Over the past 12 months targeting bloggers has become a key marketing strategy for some of Britain's biggest brands. Names from fashion powerhouse Chanel to credit-card brand American Express have taken to running dedicated events aimed at them.
Digital agencies, PR companies and specialist social media strategists, meanwhile, have been falling over themselves to persuade marketers that they should be the first port of call when it comes to blogger-outreach campaigns.
Even so, many marketers still struggle to work out the best way to reach the growing army of armchair journalists and bloggers. While most of them now accept that connecting with bloggers is vital, many are falling at the first hurdle of identifying which ones they should be reaching out to in the first place.
Arlie Haft, board director at digital and direct agency LIDA, says that there are more than 100m blogs online. Many, then, are likely to attract only a tiny online reader base. Others, though, such as Engadget, Perez Hilton and Boing Boing, now command bigger audiences than many national newspapers and magazine websites.
Ironically, many of the biggest names in blogging - particularly in fashion and technology - have appeared on the radar of major brands only after articles about them have appeared in the mainstream press. Popular blogs, meanwhile, tend to gain mainstream media coverage only once they have already gained a mass following. Marketers therefore need to be able to spot which blogs have potential early on rather than acting after the fact.
Marketers at American Express, which has been using a strategy of reaching out to consumers through the blogs they spend time on, will attest that even once bloggers that can be of use have been identified, it still remains to persuade those people that it's worth writing about a brand.
Mark Roper, vice-president of merchant marketing in Europe for American Express, says the key is for brands to consider how they can help bloggers connect with their readers. 'Bloggers want to add value to their readers and they won't want to talk to us unless we can do that,' he says.
Then there is the thorny issue of advertising to be broached. Jane Loring, managing director of vertical advertising network Glam Media, says: 'There is the added challenge that while your audience may be following a particular blog, that blog may not want to carry your advertising.'
This view is echoed by James Mills, editor-in-chief of fashion website Style Noir. He is supportive of ads on blogs, but insists it is crucial that any such advertising is relevant. Mills suggests brands identify what they can bring to a blog to give it a point of difference.
Style Noir has worked closely with brands such as Toni & Guy, which gained coverage on the site through providing backstage access to designer Todd Lynn's show at London Fashion Week. Mills points to the haircare company as a good example of how to successfully reach out to bloggers.
'It has created a dialogue through things such as a co-branded hair salon at Fashion Week, where editors and bloggers could go to have their hair blow-dried,' he adds.
One of the biggest trends of the past 12 months has been the number of bloggers providing consultancy services and advice directly to marketers on a formal or informal basis. In fact, several bloggers now feature 'social media agency: frequently asked questions' sections on their blogs. While agencies are keen to talk down this development, there is no doubt marketers can learn much about how to connect with bloggers by speaking to them directly.
Indeed, Kristin Knox, founder and editor of fashion blog The Clothes Whisperer, says that, while many brands are still testing the water, they are becoming more open about asking for advice on which blogs they should be reaching and how.
'A lot of fashion brands understand that we have editorial integrity and are plugged into our network,' she notes. Knox has helped brands such as Diane von Fursten-berg in this regard, having advised the haute couture label on creating press lists for events incorporating bloggers.
While blogger outreach has come a long way over the past 12 months, brands remain wary of commitment. 'No one has the absolute answer,' says Knox. 'But if you don't invite bloggers to any of your events, you are missing out.'
Will Arnold, founder of Apollo Research, which has conducted extensive studies into how a brand's market share links to its presence on social media platforms, says the fundamental question for marketers is how much of a marketing budget is focused on traditional media compared with social media and blogger outreach.
'As budgets come under pressure, some brands are buying into the idea they can get a higher share of their market through a higher share of voice across social media platforms,' he adds.
However, on the flipside, Arnold argues that some brands maintain the belief that connecting with the mainstream press is the be all and end all. 'They think that if they get into the Financial Times, they should cut it out, frame it and send it to their mothers, but when they get coverage on digital media platforms, such as a blog, it's seen as something different and experimental and they still don't know what that means.'
Issues also arise when brands expect bloggers to toe the line when it comes to product messaging. Charlotte Hilenbrand, project lead on the Ready For Ten Britvic blog, says many bloggers resent brands attempting to force them to write something for their own agenda. 'A lot of bloggers write for very personal reasons. PR people working on a short-term threeto six-week campaign can find this very difficult to comprehend.'
LIDA's Haft advises brands to be transparent, open and honest about what they are looking to achieve. 'Of course, the relationship must be mutually beneficial to both parties - no blogger ever became popular by sharing boring press releases and naff video content,' she says.
On a separate note, some blogs are quite simply a no-go area for certain brands. One example is goldmansachs666.com, a site that is so dedicated to attacking the investment bank that any attempt by Goldman Sachs to engage it positively would be pointless. 'It's a very emotive space and bloggers do take things incredibly personally, it can get messy,' adds Hilenbrand.
James Turner, director of ICM Research, suggests that brands look to create their own closed-research communities of bloggers to test their brand messaging before releasing it into the blogosphere.
