Monday, January 25, 2010

Marketing to Mombloggers: When brand advocates become unpaid saleswomen and then call it quits

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As a "mommy blogger," I'm on the receiving end of lot of marketing pitches. As a consultant, I sometimes find myself developing the pitches and broader outreach efforts. I understand that clients want numbers, they want measurable results. But there's a line between developing brand fans and "hiring" bloggers for free advertising.

Late last year, I was invited to a party to learn about a piece of at-home fitness equipment that is used in conjunction with a popular family gaming platform. Just as Walt Disney asked his employees to "plus" their ideas, to make them bigger and better, this brand was proud to release its "plussed" version.

The party was wonderful. A Word-of-Mouth (WOM) firm engaged a local blogger as hostess and she invited a fabulous group of women. Attendees learned about and got to try out the product in a fun, low-pressure setting. There were delicious snacks and drinks and we enjoyed ample time to play as well as talk. A good time was had by all, and, in the end, each attendee was given a product to take home and enjoy. They plussed it!

I held off on opening my product until the holidays, but we've been using/playing/working out with it ever since. Just as the WOM firm would hope, I've been chatting the system up online and in real life. I think the "plus" product has a lot of great improvements over the initial release. A true brand advocate, I was also getting ready to post on my search-friendly PR 5 blog (that would be this here blog).

But while that post was sitting in draft, the WOM agency asked me to take a survey. Given my very positive feelings about the event and the product, I dove in. Feedback on the party? No problem. Questions about my knowledge of and experiences with the product? I'm game.

But then they started asking about the social networks in which I'm active. Um, well okay. Then they wanted to know about my fans/followers/readers. Hmmm. It didn't let me bypass those items, so I entered numbers that I felt were extremely high, you know to mess with them and make myself look cool.

Then the survey asked how many people had played the game with me, how many conversations I'd had about the games and the like. I made up numbers there, too. Low ones this time (or maybe I made up low numbers about my social connections and high ones here because it sounded fun to say I'd talked with over 9000 people about this game).

I understand how word of mouth works. I understand they invited me to the party and gave me a free unit in the hopes that I would love it and tell my friends. And I willingly did that.

At least I did that until the WOM agency made it all too clear that I was merely their tool.

In the space of a few minutes I went from being an genuinely enthusiastic brand advocate to an unpaid salesperson.

And then I quit.

I'm still using the product that shall not be named, but there will be no blog post, no more tweeting, and I'm zipping my lips.

I've gotten different reactions from friends who also took the survey. Some wanted to sound positive so they will be invited to future events. Others answered the questions but felt a bit awkward about it (were they worthy?). And still others wondered why the agency didn't collect social network information on their own, possibly even prior to the event. (Obvious answer, because they'd have to pay someone to do it.)

I think there's a line between being a brand fan and a cheap marketing tool. Do you? How do you draw that line as a blogger? What might a brand do that makes you feel valued, or on the flip side, what might a brand do that kills your buzz?

Edited 1/26/10 to add: Spurred by this blog and the rich discussion in the comments Jennifer James put up a post today that's a must-see. Click to read "Why PR professional shouldn't ask mom bloggers for stats."

And while you're clicking, taking a peek at my old post, "Moms, show us your stats"

44 comments:

Alli Worthington said...

And that is exactly why earned media is such a problem with MommyBloggers.

Our panel at BlissDom will delve into this topic and explain it all.

Old media playbook in a new media environment combined with lack of knowledge always equals one thing-

A hot mess.

Jennifer James said...

I am so cynical these days when working with brands. I ask a lot of questions at the beginning and get a sense of what a PR firm is trying to get out of me by the tone of their initial email. I turn a lot of things down or simply delete their emails because essentially said WOM companies just want me to tweet about some frivolous product or -- what they're really hoping for -- that I will tell the entire MBC membership about it.

I have had some very strange run-ins with PR firms already this year. I can't wait to tell you about them at Blissdom.

Kim Moldofsky said...

@Jennifer You know I'm all ears.

@Alli In this case, because I like the product so much, I was willing to pass along earned media. But when I was asked to file what felt like a sales report, I quit working for the brand.

Selfish Mom said...

I tend to be more forgiving to the PR people involved the more I like the product. But in general, I like all of that stuff to happen beforehand - if you have expectations of me, or if you want information from me.

What drives me crazy is when someone wants to send me something, does not spell out any expectations, and then bugs me to post after the fact. If I'm "required" to post about a product, then let's talk about money before you send me the product and we'll be clear up front that it's a sponsored post. Otherwise, I will post about the product if I'm interested enough in it.

