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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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Even more than traffic, brands need bloggers for search engine optimization, said observers. It’s especially important for luxury brands, so positive mentions in blogs come up high in searches rather than knockoff sites selling fake handbags, said Jacob.

As marketing becomes more social, the old advertising model of repeating one message over and over doesn’t work as well, said Pete Spande, senior vice president of Federated Media, which sells advertising and arranges sponsorships for blogs.

“You’re talking at the customer rather than with the customer,” he said of the old model. “As the advertising environment becomes more social, you need to be more conversational, too. You need to be able to carry on a conversation at scale with your customer rather than talk at them.” Blogs are ideal vehicles for that. Also, brands are starting to think of themselves as publishers and need content, he continued.

After all, brands have to think of something to say on their own blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr and other social sites. Like everyone, companies are no longer limited to editorial mentions or advertising buys to get the word out, but can speak directly to the public online.

Brands also can build their own community sites, but “just because you build, it doesn’t mean people will find it and necessarily take it seriously,” Spande said. “This is a way to be part of conversations native to that community rather than try to form your own community.”

Companies may turn to social media to seem hip. Coach is becoming well known for its campaigns with bloggers, perhaps more than other brands. The iconic American company is leveraging blogs to change its image, said Jacob, who has worked with Coach, J.C. Penney and others.

Some of Coach’s earliest efforts in online marketing and social media were around the launch of Poppy, a colorful and more affordable line aimed at a younger customer. On Aug. 17, Poppy unveiled its fall campaign, a scavenger hunt game and tweet contest on 334 blogs. The more a consumer tweets about the brand, the more likely she’ll win Poppy merchandise.

The blogs typically deliver a highly qualified audience of existing or potential new customers. A partnership between Barneys and Aldridge seemed like a good fit.

“Jane herself is constantly at Barneys. We thought the synergy there was too great an opportunity to pass up,” said Barneys director of Internet marketing Heather Kaminetsky, who added that the Sea of Shoes blog has a passionate following among Barneys employees. “For the Barneys shopper who wants the shoes we sell, that’s who we want — that’s her loyal following.”

“The brands that are working with bloggers, I think they get it,” said Schroeder. “They realize bloggers are their customers and their bloggers’ readers are their customers, so they’re taking that natural chain of who they want to work with. You have these customers who are already wearing their stuff, so why not see how you can take it further with design collaborations or videos?”

Previously a private label designer, Schroeder was able to start blogging full time last year thanks to sponsorships, and is writing and illustrating a book on style next year, to be published by Ballantine.

Typically, she will incorporate an item from the brand into her daily outfit photos, and the brand also may run banner ads at the same time. Sponsorship relationships are disclosed in the outfit credits.

“I like to work on projects that seem really natural and that aren’t a huge stretch out of my normal life,” she said.

The blogs offer an intimacy that print mediums can’t. If fashion magazines serve up the untouchable fantasy, then style blogs keep it real and personal.

Blogs are more interactive and accessible than other forms of media, said Jacob, who was a graphic designer for 10 years before she became a blogger. “One of the things people crave is a feeling of importance and feeling ‘part of,’ and that’s what bloggers can offer that other forms of media can’t do as well.”

“Personal style bloggers are redefining themselves: Here’s my world, here’s the window, come on in,” said Schroeder. “You can see the flaws and the inspiration all at once. There’s a trash can in back of my picture and I’m wearing tennis shoes that have a smudge and I’m not in a controlled studio. People can relate to that and see themselves in the shoes much better than they can in 800 shoes in a magazine.”

Readers get to know the style bloggers and some of the details of their lives. They can comment, e-mail and — if they are also fashion bloggers — meet them. “It’s like a fashion club,” said Schroeder.

Bloggers said proposals from brands have been growing since 2008. “We’re certainly seeing many, many requests for these types of integrations and sponsorships,” said Spande. “There is quite a bit of attention around these, and the comfort level of working in these kinds of sponsorships is on the rise.”

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Federated arranged the Suave sponsorship for the community area on motherhood blog Dooce.com and a blogger series on innovation sponsored by Lexus. Fashion clients include The Budget Fashionista, among others.

