The days of a blog simply being an individual's online diary are over. "Had cornflakes for breakfast" has been supplanted by "Had delicious and nutritious 'Brand X' cornflakes for breakfast, and so should you to start your day right!" Okay, maybe not quite so obvious, at least not in the hands of a skilled blogger, but you get the idea. Sponsoring bloggers and the conversations taking place online is big business these days. So big that businesses, according to an article in the June 21, 2009 PARADE Magazine, "spend about $1.6 billion a year on 'word-of-mouth' advertising, promoting their goods to bloggers and to people who use social-media websites like Facebook, according to the research firm PQ Media."
Right, wrong, or somewhere in between, "sponsored conversations" appear to be here to stay. So, assuming you're ready to get in on these conversations, what can you do to ensure the collaboration between your brand and a blogger (or bloggers) is a successful one? I went to the conversation side of the sponsored-conversation equation, and those who specialize in putting the two sides together, to get their perspective on making the math work.
Why sponsor conversation?
Just because a lot of money is being spent on sponsored conversation doesn't mean it's right for your brand. So why spend precious ad dollars on a blogger? According to Maggie Mason, CEO of Mighty Media and creator of the popular blog, Mighty Girl, not every brand should. "Sometimes, if you know the demographic is the right fit, the best thing to do is just buy a banner ad on the blog," says Mason. "But if you're looking for PR-type product placement, it's so much smarter to find people who are already talking about what you want to talk about."
"You're getting deeper engagement with an audience than you can get through banner advertising per se," insists Anita Campbell, founder and editor of Small Business Trends, a blog for small-business owners. "You're being seen in connection with an audience that you want to get at, and, in a way, that enables people to think about your products and services."
"Traditional display advertising has just basically lost its effectiveness," argues the self-proclaimed world leader in sponsored conversations, Ted Murphy, who is CEO and founder of IZEA, a firm that connects bloggers with advertisers. Murphy stresses that sponsored conversations can be a better expenditure of ad dollars because, "your average person who is reading content in the social media space is there for a reason."
"That kind of environment provides for very rich, fertile ground for a brand advertiser's message," elaborates Matt DiPietro, director of marketing and communications for Federated Media, a company specializing in connecting independent website authors and audiences to marketers.
"The content the people are coming to the website to read is the advertisement," says Joe Colburn, founder of JoeTech.com, a popular technology blog, "but it doesn't feel like one because it's more engaging and offers a more personal approach to telling someone about a product." He compares the conversation between a blogger and his readers to that of a friend telling you about a new product he just got, which you're likely to trust much more than an advertisement.
Asha Dornfest, founder and publisher of Parent Hacks, a blog devoted to real-world parenting tips, is also a big believer in the trust factor of blogs. "The trust of your readership is the number-one thing. This is one reason blogs have taken off so much, because people want to get away sometimes from that corporate voice."
Manage your expectations
Say you're sold on sponsoring a blogger and you're ready to reach out and touch a highly targeted audience. What should you realistically expect as a return on your investment?
"Don't expect huge numbers," says Campbell. "It's not about reaching huge numbers. It's about reaching the right target audience in a way where it sticks."
"Over and above anything else, I would say word of mouth," says Rebecca Mecomber, who has a handful of niche blogs, including New York Traveler.net. "For an advertiser looking to promote his product, I think word of mouth is number one."
"You get kind of a boost from being associated with that blogger," states Senior VP and Director of Insights for Edelman Digital, Steve Rubel, a blogger himself on The Steve Rubel Lifestream, which doesn't accept any advertising or publish sponsored posts, in order to avoid any conflicts of interest. Mighty Media's Mason refers to this boost as "brand love," which results from being affiliated with a blogger with a loyal following. She argues that her readership may not know or particularly care about the advertiser, "but they do know me, and they do care about me, and in doing this [sponsorship] with me, I'm forging a bond with the advertiser that sort of vicariously extends to my readers."
