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Gossip, Money, Bloggers: A Hard Look at RewardStyle

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Amber Venz. Image via <a href="http://venzedits.com/">Venzedits</a>
Amber Venz. Image via Venzedits

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While she doesn't rack up the same number of Instagram followers as some of her clients, Amber Venz remains one of the most influential individuals in the fashion blogging sphere. She's the co-founder of RewardStyle, virtually the only affiliate marketing company in the business that has figured out how to sway the fashion blogging community. Texas Monthly's Francesca Mari got an inside look at Venz's Dallas-based operation for this month's issue.

Venz started RewardStyle in 2010 after some helpful nudging from her then-boyfriend, now husband, who couldn't believe that she was driving sales for retailers by featuring their products on her blog without taking a cut of any of the profits. Three years later, RewardStyle commands a network of 4,000 retailers and more than 14,000 "publishers" or clients using its affiliate link system. Just in 2013, those 14,000+ publishers drove more than $150 million in sales for the retailers in the program. (RewardStyle declined to disclose what commission they make off of the sales).

RewardStyle's top five "earners" are all individual style bloggers, although the company counts Vogue and Elle among its many clients. The bloggers are Aimee Song (Song of Style), Rach Parcell (Pink Peonies), Wendy Nyugen (Wendy's Lookbook), Julia Engel (Gal Meets Glam), and Courtney Kerr (What Courtney Wore) and together they command more than 3 million Instagram followers.

Image via Song of Style

Each blogger that gets accepted into the RewardStyle family (it's an invitation-only program) receives up to 20 percent commission on every single affiliate item sold off of any blog post. While that might not seem like much at first, Mari breaks it down: once a reader clicks on an affiliate link in a blog post, the link stores a cookie on that person's computer for up to 30 days. If they make a purchase based off of that affiliate link within thirty days (or before they click on another affiliate link—a browser can't store more than one cookie at a time) the blogger makes a commission off of that entire purchase. Mari reported that only 1–2% of readers who click on an affiliate link end up buying something, but that's nothing to scoff at when these blogs are garnering thousands of clicks on each post.

The article detailed Venz's push to get Blair Eadie of Atlantic-Pacific on board with RewardStyle. The first time that Eadie included an affiliate link on one of her outfit posts, it racked up thousands of clicks and 83 people had bought the exact same ASOS dress Eadie was wearing by the next morning. And that was back when Venz was still convincing bloggers that RewardStyle was a good idea.

Now, Venz splits her time between keeping the company ahead of the curve, most recently through a new service that monetizes links straight from Instagram, and making sure RewardStyle's top earners are well-rewarded for the sales that they drive. Mari sat in the second annual rSTheCon, where Venz invited the top 200 bloggers in the RewardStyle network down to Dallas to mingle, Instagram everything, and, most importantly, learn how to better monetize their sites. Venz brought in speakers to teach the bloggers about better SEO practices and more effective website design because, at the end of the day, the more money that the bloggers haul in, the more revenue for RewardStyle.

An attendee just hanging by the pool, all casual-like.

It wasn't your average business conference. Mari detailed the proceedings that included, "galvanized-tin buckets full of gifts" in the hotel rooms (Leandra Medine of The Man Repeller found a $595 Reiss biker jacket in hers); detailed "photography guides" that pointed guests in the direction of ivy walls, a rooftop pool, and other good spots for taking selfies; and even a "boyfriend lounge" where the boyfriends and husbands behind the bloggers could stay occupied.

With the enormous amount of revenue that the company has pulled in in the past four years, coupled with the exponential growth it has seen, Venz needs to constantly evolve to stay relevant. It's a tough game that raises some questions about what affiliate links will look like in the future. Courtney Kerr, the blogger behind What Courtney Wore, told Mari that the influx of revenue since joining RewardStyle still stuns her. "I can appreciate how well things have been going for the past year," Kerr told Mari, "because what I made in December was more than my annual salary three years out of college. I know what it's like to be a bargain-basement girl. I know what it's like to be blue collar. So I wonder, if bloggers, when they're twenty-three—I'll use Rach Parcell, from Pink Peonies, as an example—are making this much now, what are they going to be making when they're my age, in nine years? And all from playing dress-up in our closets. It's kind of narcissistic if you think about it."

Image via What Courtney Wore

Not everyone sees it going well. One anonymous fashion editor from a major magazine who attended rSTheCon told Marci, "You know," she said, "if anyone from the New York fashion world were here right now, they'd take one look around and say, 'What a bunch of basic bitches.'"

But Venz has plans to fight that stereotype, possibly by changing the type of brands that the top bloggers work with. "Kate Spade is one of our top affiliates, but it's really not that special," Kaetlin Andrews, the PR manager for RewardStyle, told Mari. "You're going to see a lot of growth in the top tier over the next six months—Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton. Next year, we're going to have lots of collaborations and partnerships that completely trump Kate Spade."