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.
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’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?