being the first few to post review videos on Youtube, getting fresh content for their blogs and indirectly monetizing this content or writing about the new phone in a paid newspaper/magazine columns. Similarly many travel bloggers who don't get paid to attend a trip may manage to monetize by writing paid articles about the destination for various magazines. So those who have managed to use the unpaid invites for content generation and indirect revenues may not worry much about being paid to attend the event as such. Some bloggers use this travel opportunity to spend a few extra days and meet their friends/business associates or explore the destinations- it is their way of getting some value out of the trip as it saves them from making a dedicated trip for their own purposes. At times brands allow a spouse or partner to accompany. These are some ways people have adapted to the unpaid opportunities they get. 

Stage 5: An upgraded level of this stage is where bloggers/influencers may agree to work for free but expect all their expenses to be taken care and there should be some real value in the opportunity- such as exotic location or a high value product etc. This still doesn't pay but keeps one away from the herd, eliminating low value opportunities. Even this is a challenge- many hotels invite bloggers but hesitate to pay for travel or arrange travel only from nearby town. Still some blogger go to such properties spending their own money to reach there.

Bloggers who have moved up from barter deals see these opportunities as a huge step up. But after some time it dawns on them that they are probably putting in lot more time and effort than the opportunity was worth- editing videos, photos, writing blog posts etc takes several days of effort. Particularly after being part of multiple such trips and opportunities the excitement dies down, the need for payment, making money begins to surface. This is where a well established blogger starts to refuse unpaid assignments and focuses on a few that pay. Many who wish to move up to paid assignments level fear being rejected if they ask for money. They are aware there's a huge wave of bloggers/influencers willing to do it for free. I think the secret at this stage is to have enough popularity to be able to attract multiple invites and offers so that you can say No to less valuable/attractive invites/opportunities and focus on ones willing to pay or offer a very high value in terms of experience.

Stage 6: Growing up from previous stage to being paid needs lots of effort, commitment and a bit of luck.

Many bloggers/influencers who have reached this stage by now would have identified a secondary source of income- such as consulting assignments, running their own campaigns for brands, working directly with brands which resonate with their passion, writing for various magazines on paid assignments, regular income through adsense/affiliate marketing and so on. Thus they always have a better way to spend their time and earn in the process and can afford to say NO to all unpaid assignments. If one is earning say Rs 5000 per day on an average, he/she can easily command a payment of 50000 for a one week trip, in addition to all expenses covered. It is also important at this stage to have solid reputation, great reach (in terms of numbers) and a credible profile for brands to consider one seriously for well paid assignments. Unless one can prove their reach, returns and quality of engagements, getting paid assignments will be tough. A lot also depends at this stage on having right contacts. If you send your pitch/proposal to a junior employee it may never see light of the day. You will need management level contacts to be able to regularly win paid assignments. Those who manage all these are the ones who manage to lead a decent life purely from blogging, not depending on day job or spouse income or others. There're many in India who have reached this stage, but it is still not a peaceful life. One needs to constantly keep chasing for pending payments, keep pitching for new assignments, be on the go, keep working on the go to meet deadlines, stay up to date with new tools, technologies and trends- it is a continuous battle but totally worth it. Gives lots of freedom, flexibility and satisfaction the office going people would die for.

There're some arguments that no one should work for free to force brands to pay- I think this is not practical. Even if we do, it may qualify as 'Cartel' disrupting spirit of demand and supply or free market. Different people have different levels of expectations, reach, maturity, expertise, compulsions and perception of value. So what's not worth for one might be highly valuable for others. There're desperate people who are happy to take something than nothing. There's no union or regulatory body or association under which some controls can be enforced. We can only do what's in our control. Those who work for barter and exposure should realize for themselves where they are headed with that. Thus only way one can differentiate and grow is by doing better quality work and offering better value. The barter/exposure business will continue for some more time till people mature enough and realize the futility of such 'opportunities'.

Stage 7: The ultimate state would be to reach the top tier, to be one of the few extremely popular, well sought after names in blogging-there're a few who earn really well from blogging and can afford to dictate terms or do things as they please. This takes years of hard work, lots of smartness and a bit of luck. It is a dream to reach this stage for every blogger but only a small percentage manage to reach here. I don't have the expertise and authority to write further on this category so would stop here.

