Bright whites, pops of vivid colors, sweet treats and a top-tier speaker—the Houston Blogger Union launched at Sugar & Cloth Studio on May 15 and we still can’t get over how perfect every detail was. We invited Ashley Rose, the creative force behind famed DIY blog Sugar & Cloth, to speak at our May meet-up. In case you don’t know Ashley, she is a leading DIY and lifestyle blogger who has received recognition from Better Home & Gardens, Design Sponge, Yahoo, Martha Stewart Living, The Every Girl, Glitter Guide and so much more. She shared her wisdom on building a social media presence, marketing a lifestyle brand and what happens when your side hustle becomes your full-time grind. Check out some of the key takeaways:
Small Beginnings Can Have Big Results
One of the most remarkable things about Ashley’s journey with Sugar & Cloth can be found in perhaps the most unremarkable of places, a restaurant in League City, Texas. I’ve heard the story of how Sugar & Cloth began about seven or eight times since the day I met Ashley. No matter how many blogger conferences I attend or sidebar conversations we have at events, it’s a narrative that never gets old to me. Originally from West Virginia, Ashley had a graphic design college scholarship… a full ride to be precise. During the course of junior year, she decided that college life and the path she was on wasn’t for her. After quitting school, moving to South Houston, and waiting tables, Ashley still was trying to figure out her next steps. Sometimes signs reveal themselves in unconventional ways—Ashley’s sign was in the form of tartar sauce. After an irate customer fought with her over condiments, she knew it was time to start to pave a path that would not only lead to an exit sign from waitressing, but ultimately lead the rest of her life. “I knew I had to put something out there for it to come back to me,” Ashley says. She thought “this will open up a door at some point.”
She didn’t imagine the blog would exceed the eyes of her family, but it was a start that opened doors, led to jobs and ultimately led to her self-employment.
Be Professional From the Beginning
If you want your blog to eventually run like a business, we professional and well-planned from the start. A blog name is essentially like a tattoo, don’t choose one you’re going to regret. As a blogger, changing your branding is a process but changing your name and confusing your readers is a struggle that can be avoided.
“When You Have Something You’re Really Passionate About, It’s Easy to Work Towards”
Ashley talked a lot about blogger guilt—we’ve all been there. There’s always more time you could have been pinning, commenting, engaging, pitching brands, planning posts, etc. You’re a human being, albeit Type-A, and you’re most likely spread thin. Over-exhausting yourself for your blog may actual do more harm than good. “As long as you know you’re doing the best you can do and giving it as much attention as you can while still living a semi-healthy life then I think it kind of all comes together,” Ashley says. “There are always the ‘what ifs’ but at the end of the day it’s just an element of ‘do you feel happy with what you’re doing’ and you kind of just figure out how to make it work.”
When Ashley did finally decide to go full-time, it wasn’t because she was at a job she couldn’t stand (she had moved on from waitressing). It’s because she continued to do what she was passionate about (spread incredibly thin) and realized that if she were her full-time employer, she wouldn’t want an employee who’s heart wasn’t fully there.
The Struggle is Real
Nothing is as perfect as it is on Instagram or in a blog post. Thankfully, Ashley does a REALLY great job at demystifying her journey and transparently sharing the struggles she experienced to go full-time. At one point in her career, she was scavenging her studio for things to share on Craig’s List. “It’s never going to be easy,” she admits.
Here’s the Deal When Working with Brands
Working with brands can be a gray area for many bloggers. Ashley stressed the importance of evaluating if the product would be valuable for readers at the end of the day. While doing things for a quick buck can seem of interest to new bloggers, staying true to your voice and opinions is one of the most valuable tools. It’s also important to be honest with your readers about what’s a partnership and what’s not.
“Don’t allow [brands] to put too many words in your mouth that aren’t your own,” Ashley says. “There’s an element of gracefully standing your ground.” As Ashley stated (before a relentless fry tried to sabotage our Q&A), “you’re your only advocate and you have to stand up for what you feel you deserve.”
One of the most best things mentioned during this talk was the repercussions of accepting free items in exchange for reviews. Do you want to be the person who accepted a free cake for a post or event and is forever indentured to tagging that brand on Instagram? Uh, no. While the example is extreme, every blogger can relate to being taken advantage of over a free product you may not even need or want.
Other key takeaways on partnerships:
Just because a brand can’t work with you now, doesn’t mean they won’t keep you in mind for later. Send those media kits and pitches!
Ashley’s rule of thumb: when creating a sponsored post, keep your costs a 10% of what you’re being paid.
Don’t be the person that makes it “okay” for brands to not compensate bloggers. Know your worth and stand your ground.
Is it Really All About Numbers? Spoiler: The Answer is No
Ashley may boast of a huge social media following, but she still feels that she is a small fish in the national DIY pond. While I think she is in a wonderful place with Sugar & Cloth, the truth is that she still competes for MAJOR campaigns against major talent. If a brand knows you deliver the best content around, it doesn’t matter where you have/haven’t been featured and how many readers you have. According to Ashley, some brands are specifically interested in your content, storytelling and design. She encouraged everyone to come to the realization that content is king and it’s not all about numbers. In a world where bots and fake followers are filling the influencer market, can you blame brands? Sometimes a quality picture or post IS worth a thousand words. (Speaking of photos, be sure to check out Cool Photo School to learn how Ashley gets those awesome images.)
Contributing? Show Them What You’re Made Of
Ever thought to yourself. “why should I strive to put out content for others when I have my own site to focus on?”Ashley has contributed her DIY projects and blog posts to tons of online sites for bylines, with good reason. She reminded us all that one of the best ways to gain an organic readership is to contribute to various sites that may appeal to target readers. Most importantly, we shouldn’t just be contributing… we should be giving our absolute best. If we’re exposing ourselves to potential readers, shouldn’t we make it worth their while so they come back?