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The Rise of The Blogger

Bloggers' picks have become more important in swaying consumer opinion. But does the footwear industry really understand their power?

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Bloggers, of course, aren’t new, but their influence over the fashion landscape is rapidly on the rise.

Take, for example, Sebago, a brand best known for preppy loafers and basic boat shoes. Next month it will debut a limited collection of colorful, high-deck boots. To spice up the line, its creators first rummaged through the company’s vast archives, sampled dozens of materials and then spent hours soaking and heating leathers in its manufacturing plant in the Dominican Republic.

But the person behind the tiny collection wasn’t a traditional designer schooled in the finer points of crafting shoes. Instead, it was power blogger Joshua Kissi, co-founder of Streetetiquette.com, who was picked to collaborate with the company.

“We were chosen because our blog has a unique point of view, differing from the usual menswear blogs,” said Kissi, who launched his site in 2008 with Travis Gumbs. “We like preppy items, but we mix it up with a very urban feel.”

The footwear collaboration, called The Nexus Project, also includes a few other bloggers, who jointly designed a series of 10 custom shoes. Each of them has been writing on their blogs about the process of creating the shoes for Sebago — which will be sold exclusively at David Z stores — and are featuring on their sites links to a short documentary on the entire experiment.

While Sebago, owned by Rockford, Mich.-based Wolverine World Wide Inc., is clearly developing grassroots buzz with the project, it’s a move that illustrates just how influential blogs are today and how they are dramatically altering the way companies conduct business.

No longer is blogging considered a part-time hobby done by snarky college students or aspiring fashion insiders. Blogging now is filled with popular niche players, such as Kissi, who are highly sought-after and have successfully crossed over from the realm of marginalized, acid-tongued commentators to being embraced by the mainstream.

So it was only fitting that when the sixth-annual BlogHer conference — which featured panels of women-only bloggers discussing how best to reach their peers in the evolving social media world — kicked off in New York on Aug. 5, a shoe brand would look for a way in.

Enter Farylrobin LLC. The label, which targets fashionable moms, sponsored one of the event’s participants: blogger Sheposts.com.

As part of the deal, Farylrobin received plenty of brand mentions on the Website prior to the event and set up a contest with the writer to give away five pairs of shoes to those in attendance.

“The good bloggers are changing the way we do business,” said Jim Biolos, CFO of Farylrobin. “They are having a big impact on how companies are thinking about their influence.”

Footwear firms across categories are now turning to Internet personalities — from moms sharing maternal wisdom on the best kids’ shoes to the thousands of sneakerheads pining for the coolest kicks — more than ever to help spread their brand messages and generate natural buzz.

Industry players said blogs have gained clout and relevance because they can post information about a company or show its product much faster than traditional media. Also, corporate messages are easier to control in the blogosphere, they added, since a team of editors aren’t making decisions behind closed doors. The blogs also serve as marketing tools that can go beyond conventional advertising, allowing brands to connect more closely with customers.

Additionally, blogs have become virtual gold mines for footwear designers to find inspiration for ideas and for companies to gauge early reactions to new concepts.

“From a digital marketing perspective, bloggers are helping to influence — and even contribute to — the content we feature on our website,” said Stacey Howe, digital brand marketing manager at Boston-based New Balance. “Our digital brand strategy is built upon a strategy of understanding what our consumers want to do with our products and then delivering tools, information and community to help them have a successful experience. In some cases, we create these tools and content ourselves; in others, we may tap into the expertise of others and co-create content with them. And in still other situations, we may simply point our consumers to great content that was created by someone else, but that helps our community members meet a goal.”

Without question, the blogosphere is growing in power — and in readers — because they continually draw attention to what people think is important. And if other blogs find the comments, images or videos interesting, they will re-post it, adding their own spin.

No wonder, then, that brands have upped their game in reaching out to bloggers.

Aiming to gain favorable coverage, footwear brands will increasingly send bloggers free shoes, as well as invite them to showrooms and editor parties. What’s more, companies will dole out bits of exclusive information about upcoming product launches, allowing different bloggers to break news.

“For us, it’s all about

building relationships with bloggers, much like with traditional press,” said Elaine Pow, PR and marketing director for Seychelles and BC Footwear.

Similarly, designer Calleen Cordero goes so far as to give bloggers a sneak peek at what she’s working on in her North Hollywood, Calif., factory.

“I take them behind the scenes and show how the product is made. And because we have such a special story to tell, most times we end up getting a nice video feature along with a blog posting,” Cordero said. “It’s been a great tool.”

But the challenge for brands is to make sure they pursue the right blogs. There are millions of them, and they range from individuals saying they like a particular color to sites run by larger media corporations.

For Vans, that means its executives have to pick and choose how blogs are targeted. Chris Overholser,

senior communications manager, said the brand

appeals to a wide swath of consumers, from those who care about sustainability and sneakers to those who are passionate about skateboarding and BMX.

“That’s the great thing about blogs — they can be so targeted in their audience,” he said. “Besides doing direct mail, it’s a targeted way to reach niches of consumers. And that’s becoming increasingly important for us.”

Still, monitoring so many sites takes time and resources. Industry executives said they spend at least an hour a day scanning blogs — sometimes more.

The goal, they said, is to make sure their message is being conveyed the way they want. And if it isn’t, they have a chance to respond, as well as learn what pieces of their product might need to be fixed.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time [on blogs],” said Kristen Sullivan, associate PR manager at New Balance. “This is an activity that is now woven into our day-to-day processes. Just as we check and respond to e-mails, we’re monitoring content aggregators to keep a pulse on what people are conversing about that may pertain specifically to our brand, or to the activities for which people consume our products. We could not be successful in our mission to help our brand enthusiasts have really great experiences with our products if we didn’t spend a tremendous amount of time listening.”