Nikki @ The Mommy Factor said...

My $.02 might be worthless for this convo since I haven't really worked with a "Brand" but I think putting pressure on a blogger to prove how much they've promoted something is a bit much. If a product is worthwhile we'll naturally talk about it. Having to show and prove via a survey would turn anyone off

Kim Moldofsky said...

@selfishmom You bring up a good point. I'd add that the better my relationship with the PR firm, the more likely I am to take my concerns directly to them, rather than rant on my blog. In this case, I don't have any meaningful connection with the WOM firm, though I obviously did not name them in the post. which I've not named here/

I think it was @momfluential who wrote a great post late last year about the importance of setting expectations up front. Had I known up front I would be asked to report all of my post-party brand related conversations, I wouldn't have gone to the party.

bernthis said...

I am very cautious about this stuff. I will not be a tool. I go on "feeling".

jamie said...

So many PR people seem to think that these soft incentives equate with a contract. I've become a cynic like Jennifer James.

I respond to about 2% of pitches and try to manage expectations up front and STILL I get hounded by follow up emails. One guy proposed to send me a book light, but wanted my phone number so he could follow up.

Um, no thanks. I'll just read in the dark.

Marketing Mommy said...

Nice post and thought-provoking, as always. It's interesting how marketing to mom bloggers keeps evolving. First it was review my product. Then it became promote my product (either with a giveaway, sponsored post or press release reprint). Now it's promote my product and demonstrate your reach.

I'm glad you showed some self-respect and integrity. I hope more bloggers take note.

Selfish Mom said...

@KimMoldofsky Oh yeah, that plays a part too. There are a few PR people I know I can count on to run things smoothly, and that if anything goes wrong or I need something from them they'll be there for me. So while most of my decision to take a product or not is based on the product, who's contacting me totally comes into play.

And the smart PR people not only know how to gather the necessary info themselves, they also know how to analyze it.

MelADramatic Mommy said...

I got an email inviting me to an event. I Tweet a little to see who else might be going and post on Facebook since I was allowed to bring a guest.

I go to the event, barely get to meet the person I was invited to see or talk with the PR reps. I left with my free thing a little disappointed but was OK until I got a follow up email asking me to please let them know if I have questions and am planning to post.

Umm, post about what? After, I told my husband I wish the initial email had read, "hey, we're going to be in your city, we'd love if you'd help us promote our event. If you can make it, please let us know, we'd love to say hello."

That reads much differently (IMHO) than "you are invited to our event."

Maybe I read too much into it but I'd rather have a company flat out ask for my free promotion so I know where I stand.

Kim Moldofsky said...

@bernthis I go on a gut feeling, too. I was pleasantly surprised at the low-key, fun tone of the party and happy to chat up a product I like. I felt a bit bamboozled when I got the survey, though.

@Nikki- I know you've been to plenty of events. I always advise clients that if they send out product or invite bloggers to events, they cannot/should not automatically expect a post in return. I think if a connection is made between the blogger and brand or product, the blogger is often happy to share her thoughts---that's how I typically operate as a blogger, at least.

@jamie- see above. Reminds me, did you ever see the Flight of the Conchords episode with the song, "A kiss is not a contract" as Jemain sang, a kiss is very, very nice, but that doesn't guarantee any further action. Just like a "soft incentive." Erm, maybe not the best analogy after all, LOL.

@marketingmommy - I still like giveaways--see last week's comment about winning stuff from my friends. :-) Thanks for your kind words.

Deb said...

Sending out that survey was a big mistake. It comes from them not knowing how to define their own ROI properly and scrambling sloppily to do so. Ironically in doing so they destroyed their biggest, though, yes, most intanglible gain with you--the fact that you felt they respected your opinion and voice as a blogger.

Cat/@DearBadKitty said...

Hey Kim -- really interesting post, and thank you for bringing up such an important topic.

I'm curious about a few things:

First, I'm surprised that you -- as a SM pro -- were surprised that they'd be collecting this information. Obviously they aren't giving out these expensive games out of goodwill. There's a business intention behind it, and that business intention to reach influencers who will use that influence to make their followers buy said game.

If they are a good firm, as you said they are, then it's to be expected that they will measure the success of their program. It's the professional thing to do! I wish that MORE firms were proactive about understanding the reach of bloggers. That is one of the best ways to attach a value to the time we spend trying something out, writing about it, and promoting it to our spheres of influence.

