OMAAT has long had an advertising policy, but in this day and age I don’t think that’s really enough. So I figured it was time to publish a more formal ethics policy.
In addition to sharing some black-and-white guidelines, I want to provide the philosophy behind each of these decisions.
Why? Because very specific rules don’t always tell the full story. For example, I could say I don’t accept free flights or hotel stays, while simultaneously accepting other things from travel brands without technically breaking that policy. I want to try and do a bit better than that.
A bit of background on OMAAT
I started this blog over 11 years ago as a hobby, when I was 17. Now, anyone who knew me at 17 would probably find the thought of me writing a post about ethics laughable (I would too) but everyone grows up, and I’m not the person now that I was at 17.
I never in a million years thought this would become my career, and I’m grateful every day for the life I have. I get to wake up every morning and write about an industry I’m passionate about. The fact that hundreds of millions of people have clicked on the blog over the years is just icing on the cake.
This is the largest independent miles & points/travel blog out there, and I don’t for a second take any of it for granted. Let me also stress that while this site is fundamentally a business, it’s also a passion project. This isn’t a company with a five year plan to be acquired.
I love what I do every day, I work with some great people, and as long as I’m in good health I hope to be here.
The internet has changed a lot
It’s amazing how much the internet has evolved in the past decade, and this goes way beyond the travel space. The evolution has been both a good and bad thing.
On the one hand, it’s incredible how much diversity there is on the internet, and how the openness and relative accessibility has made it possible for so many people to thrive and make a living doing stuff they love. On the other hand, you have people pretending to be vegan in order to sell meal plans, so it’s definitely a mixed bag.
Every company (including this one) has to make money, but I want to be as transparent as possible in order to make sure you guys know where I stand on things. That transparency is something you deserve as readers and supporters of this site.
How One Mile at a Time makes money
The blog makes money through a combination of impression-based ads and some affiliate links — for credit cards, Amazon, points sales, etc. There will occasionally be a post or contest that is directly sponsored by an advertiser. Our advertising policy has the full details of all those things.
If there’s a post on this blog that earns any type of fee or affiliate commission, the post will always clearly state that, up front and at the top of the post. I appreciate the support you guys provide, because ultimately we couldn’t have the team we do without your support.
I do everything in my power to maintain editorial independence
The people who like to criticize me for not knowing anything about running a business might have a field day with this, because I’ve actually (and intentionally) structured my business such that I have very little involvement in the day-to-day dealings and negotiations that go into running an online brand.
This might sound counter-intuitive, but my reasoning behind it is simple. I want to always be able to write freely and passionately about the things that interest me, and that I think will be interesting to you. I don’t want to write for some random metrics, or have my content or opinions influenced by thoughts of bottom-line revenue.
So I log in to Google Analytics roughly once a year, for about five minutes. I don’t even know the password to the affiliate portal that would otherwise tell me the varying commission rates for specific products. And while that’s not a perfect firewall, because I obviously could access all those things, I’m fortunate to have a team that not only handles and filters stuff, but understands why it’s important to my business plan that I don’t.
That doesn’t mean that if I’m invited to meet with the head of a loyalty program I cover, or the product team of a bank we have an affiliate relationship with I’ll necessarily turn it down. And I obviously talk to PR teams when there are program changes or other news.
Having relationships allows me to provide feedback and get insights as to why or how something might be happening — and I think that’s valuable to readers. But I try to keep those conversations separate from any business discussions that relate to OMAAT (and typically the people I’m talking with are similarly far-removed from the advertising and affiliate agreements anyway), and you’ll never see me in a brand’s promotional commercial.
This could certainly evolve over time, but it will always be important to me for the editorial and financial sides of OMAAT to be as separated as possible. And I write 95%+ of the content, so that has to be where my attention goes.
One Mile at a Time ethics policy
With that background as a foundation, let’s get into the other standards I’ve set. Note that this applies not just to me, but also to anyone writing for OMAAT:
- We don’t accept any free travel from airlines; this includes not accepting invitations on delivery flights, or any other flights
- We don’t accept any other in-kind “gifts” that could present a conflict of interest; whether free airline status, tickets to a concert, etc.
