Do Me A Favour

“A suggestion, kindly meant: you need to establish relationships with individuals and organisations before asking them for favours.”

I sent those words in an email to a certain nutritionists’ directory in November 2011. It was in response to perhaps half a dozen emails they had sent me, requesting links to their site from a website on which I work (some of the latter ones written as if contacting me for the first time; I declined several times as they weren’t relevant), followed by an email to me directly requesting a link on this blog.

Fast forward over two years and I find them in my in-box again, again asking for a link, again offering nothing in return:

“I recently came across your site and can see that you have lots of great content. Would it be possible to include a link to XXX from your links to articles section here? Here is a link to our coeliac disease page.”

(Had they bothered to consult the ‘great content’ in that section they’d have learned that those articles are mine only, collated in order to help my readers catch up with stuff I’ve written, or re-read articles they’ve previously found useful.)

Other bloggers received a similar request. We had a little online moan. We ‘only email if we think our site would be of value to your readers...’ came the apology, which I found disingenuous. Their source of income appears to be nutrition professionals advertising on their site. They promise ‘high search engine rankings’ in their ‘About us’ section. What’s a terrific way of ensuring high rankings? Links – of course.

Everyone wants something for nothing …
Being asked for one-way favours by strangers is the theme of this blog, and it has become apparent that the free-from online community is being increasingly targeted. I’ve enough personal examples for a blog many times this length. I’ll cherry pick.

* The ‘blogger engagement specialist’ of a now well known ‘free from’ company who contacted me “to enlist your help … to ask your readers what they’d like to see” in the way of new products. It was acknowledged to be a “cheeky request”. Still: “Any help in gathering this feedback and making the coeliac community even more awesome would be great.”

* The marketing consultancy representing a pharmaceutical company (who as we all know operate on breadline budgets), proposing to launch some allergy gadget, looking for allergic interviewees and who asked for “permission to mail information to your followers”. Essentially: help with their recruitment and apparently access to my mailing list.

* One from the marketing team of a company inappropriate to my blog (a herbal drink), written as if from a very polite boss to his employee, giving careful instructions on posting their press release on my blog, and “please remember to tweet and Facebook it as well”.

* A PR planning to pitch for a mineral supplement contract who wanted my answers to a clutch of questions about allergies and those suffering from them – a few hours’ work, I imagine. “Thank you so much, this is hugely appreciated” was what I was offered – the wording throughout assuming I’d pre-agreed to offer pro bono consultancy.

* An approach from an overseas ‘free from’ company who appeared to be looking for advice and information in securing them distribution in this country – specifically at a major coffee store chain.

* Not business-related, but hard to omit: a request from a consumer for the chapter on gluten-free labelling in my book on coeliac disease, because “I don’t need the rest”.

The firm repeatedly asking me to RT their (self-serving) blog posts ... countless calls to write articles for websites in return for ‘good publicity’ ... TV production companies asking for help to recruit participants ... a flurry of ‘vote for me / us’ requests from randoms who evidently consider amassing the most internet clicks from indiscriminate sources a prize worth spending hours online pursuing, irrespective of whose backside is pained as a consequence ... I could go on and on, but going on and on would turn this fury in my belly into active reflux and from there you’re a belch away from a vomit.

This is from strangers, you understand
It’s not that I mind strangers approaching me, per se. If you’re introducing yourself, with a view to perhaps forming a mutually beneficial working relationship, then great. If you’re offering me a gig, bring it on – naturally, I’m a delight to work with.

And, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m happy to hear from readers or followers; to give my thoughts on coeliac home test kits (mostly good), or gluten-free oats (mostly good), or nuts on airlines (ban the ana-triggering choke-hazardy bastards), or whatever, to food sensitive folk who ask, or who are in need of other advice. Established business contacts, good acquaintances and social media pals – it’s always good to hear from you. I’ll help if I can, and if I can’t I’ll say so – but I never mind.

It’s never that. That’s the good part of what I do. I like the ‘free from’ community, and I hope it likes me.

No. It is people who come looking for you when they need you, when you suddenly might be useful to them, and not before, who enthuse about “looking forward to working with you”, but when the subject of reciprocation or remuneration is broached, turn out to be not quite looking forward as much as they’d initially claimed.

It is being asked for free business consultancy, professional copywriting or online marketing by individuals who I would not be able to recognise in a police line-up – but would dearly love to put there.

It is those who make nice noise out of nowhere when – and this genuinely shocks me – they are asking someone they have never spoken to or met to do their work for them.

Why is this happening?
I can speculate. Several possible reasons.

Free from is now big business and all that big business chat is conducted online. In the absence of a print journal devoted to allergies and sensitivities, bloggers, social media users, and web-based resource sites have become the allergy media: we are providing most of the ‘free from’ journalism there is. We are the only ‘experts’ who consistently and determinedly write and interact. We have value. We are therefore sought out.

There is some bandwagon-jumping in the industry, but there is innovation and there is competition to get ahead too. Growth has been fast. There is pressure to get results quickly. Perhaps the industry is simply ‘rushed’? Has the investment of time needed to develop working relationships become a casualty?

Blogging is generally unpaid; everyone knows it. A wise journalist I know called Linda Jones once said that people do not appreciate what they get for free – and that has stuck with me. If you’re prepared to donate what you do on your blog, are the PRs and marketing gurus lazily assuming you must be happy to give away some more – in the way of links, favourable reviews, research, recruitment, writing, consultancy and anything else we’re now routinely asked for?

What can we do?
Each case must be judged on its own merits and sometimes the bigger picture trumps my annoyance. I have swallowed hard in the past, done what was being requested for the greater good, and moved on. Doubtless I will again.

But on other occasions, I have politely explained that a professional service is being requested of me. I have also complained outright. I have also quoted a fee. I have also called people straight back and caught them off guard (great fun). I have recommended approaching allergy charities and making a donation. I have ignored many.

I have tried various things, then, but what I have never tried is to make unreasonable requests in response. Perhaps I should. Or perhaps now I’ll just send a link to this post.

I suggest this. You may run your blog for fun, as a hobby, but if you’re dealing with businesses from time to time, however amicably, then I’d urge you to be business-like. Understand that you’re being approached because what you have has value. Have a PR statement on your blog. (I have a brief one here, soon to be added to.) Say what you will and won’t do. Consider approaching some companies you’ve supported and saying ‘Hey, how about sponsoring my site?’ Don’t be shy.

What can ‘they’ do?
Show some respect and sincere interest in what we are doing. A standard email to which you’ve added ‘Dear Alex’ (or worse, 'Dear Blogger') at the top is not good enough.

Some of us make our livings from this business, and have worked for years to build up the knowledge, expertise and contacts you are trying to tap into: don’t be ignorant of this.

Don’t pretend you have no dosh. If you want to build relationships you could do a lot worse than steer a little advertising budget in the way of one or two of those bloggers out there who have the attention of the people you are trying to reach. It may turn out to be a good investment. And most of us – me included – would not charge much.

And finally, should you ever make a totally unreasonable request, and this is pointed out to you, do not then respond that “We just thought you may have wanted to help the allergy community”, thereby attempting to deflect shame, greed or guilt our way. Because, in all probability, that’s what you should be feeling, not us.

* Identifying details in some of the examples have been changed or generalised. Please do likewise if you comment from experience.

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