It’s our job, and in our best interest, as bloggers and marketers, to participate in the conversation about how brands should value us, which then leads to defining the appropriate compensation for our time.

The other question I had was, why did you choose to throw their numbers by plugging in fake stats, instead of engaging the PR firm in a conversation about the data they were collecting? It seems like that could be interpreted as malicious and unprofessional, and cast a negative light on all bloggers.

Finally, assuming that the PR firm has now reached out to you, following this post, what’s their reaction and explanation for why they were collecting the data? It would be great if they take your feedback about setting expectations in advance, so you can agree to participate by accepting the game, or decline the offer if it doesn’t match your values.

Again, great post, just the conversation we need to be having right now! I look forward to chatting more about it at Blissdom!

Kim Moldofsky said...

Deb- I agree; it feels sloppy to me to collect data after the fact.

Cat- I think I need a whole new post to respond to your comment, which I think is great...good discussion.

First off, I was invited to the party as a guest of the host. I don't know if she was given guidelines as to who to invite. I can ask. The brand was out front, but the PR firm was very much in the background. I like this model.

The PR thing is a delicate dance. Sometimes expectations are laid out, sometimes they are subtle. I'm not so naive as to think they were going to give me the product and never expect, or at least hope, I'd blog it and chat it up. But in my book, asking me to recount how many people I've talked to and such, in my mind is a sales report. Fact is, I had talked to a LOT of people about this product.

As for making up numbers, it could be seen as a callous response, or possibly passive-agressive, or possibly even subversive. How often does a suburban mom like me get to be subversive? Not nearly enough, apparently

Will my move cast a bad light on all bloggers? Oh, plenty of bloggers do worse things than that, like write fake reviews and sell unused review items on EBay, send generic letters to dozens of companies asking for free review product.

Or what about the people who inflate their numbers because the next time this company comes to town they want to be chosen as the hostess? You know that happens.

My hope is actually that my numbers are far enough off that someone would catch them, but I have no idea how their numbers are crunched.

As noted in early comments (though I don't blame you if you didn't read them all), if I had a relationship with the PR firm, I would have contacted them directly, but I don't. I will say I think this company is generally well-liked by bloggers.

There was one section on the survey which asked an open-ended question. I believe I wrote shared some of my feelings in that space, but I have not been contacted by them.

I agree with you on measurement, and yet, I think numbers are tricky, they don't tell the full story of reach and influence. Again, I'm not saying don't bother with numbers, but I'm saying there's more to the story than that. I AM saying, don't ask the blogger for numbers after you've given her the product. Do your homework ahead of time.

Yes, I look forward to talking this through a bit more at Blissdom!

Jennifer James said...

Great discussion! Can't wait to talk more at Blissdom.

I would also like to add that there is no reason to ask a blogger about her numbers. There are enough online tools to be able to get metrics before a blogger even walks in the door of an event or receives a product.

Candace April said...

Exactly. You (and Jennifer James) put your finger right on it.

I don't mind people asking up front for my reach (especially if I am specifically applying for something) but to ask afterwards or even to ask when you were invited, just implies they want someone to do their work for them.

Not only is it potentially insulting to the bloggers involved, it is terrible work you are are delivering to your client to rely on self-reporting. I recently saw about a dozen bloggers inflating their stats by 300-1000 PERCENT.

It is one thing to share a product with influencers, it is another to hound them as if you were paying them to work for you.

However, I'm happy to hear that this company at least (presumably) hired a blogger as a hostess.

Reviews are free but they are editorial and the company has to relinquish some control...

If you want consulting or guaranteed advertising, you need to pay people.

Cat/@DearBadKitty said...

You're right Jennifer, marketers can tell a lot without the blogger's input. However, when I have my marketer's hat on, sometimes I DO ask bloggers for info. And the way they respond to that question tells me volumes about the way they conduct themselves.

(Note – as everyone has already mentioned, the time for this conversation is absolutely BEFORE the event, or sending out product!!!)

If someone has her stats prepared, or even better, sends them to me unprompted, I know that she approaches this as a business engagement, and chances are good that she'll conduct herself in a highly professional way. And even if her numbers aren't staggering, her professionalism makes her attractive. Valuable.

Numbers change, and can even be kind of unreliable, as Kim and Candace pointed out. But a smart, professional, cool blogger who's going to do great work (and it IS work if she expects to get paid) is someone I'm going to pick again and again.

In fact, I'll even help her get bigger and better numbers (by giving her advice, picking her for high profile projects that will attract more readers, etc) because she's demonstrated valuable behavior.

