Boy do I understand the value of blogger endorsements. Along with many of my PR brethren, I’ve been championing the power of their influence for several years. And by now, enough marketers have embraced bloggers that the FTC wants to revise its endorsement guidelines to make mandatory the disclosure of “material connections” between bloggers and companies whose products or services they’re endorsing. This has been widely discussed on- and off-line so I won’t belabor it here; good news is, many leading bloggers already have disclosure policies posted on their sites. This is a good thing, whether they’re being paid to road test products, being taken on trips, or given product gratis to try (more on this in a moment.)
(I’ll pause here to say that the agency I work for has organized events and product road tests with bloggers on behalf of our clients. We also wholeheartedly support the disclosure of such arrangements on the part of the blogger.)
In the wake of the FTC announcement, some of our clients are anxiously wondering if they should change the way they’ve been dealing with bloggers. If you’re in PR, I’m sure you’re having the same conversations with your clients and marketing colleagues. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and was eager to hear what some of the leading voices in the mom blogosphere had to say during a Twitter chat last week on bloggers and brand representation.
The conversation moved at a blistering pace and I jumped in for only a portion but this was my big takeaway: this group is well aware of the need for transparency and disclosure. As mentioned, most of them already operate this way. Here’s where the conversation got interesting: there is sentiment in many corners that bloggers deserve compensation for what they do. I was interested to hear some bloggers describe what they offer on their sites as “advertorial” in nature, thereby casting themselves in the role not of content editor, but publisher. In other words, akin to the business-building side of the classic magazine church/state divide.
Which is sticky, because we PR types have helped our clients “get” bloggers by equating them with editorial influencers. In which these rules apply: marketer provides gratis product, editor tries, editor may or may not write about it favorably. No money changes hands. So the editorial game is high risk/high reward – you can’t control the outcome, which is why PR will always be several parts art (vs science) – but the potential value of unpaid editorial endorsement far outweighs the risk that an editor will slam your product after trying it.
Here’s where blogging gums up the works. “Publisher” vs “editor” distinctions don’t apply anymore. The blogger role is actually a new publishing paradigm. They wear multiple hats: selling advertising space, marketing themselves and their blog(s), creating promotional partnerships with brands, publishing content – but (here’s the gummy part) they are also the ones writing that content. And in some cases, that content involves road-testing and endorsing products. But unlike the magazine world, the blogosphere has no guidelines establishing the boundaries between publishing and editorial — indeed, publishing and editing seem to have merged and no one’s quite sure how to assign a monetary value to the blogger’s output.
To that point, some bloggers who approach product endorsement as an advertorial opportunity believe the endorsement carries a cash value. But remember that advertorial is an off-shoot of advertising and – crucial distinction – the marketer who pays for it in a magazine controls the content. And the resulting advertorial is clearly labelled as such, as dictated by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Bloggers wanting to traffic in advertorial should be aware that the marketer writing the check will expect to control the resulting post content. And the bloggers I know have too much integrity to let their blog real estate be “rented” in this way. This is why we will likely hear more on the question of whether bloggers should create off-shoot sites solely dedicated to product reviews. Which raises the question: does the product review lose its value if pulled out of the context of the blogger’s real life, everyday narrative? (A debate for another post.)
So here’s what I’d like to say to the bloggers I’ve gotten to know in the past few years, many of whom I respect a great deal, genuinely like and would love to partner with ongoingly:
The power of your personal endorsement makes you very attractive to us, just like an “old school” editor is attractive. But if I can’t control what you say about my client’s products, I can’t in good conscience give you their money. If I do, we’ve entered into an advertising/advertorial relationship and my clients are will expect to call the content shots.
Some of you are up-front about being “PR-unfriendly.” You filter out press releases and don’t do product reviews for free. I respect your honesty. So if I need bloggers willing to review product for free, I will leave you alone, seek the others out, give them the product to try, support them in disclosing the gratis arrangement, and be prepared to take the lumps if they don’t like the product.
For those of you who don’t do free reviews, there are plenty of other things I’d love to pay you for. Here are just a few:
Consulting and creative services: come help us shape our next social media campaign…please. We’d love to collaborate with you this way.
Panel and roundtable discussions: we would happily pay for your time and experience to participate in such events for the benefit and education of our clients and our own staff.
Promotional partnerships: will you be at an upcoming social media conference, and have an innovative sampling idea that will get my client’s product in the hands of influential bloggers? Sure, I’ll pay you to provide that service. I’d pay models in branded tees to sample on street corners; why wouldn’t I pay to benefit from your time and connections?
