Marketing's New Rage: Brands Sponsoring Influential Bloggers

Barneys, Gap, Coach and other big brands are collaborating with bloggers to create new, controversial forms of advertising.

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Forget about just display ads. Increasingly, the future of advertising online seems to be through sponsorships, contests, giveaways, product placement, widgets and games — often with bloggers.

Barneys New York, Gap, Coach and other big brands are collaborating with bloggers to create new and controversial forms of advertising for a more social age. They might invite a blogger to guest blog, sponsor a series of daily outfit posts featuring their product, create or request a video of the blogger talking about the brand or wearing the product or even ask the blogger to design for the brand.

For influential bloggers, sponsorships can be more lucrative than display ads alone, with payments reaching into the thousands for a multipronged campaign stretching over weeks or months. For the brands, it’s a way to market more conversationally to potential customers as well as exert more control over search engine results.

“I think the media industry is changing and bloggers are leading the change,” said Sea of Shoes blogger Jane Aldridge, whose collaborations include Barneys and Urban Outfitters. “The term ‘blogger’ doesn’t do it justice — so many of the top bloggers are trusted experts that have developed loyal fan followings.

“Fashion bloggers are a unique combination of publisher and talent,” she continued. “This is part of the next evolution of advertising — a more integrated approach. It’s important for both bloggers and advertisers to stay true to their brands.”

Whereas in the past a young woman interested in fashion might have been lucky to be featured in a magazine, or might have longed to be, now she is creating that environment herself. She can be muse, celebrity, stylist, editor and publisher all at once — and, theoretically, at least, get paid for it.

But the tie-ups have stirred controversy because they are a form of “integrated” advertising that blurs the line between editorial and promotion. Recent changes to Federal Trade Commission guidelines are an attempt to bring light to rapidly evolving online advertiser-publisher relationships by requiring bloggers to disclose when they receive free merchandise or are paid by a brand.

“Seeing bloggers in ads you know is cool,” said Jessica Schroeder of What I Wore, who has worked with Coach, Loft, ModCloth, J.C. Penney and many others. “Not only do you see her image and what they look like, but you know about that girl. The companies who are doing it right understand how valuable the word-of-mouth influence is that these bloggers get.”

“Blogs are starting to amass the numbers that are appealing to companies,” said Jennine Jacob, who, in addition to blogging at The Coveted, founded Independent Fashion Bloggers, an association of 10,000 fashion bloggers.

Some of the better-known fashion blogs attract audiences in the hundreds of thousands per month and garner hundreds of comments per post. Popular video bloggers can attract upward of half-a-million views per video.

To put that in perspective, some personal style blogs have equal or, in some cases, bigger followings than many niche print fashion magazines. Only a small number of fashion sites — and they are not blogs — such as the Polyvore community and fashion search engine ShopStyle, draw monthly audiences that exceed 1 million, similar to the circulations of big fashion glossies like Vogue or Elle. One of the biggest stars on YouTube, Lady Gaga, attracts upward of 200 million views per video. An episode of “Mad Men” may get 2 to 3 million viewers when it airs on television.

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