How to avoid backlash from blog authors and audiences
Andrea Tomkins has been blogging since 1999, when blogs were called weblogs and consisted mostly of links. She started an online diary while on mat leave that was a “scrapbook” of her life. Today, it’s a popular Ottawa-based parenting blog at QuietFish.com.
As a blog pioneer, she’s had a front-row seat to the commercialization of the pasttime: “It was really just a matter of time before the marketing people realized that this was a new place that people were congregating,” she says.
There’s no doubt marketers’ influx on the scene has changed the community. Some bloggers are positioning themselves as “brands” and are more open than ever to getting paid to write about products.
Tomkins refers to it as the rise of “a new type” of blogger: review bloggers that do sponsored posts, reviews and giveaways. “It’s created this line in the sand between different sides of the blogging community,” says Tomkins. “One side is all about the content and they dismiss any kind of monetization, and then you’ve got the other side that will gladly accept products from brands and write about them in exchange for very little compensation. So there is a lot more branded messaging than ever before.”
But can readers get turned off when their favourite writers morph into corporate spokespeople?
In March, several highly successful mommy bloggers in the U.S., including Dooce, Mighty Girl and Girl’s Gone Child, published sponsored posts by Levi’s within days of each other.
On the popular snark site Get Off My Internets, forum members took them to task: “The paychecks must be nice. I hope they’re enough to cover the dirty feeling of knowing that where once you were creative, funny and interesting, you’re now little more than just a corporate shill” and “I’m really tired of these sponsored posts, especially when you see so many of them! And I’m not sure I’ve EVER thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to run right out and get this [yogurt][jeans][hair product][nail polish][greeting card] [what-have-you].’”
“I think it’s hard for bloggers because everybody now wants to make money off this and I get that,” says Julie Cole, co-founder of Hamilton, Ont.-based Mabel’s Labels, which makes personalized labels for kids’ clothing. “Staying true to your brand is so incredibly important and if you go off-brand for that one revenue-seeking opportunity, you do lose brand credibility and that will come and bite you in the butt.”
Tomkins says she “falls somewhere in between,” but admits there are blogs that she doesn’t go to anymore “because I don’t want to read that kind of stuff… I personally don’t love review blogs. They don’t speak to me really.” She adds that she’s very selective about the brands and businesses she promotes. “I feel very strongly that it’s a personal endorsement… I never want to endorse a product I don’t personally believe in because this is the ‘word of mom.’ And word of mom is marketing gold.”
Jay Strut seems to straddle the line between old school blogger who writes about stuff he loves and review blogger who expects something in return for his posts.
“I get products all day, every day,” says Strut. “And I’m not afraid to admit it.”
Strut is a 21-year-old Toronto fashion blogger who parlayed his love of fashion and experience building websites into a full-time venture. His website, JayStrut.com, focuses on connecting with brands and providing near-daily updates about the things he loves. And that includes some of the stuff he gets in the mail.
“I won’t blog about something just because you sent it to me,” says Strut. “But if it’s a product that can really fit into what I need to do, then I have no problem promoting it.” He adds that he tries to write about brands naturally “because that’s the way I am and I don’t try to make what I do too serious… My blogging style is just a bunch of ‘Oh my god, I love this and check this out.’ It’s all based on my personal taste and my personal recommendations.”
Have followers ever accused him of selling out to a brand?
“I have to take pride in the fact that no, not yet. I have not. Readers tell me if something doesn’t look right, but they’re never mad at what I’m posting. I don’t feel like I should ever have to [compromise] my content and I guess my readers see that and they appreciate that.”
But aside from writing about products and fashion finds, Strut has forged deeper relationships with a number of brands. He recently hosted a fashion show with clothing retailer French Connection and works with Google to bring “cool content” about fashion to Google+, where he has more than 200,000 followers. He’s the youngest member and only Canadian on Hewlett Packard’s Global Influencer Advisory Board, which consists of 20 influencers in fashion, design and the arts who brainstorm ideas with HP. This year, the group met in Cannes and got to preview upcoming products.
In October, Strut was one of HP’s guests at a launch party for Windows 8 in New York. He blogged about the party and his “grueling obsession” with Windows 8 products. While in New York, he took pictures on his new Samsung NX 1000, which was sent to him by Samsung, and attended the Samsung Galaxy Note II party where Kanye West performed for a small group of 300 people.
While he won’t divulge his readership figures, Strut’s blog landed in the number two spot on Cision’s list of top 10 Canadian fashion bloggers last year and he has more than 30,000 Twitter followers. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job at getting people to talk about things,” he says.
The real value of bloggers “is they have a very niche community who trusts them implicitly,” says Mia Pearson, co-founder of Toronto PR firm North Strategic. And when the relationship between brand and blogger works, the result is engaging content and conversations about the brand. But to get there, marketers need to find more personal and creative ways to work with bloggers. Here are three key ways marketers can step up their game in the blogosphere.
Do your homework and get more personal
It’s hard to believe, but some marketers still rely on the “spray and pray” strategy, where they “blast stuff out to as many people as possible and pray that they’re going to write about it,” says Pearson. “The problem is when you do that, you’re not really getting to know the bloggers.” And just because they happen to be a fashion blogger or a mommy blogger, “doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to write about your product,” she adds.
The first step is doing your homework and understanding the passions, interests, likes (and dislikes) of the blogger.
Two years ago, a box full of Febreze and anti-bacterial cleaning products was delivered to Tomkins with no note or explanation. “It’s stuff that I would never, ever use and I’m anti- anti-bacterial cleaning products,” she says. “I’ve blogged about over-perfumed stuff and I’m a vinegar-and-baking-soda kind of gal myself.”
The next week, another box was delivered to her doorstep and she tore it open to find the exact same package of cleaning product. While it was sent by accident that time, the products shouldn’t have been sent at all. “They clearly hadn’t read my blog because had they read it, they would know that I don’t write about this stuff,” says Tomkins.
She eventually posted a pitch policy on the main page of her blog, outlining tips for brands and PR firms that want to work with her, including her disclosure policy and the fact that she won’t accept products and services just for the sake of getting free stuff.
And while many companies send pitches that cringingly begin with “Dear Mommy Blogger,” Mabel’s Labels has always taken the time to read blogs, comment on them and personalize the letters and samples it sends to bloggers.
“Relationships are work. Blogger outreach is work and if you want to invest the time, then you will get what you are seeking,” says Cole. “But if you are looking for a quick fix, it’s not going to happen.”
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