The BlogHer Blogger Backlash

(Disclosure: PepsiCo is a client of Undercurrent where I am currently employed)

I had a great time at BlogHer '09 in Chicago this past weekend, working and mingling with some of the most inspiring and passionate women on the web. I attended the event on behalf of PepsiCo, who had a significantly large sponsorship presence throughout the conference this year.  I was there to assist several of PepsiCo's brand teams including Propel and Frito-Lay by helping to connect with and engage attendee's as they perused the trade show floor and came across our various sample booths and displays. I must admit, the trade show floor shocked and amazed me the first time I walked through it; packed with every brand category you could think of from Microsoft to Playskool to Motorola to Hanes to Disney to Orbitz to HP… well, you get the point.

3752944708_a4b39ebc56 Attending on behalf of PepsiCo meant I spent most of my time on the trade floor experiencing the frenzy of freebies over and over again throughout the two days I was there. It was impossible for anyone to take a loop of the trade show floor without ending up with a shopping bag full of products, half of which were likely items you didn't need or really want. The overwhelming inundation of free product this year was embraced and appreciated by some and clearly resented by others.

There’s been a lot of chatter about what really went wrong at BlogHer this year and whether it was compromised by the infiltration of marketers or by the attitude attendees showed by disregarding the larger purpose of the conference – to meet, greet, learn, and teach each other in a stimulating real life and open environment. The Me, me, me atmosphere was not entirely the fault of the companies and brands who were offering products and prizes. Having worked very hard at the conference on behalf of a major sponsor, I was incredibly relieved to read this statement made by Mom-101 in her blog post titled "The Year that Shame Died:"

I couldn't have been more impressed with how the marketers interacted with the attendees. They were respectful, they were enthusiastic, they were so engaged that they attended panels. It was a tribute to the efforts of Jory and the rest of BlogHer, who clearly worked tirelessly to make sure brands Got It Right.  And by God they did.  After three years of working to convince marketers that bloggers are an important force, conference sponsors like Pepsi, Suave, Nikon, GM, Clorox Greenworks, Tide, Ann Taylor and especially smaller brands like Blue Avocado were stellar evidence of the fact that indeed, women bloggers are an important force. (Yes we are!)

I’ll digress and talk about the larger issue at hand, which is currently a hot debate within the BlogHer community as a result of this year's conference, but is also causing serious conflict between bloggers who are also debating about the ethics, or lack thereof, when receiving products from companies or agencies in return for a blog review, which can be argued, are more often than not, overwhelmingly positive.

The truth of the matter is, as marketing and advertising budgets continue to get smaller, it is both beneficial and economical for brands to offer up products to bloggers in exchange for reviews posted to their site or a tweet posted to their Twitter profile. Really, when you think about it, seeding free product to consumers with the goal of generating conversations and awareness is not a new practice, it is called buzz and word-of-mouth marketing and has been used by agencies and brands alike for some time now. Today, social marketing agencies and brands are taking this strategy and adapting it to work within the web space, by targeting some of the most active online consumers and conversation starters– know bloggers and their loyal readers.

Why? These campaigns are dead simple and inexpensive to execute (compared to alternative marketing tactics), and the success of an online buzz campaign can be  measured pretty easily by calculating and aggregating important blog statistics such as: average blog visitors, blog authority relative to others in same category, number of comments on post, number of times the post was reblogged by other sites, and additional stats like number of tweets posted to Twitter referencing the campaign. What is wrong about these blogger buzz marketing campaigns? What is good or benefit comes from them?  We the internet, and the blogging public need to decide what kind of advertising and marketing tactics we are okay with into our blogosphere. Right now the FCC is working on new guidelines to help make this decision for us with rules that will dictate how and under what circumstances bloggers can particiapte in unpaid, buzz and word-of-mouth advertising campaigns on their own blogs.

I should note, I myself have taken part in two "sponsored conversation" campaigns this year on behalf of  Kmart and Armani Exchange via IZEA, where (in both cases) I was given a $500 gift card to spend in their store and was required to blog about my experience and talk about what I specifically bought with my $500 gift card. I am drawn into these campaigns for the obvious shopping opportunity but even more so, because I love the opportunity to give away a $500 gift card to one of my beloved readers. As part of the sponsorship, I am required to clearly disclose at the beginning and at the end of my post that I am being sponsored by X company I am blogging about in this post, but that all the opinions expressed within the post are mine, and mine alone.

Ironically, my thoughts on this subject are situated between two posts in which I received products in exchange for review. The first being a “sponsored” account of my experience at Armani Exchange thanks in part to IZEA and the upcoming second, a review of a business card scanner I received from The Neat Company after they came across this picture I posted to Flickr. 

It’s seemingly horribly apparent that I have been riding this 'product in exchange for review' wave for some time now by accepting tshirts, gift cards, scanners, and more from companies who are, in exchange interested in me talking about their product to my friends, readers and followers. So, whaddaya say – Should I jump off my board and swim to shore? Or should I continue to fearlessly face the risk of being pulled into the undertow?

About Julia Roy

15 Comments

  • I think some people can blog about these brands without a major conflict of interest. Bloggers with a conscience should realize whether they’re doing it for the readers or for the free stuff.
    Bloggers without a conscience (at least concerning freebies) are generally quickly identified by their readers, or by whistle-blowers should it come to that.
    I think you are a blogger with a conscience. I think you’re doing just fine, and the fact that you’re asking US permission shows it right off. Thanks for being awesome.

