Balancing Ethics, Originality, and Sustainability: Thoughts for New K-Beauty Bloggers

So you think you might want to start a K-Beauty blog, because you're passionate about the products, you've learned so much during your personal journey, and you want to connect with others like you; and you should. Those are all great reasons to start a blog in our little Asian beauty product niche, and there are such a staggering number of products (even if you were to stick to just K-Beauty) that there's an endless supply of new products to review and discuss.

Maybe you imagine yourself drinking tea in a bright but cozy corner of your home, feverishly writing about how much you loved (or hated) a largely unknown product, so that other enthusiasts can benefit from your experience.

Beauty blogging tools, laptop, tea, sheet mask
Laptop, tea, sheetmask, check. This is not what my workspace really looks like; it's missing me curled up in my chair, sans pants, balancing my laptop desk on my knees while I forget to drink my tea until it's cold. This is why I use tea cups with lids.

The truth is, writing posts claims only a small percentage of blogging time. The vast majority of the time required to run a blog is filled with behind-the-scenes tasks, and this has lead to the burn out of many a developing blogger.

Earlier this year, fellow The Snailcast podcaster Tracy of Fanserviced-b wrote a no-holds-barred daily breakdown of A Week in the Life of a Beauty Influencer, which made me exhausted in empathy just to read it. This post is about what pitfalls I've encountered in the last 5 years, and my advice to new bloggers on how to dodge them.

In this post:

  • Originality: find your voice
  • Sustainability: feast and famine
  • Ethics: shops, brands, and monetization
  • Upkeep: photography, webhosting, and social media

Why am I writing this post? Since we're talking about behind-the-scenes transparency here, it's because: 1. I've been tinkering with this post in my drafts for months, 2. I was inspired to write it by Tracy's post, 3. I am working on several product reviews that are still in the testing phase, 4. I have a product I want to drag back to hell but I don't want back-to-back negative reviews, and 5. because I see a lot of new bloggers falling into avoidable hazards out of inexperience.

I'm learning constantly thanks to the kindness of others, and I want to pay it forward.



Originality: find your voice

Think about your favourite bloggers. What attracted you to their work? No doubt it includes things like detailed information, nice photos, similar skin type, interesting products, or nice website design. But I bet they were also enjoyable to read. There was something compelling and entertaining about how they wrote; they had a distinct voice. This is tough for new bloggers, because we often start out emulating the style of the bloggers we admire the most, and it can take time our own style and personality to come through.

Sometimes people misunderstand that there is a "formula" to being a successful blogger, and emulate a successful blogger's style, set up all their SEO and monetization, and then become frustrated when they don't achieve immediate success. While all that is important long-term, I don't think it's a good starting point.

Content first, always

Content should always be your first priority; worry about the rest of it later. If you go into blogging with the goal of getting recognition and money, you will become resentful and bitter towards those you perceive as doing better than yourself without having the aptitude that you do. Don't measure yourself against others, focus on your own development and hone your skills. Blogging isn't about aptitude, it's about work. Work, and having a unique voice that captures people's attention. Think about the kind of content you want to read, and work toward producing it.

Researching makes me happy, but it's not necessary for everyone to break out the journal articles just to review a product.

A post shared by Snow White and the Asian Pear (@snowwhiteandtheasianpear) on


For some reason, there has been a trend of new blogs launching with K-Beauty Routine Guides and other expository content; but at this stage in the K-Beauty wave, that's pretty well-worn territory. You don't need to prove your knowledge with a megapost.

Product reviews are a staple of beauty blogs; the meat and potatoes of content. Unlike guides, the beauty community always needs more quality reviews. While negative reviews don't drive much as much traffic as positive reviews do, it's important to let your readers know that you aren't afraid to drag products that deserve it. What do you go looking for , statistically speaking, when you read other blogs? Chances are, you're looking for reviews of products that interest you.

Just write the content that you want to see, in a style that would keep you interested.

