With the steady increase in the viewership for Frugal in Singapore, I’ve received an increasing number of requests for sponcon (sponsored content). Sponcon is basically where a company/marketing agency pays a blogger a fee for publishing a fake review or an advertorial (an advertisement giving information about a product/service masquerading as an objective journalistic article). As a blogger, how much can you make filling your site with sponcon and advertisements? Enough to make it your full-time job!
How Big of a Problem is SponCon?
If you read a review or blog article, you’re probably seeking genuine, honest, and impartial commentary. And these comments can steer and influence your decision-making.
For example, if you’re deciding on which laptop to buy, you might go on Amazon to read reviews. But you won’t know if a certain 5-star laptop is really awesome, or a company merely paid a person to write a positive review. And then once you bring it home, the battery dies. Or worse, catches fire!
Fake reviews for products are everywhere. But they’re not just on Amazon, Taobao, and TripAdvisor. They also exist for financial sites, and credit card & loan comparison sites. According to an article in The Times (UK), financial services companies enlist marketing firms to post fake reviews masquerading as genuine articles and blog posts that praise its products.
And, in a recent Channel News Asia’s Talking Point episode (you can watch it here), in this region, there are an “army of fake reviewers being built to dupe buyers [and] drive online sales.” And because Singapore is more tech-savvy than other regions, especially in terms of online shopping, that army is growing.
The CNA show and article mentioned a lady who gets paid $200 for posting a single positive Taobao review. Her review looks legitimate. The problem is she never used the product. So how can you trust her opinion?
You might have remembered a few years back when blogger XiaXue called out the marketing company GushCloud for paying bloggers to post fake complaints about the services offered by Singtel’s rivals.
How does this industry selling fake reviews justify its existence? Easy! Just call what you do a “marketing strategy”.
Questions to Ask Site Owners
I mentioned before that Frugal in Singapore is and will always remain free of banner ads, pop-ups, and adwords. This might raise some questions in your mind. Some of these questions you might also ask of other Singapore blogs/websites. And you should.
I will list the questions out first, and put my responses in brackets.
1. How does your site make money?
Websites (that aren’t selling stuff) usually make money through (1) placing advertisements, such as banner ads, pop-up ads, or using Google AdWords, (2) sponcon articles which are usually supplied by the company who is paying for it, (3) affiliate fees which are paid by the company/seller if a visitor clicks through your site to a shop and buys something (as a buyer, your price remains the same whether you click through an affiliate link or not). Affiliate fees are usually very small amounts, around 1-3% of the item’s price. (4) Lastly, a website can earn commission for hard-to-sell items, insurance, credit cards, and loans. Unlike affiliate fees, these commissions are quite substantial (each credit card sign-up might earn the site $150; and insurance commissions are more lucrative).
[Frugal in Singapore: This site does not make money. Period. I run the site without a staff and do not pay myself a salary. My personal income comes from investments and my “real” job. Plus, because I’ve been practicing frugality for roughly 2 decades, my living expenses are really low and I have already met my retirement fund goal. So, Frugal in Singapore is merely a passion project.]
2. Are there any sponcon or paid advertisements? Are these labelled?
Here is a chart that a Reddit user posted. It lists what the going rate is for a website/blog depending on how many monthly page views it gets. Note that the amounts are in USD.
[Frugal in Singapore: All content on Frugal in Singapore is not paid or sponsored, unless clearly labelled. To date, there are 3 sponsored posts (<1% of the total posts), and they, along with some sparse affiliate fees, are meant to cover the cost of web hosting & site maintenance.]
3. Are the reviews on your site real? Are you (site owner) an actual user?
NerdWallet is a popular credit card & loan comparison site (in the US) with $100 million in revenue for 2016. Here’s a snippet of NerdWallet’s fine-print disclosure:
“…the information we provide and the tools we create are objective, independent, straightforward — and free.” But then they go on to say, “Our partners compensate us. This may influence which products we review and write about, and where those products appear on the site…”
I’m not sure how one can be “independent” and “objective” while also saying that your sponsors’ compensation “influences” your placement of products (which ones get written about and where they appear on the site).
[Frugal in Singapore: The reviews on this site are absolutely real! For all services and products I have written about, I am a true authentic user of that service or product. And I pay for my products, just like any normal person would. So when I wrote about SGShop, MrLens, and Rebate Mango, I wasn’t paid any money to write about them, nor did I get freebies.]
4. Are some Singapore blogs/websites skirting some laws/guidelines?
According to IRAS, many bloggers are not reporting their income, although it’s taxable and can be a significant amount. Also, in accordance with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, any paid posts or advertisements need to use “nofollow” links. But generally, very few bloggers actually do this. (If they did, their sponcon earnings would drop.)
[Frugal in Singapore: I report my earnings (if any) from this site to IRAS, and also use “nofollow” links for the 3 sponsored posts.]
5. Do the site owners practice the advice they preach? Have they actually achieved goals/milestones pertinent to the area they are professing to be an expert?
I’ve met a lot of financial bloggers who talk about how to get rich, what rich people do differently, how to achieve early retirement, etc., but they themselves do not really practice these things they are preaching, or they have yet to achieve the goal they are selling. In fact, some of them are still being supported by parents or don’t have much in savings.
Some older bloggers, who had previously worked for years in the banking industry, might have a lot of wisdom and experience, but unfortunately they lived a lifestyle that didn’t prioritise saving or investing. I know I’m not perfect either. I’ve made my share of mistakes too, but I’ll admit to them. And I waited until I achieved a certain level of financial freedom before even starting this blog.
Frugal in Singapore’s SponCon Policy
Could I have turned this website into a cash cow? As my page views are in the 25,000/month range, I have received more than 90 requests for sponcon (you do the math). I just turned down two of them last week.
I’ve also gotten a few offers to work for other Singapore financial blogs and credit card comparison sites (very popular ones). I would be employed to write favourable (fake) reviews on financial products and services, just like the CNA Taobao reviewer.
But to me, it’s just not worth it. There are so many ways in which society tries to get you to buy more, and to squeeze every little bit out of you. I’ve always told people that Frugal in Singapore should be a tiny place on the web that tries to get people to focus on value, to be more mindful of their spending, and to spend less overall. To question our relationship with money, and what really matters to us.
I don’t think these other sites are doing anything that’s necessary illegal. But I personally feel that if you got paid to write something, then you should let your readers know. They should know, because it’s hard to be unbiased when a company pays you or comps your meal.
Where Can You Find Real Reviews?
There are other small sites like Frugal in Singapore where people write about something in a genuine way. But, the problem is that these sites are small, and won’t help you if you want to buy a specific product or service.
My advice is to use sites like Fakespot and ReviewMeta to screen for fake reviews on Amazon, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other sites.
It’s sometimes not easy to turn down these requests. Keeping up this site is a lot of hard work. There is always someone offering to supply you with articles (all sponcon). And all you need to do is publish them, without putting in the “sponsored” label. Basically, they wish to take over the site and even pay you for it…. I’m not going to lie, it is tempting.
And I’ve seen a bunch of fellow bloggers go down this route. They typically need to do this because they, like us, have bills to pay. But for me, I just can’t do it.
Maybe I’m just being stupid. But I remember the early days of the web in the mid-90s. And after just 2+ decades, the web has gone from a (primarily) information-sharing platform to a commercially driven one. Where behind nearly every post, article, review, or social media picture is “junk mail” paid for by a company, and masquerading as “independent” journalism or authentic user reviews.
Now that you’ve been shown an insider’s view of the situation, are there any recent “unbiased” commentaries you need to more closely examine?