I had the incredible honor of speaking today on a panel, for the Advertising Women of New York, about how brands and bloggers deal with each other. Advertising Age reporter Natalie Zmuda (@nzmuda) moderated the panel. Also on the panel with me were:
- Doug Wood, the General Counsel for the Association of National Advertisers
- Cindy Chiu, who works for Microsoft and was demonstrating their new LookingGlass software
- Lisa Fain, who blogs about being a Texas transplant in New York on her Homesick Texan blog (@homesicktexan)
- Ted Rubin, Chief Marketing Officer for e.l.f. Cosmetics (@TedRubin, @askelf)
While I was absolutely not speaking for any bloggers other than myself, I’ve gotten a lot of experience working with brands and PR reps over the past two years, and it’s a subject I love talking about. The rest of this post is not exactly about the panel – my memory is way too shitty to give an account of everything that was talked about this morning. But it was inspired by the issues brought up this morning.
Doug Wood started out the session talking about the new FTC rules and what they mean for brands. For those of you who have no idea what the FTC rules are, in a nutshell they’re guidelines that went into effect December 1st that spell out what kinds of disclosures have to take place when a company has a relationship with a writer, celebrity, etc. It’s more complicated than that – big document – but what it means for readers is that you of course want to know if I get something for free and then talk about. That’s why my disclosure page is as anal-retentive as it is. You can see what my relationship is with a company and decide for yourself if you want to trust what I have to say about its product.
It’s Doug’s contention that the FTC will make an example out of a company in the next 6-8 months, and then companies will really start paying attention. There was an interesting back-and-forth between Doug and Ted Rubin, whom I had met once before at an e.l.f. party last fall. Ted doesn’t think that anything is going to happen with the FTC guidelines. He thinks that companies figure the costs of these kinds of fines and legal problems into their bottom line, and that they’d rather roll the dice and hope they’re not caught, than pay attention to the rules. (UPDATE: Ted wanted me to add that he welcomes the new FTC rules – and he said this several times during the panel. Told you my memory sucks.) I’m curious how this will shake out.
I’m not worried about companies getting fined by the FTC. I’m worried about a blogger being made an example of. I think the kerfuffle over the FTC guidelines was mostly overblown: from what I’ve read it’s not focused on bloggers any more than it’s focused on other media, despite all of the reactionary blog posts with titles like “The FTC is coming after the Mommy Bloggers” (not a real headline, but might as well have been). But I also thought that the crackdown on downloading illegal music was overblown, and while I still think it was, I’m sure it didn’t seem that way to the handful of people the RIAA really went after.
Frankly, I’m suspicious of any blogger that wasn’t disclosing long before the FTC guidelines, and I think that if PR people want to get a sense of what kind of blogger they’re dealing with, they should look at reviews done before last summer, before the guidelines became a hot topic.
UPDATE: Doug Wood added this link to a downloadable guide to the legal risks and rewards of social media and blogging for companies as a comment, but I wanted to highlight it here.
Finding the right blogger
I get a lot of quality pitches for reviewing and giving away products. I also get a lot of pitches that might as well say something like this:
I have a product that I’m not all that excited about, but I’m being paid so…do you want to review it? And could you really talk it up so that I don’t get fired?
Please get back to me fast, because I sent this out to about 500 bloggers, and the first ten who respond will get the honor of receiving this $20 product for free, and have to put up with me pestering them about it for the next few months. Oh, and please send me your traffic numbers because I never bothered to figure out how to look them up myself, and even if I did I wouldn’t know what they mean; I’d rather make you prove yourself to me.
PR Person who despises bloggers
I’m not above taking advantage of these offers if the product interests me – I like to review products, and even though I’d love to spend my own money endlessly on products to review, it’s just not possible. But I’ve never understood what the company gets out of this approach. If I had ten products to give away, I’d want them to go to bloggers who write for the product’s target audience. I’d want to work with bloggers who have a history of writing thorough reviews, not just “This is a good product I got for free. Go buy it.” I’d want to work with bloggers who engage with their readers. I’d want to work with bloggers who speak their minds but don’t try to make a name for themselves by going out of their way to trash products and stir up trouble.
The only way to find these bloggers is to read their blogs. If you just send out an email to a huge list of bloggers, you’re not going to get much out of your campaign.
Are bloggers experts?
There was an excellent question from the audience about why anyone should care what a blogger has to say about a product – the blogger has no credentials, no expertise in the area that the product deals with.
The answer is that in many cases, the fact that most Mommy Bloggers are not experts about the products they’re reviewing is a huge plus. The reviews are written by actual people, who probably know nothing about the product than what’s available on the box. They can convey the experience that a regular consumer would have, not someone who has been involved in the product’s development, or who has reviewed 75 variations on the product.
It’s the same reasoning behind why I don’t get much out of the movie reviews in newspapers and on big websites. They’re written by people who see too many movies. I don’t care if the movie is evocative of the early work of some obscure director in Burkina Faso. I just want to know if I’ll be entertained.
How do you control what bloggers say about your product?
There was another question – I don’t remember how it was phrased – about how a brand can control what a blogger says about its product. Short answer: they can’t, and it will hurt them if they try.
Bloggers tend to be independent, opinionated people. That’s why we’ve created little online spaces for ourselves where we can be in control. Unless you are paying me to write for you – preferably on your company’s site, not my own site – you cannot control what I say. I can’t tell you how many opportunities I’ve turned down because there were strings attached, requirements that if I’m going to say anything bad I have to show it to the company first, or I have to use certain phrases without acknowledging that it’s not my own writing.
I have no problem working with a company to make things right. If I get a product that has some kind of defect, I expect to get a replacement or have it fixed, just like an actual purchaser would. And how the company handles that will figure into my review. And if the problem is taken care of for me, it should be taken care of for my readers as well.
But if the product just has what I perceive to be negatives, that’s an opportunity for the company to make things right on a grander scale. Ted Rubin expressed that really well, saying that he likes negative reviews because it gives him a chance to correct problems. The bottom line is, don’t send an item out to bloggers for review if it’s not a great product, because you won’t be able to control what is said about it. And if you send it out and get bad feedback, make it right. People love a comeback, and you will probably get more kudos for correcting a negative than you would get for a good review in the first place.
A blogger’s value
I don’t know if sending out free products will work in the long-run for companies. The internet is evolving too fast for anybody to have a handle yet on what works, so a lot of ideas are being thrown out there. I know that people have bought products because of something I wrote, but is it on a scale that makes it worth it to the company?
As a reader, I get interested when a company concentrates its blogging outreach on a few bloggers, rather than flooding the blogosphere with one-off reviews. I like to see months-long campaigns where the bloggers get in-depth about a product (I’m actually about to announce my participation in one of those types of campaigns). There is no such thing as a “freebie” for a blogger, unless they take your product and never ever write about it, tweet about it, mention it to anyone they know, and never contact you again. Otherwise, you are getting value from the blogger, and I like to see that value rewarded.
Not every blogger wants to get paid. Not every blogger wants to be sent free products. Not every blogger wants to have any kind of relationship whatsoever with companies. But for those who do, for those bloggers who are trying to make a living blogging, I hope companies will try to find new ways to work with bloggers where everyone benefits.