This is a rapidly evolving landscape, to be sure. I don’t need the FTC to tell me that. I hope that as we all continue to learn our way towards appropriate rules of engagement, we can continue to find mutually beneficial ways to work together that create value all around and — most importantly — keep us all on the right side of the ethical debate.
I welcome and value your thoughts. Please do share them.
To check out the FTC proposed revisions firsthand, read here.]
L.A.-based blogger Jessica Gottlieb speaks out in this post (there’s gold in the comments, including from Jessica Smith (“Jessica Knows”) who actually tags her Twitter tweets when necessary to identify them as sponsored.)
Jessica Smith also addresses inaccuracies in the BusinessWeek reporting here.
As I post my third Flack Limerick, I confess I feel humbled by the technological savvy of my Twitter friend and fellow Flack Poet Karyn Cooks, who has upped the ante on our friendly limerick competition by adding an audiovisual component. (Damn you, Cooks.) Any other aspiring Flack poets out there, feel free to join the fray!
What to do with old flacks who have no skills,
But whose time still shows up on agency fee bills?
The staff think them creepy
They make journalists sleepy
And the clients all think they’re just big pills.
And for those of you dying to know the origins of all this silliness (and surely, you are), see Karyn’s chronology (and her video throw-down) here.
Among the many reasons I love Twitter is the fact that it delivers tasty little tidbits of other people’s lives to my inbox in real time. This has made me something of a social media voyeur, I confess. What can I tell you — there are a ton of fascinating people are out there twittering. Not only celebrities, by the way. I’m talking about normal professional joes like you and me. These are people who happen to have greatly interesting thing to say, and rich and robust personal lives to boot. I’ll introduce you to some of them in future posts (unless you’re already on Twitter in which case you probably already know them). Meanwhile — I know she’s a celebrity — but really, you need to take a peek into the spectacularly spectacular life of Dita VonTeese. Oh, Dita, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1. You seem to be writing your own tweets.
2. You tweet regularly.
So the next time that cranky colleague or client of yours gets all “Who cares about Twitter and what someone had for breakfast” on you, just send ’em Dita’s way. Guess what? If you follow the right people, even breakfast can be interesting.
Now that’s tasty.
What is a Flack Limerick, you ask? A glimpse inside the thrilling life of an agency PR person, expressed in poorly-written verse. This is the second in what may just — if you’re very lucky — become a series. Thanks to PRCog and karyncooks, my Twitter pals, for introducing the concept. Finally, a way to exercise my liberal arts background.
There once was a retailing giant
Who with budgets was famously un-pliant.
Their account we did pitch
But got kicked to the ditch
Our city slicker vibe–they weren’t buyin’ it.
Is it just me, or do married people fight about the most moronic things? If you’re married, I bet you’ll understand when I tell you a pizza started World War III at the Smirnov house a few days ago. Pizza toppings, to be specific.
The Russian had just awoken from a snooze on the sofa. He does not rouse from slumber gracefully. He is as grumpy as a bear on a chain being poked with a stick and forced to dance for coin-throwing tourists. Not that you see a lot of dancing bears around these days, but you get the picture.
Dinner was discussed. Pizza. I take instructions regarding toppings. The Russian likes anchovies and grilled chicken (I know. Please.) And in the middle of placing my order with the Nobel laureate on the other end of the line at the pizza joint, I forgot — did he want anchovies and grilled chicken all over the pie, or anchovies on one side and grilled chicken on the other? I paused to clarify this point and was met with a response bellowed with the fury only a sleep-deprived, English-challenged child of the Soviet era can deliver. Apparently my question caused my beloved some frustration, which sparked a chain reaction of sniping and spousal ass-hattedness that carried on for a good half hour.
On the sidelines for this infantile display was of course our six-year old son. He’s old enough now that he thinks it’s his job to diffuse our arguments — sometimes he does it by being naughty and distracting us, this time he did it with art. Maybe because it was handy on a nearby bookshelf, maybe because he knows how much I love painting — whatever the reason, my sweet son grabbed our Phaidon Art Book for Children and flipped the pages as fast as his little hands could manage till he got to this image:
“All Calm” was the headline at the top of the page. My son pointed to the picture and told me this is how he wanted me to be.
