Just what is blogger relations anyway?

by Susan Getgood on May 11, 2009 · 14 comments

in Blogging,Social media

(Warning- long post)

Call it blogger relations or blogger outreach or social media outreach. Whatever we call it, the shorthand version is that it involves engaging with bloggers, with programs and promotions that they will wish to share with their readers.

I’ve been writing about blogger relations on Marketing Roadmaps for quite a while now, and in my opinion, we are in the midst of a fairly important change. Some for the better. Some not so much.

The best way I can find to summarize it is: the more things change, the more they become the same.

Big brands embracing bloggers in a BIG way

Consumer and technology brands have been dabbling in social media for a couple years, but lately it seems like there’s a new BIG campaign aimed at bloggers every week, if not every day. Consider the mom blogging segment. In the last month alone we’ve had Hanes ComfortCrew trip to Disney, Let’s Fix Dinner from Stouffers, a Disney-sponsored mom blogger weekend at DisneyWorld, HP’s NY meet-up with Dara Torres and just last week, the launch of Frigidaire’s Motherload promotion.

Now, big blogger events are nothing new, but the sheer volume of them is. Is it still possible, given such volume, for firms to build real relationships with the influential bloggers in their space through these big promotions?

Or, good as these promotions are — and some of them are superb, with excellent micro-sites and contests, has the product of the outreach, i.e. the blog posts, simply become a new form of advertising?

We don’t dislike advertising. We dislike bad advertising.

Advertising is both useful and necessary. It lets companies offer their products for our consideration in a controlled fashion, to which we supplement trial, word-of-mouth, reviews, blogs and whatever else we use to make a purchase decision.

These big budget blogger events are creating a new form of advertising, similar to sponsored posts in many, but not all, respects.

Let’s distinguish big budget outreach from sponsored posts. In a sponsored post, there is an explicit agreement that the blogger will write something about the product or service but (generally) there’s no direction given about the content of the post. Compensation is paid, to either the blogger directly or a blog network.

In big budget outreach, there is no explicit agreement about posting, although there may be a contract outlining responsibilities of the parties if goods of significant value change hands. No cash compensation is paid.

I do believe, however, that the company and the blogger have an implicit understanding that the blogger will write about the event, and the higher the value of the goods/services, the more certain that is. Assuming the experience is a good one, to not write would set up a highly dissonant state for the blogger. He or she would have taken something of value from the company and not returned the favor.

In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that the blogger will write; it’s up to the company to provide a good experience that leads to a positive post. So far so good. We’re still in the realm of opinion. Here’s how it drifts into a new form of advertising.

Most big budget blog promotions include the mainstays of traditional advertising – branded badges for the blogs, slick microsites, sweepstakes, etc. Odds are damn good the bloggers will use, link to or tweet about them. As a result, the blogger’s opinion is bracketed by the company’s advertising.

Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck? It’s a duck.

In the midst of all this, the FTC is revising its guidelines on endorsements and testimonials, with the distinct possibility that new guidelines due this summer will hold bloggers, and companies, liable for false statements on blogs.

Disclaimers and ethical transparency certainly go a long way to protecting both the company and the blogger, but in the end, if it looks like advertising or reads like advertising, the FTC is going to call it advertising, regardless of what we might label it ourselves.

As I’ve said before, I believe the key issues will be compensation, whether cash or product, and the amount of direction given to the blogger. To what degree is the blogger acting as a representative of or proxy for the firm?

I would not be surprised to see an either-or-both situation. In other words, even if there is little or no direction given to the blogger about what or when to write, if the value of the goods or services received is significant, the FTC may impose the advertising guidelines. Ditto for paid and sponsored posts, even if the pay is shit.

Signal:Noise – Too much static

You can’t stop the signal, but it is getting harder and harder to pick it up. It’s just too much when every other tweet in the stream seems like an ad, whether for a commercial or “personal” brand.

I think we are edging ever closer to a backlash against commercialism in the blogosphere. We — the collective we — rebelled against mass market command and control advertising by turning to social networks and blogs, yet now we are inundated again. How many posts do we really want to read about Brand X’s big party or Brand Y’s new influencer program before it all starts to blur? Before we stop reading or caring?

Before blogger relations jumps the shark?

It’s a shame. Somewhere in this ever escalating blogger outreach, it seems we’ve lost the element that made the whole thing so appealing, effective and efficient in the first place — the ability to have an honest conversation with your customer about the things, including your products, that both company and customer care about. Instead of relationship and reach, it’s become ALL about reach.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t have a problem with “blogvertising.”

Some of these recent big budget campaigns are superb examples of how to authentically use new media to reach out to your customers through your customers.

And some will suck, because this new form of advertising isn’t going to be any different than the old. Some good promos. Some not so good. Some excellent writers who write creative and unique posts about the products. And some hacks who repurpose boilerplate and press release content wholesale.

I just hope people don’t get the idea that a big program or sponsored posts are the only game in town. The only way to reach your customers through blogs and other social media. Here’s why.

How do you get them back on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?

Big programs aren’t sustainable. No matter how successful. What happens when the next Frigidaire program doesn’t give away appliances? Or Hanes can’t allocate budget for a getaway for the next group of influencers? Big programs are setting expectations that are impossible for smaller companies to meet, and not even terribly realistic as a long term play for the big consumer brands. Heaven forbid if the big program is a flop. That company won’t be doing any reaching out any time soon.

More importantly, these big programs seem very transactional — here’s the offer, do you want to play? The relationship component of blogger relations, which is sustainable, seems far less important.

Big companies with big brand budgets can do BIG programs. Smaller companies can’t.

For example, the Frigidaire program. Just guessing, but I’d be willing to bet they took a piece of the advertising budget associated with the product launch, and moved it into the blogger program. Sure, it’s a lot of money to give away appliances to bloggers, but in the context of a display ad in Good Housekeeping or a tv commercial during Oprah? Not so much.

Smaller companies don’t have that luxury. They have to be more creative, more clever with smaller budgets, but generally the same scrutiny and expectations of success. They can’t do the extravaganza. They can reach out to establish relationships with influencers, but if no one can hear them for the din around the big campaigns, I fear they will get discouraged and miss the opportunity for engagement.

Worse, they’ll be tempted by the seemingly simple route of spamming bloggers with press releases. Because that’s what we all need right? More crappy pitches in our in-boxes.

What’s the solution?

I’m not suggesting that the big brands stop doing BIG programs with bloggers. There’s huge opportunity on both sides in these programs. I am however hoping that companies of all sizes think strategically about the long term relationships with their online customers when they build their blogger relations programs. Don’t just have big launches and big parties. Engage with your customers in small ways as well.

For example, say you are an appliance manufacturer; in your monitoring, you learn of a blogger who just got laid off and then the microwave exploded. Send a new microwave. It’s not part of a big splashy campaign, but I guarantee that simple act will go just as viral, and contribute just as much to your brand, as the big splashy campaign.

Don’t limit your generosity to just the top bloggers in your space. By all means include them in your programs, but keep in mind that a blogger with fewer readers might be much more engaged in your offer or brand, and in fact, do more for you than the one with thousands of readers. As the saying goes, be nice to everyone on your way up because you never know who you’ll meet on the way down.

Going a bit zen on you, it’s the difference between dropping a big rock in the pond and skimming a pebble across the top. The big splash may be satisfying in the  moment, but the small ripples fan out longer and further. Be a pebble.

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