Inspiration is good, biting is bad

This is tricky. I was inspired to write this post after reading Tracy's post of A Week in the Life of a Beauty Influencer; I felt catalyzed to put my own thoughts about the subject onto digital paper.  That's the key here: my own thoughts. Before starting this post, and while writing it, I constantly checked myself to make sure I wasn't just harping on a topic she'd already covered. It's fine to be inspired by (and cite) someone else's work, and then draw on it for inspiration for your own ideas, but if what you are writing could replace the original post, you're veering from 'inspired' into 'biting' and you might want to reflect a bit.

Are you repackaging someone else's work? Are you citing their work appropriately if you are using any of the ideas from their post? If you're going to be quoting large portions of their content, did you reach out to them for permission? If you were in their shoes, how would you feel if someone did something similar with your own work? I ask myself these questions constantly when I'm writing, and if it's a direct response to a particular post, I'll often reach out to the original author, as I did with Tracy for this post. She replied: "In scholarship, it's called "being in conversation", you're in conversation with my post, but that's not biting, it's responding to it and giving your own take."



Sustainability: feast and famine

A consistent posting schedule is integral to blogging, and it's difficult to maintain. Particularly in the early stages, it's easy to be swept up in the newness and the pent-up things people have to say, and they rapidly release posts. Then people burn out, and slow down or disappear completely. You need to pace yourself; if you're someone who gets struck by periods inspiration/high productivity followed by writer's block, consider scheduling your posts in advance or having a stash that you can draw on in times of creativity famine.

Schedule your blog posts in advance
It's a good idea to plan ahead, to stash posts, and to have multiple posts in-progress.
Also be realistic. How much time (and patience) can you devote to: prepping for a post, editing, photography, answering comments, emails, and tweets, tracking your expenses and bookkeeping, and developing unique content for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? (I struggle with all of these things, btw. I have about 70 hours of writing replies I'm behind on.) Note that writing the post itself is not on this list!

Ironically, to run a moderately successful blog, one spends the vast majority of their time on tasks other than actually writing posts, which is hardly why one starts a blog! Or at least why they should start a blog. Does your need to write bubble up to unbearable levels? Are you pining for a creative outlet? Are you tired of reading shallow reviews and have a lot to say about the products you've used? Do you have enough disposable income to sustain your blog for a few years until it becomes established enough to sustain itself, and are you comfortable with the idea that it might never reach that level? You're ready, pick a platform and start sharing your voice with the world.



Ethics: shops, brands, and monetization

On the flip side, if your thought process leans toward "I could have done what so-and-so did, so why not me instead of her/him?" be aware that just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Are you eyeing the PR hauls of other bloggers, wanting free products? Do you read about the income of top bloggers, and covet that money? Are you aiming for influence as a primary motivator, impatiently awaiting shops and brands begging in your inbox for a piece of you? Dreaming of collaborations with shops, with products designed by you?

Which type of blogger would you rather read?

Just reflect on that for a moment. Beauty blog readers aren't oblivious. You weren't when you were still a savvy consumer, researching, reading, and side-eyeing people whose posts left the unmistakable tang of bullshit in the air. In fact, the beauty blog sphere is, if anything, even more suspicious of what sort of nefarious motivations might be behind blog posts, often seeing conspiracies and shadiness where there isn't any.

It's not that you can't dream of where success might take you, but if you're primarily concerned with what your blog can give you, instead of what your blog can offer readers, people will pick up on that. You can monetize your blog without compromising ethics, but you need to be transparent and mindful about it. You also need to be cautious in your dealings with businesses.

As someone who is slightly phobic of working with shops, the endless litany of thirsty businesses trying to solicit free (or almost free) favours reminds me of frat boys trying to convince you how lucky you are for the opportunity to fellate them. But I digress.