The painting is “Poetry of Silence” by Vilhem Hammershoi. It stopped me in my tracks. I’m not sure what inspired my son to connect the dots quite like that — on the one hand, I love that he turned to art to express himself. On the other hand, I hate that he had to do it in the first place.
I don’t have much to say for myself. The pizza arrived, anchovies were consumed and yes — all was calm at the Smirnov house. Perhaps next time the Russian and I will resolve our disagreements with the poetry of relative silence.
For the love of the six-year old with the art book in his arms, we have to try.
A month ago our agency didn’t advance past the first round of a very big search for a retailer you’ve heard of. And though I’ve already blogged about how it was for the best and yada yada, truth is — we should’ve made it at least into the semi-finals. Something didn’t work, and as the person responsible for this stuff, I didn’t have a clear sense of what to fix for next time. So I was delighted when my boss decided to invest in some new business training for us.
We’ve historically been a pretty insular crew (this happens when you’ve been around and doing well for 31 years). But things are different now and without laundry-listing why (because I’m guessing you and I live in the same economy, with the same land grabs going on across all marketing disciplines, with the same pressures to protect the top-line and manage the bottom-line, etc…), let’s just say getting an objective third party to talk to us was a good idea.
Enter Select Resources International, a consultancy who handle agency searches for Fortune 200 companies and see presentations from countless agencies every year, from boutiques to the global big boys. I got a lot out of my day with SRI Senior Partner Dan Orsborn, a great guy who’s known our agency for some time and has seen us in a number of pitches. In his affable way, he made me realize that we’re kind of …just like…everyone else. Oh, we’re good (we are, really!) but ouch — it’s not coming across as powerfully as it could in pitches. Eye. Opener.
Herewith, five humbling things I learned from Dan:
#1 Four words not to use.
Everybody uses these words. Everyone. It’s kind of like, don’t say you’re funny? Remember that one? Much better to demonstrate through your response to their brief that you are smart, strategic, passionate and creative.
#2 Rethink your reels. Good chance you’re presenting to marketing people who — guess what — see presentations from every marketing discipline, not just PR. And unfortunately, advertising agencies are light years ahead of PR shops in the quality of their reels. I know, I know. Apples and oranges. Ad agencies have commercial directors and copywriters and producers at their disposal — true. Still — you want to win this pitch? Rethink your sizzle reel.
#3 We all look the same. Most humbling moment of the training: Dan spreads about 25 documents across the table, agency responses to Requests for Proposals (RFPs, for those who don’t know) including some from DeVries. RFP responses are crucial — step one in any search, the document that determines whether you’ll get invited to a “chemistry check” second round. Seeing our carefully crafted, neatly bound documents in the pile with all the others, I realized how very, very similar agencies look. What will you do to make your RFP response stand out?
#4 The pitch is not about you. Sounds counter-intuitive but really — it’s not. All the client prospect wants to talk about/hear about is THEM. Yes, of course, you need to present your capabilities and case studies but boy you better make sure you’re putting that through the filter of the client’s brief as overtly as possible. They’ll be seeing lots of agencies in the course of their search — don’t make them connect the dots as to why you’re the right agency for them.
#5 One person can kill it. Oy, this is tough. Pitches have been lost because one person on a team of many did not click with the client. This happens for any number of reasons — the senior person who greedily dominates the Q&A. The CEO who comes across like an “empty suit” or worse, a “clownish master-of-ceremonies.” (I did not make that up, nor am I referring to my boss — in case you’re reading, Jim.) The creative who can’t channel their brilliance and ends up alienating the client team. Am still noodling through how to deal with this. For now, I’ll make sure we’re casting the pitch team correctly — consider personalities as well as expertise and be willing to tell the suits to stay home (easier said than done.) Build in way more rehearsal time than you think you need (we are terrible at this, I admit) so you can anticipate client questions and decide in advance who will field — hopefully engaging all levels on the team in the responses. And have the guts to sit a colleague down and give them candid feedback if they need it — and invite others to do the same for you. I’ve developed a reputation as a good presenter, but I have my off days and I probably need to invite my team’s feedback way more frequently. Are you doing the same?
So there you go. I hesitate to hit “publish post” because then you’ll know my secrets and will start beating us in pitches.
Or will you? Just wait till you see the revamped DeVries Sizzle Reel — oh, sorry, gotta run. Ridley Scott’s on the line…
There once was a flack with a big crush
‘Round her studmuffin client she became mush
On a press trip they hooked
While in a jacuzzi they cooked
The boss found out and kicked her out on her big tush.