'Brands have allowed PR agencies to take the lead with their blogger engagement, but monitoring and responding to conversations isn't enough,' he adds.
The sheer number and range of blogs being launched on a daily basis present a challenging prospect for brands. However, those brands that fail to reach out to bloggers or, worse still, ignore bloggers who are attempting to connect with them, are missing out on what is swiftly becoming a vital communications channel.
OUTREACH - WHERE TO START
- Read the blogs
Browsing blog-tracking website Technorati or doing a Google Blog Search may provide a starting point for smaller brands, but there is no substitute for taking the time to read the blogs you are seeking to connect with.
- Target the right bloggers
Relying on proprietary research tools alone to identify key bloggers is a risky strategy. A well-supported blogger outreach programme is a time-consuming process. Marketers need to accept there is no substitute for taking the time to get to know bloggers they want to target.
- Build and maintain relationships
Hitherto, many brands have dipped in and out of blogger outreach only for short-term campaign objectives. Creating an ongoing dialogue between brands and bloggers can produce a more fruitful long-term relationship.
- Respect the difference between advertising and editorial on a blog
One of the common gripes of bloggers is that brands place undue pressure on them to link to their ecommerce site or promote their brands in other ways. Brands seeking this kind of sales exposure should stump up the cash to advertise on their favourite blogs.
- Understand that blogging is personal
Blogging is a very personal form of publishing. Some writers may have an axe to grind against certain companies. With this in mind, it is vital that marketers recognise that it simply isn't appropriate to target every single blog.
CASE STUDY - AMERICAN EXPRESS AND TOPTABLE
American Express forged a partnership with the online restaurant review and booking service Toptable to create Top Treats - a website that offers American Express card-holders exclusive deals and rewards at restaurants across the UK.
Mark Roper, vice-president of merchant marketing in Europe for American Express, says that the campaign was designed to 'reach consumers where they are'. 'We know our members love to eat out and we know they are spending more time on blogs researching where to eat,' he adds.
Through its partnership with the London Restaurant Festival, American Express has successfully proved its 'foodie' credentials and through the creation of the Top Treats website has developed a platform to reach out to customers.
The American Express team invited bloggers to restaurants featured on amextoptreats.co.uk, which they then reviewed. The reviews featured on the site, giving customers further reasons to visit.
According to Roper, American Express will work with several of these bloggers again, thus building a community of independent and respected online food writers.
Through the initiative, the brand has not only been able to tap into its customers' love of food but also reach out to them through the blogs they love. It is a strategy Roper is keen to expand.
CASE STUDY - BRITVIC'S READY FOR TEN
A growing band of brands are bypassing blogger-outreach programmes and setting up their own media platforms that can be used to subtly promote their products. Take Britvic's Ready For Ten website, an online community for parents of sixto nine-year-olds. The site covers all manner of child-rearing issues relating to that age group, including healthy eating.
Rather than simply reaching out to existing bloggers it was interested in, Britvic created a website to bring them together. The site was designed as a long-term platform where the brand could support its ranges.
The digital agency Made By Many was responsible for the website's design and undertook extensive research to identify bloggers with children of the right age to get them online. The site launch was supported by activity on Twitter. Using the microblogging website's facility to let users organise people they follow into groups known as Twitter Lists, a series of lists on subjects such as craft for kids was assembled. Just one week after launch, the site gained almost 1000 active followers.
The blogging platform is consistently evolving, with content led by readers' suggestions.
WEB OF INFLUENCE - IDENTIFYING A TARGET AUDIENCE
The term blog applies to such an amorphous breadth of writers and websites it is hard for brands to distinguish which are relevant. With this in mind, market research firm Apollo Research has identified three steps to analysing blogs in the technology sector. The first is to sift out those blogs that are rarely updated and show no evidence of independent thought and research.
The blogs are then weighted using an algorithm that incorporates the audience, frequency of updates and the prominence of the blogger. Finally, blogs are evaluated on the brands and themes that generate the most presence in the blog space.
When Apollo began analysing blogs 18 months ago, it discovered that companies that received little coverage in mainstream media were frequently extremely popular across blogs. However, over the past six months this has changed significantly, with bigger companies gaining more coverage on blogs.
OVER TO YOU
We asked @MarketingUK's Twitter followers to talk about their best and worst experiences of blogger outreach
@garybembridge - Best: Virgin Atlantic and Heathrow. Both contacted my TipsForTravellers.com blog with offers to experience them with no strings
@chrisdeabreu - No doubt: via Twitter and mobile!
@joncverd - Worst: telemarketing and cellphone's short message service
@rafael__queiroz - Worst: email marketing; Best: on Twitter
@NaomilMuse - Patronisingly phrased statements saying they know what I like and I can buy it 'click' when I have chosen to receive no marketing
@thealexiad - The best is humorous appeal
TOP 10 TECHNOLOGY BRAND PROFILE RANKING BASED ON BLOG ACTIVITY
6 Research In Motion
10 HTC Corporation
Source: Apollo Research, September 2010