Influencers and Free Stuff: Why I’m Burnt Out on Free Product

flat lay of sweater and boots on bed - Influencers and Free Stuff

Influencers and Free Stuff

Before I delve into this post, let me first say that I believe very strongly that bloggers, influencers, and other creatives deserve to be compensated for their work as marketers, writers, and storytellers. I have known other bloggers to burn out because they *don’t* believe that, but that isn’t my story. 

January is a slow time for sponsorships, which is understandable because we’re all exhausted from the Holiday push. But the handful of pitches I’ve received from brands, though well intentioned and personable, are just not doing it for me anymore.

You would think that there would be no shortage of want on my end; it’s human nature to want. I used to perk up at mention of free goods and quickly imagine the ways each new item would benefit my wardrobe.

It’s always been easy for me to “make it work” stylistically, and that means I’ve been happy to bring new things in at a pretty frequent pace. Sure, I didn’t, strictly speaking, “need” an embroidered keychain or another pair of shoes, but that’s one of the perks of this job.

And I thought that if I believed in the company’s mission and felt the collaboration rate was fair, there was really no reason to say no.

Why I No Longer Want Free Stuff

But now I find myself wanting to say no to gifted product.

I have mentioned several times (here, instance) that the combination of receiving free product and mindlessly scrolling Instagram was doing a number on my sense of style and, in effect, the self-narration that builds my personal identity. I didn’t like this new me because I wasn’t having any fun.

But I deleted my brand Instagram account in November and decided not to pursue any sponsored posts in December, determined to take a much needed break to enjoy time with family and friends both in Charlottesville and back in Florida, where I grew up.

I am fresh from my Florida getaway, a physical break I thought would revive all my previous passions, but I’m still feeling off, like what I’ve been doing isn’t what I need to be doing moving forward.

The reality is that I simply don’t want free stuff anymore. 

Do I want to be compensated for my dedicated brand coverage? Yes

Do I want to work with brands in a sponsored capacity? Yes

What I don’t want, however, is to either be beholden to reviewing what the brand wants me to review without consideration for my personal taste or to be offered free product in lieu of monetary compensation.

person using smartphone application - Influencers and Free Stuff
Photo by Plann on

The Psychology of Investment

I want to shift the scale from one that is purely convenience-minded to one that is authentic, and not social media “authentic” in the *increase your following on Instagram in three easy steps* kind of way.

Authenticity, to me, means two things:

  1. I only review things I picked out
  2. I forked over some cash for it

This might sound counterintuitive under a sponsorship model, but I think it makes sense from a psychological perspective. When you have to give something up for the thing you want, you inherently make better choices.

Things that come at a cost take consideration, and the price point becomes a part of the evaluation of the item in terms of quality and worth.

In his 2015 piece on the subject of spending more on fashion purchases, Marc Bain writes:

Researchers have found that the insula—the part of the brain that registers pain—plays a role in purchase decisions. Our brain weighs the pleasure of acquiring against the pain of paying. As clothing prices decline, that pain does too, making shopping easy entertainment, disconnecting it from our actual clothing needs.

Under a free stuff model, try as you might you can’t really understand what it feels like to slap down $200. I know this well, because in “real life,” I am a bargain shopper who shops almost exclusively at thrift stores. The disparity between that person and blogger-Leah can be profound depending on the item and my frame of mind. 

So, I’m not saying that I’m kissing sponsored posts goodbye. But what I’m suggesting (and am very curious about from a brand perspective) is whether it would be possible to create a collaboration structure that comes at a cost to both of us: sponsoring brands pay me fair market value and I am responsible for purchasing product for review. I feel the strain of investing in ethical goods but I’m still compensated for my skills.

focused blogger working on project at home - Influencers and Free Stuff
Photo by Liza Summer on

Changing the Narrative around Influencers and Free Stuff

In addition to the psychological question of receiving free stuff, I think requiring a give and take from brands and marketers in the personal style category may actually improve the marketing relationship because the result is measured, intentional partnership.

When brands “pay” primarily in free stuff, their marketing strategy can sometimes appear like a last ditch effort rather than a labor of love.

I mean, just look around: the ethical fashion space is overflowing with the same sweater, the same wide leg pants, the same perfect bralette. While it’s true that potential customers need several “touch points” with a brand or product before they decide to make a purchase, at some point they’ll start ignoring the product altogether, feeling like each new review is proof not of popularity but of inauthenticity.

When the goods are flowing freely, where is the accountability? Where is the minimalism, the slow living, the sustainability?

Things have just gotten…overwhelming. Not to mention the fact that the longer we entrench ourselves in a model that places the priority on the free stuff rather than professionalizing the field, the more we ultimately hurt ourselves as bloggers, and confuse our readers in the process. It may be a profitable policy for brands now, but it’s not building the kind of infrastructure befitting a truly sustainable company. 

(There’s also a case to be made for a totally reimagined sponsorship model that works more like traditional print media, or like a podcast. In that model, a post like this one could be sponsored by a brand and contribute to the longterm running of this blog while not being directly linked to a product review. That would be fun, too, but I’m not so sure I’ll get a lot of people on board with it.)

But I digress. I’m just feeling frazzled and aimless, and wanting to get back that free form drive I had in the early days.

I think I’ll get there, but it’s going to take continual reimagining of what’s possible for this space. For now, I’m saying no to free stuff and saying yes to taking myself seriously both as a professional with marketable skills and a person in need of equilibrium.

P.S. If you’re a brand who likes (or doesn’t like) my suggested sponsorship model, reach out. Let’s talk about it!

Bloggers, readers, and brands: what do you think of this proposed collaboration model? Would it work?

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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