Rolling eyes
Why yes, I am fortunate to be offered this exciting opportunity for venereal disease. [source]
That's not to say it can't be done in an ethical way; eventually, blogs require some sort of monetization to continue and evolve without prohibitive personal expense. There is a lingering expectation, especially in mainstream beauty blogging, that bloggers should eschew monetization and support their blogs through a day job or an affluent spouse. ( .... wut??)

The idea that beauty blogging is only available to the rich (idle or otherwise) is mystifying; blogging is expensive. Press sample products can only go so far. Even if I was to fill a room with free products, I can't purchase camera equipment with moisturizer, but clear photos with good lighting are a key part of a review.

Press samples aren't everything

Press samples are when shops or brands send you, aka "the press", free products to test and review. Disclosure of press samples is mandatory in many, but not all, countries. Although you are not paid for the review, the FTC considers it 'compensation' in the form of gratis products, and require clear disclosures.

I urge you to be very discerning when accepting press samples. Why are you accepting the product? Does the product genuinely interest you? Does it fit with the theme of your blog? Often, they're part of "Team Kill" marketing campaigns, where you're just a piece of a massive marketing blast hyping a specific product or brand, so ask! Ask them how many bloggers have received this offer, decide if you are comfortable with being part of a large campaign.

So if you aren't rich, how do you sustain a quality blog without sacrificing your ethics or beggaring yourself?

Monetize with caution

There's four common types of monetization that I'm aware of: affiliate links, advertisement space, and sponsored content (also sometimes called "advertorials") and being a professional influencer. There are also referral links, which are a bit different and I'll explain those below.  Everyone needs to decide what they are comfortable with, but monetization should be your lowest priority as a new blogger, in my opinion.  Content first, always!


Affiliate links are links to products through an affiliate network, which means that if a shopper clicks your link, a cookie is placed on your device that tracks that you are the referrer, and if the shopper makes an order, you will receive a small commission from that sale. There's no additional cost to the shopper, and if the order goes through, in 3-6 months (depending on the network, it may be more or less) you will receive those commission funds.

This is the only type of monetization I use, and in the US, the FTC requires that you disclose the presence of affiliate links on each page before a shopper could click any of them, or immediate proximity. You can read more about why I chose this route here. By having affiliate links that generate (albeit a small amount of) income, my blog can purchase outright the products I want to test and review so I don't have to wrestle with the dilemma of bias. I'm bad at that. However, even though my blog can more or less sustain itself, it's in no way able to sustain me; it will always stay a creative outlet instead of a viable source of income.

Referral links are similar to affiliate links, but they usually result in store credit rather than independent funds.  There is a type of personalized referral code that may generate income for the blogger when a reader uses it, but as I've never used that type, I can't offer any additional insight.


Advertising space is when you sell space on your blog for ads, whether 3rd-hand, like Google Ads (where you don't choose what ads show) or individual arrangements with shops or brands directly.  Advertisements absolutely need to be disclosed, so be cautious if you accept a direct arrangement and make sure you're disclosing it properly.

Does Google's ad page show Hanbang herbs for everyone, or is it just creepin' on me? Screencap from Google's ad site.

I don't use ads on my blog because nothing pisses me off more than scrolling through a page only to discover a pop-up is warning me that my phone now has herpes because my fingertip brushed a loading ad while I swiped. Ads also mess with load times, and I don't have patience for that. Still, ads are an easy way to monetize your blog while leaving your content intact.


Sponsored content is when you have accepted compensation for content on your blog/platform.  This could be anything from a paid post that they dictate the content of, aka an 'advertorial' = ad + editorial, to an endorsement posted on social media. These are the most difficult type of monetization to pull off, because the content itself is influenced by the compensation. Contracts can vary from complete control to the content being subject to approval of the sponsor. Explicit disclosure is needed; as a reader I'd want to know up front what it is and why I'd want to keep reading.

As a reader, I need to know that the blogger retained full creative control of the content, and that their review is their own opinions even though they were compensated for their time and effort in reviewing the product. Blogging is hard work, there's nothing wrong with being paid for it, but paid posts are very tricky to do well. Does the post bring value to the reader?


