If search has been the king of online advertising these last few years, for the last two years the "blog" (short for “web log”) has been its assumed crowned prince.
The trade press has been filled with tirades, polemics, evangelism and meditations about the blog as a marketing platform. Even mainstream media has begun to talk about the marketing potential of blogs, with both the New York Times and USA Today running articles about them just in the last few weeks.
Most of what has been found in the trade has been a kind of breathless fawning over the blog as an exciting, new, and meaningful means of personal communication with the larger world that marketers are going to be able to take advantage of in ways that they could only dream of before. Advertisers will be able to gain authenticity by being in a raw environment, picking up the warm glow of coolness from the halo cast by the blog itself.
For all the talk about using blogs as a platform for advertising, the practice of doing so is still nascent, if not embryonic.
Early last year, Sega hired Weiden + Kennedy to promote the ESPN NFL computer game with a blog called Beta-7, which was supposedly written by a beta tester who wrote posts about blacking out while playing and waking up with bruises on his body as if he’d been taking hits on the field.
In the late spring of 2004, Gawker media launched a blog for Nike's "Art of Speed," commissioning 15 filmmakers to create films. In its wake was a great deal of fawning over the tactic and a flurry of speculation as to what degree marketers will take their messages to the blog.
Words, but not deeds
After the 2004 political season, when blogs came to the fore as both news breaker and news maker, enthusiasm for the vehicle was extremely high. But their actual use as a marketing device was still lagging and their continued draw of audiences was called into question. Many thought that marketers were leery of using them due to their unpredictable and potentially controversial nature.
The popular blogs, after all, tend towards the controversial. A blog about the cola wars doesn’t have quite the same appeal to audiences or attracts the same level of involvement as one about the Iraq war, the drug war, or the culture war. And American advertisers aren’t prone to taking risks.
The other reason advertisers are talking more about blogs than they are using them could be the fad factor. Just because someone declares something hot doesn’t mean that it actually is so.
Although there are now some 15.7 million blogs, according to the latest Technocrati count, only a select few get passionate audiences large enough to excite marketers. When there are so many other websites out there with a more stable editorial environment and larger audiences that have inventory to sell, why not simply use them?
At their core, blogs are simply text-heavy websites. If you go back just a few years, blogs look strikingly similar to your basic website from the mid-to-late nineties. Xoom.com, Geocities, Tripod and the like were all similar. They didn’t have the benefit of things like RSS tools, but the qualitative differences seem minor. Blogs are just personal websites made easier to construct with the advent of more robust and facile prefab site building tools. Their diary-like format gives them a more personal feeling, but the blogosphere isn’t some untapped vein of marketing gold we just haven’t figured out how to mine. The blog is a format for a website, not something different than a website, and there are already plenty of websites where advertisers can advertise.
I like some blogs, but mostly I find them tedious and redundant. That said, an individual not being a fan of blogs isn't really very good criteria for determining their value to audiences that are fans of them. That's like saying, being single, without kids, I don't buy diapers or take family vacations; therefore, people who buy diapers and take family vacations are misguided or only doing it by accident.
Also, as Steve Strauss, a lawyer specializing in small businesses recently wrote in USA Today’s “Ask an Expert” column, “I cannot disagree that the web log, or blog, is definitely the Flavor of the Month. But even when chocolate is the Flavor of the Month, that doesn't make it any less tasty. Sometimes trendy is OK, and this is one of those times.”
Any one blog by itself, as of today, is not going to be big business, in the same way that "ClubfootedBluegrassEnthusast.com" will never be big business. And I've insisted for a very long time that blogs are just personal websites, a la Geocities or Tripod or Xoom. The word "blog" is just packaging to keep the uninitiated in awe by keeping them confused.
But it is in aggregate that money can be made. Rounding up blogs into networks, as is being done, will allow those doing the corralling to make money. Those creating and maintaining blogs can benefit some, financially, but if that is the intention behind the creating, then blogging may not be the appropriate model for trying to generate personal wealth.
And this is what is being done by some smart companies. Gawker has been among the most successful, with a variety of advertiser categories running ads through their network of blogs. Most recently independent movie studios, such as Focus and ThinkFilm (for “The Constant Gardener” and “The Aristocrats,” respectively) have gone online with their advertising, with blogs serving an important role in reaching the kinds of niche audiences such films will appeal to, using Gawker, Wonkette, and Defamer, among others.
Active ad networks stand to benefit from the use of blogs for advertising because they already have an infrastructure whose very raison d’etre is to aggregate content passion places and package desirable, saleable audiences. BURST Media, for instance, has been selling ads on blogs since early this year. Blogads.com is an ad network that handles just blogs.
Blogs are starting to find their way into the marketing landscape because everything that has the potential for being a public vehicle of communication can ostensibly be part of a marketing landscape. The fractious media environment and audiences' growing resistance to marketing messaging are forcing marketers to look to any virgin territory where they can place their messages and catch our attention.
The problem is that marketers will try anything to get in front of consumers, even if it is a bad idea. This isn't to say that using blogs as marketing vehicles is a bad idea; just that marketers will try anything. Their interest is growing for good reason, but in the long run, blogs being more effective than other online vehicles remains uncertain.
Blogs are, in essence, individualistic personal expressions that are supposed to be their authors' own authentic manifestations of the self. Allowing companies to co-opt those selves could threaten to undermine the very power blogs have in attracting marketers to them in the first place. Savvy marketers are aware of this, so they start their own blogs. There is nothing unique about a marketer putting up a website in support of a product.
Blogs are going to be a permanent tool in the marketing kit. They can provide marketers with a way into audiences that may not be efficiently or effectively reached any other way. But they provide no more marketing pixie dust than any of the other myriad tools marketers have at their disposal: better for some products and objectives, worse for others.
Jim Meskauskas is media strategies editor for iMedia Connection.