Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Top ten unwritten rules of tea blogging

Originally published by TChing blog site, here.

Related to talking to a friend new to blogging, I've noticed some assumed rules to tea blogging.  It's always interesting to break one of these rules, to go in an unconventional direction, but I usually explain why I'm covering that scope in posts when I do.

photo credit here

1.  Don't talk about price

This rule is such a given that I didn't include it in the first draft version.  A recent TeaDB blog post went there though, related to pu'er mark-up (and some extreme cases), so it's as well to address it.  Basically some vendors sell based on value, trying to use volume to offset those thinner margins.  Others go with the prices typically set by supply and demand, standard rates.  And some price teas high, relying on marketing to offset value gaps, at worst making claims that aren't completely justified.  Of course some branding isn't just about value, with unrelated issues like packaging and product placement coming into play.

It's not really a typical subject for a tea blogger to address, especially since it involves a lot of judgment.  Tea pricing really does vary by a lot of factors, particularly in relation to tea quality, type rarity, and demand.  I might mention in posts that a tea seems a particularly good value but usually I won't even say that.  

It's not so easy to explain how newer tea drinkers should evaluate vendors, or how to get the best teas for what they spend.  Tea blogs tend to not be so helpful, but discussions in places like Facebook groups, or Steepster, or Tea Chat may be.  If a blog about tea is really honest and open and the general impression of teas comes across, relative to other versions, at least that could provide input about those other aspects, and describe qualities in individual teas that explain some of those preferences.

2.  Never quote another review

In general the whole point of tea blogging is to give your own opinion of a tea, not to just repeat what others say.  Sometimes when researching tea types I run across interesting vendor descriptions, or even other blogger descriptions, and I don't have a problem with citing those.  Of course there has to be a point; it can't just be about cross-referencing the opinion of someone else who is better qualified to review that tea, which can come up, especially for judging rare types against a standard character.

Addressing specific questions about a tea type is a different story.  Related expert input can add an extra dimension to a blog post, even if taking that step is unconventional.  It could become tiresome if such input turned up frequently so I'll only add that if I'm following up on something.

3.  Don't admit to inexperience with a tea type, or a particular tasting weaknesses

This relates a little to the last point, and of course that approach can be the background context for a "newbie" blogger, but it works better when that's explicit.  I'm not new to tea blogging but still on the newer side (the better part of three years in--really too early for me to be writing about how to write a blog).  I'll still mention gaps as they come up, so I don't hold to this one, but the focus of posts is usually on the tea, not all the background that goes into experiencing one.

I've seen people take this way too far in different types of posts, being more honest than necessary, for example posting pictures of botched brewing.  If there was an interesting enough point to be made I guess I might go there.  If I'm trying a new tea type for the first time I'll generally say that, or even admit when relative inexperience is a factor in evaluation.  I will mix in background research about tea types, not really conventional, not exactly the same idea but sort of related.

4.  Describe the tea

Goes without saying, doesn't it?  But not all reviews actually do.  Often you have to read a post again to confirm there was no description of the tea at all, versus some general impression, like "wow!"  In such cases I guess the posts wouldn't really be a "review."  I don't see this as a problem, since it's between a blogger and their audience what type of content is included.  If vendors supply the tea for review that would seem odd, unless that's already a running blog theme, and then the burden might be on them to know that a specific tea blog doesn't really use a review format.  My posts vary related to the form of reviews included, how detailed, and by focus, but I don't break this rule when posts are about specific teas.

5.  Don't say that you don't like the tea

Writing about a tea you don't like isn't as interesting as writing about one you do, and exceptions to that do come up, but it's standard to only write in generally positive terms about teas.  One recent exception I read of in A Tea Addict's Journal was a great counter-example, a post was about buying a tea from Taobao, a Chinese version of Ebay, more or less.  That covered the form a "fake tea" might take, one sold as something that it isn't.  The first point went as you'd expect in that post, related to sourcing from really random individuals, but the description of a very bad example of a pu'er was also worth a read.

Other exceptions can occur when bloggers are asked to review teas they may well not like.  Specific post examples come to mind, of a critical review of tea-bag tea, and one of a somewhat fishy shou pu'er.

Bloggers' ethics are a funny thing; there are no clear guidelines, so how one approaches this isn't clearly right or wrong.  In a reference like this Tea Blogger Directory tea bloggers can say a little about how they review teas to see where they stand on various practices, but only so much will go into a short summary.