Influencer monetization is the closest word I can think of as an umbrella term. This is where paid endorser, spokesperson, brand ambassador, featured celebrity guest, etc, would fall. Collaborations are another example. Anything where you are publicly leveraging your influence on behalf of another business and being paid for it.

Things I wouldn't consider monetization of your blog/platform but are still possible monetary avenues: acting as a private consultant, creating content for other platforms, copyediting, translations, and freelance writing.

Regardless of the offer, think about how you, as a reader, would feel about a blogger you trust being part of the arrangement a brand or shop is offering you, and let that guide you. What would make you feel comfortable with it?


Upkeep: photography, webhosting, and social media

Sooryehan bottle photo taken with natural light
Natural light + a deep windowsill > a bunch of photography equipment. Image from: The Bottle That Stole My Heart: Sooryehan Hyo Biyeon Concentrated Brightening Essence Review

Photography

I admit when I started, I thought good text was more important than pretty photos, plus I didn't even have a camera. You might say "what about your phone?" but keep in mind I started 5+ years ago, and phone technology has evolved a bit since then, heh. Thankfully we're living in the age of phones-as-tiny-computers and there's more filters and phone editing apps than you can shake a stick cleanser at.

Here's some simple things that you can do on a limited photography budget: use a flat, square piece of paper/board/wood with a non-glossy, white, black, or gray surface as your background. Poster board works fine, just channel your inner elementary school science fair kid. Choose something portable enough to set up outside; after trying all sorts of lighting set ups, I've yet to find something that works as well as old fashioned natural light.

Seriously, a $2 white poster board + free natural light has outperformed equipment I've spent hundreds on. Having a white, black, or gray background will help automatic colour correction filters to be more accurate; I recently discovered my camera had a white balance setting option that would have saved me a lot of aggravation if I'd known about it earlier.  I'll link some of the more advanced equipment and such that I use later in the post.

Oh, and watermark your images! Nothing like scrolling through a shop and seeing your photo selling their goods, or having your content scraped by an RRS feed onto someone else's site. Watermark, y'all.

Image of my old home office, mid-post, from What's In My Stash: Forgotten Finds & Organization Overhaul

Webhosting

Keep it simple to start. Do not fall prey to those predatory paid services offering advice or classes for new bloggers. You can learn pretty much everything you need to know (free!) about SEO, etc, from this post on Oh, She Blogs. You do not need paid hosting until much, much later, if at all. Focus on quality content first! Blogger (née Blogspot) and Wordpress (the free version) are the two most recommended beginner platforms. They'll do just fine.

Personally, I prefer Blogger because it doesn't have the limitations on advertising and affiliate linking that Wordpress does, and although their standard templates are pretty rough, there are many free blogger templates out there that will do nicely. The other perk of Blogger is it syncs very nicely with Google Domains when it comes time for you to register your blog domain. That's one expense I would encourage new bloggers to consider. I didn't realize (for years!) that it was so cheap. For $12, you can get a year's registration of a .com custom domain.

Before you register your domain, spend some time confirming your blog name. Test it for duplicates and trademark issues. Talk to friends who share your interest in this niche, and get their feedback on the name. When I started, I had no idea that Asian pears were not commonly known, so sometimes people read more into my blog name than I intended. Also ask friends if it's catchy; you want your blog name to be charming and memorable. Once you're confident about your blog name, grab a standard handle on all social media, even if you don't intend to utilize that platform, in case someone tries to impersonate you or simply because you might change your mind later.

If you start on Instagram, you'll have the flexibility to play around with it before you commit. Since @mentions will switch/redirect to your new username, you can change it without risking obliterating your SEO. Changing your blog name is a hot mess by comparison.

Excerpt from my Instagram feed
The middle image in my this snippet of my Instagram feed has the nicest lighting, and it's natural.

