LONDON: When 14 year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, head adorned with a massive bow hat, took her coveted front-row seat at the Christian Dior couture show in Paris in January, blocking the view of the Grazia journalist sitting behind her, the growing power of the blogosphere was never more evident.
Gevinson, who once described herself as a 'tiny 13-year-old dork who sits inside all day wearing awkward jackets and pretty hats', is one of the legion of online writers that have helped to turn the traditional hierarchy of publishing on its head - a development that has massive implications for brands.
Connecting with key influencers and opinion-formers has long been a key goal of marketing. However, the days when those influencers were easily categorised in a clear pecking order are long gone. There are now tens of millions of people writing blogs. In the fashion and beauty market alone, hundreds of thousands of UK consumers are sharing their outfits and product reviews on a daily basis.
Blogs are now an essential channel for brands, but reaching out to them is more complicated than simply including a few extra names at the end of a press release distribution list. According to Gaylene Ravenscroft, head of digital UK at PR agency Hill & Knowlton, many agencies are failing to put in the required effort. 'The most important thing is that you can't dip in and out of connecting with bloggers,' she says. 'It is about building long-term relationships.'
However, as Maurice Wheeler, co-founder and planning director of Digital Outlook, points out, brands that are succ-essful in this area understand that it requires a fundamentally different approach from the one they use for press relations. 'Bloggers aren't part of the game,' he says. 'They don't have an editor, they don't have to be objective and this is why lots of brands have been stung by bloggers who either ignore them or burn them.'
Moreover, because many of the more-successful blogs operate outside the bubble of the industries they write about, they are not subject to the same constraints and mot-ivations as journalists. 'It is not a case of you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours,' says one beauty blogger and ex-journalist. 'I don't carry any advert--ising so I don't feel any pressure. I write what I think and if they don't like it, they can lump it.'
Anthony Mayfield, vice-president and head of social media at iCrossing, agrees the most common mistake brands make is ext-ending the 'Did you get my press release?' approach to bloggers. 'The num-ber-one rule is not to generalise, and really under-stand the blogger network,' he says. 'You can't treat every single blogger like the editor of Marie Claire, but you can show an appreciation of their work.'
Robin Grant, managing director of We Are Social, warns there is no shortcut to creating a successful blogger outreach programme. 'The fact is you need to take the time and effort to research the blogs,' he says. 'With desk research, we use rankings and influence. You have to under-stand who the target audience is. It isn't enough simply to have a list of the top 10 bloggers.'
Ironically, some brands are taking a lead from traditional magazines as to which bloggers to follow. Over the past six months, almost every glossy women's title has run a feature showcasing fashion blogs. For instance, WhatKatieWore.com has been covered by titles including Grazia, Marie Claire and The Sunday Times Style magazine.
While print publications have a clear scope in terms of readership and circulation, brands may struggle to achieve similar levels of reach with blogs. How-ever, many in the industry point out that reach should not be brands' sole focus.
In an ideal world, brands would have the time and resources to research and make personal connections with each individual blogger. However, hard-pressed marketers need to start somewhere, so many of them are reliant - some would say overreliant - on research tools. As an alternative, Ravenscroft, recommends map-ping out a 'network of influence'. She suggests the key to success is connecting with bloggers who are genuinely influential in a given sector, not simply popular.
For example, in Brazil, Coca-Cola launched i9 - Hidrotonico (a Brazilian version of Powerade) in partnership with nine of the country's most prominent bloggers. As part of the promotion, Coke redesigned the bloggers' pages, gave them miniature refrigerators with bottles of i9 inside and encouraged them to share their views of the drink. However, the initiative met with a mix-ed response online with critics labelling it 'blogs-de-aluguel' or 'rent-a-blog'. Other bloggers responded with an 'I am not a rent-a-blog' manifesto.
Some of the brands that have been most successful in engaging with bloggers -such as Microsoft's Xbox - have a dedicated community team. There is also a growing feeling in the industry that mainstream PR agencies are beginning to catch up with the specialist digital firms when it comes to navigating the often-choppy waters of blogger outreach.
Question of trust
This is not to say that bloggers do not still face major roadblocks when it comes to being recognised as an important and legitimate channel. Privately, at least, some industry experts remain sceptical about the sustainability of blogs and this distrust has been fuelled by tales of luxury items and Â test products being sold through blogs or ending up on eBay. Some luxury brands have even begun keeping a note of the codes of products that they have sent out and then buying them back to identify the seller.
While a large number of bloggers simply do not want to engage with brands - and often they make this clear, in no uncertain terms, on their blogs - in the US, the practice of brands effectively paying bloggers for posts has become more widespread.
While some brands have dipped their toes in the water with advertorials and banner advertising on blogs, most observers believe the UK blogophere is too 'sens-itive' for such a blatantly commercially driven approach.
For many brands, the best way to build better connections with bloggers is to understand the angle they are coming from and the pressures they face, as opposed to blandly focusing on their product message. Wheeler says the real issue for bloggers is that 'they live and die by their integrity and they don't want to appear a sell-out'.
Whether or not Gavinson is set to be given a front-row seat at Dior's show next year, it is difficult to dismiss the importance of blogs. Consumers rout-inely rank peer-to-peer recommendations as one of the factors most likely to influence their decisions and these peers are online in their billions. It is, therefore, surprising that so many brands are still failing to build better relationships with bloggers.
Expert comment the blogger's view
Joe Sinclair Author of WhatKatieWore.com, and head of marketing, twentysix
The vast majority of 'blogger outreach' seems to consist of a rather shoddily formatted press release attached to an otherwise blank email. OMG, yawn. Hardly the stuff of romance. I thought bloggers got sacks full of 'freebies', right? Well, some may, and rightly so. You wouldn't expect a reviewer at the Times Literary Supplement to buy the books they review (although you would assume they get paid for their content).
Alas, providing bloggers with the same products and access given to print journos doesn't replace the need to cultivate personal relationships.
The smaller brands that approach us often do so because they're actually readers of our blog. They already understand the 'house rules' and take a personal approach. When you're speaking to a brand owner, an invitation to lunch feels far less like a business transaction and far more like a genuine interaction with the individual that makes that brand unique.
It is harder for high-street brands to seem personal. Big marketing teams and external agen-cies can mean volume of interaction is prioritised over quality. Never-the-less, our experience with brands such as ASOS, New Look and TK Maxx, has broken this rule because the individuals making contact behaved like readers. They took the time to learn the rules, to understand the blog dynamics. Bloggers love their audience. So be like a reader, not a brand and you'll make the biggest brand feel personal.
Expert comment the brand's view
Graeme Boyd, Consultant community manager, Xbox EMEA
Is your brand active in social media? Whether you have a social media strategy or not, the answer is yes. People are talking about you right now on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, podcasts and many other social networks. If you looked for those conversations, would you like what you saw?
In 2005, before the launch of the second-generation Xbox, we wanted to bring our most loyal advocates in the blogging space closer to us. Our community agency Digital Outlook reached out to a handful of the most influential European gamer blogs, developed relation-ships with them, and offered them the chance to see the console at a London event.
This was called the Xbox Community Network, and, five years, on it is still going strong. We send the blogs games and hardware for review, get exclusives to them, and take them to events. It is not about telling people what to think - it is about helping bloggers satisfy their audience. What does Xbox get from this? We talk to about 100 blogs in 16 countries, taking part in conversations with millions of gamers.
Something has changed in those five years: the nature of the blogger. The rise of social media means that you need to look past blogs to other social media channels such as YouTube and Facebook. The next stage for us is to reach out to this breed of blogger. It's a challenge but we know it's better to be part of the social media conversation than ignore it.