"In the best of cases, they walk away with new, dedicated consumers," says Federated Media's DiPietro on what brands get for their sponsorship. "At the very least, consumers who, if they had a negative view of the brand, now have a neutral view of the brand. If they had a neutral view of the brand, they now have a very positive view of the brand because, in the best of circumstances, that brand is now enabling that conversation."
IZEA's Murphy believes that a brand should set its own expectations by asking what it realistically hopes to get out of the relationship: Click-throughs? Buzz? Goodwill? "Just sponsoring a blogger to sponsor a blogger doesn't really make much sense," he elaborates, likening the relationship between a brand and a blogger to that of a corporate sponsor and an athlete.
So should you expect a blogger to do for your brand what Tiger Woods does for Nike or Gatorade? That's asking a lot, but unless you follow the next suggestion, chances are you won't see any ROI whatsoever.
Partnering with a blogger that's a good fit with your brand is crucial to a successful outcome. The wrong demographic or tone could not only not help, it could actually harm your brand by associating it with a blogger, readership, or slant that doesn't represent what you've worked so hard to stand for.
"Finding the right target demographic is one of the biggest things," says Colburn. He explains that he wouldn't accept a sponsored assignment from a brand that doesn't fit with, or help, his readership. "At the same time," he adds, "it doesn't help the sponsor, either, because they're not getting their target demographic."
Small-business blogger Campbell concurs. "The blogger's audience needs to line up pretty closely with the sponsor or advertiser," she says, adding that, for her, "believing in the product is very, very important," especially as it pertains to making a small-business owner's life easier.
"Seek out bloggers who already seem to be producing content around the message you want to get out," advises Mighty Media's Mason. "If you want some sort of contact with their readership, the more closely your product better match, because it is possible to antagonize a readership." Mason, an ex-copywriter, also believes that a blogger's tone should be considered when considering sponsorship: "It's important, as with any copywriter you would hire, that you understand that their tone matches the tone you're looking for."
DiPietro believes that, for a blog to be worth sponsoring, it "has to have a very large and engaged audience." Engagement can be determined by checking how active the commenting is, both on the blog itself and in the blogosphere, as well as the quality of the comments.
Finally, advises Rubel, "Look for somebody who has a track record, who has done these types of programs before successfully and has tremendous ethics." Of course, that assumes that ethics are equally important to the brand looking to sponsor the conversation, which leads nicely into the next recommendation.
"The biggest potential mistake that a brand could make is not forcing disclosure," says Murphy of the sponsored-conversation dynamic. He cautions that readers will ultimately find out about any monetary compensation, and any lack of transparency can backfire on a brand or blogger, which is why IZEA requires its bloggers to identify sponsored posts done through them with a badge. "We also encourage them to do so in the text or whatever way they feel comfortable," Murphy adds.
"Part of Federated Media's DNA is that everything we do, and encourage our sites to do, is to be transparent," insists DiPietro. Along with being transparent, he stresses that any sponsorship campaigns brokered through FM must also be authentic and "no matter what the campaign is, it has to add value to the media experience."
Colburn makes the point that, to not disclose that a post is sponsored, is not only unethical but also adversely affects his brand. "In this business, my name is my brand, and I have to protect my brand," he states emphatically. "The way I do that is by doing things as ethically as I can -- and that means disclosure."
But is there a risk that full disclosure might turn readers off and keep them from reading sponsored posts? Not according to Mason, who believes that, even though she's upfront with her readers when she's paid for a post, most of her readership will still read the post because they know her tastes and know there's probably something in it they'll find interesting -- especially given that she only accepts campaigns she feels are informative for her readers and would be something they might otherwise read if it weren't sponsored.
The bottom line: Sponsored or not, content has to be informative, interesting, and creative. And creativity doesn't just apply to the post -- extending it into the sponsorship arrangement itself can be instrumental in achieving a win-win-win (let's not forget the readers) situation.