Social media

Instagram is a great place to start microblogging, especially now that it allows you to post multiple photos. Photos are usually the most challenging parts of blogging, so it's a great skill to develop via Instagram. It lets you develop a style and a voice without being pressured to write long posts.

It's also a great way to establish relationships with brands and shops if building up your product stash for blogging isn't going to be viable without press samples. Just be cautious with what you accept, because businesses are targeting microinfluencers, and as exciting as it is to be "noticed" and offered something, you need to think about whether it's really serving your interests.

Instagram is particularly vulnerable to the "Team Kill" problem I mentioned earlier. Followers often get suspicious when seeing the same press samples over and over. Readers often say that they wonder about the sincerity of reviews after seeing the same press samples twenty times in a row; don't sell yourself short and blow the trust of your followers for a box of masks.

I've side-eyed certain brands and shops myself just because they suddenly and unnaturally took over my feed. After being in the community for so long, many of us have developed an instinct for when a product blows up on its own merits and when it's just a PR blitz, and the second option isn't a good look for anyone involved.

Lastly, don't take on more social media platforms than you can comfortably manage. I use Facebook as a way for people to message me, I use Twitter for off-the-cuff thoughts, and I use Instagram as a way to push me to improve my photography skills and stay connected with the community. That's as much as I can manage. Instagram is definitely my favourite way to stay connected with the community; I love being able to browse through tags and see what fellow enthusiasts are up to.

Inexpensive photography equipment I use

As I mentioned above, if you looking for something a little more complex or inclement-weather-proof than "white matte posterboard + natural light", here are examples of photography and blogging equipment I've bought off Amazon and use myself.

Note: these are affiliate links; if you choose to click on them before you shop, your purchase may contribute a small amount toward the maintenance of this blog.

Softbox lights when I need artificial light on demand because natural light isn't an option. I used them to take the title image of this post, in fact, because it's the middle of the night.

A tripod with a quick-release plate and a phone mount. Quick release plates are amazing, my last tripod didn't have that feature and it's so convenient.

Laptop desk because I prefer to do photo corrections with a mouse, and I like being able to comfortably write anywhere, including during road trips and family visits.

Sticky tack to stabilize round products on flat surfaces for flat lays! If something won't stop rolling around, this is a simple fix.

One thing I was going to buy, and then decided not to, is marble contact paper. You've seen all those Instagram flat lays on what appears to be huge, gorgeous swathes of marble table? Chances are, it's just simple contact paper, which is portable and inexpensive.


Photography equipment I have that I wouldn't recommend

A tabletop lightbox, because the issue was always getting strong enough lights. A pair of softbox lights + a poster board or other flat surface works so much better, and unless you take a lot of single small item shots, it's not going to be as useful as you think.

A flat lay side arm for a tripod, because while it sounds like they will make flatlays easier, these are expensive, a pain to set up, are vulnerable to the slightest vibration, and a nightmare to get perfectly aligned.

White photography backdrops unless you're doing videos, because the small ones get dirty as soon as you look at them and they crinkle and crease if you sneeze in their vicinity. Unless you want to fuss with ironing, I'd pass.



Starting a blog doesn't have to be overwhelming, complicated, or expensive. People get so caught up in the details of SEO and marketing that they forget that at the heart of it all is content. Write good content, develop your own voice, don't rush into anything.

What are the dangers you ran into as a new blogger, or see others falling into? Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!

Have something you'd like to share with me in general?  Snap a pic and tag me on Instagram at @snowwhiteandtheasianpear because I'd love to see it!

All the best,
-Cat

**Disclaimer: All products I mentioned in this post were purchased with my own money. This blog contains both affiliate and non-affiliate links, and clicking the former before you shop means that this blog may receive a small commission to assist in this blog supporting itself.  Please see my Contact Info & Disclaimer policy for more information.

10 comments

  1. It's a very interesting post indeed.
    Tracy's post was also very clear about how busy it's being an "influencer" and yours it's good not only for new blogger but also for existing Bloggers to not lost the horizon in this "work".