Bloggers vs Journalists: There was one line of thought that says bloggers are like journalists- journalists report what they see and don't get paid by brands. Not being paid enables a journalist to be impartial and write with honesty. This is an acceptable line of thought but the key difference is, a journalist is paid by his newspaper/magazine/channel, whereas a blogger doesn't.  A journalist will have at his/her disposal a team of professionals- editors, photo editors, graphics designers, copy editors etc who take most of the load off a journalist once they file a story. But a blogger usually does all the work himself/herself.

Being paid and still being able to write truthfully: Another thought is once paid, the post becomes commercial. How many brands would allow a blogger to write at his/her discretion and not necessarily positive, how many bloggers care to write impartially and not suppress any unfavorable/negative aspect of the product/service? While brands want a positive message to be spread, readers demand a honest opinion- if a product/service is worth their hard earned money. If bloggers try to suppress truth to please a brand, it is only a matter of time they lose their credibility.

ROI: Once commercials are involved, brands expect certain results. In social media world, measurable results are hard to achieve- for example, I can write about a car, but have no way to ensure 2 out of 2000 friends I have WILL definitely buy that car. Some friends may remember a hotel from my review but may book only an year later, totally untraceable to me-so I may not get the credit for bringing this business. I can display an ad and ensure it is visible to all the readers, but don't have any way to ensure that many of my readers will click on the ad and go to advertiser's site. Similarly at times a blogpost or social media content doesn't get the expected response- not many read it, comments, likes or shares it-this will disappoint brands. This gets worse when a blogger has given fake reach or set unrealistic expectations to win the deal. When there's a payment term involved and brands feel blogger hasn't delivered, it creates more arguments and frustration on both sides. Being realistic and transparent is important.

For brands
If you're running a brand's marketing or social media campaigns, below are some pointers and advise
  • I would suggest hiring a full time employee specializing in social media, blogging and influencer marketing- this person should be able to validate the campaigns pitched by agencies, credibility of the influencers selected and the ROI promised. It will prevent agencies from taking you for a ride with low value influencers and practically useless metrics
  • Start considering bloggers as any other service providers who are paid for their time and effort. By paying you're gaining their respect, will be able to attract more qualified bloggers and a better result for your campaigns. Of course you will get someone ready to work for free, but you get what you pay for. So I suggest doing some due diligence, commissioning well qualified bloggers and measure the difference in outcomes.
  • If you've never paid bloggers- because no one told you they need to be paid or because you were happy all along to get work done for free, may be once a while you should try working with a few more experienced, more respectable bloggers who were earlier sidelined because they expected to be paid. Try this for a few campaigns and measure the difference in reach/ROI. If you don't see any difference or value by all means go back to free folks.
You need to decide between quality vs quantity. Consider below example:
A resort can easily get about 10 bloggers, with about 10000 reach on an average, willing to work for free. These bloggers may agree not to be paid due to multiple reasons- may be they haven’t gone anywhere of late and any trip is welcome, may be they think they will be rejected if they ask for money, may be the destination/resort luxury appeals to them and they see a value in the trip.

Now assume resort spends about 10000 Rs on each of these bloggers- flight, stay etc. That is a spend of 1 lakh rupees for a reach of 1 lakh.

Now, let us consider a set of premium bloggers- who may have a reach of 50000 each but they expect to be paid. If brand can hire only two of these premium bloggers, spend 20000 on their flight etc and pay them an amount- let us say 15000 for their time and effort, brand still gets a reach of 1 lakh, for a spend of just 50000 INR. But either brands don’t see a value this way or they go for more links, more posts and bigger but cheaper crowd, than a small number of premium bloggers.
Quantity
Quality
# of bloggers
10
# of bloggers
2
Avg reach per blogger
10000
Avg reach per blogger
50000
Cost per blogger
10000 INR
Cost per blogger
10000 INR
Pay per blogger
0
Pay per blogger
15000
Total Spend
100000 INR
Total Spend
50000 INR
Total Reach
100000
Total Reach
100000
There're times when an agency may pitch quantitative solutions like trending on twitter- you can pay Rs 10 to 1000 people and make them tweet simultaneously to trend a hashtag (yes, there're people willing to tweet for Rs 10)-you have to decide if such campaigns are worth (mostly they are good for some immediate celebration but nothing beyond that).