Be creative with sponsorships
"The key thing for bloggers is to be more creative in how you approach things," says Mason, who approached Federated Media to help find her an advertiser to sponsor some of the things she hopes to do before she dies, which are listed on her blog's home page. Federated Media ran with her request, and now 10 items on Mason's list -- including a trip to Greece -- will be financed by Intel, which saw sponsoring part of her "bucket list" as a good way to get exposure, and win favor, with her readership. In this particular case, Mason (through Federated Media) sought out the brand, but these types of outside-the-box sponsorships are there for the taking by any brand looking to do something a little different. And since sponsoring bloggers is a relatively new concept, brands -- as well as bloggers, as in Mason's case -- are free to define how they propose to do it.
"Getting a blogger to guest blog for you on your site is another idea," says Rubel. He believes it's a good way for a brand to get content from a reputable blogger without watering down the blogger's main blog. And because it appears on a corporate website or micro-site, it's very transparent that there's a financial relationship between the blogger and the brand. Rubel is also a fan of bloggers linking to sponsored posts on advertiser websites from their blogs rather than publishing the posts on their own sites.
"It's not going to be a blanket proposal of what's our sponsored-post strategy in general for the blogosphere." says Dornfest on brands sponsoring bloggers. "It's going to have to be blog by blog, just in the same way freelance writers pitch magazines, individually pitching each magazine with something that's perfectly tailored for that magazine."
Regardless of the type of sponsorship, once it's in place comes what just may be the hardest part for brands used to controlling their messaging...
Let your blogger(s) blog!
If you've gone to all the trouble to find the right bloggers, sponsor them, and manage your expectations, the quickest way to sabotage your efforts is to not let your bloggers do their thing -- the reason you aligned your brand with them in the first place.
"Always allow the blogger to be creative and somewhat independent," says New York Traveler's Mecomber. "Bloggers are, by nature, extremely independent; blogs are opinion pieces, when it comes right down to it." So, she insists, let them express their opinions -- good, bad, or indifferent.
Murphy believes that negative feedback, so long as it's honest, won't necessarily adversely affect an advertiser, because it adds legitimacy to a post. "People can talk about what they like, and people can talk about what they don't like, and I think that's what makes the conversation real and authentic." He cautions bloggers that "you can't just be, like, 'this is the greatest thing that's ever happened,' because the readers just don't buy off on that." Out of the millions of sponsored posts bloggers have done through IZEA, Murphy estimates that only around 30 of them have been what he would consider negative.
How much control a brand has over a blogger's content depends on the arrangement between the blogger, the brand, and any parties brokering the deal. But little to none seems to be the right recipe for the more successful collaborations, according to my experts.
"There is never any control over the editorial content by a brand," says DiPietro of sponsorships arranged through Federated Media. "Editorial integrity is everything. If you lose your audience's trust in your content and in your credibility, you really are losing everything, because the audience itself, that engagement that happens on these blogs, is what makes it so valuable to the brand advertiser."
"If there's something I don't like about a product, I'm not being paid to lie about it," says Colburn. "I tell it like it is -- good points and bad points." He admits that he sometimes gets notes from sponsors, but typically it's asking him to mention something he may not have addressed, never to change anything he wrote. "I've never heard anyone say, 'can you say this product is the best out there or tell people this is a really great product?' No one's even said, 'can you give it a good review?'"
"The best and most savvy role that a brand can play is to sponsor the conversation but let the content of the conversation go where it will," advises Dornfest. She likens sponsoring a blogger to throwing a party: Rent the venue and provide the amenities, but then step back and let the guests have a great time. "How that great time ends up looking and sounding may not be what they expect," she says, adding that the rewards can still be great -- specifically, what brands learn from their audience and any goodwill and/or legitimacy that result from opening up the conversation and letting it happen organically.
"The conversation is already happening," Dornfest offers as parting advice. "The question is whether or not the brands want to get involved in those conversations."
If your brand does, then sponsoring a blogger as your voice is a good way to get in on them. Just don't expect it to be a ventriloquist/dummy relationship, because savvy audiences will see right through the act.
Sean Egen is a freelance writer.
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