Again, it comes down to: how do we value what bloggers do, and then compensate them appropriately.

Kim Moldofsky said...

Thanks for stopping over again, Cat. I look forward to discussing this--and compensation-- a very hot topic further at Blissdom. So glad you Clever Girls will be there.

Jennifer James said...

Cat -- I think we're essentially talking about the same thing, but putting it a little differently.

If I want to put a product in the hand of a mom blogger or invite her to an event on behalf of a client, I can find all the information on her stats using online tools. While they may not be 100% accurate, when used all together you can get a very lucid picture of a blogger's influence without having to ask for stats.

However, if I am going to hire a mom, I most definitely ask for a media kit. But I also do my own homework as well.

Kim Moldofsky said...

Agreed Jennifer! Measurement is important, but how a brand or PR company measures is important, too.

RobynsOnlineWorld said...

As a blogger who wants to continue to grow, I feel stuck sometimes. I would love to get invited to more of these events and such so I feel like I need to work harder on the smaller things for the PR firms to see what I will do. On the other hand, I think sometimes they just go oh well - she will do it for practically nothing so why bother inviting her to anything big and wasting our money on her.

Ugh.

jpdmom said...

Interesting post, I enjoyed it. I come from both sides of the fence - as a company that makes products and does sometimes have them featured on blogs and as a blogger. I almost always say no to the company because I don't want to get into the whole thing with them - I have don't have the patience. And as a company that has in the past sent out products to Mom bloggers it can be very frustrating on my end. I sent out a product (personalized) for a pretty influentional blogger and she never even acknowledged she got it - never returned email and then went as far to delete my comment on her blog when I just ASKED if she liked it. I am a bit jaded when it comes to reading about products on blogs or sendinig my products out.

Ann said...

Jennifer James brought your post to my attention.

Your honesty is powerful. Wonderful post.

Jack said...

I find a lot of these conversations to be interesting. I have been pitched and have sent out pitches to bloggers.

While I would never claim to be the smartest it doesn't take a genius to see how many bloggers are ill equipped to play in the sandbox.

Many don't know what metrics are being used to measure them and it is not uncommon to see them use the wrong terms.

I lay much of the blame for the problems at the feet of the marketers/agencies.

Many are lazy and have misused their client's budgets. By not vetting their tools (bloggers) and just sending out product they have created a monster.

It is bad business and it hurts everyone.

Related to this I have wondered many times what metrics are being used to measure the effectiveness of these campaigns.

I still think about third party ad servers and tracking post click conversion rates, but that is a different story. And let's not get started on how muddled the demographic information is.

Justice Fergie said...

Fascinating discussion! I can see both perspectives here. I will say that a PR firm that "gets it right" is more the exception than the rule (in my experience). I don't mind you taking care of business, but the WAY in which you do so goes a long way. Look forward to chatting about it more at Blissdom.

The (Un)Experienced Mom said...

Great post. As a relative newbie to the mommy blogging world, I love hearing debates such as this. It helps me learn how to navigate these waters in a savvy manner. Looking forward to hearing more about this and similar topics at Blissdom!

Tamara
www.theunexperiencedmom.com

Jessica R. said...

Very interesting post. I think their big error was in not having you know up front that you'd be filling out this survey, or even not having you fill out the survey ahead of time.

I'm rather naive at times, but my gut tells me that it was more of an oversight on their part rather than a deliberate attempt to trap you.

All too often different departments don't talk to each other about these promotions and after the fact a different department head asks for information or justification that should have been collected ahead of time.

That said, never hurts to be savvy about this or to stand your ground.

My limit is drawn when massive corporations try to pick momblogger's brains about social media marketing advice over "tea" without a single thing in exchange except for a sneak preview at products you don't get to take home. GAH. Wanted to send a bill for my time after that encounter.

Shari said...

I think that firms are under more presure to prove that working with bloggers is a viable avenue, they will continue to ask more and more from bloggers. If they give out a product, they need to prove to the client that there is a decent return on the investment. That being said, though, I think too many bloggers took everything at first Now that we're not a novelty, but an establish channel, bloggers need to understand that they are part of a business. Even if you don't make money on your blog, any product given to you is part of a business transaction and needs to be handled with the same due diligence as signing any other contract.

Kim Moldofsky said...

@robyn Ah, the old, "why buy the cow if she's giving the milk for free argument." I hope to address this at my Blissdom panel. It can be a tough to figure out when the freebie is worth it and when it's not. Unless you have a crystal ball, you need to go with your gut. I can look back at a few things I've done as a blogger that left me feeling ill at ease and then that helps guide future decisions, and also helps me ask better questions when the next opportunity comes around---one usually does!