The excuse "not having budget" won't fly. If there's a will, there's a way to make some funds for paying bloggers. Consider these:
  • Most flight bookings are done last minute- few days before the event, due to poor planning, delayed confirmations etc. If the flight bookings can be done a bit earlier- say 7-10 days prior, you can save as much as 30% on flight expenses, which can be used to pay bloggers.
  • When you're spending several crores on an event, not being able to allocate a small % to pay bloggers for their time, effort and services is just lack of desire.
  • Many bloggers are often happy to stay in cheaper hotels if that can save some money and they can get paid for their work, instead of staying in a 5 star hotel without any payment.
  • Understood there's no established standard like TRP or ABC for blogs- but defining a few success criteria and rewarding bloggers accordingly isn't tough.
  • Try getting free work done from anyone else- PR agencies, event management companies or other vendors- not possible right? So why not treat bloggers with similar professionalism?
It won't be fair to generalize all brands- many have promptly asked for a quote, have agreed to pay a reasonable sum for time and effort spent by bloggers and treat bloggers with respect. May their tribe increase.

Also it will be unfair to say never work with newbies or less popular bloggers- At times they may deliver better- they don't come with any baggage, are eager to work hard and prove themselves and might deliver at par or better than a professional blogger-but the trick will be to locate such gems among hundreds of emerging bloggers. If you can do that or want to take a bet, by all means go ahead.

For the PR agencies:
Many people think PR folks are the villains between brands and bloggers. This is not true most of the time. From what I have noticed, most PR folks are well trained, very patient and fairly supportive. But they are often sandwiched between brands/superiors and bloggers. It may not be their personal intent to not to pay or delay the payment, but they may be helpless if brand is not releasing money or their superiors give directives not favorable to bloggers. Thus while working with PRs one need to check if they are bad as a person or it is just their compulsions that has tied their arms. Do make your stand/point clear but never make it personal. Respect them as any professional individuals.

Many agencies with traditional background never had an idea that bloggers could be paid- mostly because they equated bloggers with journalists who were not primarily paid by the brands or because they felt proposing that brands pay bloggers will upset the brand and spoil their chances of winning a campaign.

I am aware of situations where agencies tried pitching a payment clause but the brands were seeing flight expense of bloggers as a big spend and weren't willing to shell out more. So at times PR's hands are tied- either get bloggers for free or don't do the campaign- they are forced to do the former.

Another big concern for PR agency and brands is return on investment. Bloggers can't guarantee immediate business in near future to recover spending done on them. The influence, reach etc are hard to measure and ROI is tough to track. Newspapers have ABC Circulation figures, TVs have TRP rating- bloggers don't have an industry accredited ranking or success measure, hence brands and agencies find it tough to shortlist/justify why someone should or should not be selected or how much one should be paid. Many tools have come up of late to measure social influence, but they still need lots of interpretation and judgment. Most brands that have diverted part of their marketing budget to digital/influencer marketing are still in an experiment mode to understand what works and what doesn't. It may take some time for them to have a vetted process.

But for PR agencies that were exploiting both brands and influencers alike, I think the honeymoon period is getting over. Both brands and influencers are warming up to question current practices. Brands are getting a hang of social media and begun to question the campaigns, returns and selection of influencers, as well as bloggers/influencers are realizing the futility of working for free. It will be good if you can factor blogger payments in your campaign planning and position accordingly while pitching to brands.

Some suggestions for PR Firms
1. You can have some categorization of bloggers/influencers based on their reach, experience, quality of content etc and pay them differently, which is acceptable. Not paying at all may still get you some people who are ready for it, but will compromise the campaign as you will miss out on those who could have added real value. Define a proper eligibility criteria and define rewards/payments proportionate to measurable outputs. I believe this is the right way forward.

2. Start suggesting in your campaign proposals that bloggers need to be paid- Doesn't have to be a huge amount- just similar to an emcee or event management co or other vendors are paid for their time and effort- this is important to attract right talent and also for industry's long term sustainance.

Overall it is still a messy situation. Without well established standards and practices, each one has to deal with the situation as they feel best way forward. Hopefully things will get streamlined over time.

Let me know if I am wrong somewhere. Do share your thoughts...

Similar: Trends that should worry every blogger * Sponsored posts- how much to charge * 12 years of blogging
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39 comments:

  1. Gosh this is like a white paper on the industry .. awesome work Shrinidhi.. You have said everything that needs to be said

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    1. Thank you. those are heavy weight words coming from you. Thanks again

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  2. Interesting Analysis. Makes me to find where I stand :-)

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  3. Very well analysed and written. You have nailed it. A must read for all bloggers, brands and PRs.