- We don’t participate in any form of pay-for-play coverage; this includes not accepting any sort of payment from an airline or hotel in exchange for any expectation of coverage, and we don’t pay to promote OMAAT in other media outlets — all our press is earned media
- We don’t let airlines or hotels know we’re arriving in advance, or ask for special access; this even includes things like contacting an airline PR person to ask for pre-boarding so we can take pictures of the cabin, as that could impact service — instead I’m the annoying guy who is lined up before the flight hoping to be the first onboard so I can snap pictures without drawing too much attention from the crew
- We go out of our way to avoid media events; personally I turn down 99% of media invitations, and I only attend them if I truly think there’s a major benefit to readers, but I also don’t accept free dinners from airline people (or take their marketing teams out to dinner)
I also want to be clear that I don’t split hairs and say “well, One Mile at a Time isn’t receiving any benefit, I’m just here as Ben, so this doesn’t count.” It’s not in my best interest to separate myself from my brand like that anyway.
Why now, and the need for further disclosure
None of these practices are really new to OMAAT — outside a minuscule handful of trips over the past 11 years, I’ve been paying for all my own travel for over a decade. And I have always disclosed any financial relationships in clear text at the top of any post.
Still, the internet has come a long, long way. There are some legally required advertising disclosures, but beyond that I increasingly think there’s value in ethical disclosures.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting I’m more ethical than others, or that my standards are better than anyone else’s.
Rather, as the internet and influencer space continues to evolve, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone receiving free flights to attend an event, or taking a payment from a local tourism board to visit and promote a destination, or going to networking events to build relationships with marketing and PR teams. There are tons of sites creating unique content and providing value to their readers and customers under that model.
To give one positive example, in the airline industry I have a ton of respect for Brett Snyder of Cranky Flier. He specifically has an ethics page where he not only discloses the media trips he takes, but also discloses what he was invited to and has turned down.
I would absolutely trust any review Brett wrote, regardless of whether the flight was comped or not, because he gives so many details, and even discloses the things he is offered but doesn’t accept. There’s huge value in that commitment.
I would encourage other sites, bloggers, and influencers to similarly disclose what their policies are. I’m not at all suggesting everyone has to (or even should) take the same approach I do, but at least let your audience know what they can expect from you. They deserve to know.
Still, I can’t always be anonymous
I’ve been at this for over a decade, and increasingly my goal is to just fly under the radar.
I want to experience things the way you guys do as much as possible, and I go out of my way to make sure that happens. Now, let me be clear — I can’t be 100% sure no one ever knows who I am.
This site has a significant readership, and it’s inevitable that occasionally I’m recognized, and there’s not much I can do there. I also have elite status with a variety of airlines and hotel programs due to how much paid travel I have, and in theory those brands should be recognizing their top-tier members differently. Similarly, generally speaking luxury hotels should be Googling their guests before arrival to see who they are. That’s just good business. But you’d be surprised by how rarely that seems to happen in any sort of a significant way.
So further to that point, going forward I’ll make an effort to note when I suspect a company knows “who I am,” and if that has potentially impacted my experience.
There’s more I could say about my understanding of the unique platform I have, and the responsibility that goes with it. As I’ve grown and come to better appreciate those things, it has certainly changed how I approach my coverage of other humans, the manner in which I travel, and how I direct my givings.
For the purposes of this post I wanted to keep the focus on the financial and editorial relationships of OMAAT, but it all circles back to my evolving priorities and the things I’ve realized matter most to me as a person, and how I want my business practices to reflect those values as best I can.
I want to be very clear I don’t think there’s anything wrong with attending media events, or asking to board early to get pictures of a cabin, or even accepting comped flights or sponsored trips.
Everyone has to decide what makes the most sense for their brand or business, and as long as everything is properly disclosed, I don’t think anyone should get “extra credit” for doing things one way or the other. Just be upfront about it.
But part of my commitment to OMAAT readers is to be as transparent as I can, and I hope this is helpful in showing where I stand and how I approach things.
Everything in the world evolves, and just as my stance on this has evolved over time, it’s possible it will evolve further in the future. If it does, I’ll update this post so you guys always know where I stand.