Oof, this one is always a question that makes me simultaneously roll my eyes and want to lay the smack down. It is supposed to be one of the universal benefits of being a blogger, right?
Look, I totally see the value of personally experiencing a merchant's product so you can speak to it in the most natural way. But there's a process -- and more importantly a relationship -- that needs to be recognized and respected. You know how we get all pissy about those pitches that ask us to promote their company or product without any sort of compensation? It's kind of like that.
It doesn't benefit the merchant to just hand out freebies willy-nilly in return for a blog post and some social media love (if they're lucky). And it doesn't really benefit the blogger, either. Sure, you got something awesome for a little work, but the buck stops there. What you're missing out on is the relationship and the potential income that results from being genuine about an affiliate-merchant relationship.
Let's take for example The Broke-Ass Bride and ModCloth. Long before The Broke-Ass Bride broke into the affiliate space, we promoted products from ModCloth because they fell in line with our quirky, retro vibe and budget-friendly state of mind. They had super cute 1950s-style dresses that would work great for a vintage-y wedding -- and this was long before their wedding line was even a glimmer in corporate's eye. The brand was a fit for the BAB audience and promoting individual products was totally natural. Then we find out they're in ShareASale, we meet with a company rep and an affiliate manager at our first ThinkTank (Denver, '13) and we begin to build an affiliate relationship. After writing a couple of new posts featuring ModCloth and throwing up a banner, we begin seeing resulting traffic and clicks and eventually a sale. I then revisit all old blog posts referencing ModCloth and populate them with affiliate links. Then I take it a step further and populate "retro wedding dress," "'50s style" and a few other key phrases with a ModCloth affiliate link and here we are, three years later, and ModCloth is consistently one of our top-performing merchants in the affiliate space.
Oh, and I got some free shit from them, too.
Because The Broke-Ass Bride had proven its worth as an affiliate, I was able to leverage its numbers to get product -- that I then shared on social channels, which only helped to bolster the affiliate-merchant relationship, as our readers saw me actually utilizing the merchant's products IRL.
Now, I know it's often a helluva lot easier to promote a brand if you are familiar with the product, but consider this: when you receive free product right off the bat, you're promoting the brand more out of obligation than out of genuine earnestness. Instead of trying to squeeze freebies out of your merchant, why not follow the legit avenues of what it's like to be a consumer of that merchant so you have a concrete experience to share? Go through the customer service process, get elbow-deep in the UX and write about what it is like to deal with the company from first click to final review of the product.
Your readers come to you because they trust your word and recommendations, so why not actually go through the process they will go through, at least once? This also helps lend credibility to you -- by going through the actual customer experience, you're able to convey if there are any parts of the process that are kind of shitty and can share that with your readers so they aren't caught unaware and you don't receive backlash (dude, it's been known to happen). Make your recommendation really count, and not just because you got free shit.
Remember, the affiliate-merchant/affiliate manager relationship should be wholly symbiotic. It's a relationship-based industry, and just expecting freebies and asking for them doesn't really do anyone much good. But once you prove that you can send quality clicks and traffic to a merchant that results in conversions, then your AM or merchant will likely be more willing to work with you on a more intimate level, which could include free product and even sponsored posts. But just like you have to know about a brand before you promote it, a merchant needs to know you're worth the resources before giving away their wares.