I remember when blogging first began; it was like getting a glimpse into someone’s diary. People could be uncharacteristically open under the relative anonymity that the internet provided. They could rant about their boss, regale you with an embarrassing story from a night out, share the best recipe for banana bread or reveal which unexpected brand makes the perfect jeans.
Some were well written, others weren’t, but it didn’t matter much because they were personal, opinionated, raw and authentic. Now, with the takeover of social media, images and personas are manufactured and monetised, and bloggers are anything but anonymous. They have become our generation's celebrities, their sites run like online magazines.
As a writer, I've spent the last 10 years working my way up from beauty intern to editor. So when traditional print media began to peter out, I knew I had to adapt to survive. Inspired by bloggers like Grace F Victory who manage to walk the tightrope of authenticity while monetising their social channels, I decided I’d give blogging a go.
On my blog I share travel stories, disastrous dating encounters, beauty favourites and fitness tips, including expert quotes throughout so the reader gets a mix of the personal and the professional. Shortly after winning a best emerging blogger award last year, I landed a six-month stint at a women’s mag – I was thrilled, but found it near impossible to manage my blog at the same time.
I met a celebrity ghost blogger a few years back – she worked on an A-lister's newsletter, which eventually turned into a multimillion-dollar lifestyle site.
That was when Louise*, a writer I know, suggested I get a ghost blogger. I’d heard about ghost writing; celebrities, sports stars, and people who find themselves front page news land a book deal, then get someone else to write it. I actually met a celebrity ghost blogger a few years back – she worked on an A-lister's newsletter, which eventually turned into a multimillion-dollar lifestyle site. And who remembers when someone on Kylie Jenner’s payroll wrote an article on her app about how she keeps things fresh in the bedroom? Jenner quickly removed it but was forced to let her fans know that she’d neither written nor approved it. Unsurprisingly, her young followers who pay for exclusive content weren’t happy to discover that what they had been reading was not coming from Jenner herself.
I wasn’t surprised when I met the celebrity ghost blogger, or when I learned that Kylie Jenner doesn’t write her own posts – she's famous, so the same rules don't apply, right? But when actual bloggers are paying others to blog for them, that's alarming. Louise explained that like ghost writers, ghost bloggers don’t get bylines, meaning that readers have no way of knowing that someone else is writing the blogs they religiously read.
How did my mate Louise know all about this secret world of ghost blogging? Turns out she’d been approached to ghost write for a popular lifestyle influencer. Louise revealed that the influencer's management team had emailed her and outlined what the role of ghost blogger entailed. They wanted her to write three posts, from product reviews to more personal pieces like "How going vegan changed my life", and 10-15 Instagram captions a week. Why her? Because as a digital journalist she was SEO-savvy and knew how to write headlines and articles that would grab people’s attention. This is vital, because once a blogger reaches a certain level of 'stardom' their blog becomes a business and operates in much the same way as an online newspaper or magazine. Traffic, engagement, page views and more are monitored and used to present to sponsors and advertisers in order to capitalise on the site's popularity.
"I was tempted by the offer, as the extra money would have definitely come in handy," Louise says. "But I had my reservations: What would it be like to write as someone else? I’m not a fiction writer and I worried that I’d really have to 'get into character' every time I wrote something. I also worried that I wouldn’t have enough access to the blogger they wanted me to work with. I agreed to a month's trial run but my fears were confirmed – and then some. I worked closely with her team but never even met her, and whenever I had questions I needed her to answer so I could write personal pieces I’d get brief responses that sounded more like her team had written them. I spent so much time watching her YouTube videos, Snapchats and Insta Stories to get an idea of what she was like that it really wasn’t worth my while. Needless to say, once the month was done I declined their offer to continue."
"Blogging has become so much more than just sharing your thoughts online," says beauty and fashion blogger Alice*. "It’s about 'selling' a lifestyle. Curating a beautiful Instagram feed, filming YouTube videos, and posting Insta and Snapchat Stories constantly. It all takes so much time that the actual blogging becomes secondary. I grew my following on Instagram from a couple of thousand to just over 10,000 in under a year and once I’d become a micro-influencer brands wanted to work with me. In the beginning they wanted to sponsor blogposts but now they’re only interested in Instagram posts and Stories, which means my blog has become less of a focus. However, I still post once a week, because your blog is what legitimises you. I’m now at 40,000 followers, work with a number of brands, travel a lot and love the creative aspects of styling my shoots and filming videos. I struggle most with the writing; I don’t enjoy it and finding the time to blog can be difficult. When I’m particularly busy I hire ghost bloggers to write for me. The pieces are generic SEO content to help drive traffic to my blog but I try to work with the same writers so they get to know me and my style," she reveals.
"There’s a lot of pressure from our followers and management to keep churning out content, which is why it’s more common than you think for bloggers to use ghost writers – but it’s incredibly secretive," Alice adds.
The secrecy makes sense. Blogging implies authenticity; we connect with our favourite bloggers, we relate to them or want to emulate them. To discover that your favourite influencer doesn’t write all their own posts – that the person you’ve 'connected' with is a faceless ghost writer – shatters trust. And once the trust goes, so does the valuable engagement.
I discovered on my first day that they wanted me to ghost write blogposts, tweets, Insta captions and Facebook statuses for a number of famous bloggers.
Ghost blogger Samantha* applied for an assistant editor role at a media company straight after graduation. "The job description was vague," she says. "I had no idea what I would actually be doing if I got the job, but I discovered on my first day that they wanted me to ghost write blogposts, tweets, Insta captions and Facebook statuses for a number of famous bloggers."
Meeting regularly with her influencers or their teams, Samantha would brainstorm blogpost ideas and be filled in on all the news they wanted to share with their followers. She would then take what she’d been told, create a schedule and write up all her posts as if her blogger clients had written them themselves. Out of all her 'accounts' she had a close relationship with the A-list sisters who would invite her for dinner at their Beverly Hills home and took the time to really let Samantha into their world – which made writing under their names easier to do.
But is all of this legal? Aren’t these bloggers essentially lying to their followers? "Ghost writing is perfectly legitimate – it may be misleading, but it’s not illegal," Ian Walden, professor of information and communications law at Queen Mary University tells me. "We are seeing a growing concern when it comes to the legitimacy of news articles, as fake news is on the rise. This is where authenticating the identification of the author of a news piece that is presented as fact is becoming harder to do. However, if a blogger makes themselves publicly responsible for whatever is written then legally they have not broken the law."
So this is more of a moral dilemma. If you no longer have the time to write a blog, do you shut it down or 'lie' to your followers and palm off other people's pieces as your own? With blogging now a lucrative career option, it's no wonder bloggers are tempted to do the latter. Plus, many argue that although they hire someone to write for them, everything they 'put out there' is what they’ve asked their ghost blogger to write about.
And what about the real writers – why are they happy to work with no recognition? Louise sets me straight: "For new writers it’s a 'way in' to the industry. Influencers are running their blogs like magazines, so for writers who want to go on to write under their own names for other titles it’s great experience. While for more experienced writers, the pay – which can be anything from £150-£300 for a 500-word post – is appealing, especially during a time when there are far fewer jobs in journalism than there once were."
*Names have been changed