  • Matt P. says:

    You’re providing a service, whether it be to a client or to your readers. Any negative feedback you get for doing your job or what you enjoy seems like sour grapes to me.
    Full speed ahead.

  • Barb says:

    I completely agree with you that the companies “got it” and were a joy to work with. It was a few bad apples in the bunch that made all of us look bad. I appreciate the vendors that were there and hope that they realize that ‘we are not all like that’.

  • Very good column. Companies do get it and the revenue or swag that bloggers receive is acceptable provided there is some form of disclosure. The same applies to traditional outlets. I have done a lot of PR in the entertainment and hospitality industries and have provided meals, travel, lodging, merchandise, etc. to journalists and media personalities for years. Some accept, some pay their own way, some disclose the gift, some don’t. I say practice a simple rule of thumb, disclosure.
    I work as a marketing communication consultant and blog now. When blogging about a client, friend or associate/colleague I practice full disclosure.

  • The problem is that if you consistently pay for earned media, it’s no longer earned media. If you pay for reviews, pay to get on blogs, and pay to get people to talk about your products… they just become spammers, and you’ve really just moved the banner ad from the side of the page in the center where the content used to be.

  • Jorge says:

    Reviewing some products or writing about shopping experiences is ok, as long as the opinion is truly yours. The problem is that sometimes some people think that because they’re sponsoring you, then you somehow feel psychologically bound to write good stuff about them. Now that’s some strange reaction we have when people are “nice” to us.
    But as I say, as long as the opinions are totally objetive, meaning that IZEA or the brands give you the products so you can say how much they rock or suck.
    I think it’s ok. In fact many companies give products to papers and reviewers so they can write reviews of them, this is no different.

  • Matt Moffatt says:

    I guess it depends on the amount that you do. A balance is needed and it’ll be reflected in your blog. If done too much, yes it does feel souless and spam heavy. I like your blog and don’t mind the posts about different products.

  • Wardell says:

    I agree with Jorge, as long as you’re upfront about product reviews (which you are) and give your readers a good about of non sponsored content then you’re good to go.

  • Blog marketing works. I was just involved in an online auction for http://www.recojeans.com. We were receiving steady stream of bids, but nothing outstanding. After a barrage of coverage from several pop-culture and fashion blogs, we were inundated by so many bids that we were shocked and overjoyed. I truly believe that it is the easiest and most cost-effective means of generating buzz.

  • TVI says:

    What Aaron Richard said.
    It doesn’t matter what the blogger’s opinion is once the content is bought and paid for. Companies aren’t writing off product given to bloggers with the expectation that the “critique” is favorable to them. They’re paying for name and product placement, and essentially a nearly free ad where the copy should be.

  • Paying for a free ad? Really?

  • TVI says:

    I said a *nearly* free ad. :)
    I’m just trying to illustrate how little of the companies’ capital is involved: The product itself, which is probably not even considered inventory at that point, the delivery of the product, the staff time involved in administering the product and dealing with the client/blogger….
    If you broke it down dollar-for-dollar and compared it to the cost of a display ad on the same page and factor in views and such, the cost should be very favorable for the company.

  • amber finlay says:

    This is a really interesting post – sponsored conversations and marketing via blogger opinion are obviously becoming more and more prevalent. It’s interesting to get the POV of someone like you , who is in the unique position of both working for brands and being a well-read blogger personally.
    For me, the question has always been around the blogger’s loss of credibility when the range of products for which they do paid posts starts to become very wide. Now, of course you can like clothes and gadgets and a whole array of stuff, and have an opinion on them, but I think if a blogger does want to balance being paid to post on certain things without losing their credibility, they might have to stick to one theme, i suppose, for their reviews to be seen as worthwhile, and not just cash-driven fluff. Like a tech blogger reviewing techy things makes sense, but if they started reviewing ice cream brands and sneakers, you’d wonder if they were just in it for the money.
    It’s certainly a tough question – it’s becoming apparent to a lot of people, I think, that blogging isn’t exactly lucrative. But, on the other hand, I agree with what Aaron Richard said up there (really smart comment, btw) – consistently paying for earned media means it’s not really earned anymore, and its impact is potentially reduced in that sense. The word “earned” suggests there’s value in your opinion – I guess you just have to figure out how to keep that value, which certainly goes beyond the cost of a paid post.

  • Steve says:

    Julia,
    Provocative post with some great comments…
    I feel that, to be truly objective (regardless of your personal integrity), blog posts can’t be sponsored. Otherwise, you’re beholden to the sponsor to hold back just a little and perhaps soften any criticism. I think that’s just natural. Even if you could remove yourself entirely from any bias, most readers would wonder…
    Walter Mossberg, at the WSJ, is a good example of a tech authority who reviews products and tells it like it is. He obviously doesn’t accept compensation from anyone other than the Journal for his opinions and, from my perspective, that adds to his credibility.
    I was on Guy Kawasaki’s blog earlier today and saw that he provided an endorsement of a Camaro that GM had dropped off at his home for 5 days of personal use. I’m sure Guy’s integrity is unquestioned but, still, if I’m in the market for a sports car, I’d leave his blog and see what Consumer Reports has to say…
    You’re a gem. See you around Twitter! ; )
    Steve @enthused

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