    Personally, despite I found interesting that many Bloggers/Vloggers can get so many PR samples or gifts from brands; if that ever happened to me, I would be overwhelmed. I just can't deal with more than I actually get (and I have only 1 Sponsor)...product testing takes me weeks if it's makeup and at least a month if it's regarding skin care, so I couldn't make it with that massive amount of products some recieve, specially if the store or brand, or website asks for a short deadline.

    And maybe it's because I also write a lot (a lot, really. I try to "google translate" even the product information that brands put in the website), and it's because at least in my country there's very poor reading comprehension -like for example, you gave all the information and still they ask where they can find it or what's the price-.
    I don't want to lose the fun when I write about something...maybe that's the main reason why I'm declining offers or not joining for more campaigns. I'm afraid of the burnout and also the lack of motivation mostly...but also I'm afraid of getting new breakouts or pimples, or damaging my skin for trying trendy products. Maybe I'm very cautious about that, but this Blogging work has been also a journey for having my skin in a better state, and my readers know about that.

    What I could advice to new bloggers it's to read a lot, to work on your posts, to invest time to make attractive photos, but mostly...be honest about what you feel about. Readers can read between your lines and confidence it's something you earn through hard and consistent work.

    Thank you so much for this! and sorry for my rant >_<
    hugs!

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    1. Rant away! Burnout is a real concern, and I burned out on blogging my first go-round after realizing how pervasive sponsored content is. Now that I have more experience under my belt, I have a better perspective on it (blogging is hard work, and people shouldn't be made to financially strain themselves to do it) but that there needs to be transparency and discussion about what's going on so that readers are aware.

      The product testing thing always riles me up (that's what sparked my first burnout and hiatus) because it's something I'm always going to be passionate about as a foundation of good blogging.

      Hugs! <3

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  2. This is an awesome article Cat. After literally years of reading blogs I've decided to start my own because so many beauty influencers just aren't putting out the content I am interested in. This post came at a perfect time for me and has articulated a lot of how I'm feeling about the beauty community. Everything is an advertorial these days and it's honestly hard to get a thorough, honest review on products anymore. Thanks for being you! <3

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    1. "so many beauty influencers just aren't putting out the content I am interested in." This is why I started, and I think it's one of the best reasons to start a blog. I feel like this is what keeps me on the right path; any time I am tempted to give in to exhaustion or lack of inspiration and write something lackluster, I'm reminded that I'm writing the content I want to see. Otherwise, it's just not worth doing ... which is why I have so many drafts gathering dust, haha.

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  3. Thanks for this brilliantly insightful post! I'm a Korean-Australian fashion blogger but I do occasional beauty posts as my readers are very interested in this area. I feel these tips are super relevant to fashion blogging as well. As a magazine journalist in a past life, I've found writing blog posts quite challenging as I've had to reinsert the voice that was sort of beaten out of me. Thanks again :)

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    1. Ah, what an interesting perspective! I'd love to hear more about the challenges and differences in transitioning between journalism and blogging, if you're willing to share?

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  4. You have the best, most tasteful watermark in the 'sphere. Though I have zero interest in blogging, this was fascinating. As will Tracy's be. Also love the 'erudite vulgarity,' not to mention what you call nerdiness, that we all recognize as application of scientific method and over-time, intensive, multidimensional tracking.

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    1. Aww, thank you! I strive to make it unobtrusive while still being visible, and most importantly when it comes to product shots, in a place where a shady shop can't scrape it to sell their products. Sadly a very common issue. Also, I love the term 'erudite vulgarity' and the practice as well!

      I had hoped it was still interesting to readers to see behind the scenes of blogging, because there's a lot of marketing-centric garbage out there. There are a ton of blogs that make money not from blogging, but from hawking their blogging startup guides to new bloggers. Also, skincare nerds 5ever!

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