@jpdmom Yes, it goes both ways. I've met some really great PR people who have gotten quite cynical based on experiences with bloggers.

@ann Thanks!

Kim Moldofsky said...

@Jack - Did you just call bloggers tools?

@JusticeFergie and
@The(UnexperiencedMom) Yes, see you there!

@JessicaR Sounds like one of those live and learn moments. Sometimes when a company rep is with a group of smart bloggers, questions about blogging ans such may come up naturally in the conversation and other times it seems forced and you realize you are part of an unpaid (or poorly paid) focus group. Been there, done that.

@shari Well put. From both the blogging and business ends there's a lot more thought that is needed for outreach these days.

Stacey @ Tree, Root, and Twig said...

What a great post, and such fun comments to read as well! Your "subversive housewife" comment (about "cooking" your numbers) made me giggle. :)

I've made a total turn-around this year on my blog, shifting away from heavy product work and back to personal blogging. I just got to a point where I was tired of using my time/energy/resource/"influence"/whatever to prosper someone ELSE's goals. I still want to work with companies, but I just don't know how to it with the current models in place.

Until I see a genuine shift in thinking, or meet a company that wants to get on the same page with me, my readers will keep having to listen to me whine about my 2yo's tantrums. ;)

Susan Getgood said...

IMO the keys are context and timing.

If the company or agency is reaching out to bloggers, I expect it to have done its homework to understand whether the blog/blogger is the right fit for the promotion. If it wants a little run-down of what happened afterward, it needs to ask for the info upfront. Not well after the fact. Then you can decide if you want if free item is adequate compensation for providing the information they request. If not, walk away.

On the other hand, if the blogger is reaching out to the agency, asking for product or sponsorship or whatever, the blogger should have *her business case* ready, including stats and benefit to the company. "Send me product because I'm a mom blogger" doesn't cut it.

Nicole Feliciano said...

Thanks for getting this conversation going. I'm with Amy at Selfish Mom. I want clear communications with PR firms. WE have a code of ethics and so should they. I think PR firms should provide full disclosure when they pitch!

I'm Anitra! said...

I have learned so much from this post and the comments (and I have to admit that this is the first time I've actually read through all of the comments on a blog post!). I've become increasingly frustrated with companies who seem to minimize my time and efforts because they're more concerned with my possible reach. Your post has got my wheels churning about how I can be stronger in my convictions as a blogger. Thanks for communicating these ideas so clearly.

Heidi said...

Hey you may like my post: http://outdoorbaby.net/heidis-blog/companies-brands-the-ten-no-no-list

I just attended the Winter Outdoor Retailer show and it is easy to be swayed by free stuff or a great atmosphere.

Heidi Ahrens

Stacey / Create a Balance said...

I went to a similar event, tried out a similar "plus" product and received a similar survey. I thought the stat questions felt awkward and out of place, especially b/c I couldn't truly give them an accurate number even if I wanted to.

I think face-to-face events should be about building authentic connections with brands, and that energy should be felt throughout the process (end-to-end).

Texasholly said...

It IS a big mess right now. Great article.

GoogleMan said...

A metrics conundrum. You want to show the client results, but if you lose your ambassadors in the process the program caves in upon itself.

Part of the puzzle is deciding what to measure. A WOM agency wants to measure conversations, they want a big juicy number that says they created product referrals. I think it is more important to design a metrics solution into the program that measures increased product usage, inquiries, or sales. Sure, it is harder than designing a survey, but it is more meaningful. That, and you don't alienate your ambassadors.

Kim Moldofsky said...

To be clear, if they expectation was that they wanted me to measure my conversations, that would be one thing. I like the product and had actually been having many of them. And yesterday when I unlocked the "expert" level on that chicken/arm flapping exercise? That was totally tweetable. Oh well.

@susangetgood Yes, it depends who is reaching out. If the blogger is contacting the brands she should be able to make a case for herself and what she has to offer.

Michelle Lamar said...

You.Go.Girl.

Kristina said...

I've had similar feelings about brands and, like you, I decided to quit with one or two companies that made me feel yuck. I'm glad this post spurred others, and I look forward to your thoughts on the BlissDom panels that Alli mentioned.

Naomi said...

I wish I was at Blissdom for this conversation. I am at a bit of a crossroads in terms of where my blog is going and I could use some advice!

Amy M. said...

Excellent post, Kim.
Right on target with my feelings about product promotions at the moment.

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