What happens when you accept money for blogging, I wondered, does it change what you post?
Don't worry, I'm not intending to do it myself. But I am intrigued by what the effect is, and in particular by how having a commercial partner slants the copy you write.
So as an example, I'm going to take a look at Londonist's daily Things To Do post. This is published every evening (except Saturday) around 7pm, and includes a list of a dozen things you might want to do in London tomorrow. Here's today's, as an example. It's also available as a daily email, if you choose to subscribe, which makes it a particularly powerful piece of information/marketing.
London listings are extremely hard to compile, because there isn't a central go-to place to find all this stuff. The Visit London website has long been a convoluted embarrassment attempting to flog musicals to tourists, and Time Out is increasingly a style bible rather than an events listing, preferring food and gigs over walks and talks. Londonist has instead made a genuine attempt to curate a proper list of one-off things you might actually want to do, and not just big events in the centre of town, and is what a daily listing ought to be. Or was.
Six months ago this week, Londonist's Things To Do post took on a sponsor. That sponsor was YPlan, a smartphone app designed to help you book tickets for popular and hard-to-shift events. "Get the lowdown on cool dates, hidden culture, epic parties and where to hang with friends," they say, "and get your social life sorted in a flash." So did the selection of Things To Do events skew to fit the sponsor, or did editorial independence shine through? What do you think?
To find out, I dug back into the Londonist archives to the last week of March - the last full week of unsponsored listings. I analysed thefiveweekdayposts and the weekend bonanza to see what kinds of event were on offer, how much they cost, and what links were provided.
In total 96 events were listed that week, ranging from nature exhibitions at Camden Arts Centre to an evening of jazz fusion at Rich Mix. The most popular events were talks and lectures, totalling over a quarter of the whole, these being ideal one-off midweek specials. Musical events and concerts came a clear second, followed by art and exhibitions and comedy nights and film. The best word to describe the listings would probably have been 'cultural', and they were always reassuringly diverse.
Let's also consider price. 26 of the 96 events were free of charge, that's just over a quarter of the total. Other events ranged in price from £4 to £38, plus one way-out offering of £175 for an overnight Sherlock Holmes event at the Museum of London. The average price of an event was £9.75 (that's the mean, whereas the more representative median was £7). And on every occasion Londonist linked through to the event's website, so if you chose to book they took a cut of zero.
Now let's jump ahead six months. This time I've focused on Things To Do from the last week of September, that's last week, now well under the influence of YPlan's sponsorship. Again I analysed thefiveweekdayposts and the weekend extravaganza to see what kinds of event were on offer, how much they cost, and what links were provided.
In total 81 events were listed last week, ranging from a silk screen printing workshop in King's Cross to an alternative community film festival in Peckham. This time the most popular events were concerts and special one-offs, for example the tattoo convention at Tobacco Dock or the Lambeth Heritage Festival. Talks and lectures had dropped way down the list (10% rather than 27%), as had exhibitions, while the highest climbers were films and food. The best word to describe the listings is still 'cultural', but with a slightly more central London focus and a nod to a wealthier demographic.
Now let's consider price. 14 of the 81 events were free of charge, that's about a sixth of the total, down from a quarter six months back. Other events ranged in price from £2 to £49, plus one way-out offering of £78 for a Secret Cinema ticket. The average price of an event was £11.56 (up almost two pounds from before), while the more representative median was £9 (ditto). And on some of these events Londonist still linked directly to the event's website, but on the rest there was no direct connection - YPlan stole you away.
Ah yes, the sponsor's definitely made a difference. Every Things To Do post now contains at least five events promoted by YPlan, each with a chunky mobile-sized button underneath which reads [Get Tickets]. Clicking delivers you either to the app or to a special Londonist tickets page where you can log in by email, with Facebook or even through Google+. All in all there were 38 YPlan-sponsored events last week, that's just under half of the total, and with an average price of £16. Some of these events were of a type which might previously have appeared in the list, but others definitely not.
The biggest change in the listings is the appearance of Things To Do which you could do any week, and therefore aren't true one-offs. YPlan would like you to snap up a restaurant deal, or head to a specific pub in Angel for a Sunday roast for no better reason than that they'll get a cut. Or how about making this the week you sign up to a £25 floristry class, a £10 yoga session or a trip to Shoreditch's Cat Village? The Cat Village has had now had eight mentions since April, while the James Bond car exhibition has had eleven, presumably because the topslice on tickets is financially worthwhile.
I don't want you to think I'm being smug in pointing this out. Londonist is a commercial concern with staff on the payroll, and has to gather its income from somewhere. Indeed on YPlan's first day they reminded us of this, stating "Every click and purchase helps keep Londonist free to read." Somebody has to throw money their way, and if that's readers buying £20 tickets for a night at Brooklyn Bowl, then at least they're keeping a subscription payment model at bay. I should also point out that Londonist publishes a separate weekly digest of Free and Cheap events, as yet untainted by sponsors, which is far more likely to contain Things To Do you'd like to do.
All I've sought to do here is to uncover what happens when a commercial partner has a say in the copy you write. And in the case of Londonist's Things To Do listings it seems YPlan's influence stretches to half of the content, narrowing the focus to profitable events and diminishing diversity. As you skim through tomorrow's selection, remember that any sponsored post will always have some ulterior motive at work beneath the surface.