Helen Yee is a loner in the world of Australian food bloggers. The popular and acclaimed writer behind Grab Your Fork, a guide to eating and drinking in Sydney that celebrated its 10th birthday in 2015, does not accept payment for posts. At all.
"I get freebies occasionally, which I always signpost with a hashtag like #gifted, and I am sometimes invited to events, but I have never accepted payment and I never will. I think it's better if readers see what I am genuinely eating, rather than what a PR has told me to eat."
Paying for Instagram posts or "sponsored content" has been around for a while, but now specialised agencies like The Remarkables, Nuffnang, The Insiders and Tribe (among others) are being set up to represent bloggers (now more commonly referred to as "social media influencers" or "content creators") and connect them with brands to spruik. Increasingly, paid posts are happening in the food world, blurring the lines between what a food blogger genuinely cooks or eats, and what they are paid to.
Popular bloggers, such as Lorraine Elliott of Not Quite Nigella (who is represented by The Remarkables), can command as much as $9000 for a sponsored post. Even less well-known "influencers", like Urban Chic Guide, a Sydney restaurant review blog represented by The Insiders, are paid $1000 for a single sponsored post.
So surely Yee's blog, with its thousands of readers each month, has been courted by restaurants seeking a positive review? "Yep," Helen laughs. "Constantly. I'd say I get approached about once a week." And it's always a no? "I'm polite about it, but yes, it's always a no. I tell them I don't do paid posts, but I'd be happy to receive their menu and see if it's somewhere I'm interested in eating." And are they surprised? "Very."
It's easy to see why brands want to use influencers to promote their products.
"For comparatively little spend, brands can reach hundreds of thousands of people really easily, through just one blogger," says Felicity Grey of blogger rep agency Nuffnang, which boasts 8600 Australian bloggers (and a million worldwide).
Tribe, a new agency connecting brands to influencers (and the brainchild of radio host Jules Lund), uses an app to streamline the matching process. Influencers and brands sign up, and brands can then post about their campaigns. If it's relevant to an influencer, they can post the relevant content – for example, if the brand is Nutella, the influencer might use the product in baking and post a pic of the result, using the relevant hashtags and handles.
So far, so simple – but what about the readers? Don't they deserve to know when a post honestly reflects the blogger's world, and when it's done for payment? Absolutely, says Anthony Svirskis, Tribe chief executive. "This is a very new industry and we're a new company. There are currently no regulations around posting sponsored content, but we tell our influencers to err on the side of caution. Transparency is always best, so if an influencer has been paid for something, they just hashtag it with '#sp' (for 'sponsored post') or '#sponsored'."
It doesn't always happen, though. @myfoodstgram, who has more than 40,000 followers (at time of writing), was featured on Tribe's Instagram account as an example of how easy it was to post using the app. The post, about burger chain Grill'd's new low-carb buns, included 31 hashtags, but not one of them was about the post being paid for. Other Tribe influencers, like @thehealthyindulger and @reneemowatt, similarly posted sponsored content without any mention of the fact that money was involved. And how much money, exactly? Some of Tribe's bloggers, Svirskis says, are paid as much as $2500 for a single post.
Sarah Chegwidden of The Remarkables agrees that transparency is key. She acknowledges that some readers might not be aware that the hashtag "#sp" means "sponsored post", but says this will change over time and that most readers are happy to read sponsored content. "Our bloggers' readers know that sponsored posts are necessary to keep the blog alive and well. And there's an art to a good sponsored post. Sure, there are some bloggers who don't do it very well, but our bloggers are genuinely into the products or places they're paid to endorse."
And yes, influencers do turn down brands that don't align with their values, says Chegwidden. "That happens about once a week," she says. "We always send out products to bloggers to try before they agree to recommend it. If they don't like the taste, they can turn it down."
Still, for food writer Melissa Leong, who, like Helen Yee, has been approached by restaurants looking for promotion, paying for posts is steeped in murkiness. While she concedes that, as yet, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has not set any regulations around sponsored posts, "that doesn't mean ethics go out of the window". "PRs love to use terms 'digital influencers' and 'taste makers'. And while it's true that we will always look for guidance and advice, I have to have faith that people will make up their own mind and, as such, influence can only carry so far."