I recently wrote a review of teas that weren't really bad or good, sort of in the middle, and not enough interesting came out of it, so I decided not to use the post.  In that case I asked for the vendor's input, their opinion, and they said they were changing the sourcing for the teas mentioned (they weren't sent for review), so it seemed as well to skip it.  A friend recently commented that he can't always tell if I actually like a tea or not, but do I try to include some sense of that, along with whatever types of description are relevant beyond that.

Even without a relationship with a vendor to preserve in general it seems as well to not violate this rule, except in special cases.  It's a given that one can buy tea that isn't so good for lots of reasons, and the limitations usually aren't interesting, although there are exceptions.  On the other side of that issue, it seems something gets lost when all tea blog posts are only positive, and only marketing-oriented content.  A tea that is horrible could make for an interesting post, and "mystery tea" can as well, although in general it's much better to know what you are drinking.

  6.  Don't review tea from wholesale sellers

This relates to some tea bloggers having a close working relationship with tea retailers; it wouldn't make sense to shine the light on their sources instead.  It's not as if I've tried to violate this principle but as an example writing a lot about teas from Cindy Chen (a tea farmer friend) is starting in this direction.  Different selling models are blurring those prior lines now, so it could become more an more of an issue.  Cindy sells some teas directly, but most often wholesale, given her business type as a tea grower and processor.

To a limited extent I had reservations about mentioning that one source from Indonesia, Toba Wangi, because increased demand for that tea could screw up the present sourcing options for local tea lovers in Indonesia.  I'm sure Galung--one owner--wouldn't let that happen, that they wouldn't escalate pricing so that moderate income local tea drinkers could get left out that way.  They do sell teas directly, so that wasn't a clear case of reviewing from a wholesale seller.

7.  Guest posts

I've only posted one guest post, since it sort of came up from a conversation (about health benefits of Chrysanthemum), but for most this is a no-no.  I see all the conventions as flexible but in general it wouldn't make sense to have others writing much of the content for a personal blog.  Interview posts are a different story; that's a great way to give voice to a completely different perspective, particularly from expert sources, and the blogger still plays a role.  Just as the other exceptions can be interesting there seems to be plenty of space for interesting ways to contradict this assumed general rule.

8.  Link dumping

This is really more about internet social etiquette.  Posting notice of your fine blog work in a few related groups is ok (and Facebook, and Twitter, but Steepster and Tea Chat sort of don't want to hear about it), but it can quickly become too much of a good thing.  Vendors seek a different sort of balance since in vendor blog cases it's not about getting the good word out, it's straight marketing.  Some vendors do post something that may well be interesting to every related group and outlet they're associated with, clogging feed notices and turning discussion groups into spam outlets, but most keep it in check.

Other vendors really don't do enough with getting the word out, not effectively communicating what would be interesting news to tea enthusiasts.  A vendor just mentioned in a private conversation that they were working on making a well-known, relatively rare style of tea that absolutely isn't produced in that region or country.  It's probably a tea many would like to try, but I'm not sure how far word of that will ever travel.  If I try it I would write about it, for sure, unless I hated the tea, and then I'd be back to that other potential conflict.  The general point was that, to me, if there is really a unique story that changes things related to vendor content.  It's not the same thing but some vendors do a great job of creating educational content that could also support marketing, another interesting twist, like the China Life video series, or Hojo (vendor) tea type references.

9.  Don't write top 10 list posts

Really, why would you?  That's click-bait formula-format nonsense.

10.  Don't copy ideas or style from other blog posts

Like the top 10 list theme in this post, and critique of using them, lifted directly from a post by Nick Kembel criticizing "top 10" travel blog posts.  Nick is a blog writer that covers travel related to Taiwan, where he lives, and some tea scope, like this post about visiting the Global Tea Hut.  One interesting point he made was that someone could churn out travel posts about places they've not even been to, and sometimes do (no relation to tea; just an interesting idea).

the formula (picture credit here):  write a blog about how to write blogs

Tea blogs using a review-post format might essentially get a pass on borrowing style, since a lot of those use a range of closely related styles, so completely copying an existing one wouldn't necessarily be noticeable.  Some are so well formatted that they would be worth referencing for a new blogger, although hopefully they would put their own spin on it, and change up the approach a little.

One blogger said that she won't read blogs because she's worried about accidentally repeating their ideas or mimicking their style, an extreme approach to this restriction.  I'm just rambling on in mine, so until I get settled in an actual style I'd only have to worry about copying the ideas.

So that's a start.  As I see it tea bloggers are really outside the bounds of journalism ethics, so they would need to make all this up as they go along, and rely on common sense.  A tea blogger stepping outside those bounds could make for some interesting intrigue, if it was blatant enough, but "tea people," even vendors, are typically a relatively polite and orderly sort.

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