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  4. This post needs to be read by every blogger, PR and brand. This is so detailed, true and a need of the hour.

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  5. So beautifully written. Appreciate the effort gone into writing this and putting it in bold words. I'd like to add a few things:

    1. Brands/PRs need to get over the Social Media follower bling(which can be easily bought these days and many Stage 7 bloggers have done this too!) and start looking into SEO as a major deciding factor. Though SEO is long term (Google takes 3-6 months to rank an article) it is a very important and evergreen factor.

    2. Brands/PRs must really concentrate on selecting infulencers who match the campaign or the destination. Its so inappropriate when a blog that emphasizes on backpacking suddenly has content on luxury travel. They put it as 'Sometimes I indulge in luxury too'. Their Though readers who come for the blog for backpacking content, read the luxury post n move on. So the brand doesn't get any ROI. But, if they had selected a blog/influencer with appropriate audience, the brand has high chance of ROI.

    3. Many top international travel bloggers day rate in FAMs and press trips run in hundreds of dollars and that trend hasn't been caught up here in India, mainly as you mentioned the reason - There are bloggers who work for free and PRs who want to get the job done without money spent.

    The rest has been said by you and said very well :)

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    1. Thanks for the detailed comment. Very valid points. Follower counts hopefully brands and PRs will wake up to and use tools and techniques to weed out.

      Right selection is again- needs lots of time and effort- I am aware of few PRs who do this rigorously, but many go for low hanging fruits.

      #3, yes, India will take long time to match international standards

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  6. Digital marketing outfits & Creative units are in direct competition with blogging community! Well if we have a platform like Indiblogger or any other strong association it will lend credibility. As individual blogger there is No bargaining power or credibility to demand !

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  7. Great post! You've clearly complied everything

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  8. Very Well Written by Shrinidhi Hande

    Ps : This status is not to offend anyone but this is the Fact , and we have experienced it first hand.
    Manoj Shesh Nagendra ( Share your Thoughts )

    As me being a Tech Blogger based of Chennai ,I highly feel that many Tech brands do Partiality in seeiding devices or even flying us to events ( Excuse made is No units to seed or no budget)

    - But this is not the case with other Metro Cities.Even some brands dont give Cab to airport here .

    Many False Promises are made that the devices ( That too not in barter , returnable basis ) will be given on Launch but that never happens ).

    I clueless how brands decide to give devices to Many People who dont even update their blogs regularly , Get less reach on their Content , etc , but still they get the advantage over us in getting the devices and launch events

    Pro Tip : Friendship Plays a major Role if you are into tech blogging and struggling to get devices .

    Be friends with the Brands and PRs , thats it , you are good to go .

    whats ROI ? LoL

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  9. Well honestly this could be a side interest or hobby but not a real source of bread and better.

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    1. Yes, only small % have managed to do it full time and earn very well as also.... Others are managing with some money from other sources

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  10. Very well written Srinidhi. I come across a lot of the reasons/excuses you have mentioned by agencies and brands alike for engaging bloggers for negligible costs or free, almost everyday. Lot of the effort undertaken now are to try and make it a level playing field for everyone and ensure everyone finds value when taking up blogging as a career. It is at a relatively early stage as an industry like you said and especially India has some catching up to do. Hopefully we can collectively establish credibility and contribute to making this a fair play for everyone involved for that's the only sustainable way forward.

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    1. Thank you. Hopefully future will be good and reasonable. Let us see.

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  11. Very detailed and true in all aspects. Needs to be read by every blogger and brand.

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  12. Finally read, Very Interesting.
    Thank a lot for details post.

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  13. Excellent summary, Shrinidhi. This post is like a gold standard for the current scenario.

    Most relevant for everyone involved. Slow claps, Sir. :)

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  14. That was like an open heart surgery! Well explained and relevant points put forth, Shrinidhi.
    The root problem comes from the fact that blogging isn't still considered a professional job in India. Hope the blogging industry becomes more organic and organized soon.

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  15. This is gem post and you have nailed it sir..must read by bloggers,PR and brand.

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  16. What an awesome study and a clear explanation of what we all live, both bloggers, brands and PR! That's great you gave some guidances to each of them. Happy to share your article :-)

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Appreciate your efforts and interests to comment. Comments may be moderated due to increased spam. Will ideally respond to comments within few days.Use Anonymous option if you don't wish to leave your name/ID behind- Shrinidhi

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