Other ad networks and middlemen are springing up to negotiate the new relationships. Style Coalition and BlogHer, among others, sell advertising and arrange sponsorships for fashion bloggers. Jacob is represented by Style Coalition, which set up the campaign with J.C. Penney. Today, StyleCaster Media Group plans to launch a similar service called The Masthead (Wearethemasthead.com) with 10 bloggers in the areas of fashion, home and music, including Sea of Shoes, Atlantis Home, Behind the Seams and Owl vs. Dove. The Masthead brokered the deal with Barneys, which is the retailer’s first. Tavi Gevinson of Style Rookie also will guest blog in September.

“We’ve tried in the past to reach out to different bloggers, but it’s never been successful,” Kaminetsky said. Too often they said they would write about the store only in exchange for free merchandise, which Barneys didn’t want to do.

Fees can range from nothing or a giveaway for a very small site to many thousands of dollars on a site with a fairly large audience and strong recognition, said observers. While there are no rules and bloggers are reluctant to talk about fees with each other, a personal style blogger with a large following could receive anywhere from $500 to $4,000 or more to feature a product in her regular content. More complex sponsorships running over weeks or months can command fees in the many thousands of dollars, according to observers. But more typically, bloggers are paid in free merchandise or not at all.

J.C. Penney gave video bloggers $1,000 in gift certificates each to buy clothes and blog about it in back-to-school-themed videos, which are getting tens of thousands of hits after one month.

Ann Taylor is not paying any of the bloggers in its “The Little Black Dress Experiment Tours America,” but they get to keep their dresses. They are also receiving items from other sponsors to include in a look or review this month. The relationship is disclosed on Society Stylist.

Payments and gifts must always be disclosed, per the new FTC rules. Jacob contended that it is unfair to single out bloggers when glossy fashion magazines do the same thing, but fully supports the principle. Recently, she was moved to write and post a manifesto on the topic, called the “IFB Fair Compensation Manifesto.” It can be summed up as: If you are going to do advertising, identify it, and get paid for it.

“We don’t want blogging to evolve into this thing where bloggers are so starstruck by brands that they lose all objectivity — then they’re not the great thing people came to them for in first place,” she said. “Freebies may be OK, but we can’t just work for freebies and try to pass off promotional things as editorial content because it’s not fair to readers, ourselves or the companies.”

If the brand specifies how and when the blogger should mention the brand or its product, that’s an advertisement, she said.

Bloggers were not paid to place the Poppy game widgets on their sites, which Jacob criticized, saying the widgets are a form of free advertising for the company.

“You have someone producing really beautiful photos styled well day after day. It seems tricky to put a fair price tag on it both for the content and influence the blogger creates,” said Schroeder. “My uphill struggle is I am the model, the photographer, the stylist, postproduction. I am doing everything. You wouldn’t call up a team of talented people who know what they’re doing and offer them a pair of shoes. When you’re asking a talented person to function as a team, you should pay them for their talent.”

If a brand tries to hide a relationship, it can backfire, as Absolut found when it was widely criticized in May for demanding numerous posts and promotions from bloggers about the Brooklyn Blogfest, which it sponsored, and Absolut’s latest flavor of vodka, in exchange for a VIP pass to the event, a bottle of liquor and a Flip cam, without proper disclosure of the pay for play.

As long as a relationship is disclosed, readers don’t care, said Barneys’ Kaminetsky. “It’s business — just tell the user, and they get that,” she said.

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Even with the surge in collaborations with bloggers, the traditional online display ad is not going away. Ads can reinforce a campaign with other, more interactive elements. When brands ask bloggers to create custom content around their brand or product, they typically run banner ads on the sites at the same time. For contests, ads on blogs can spur users to create content that spreads virally around the Web, creates engagement and increases followers on e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

Not every brand or agency wants to do integrated advertising or advertorials. Federated, for example, will not arrange advertorials in which a blogger endorses a product.

David Lipman of the Lipman agency, whose many fashion clients include Diane von Furstenberg, David Yurman, Burberry, BCBG, Lord & Taylor and St. John, prefers to work with bloggers as editorial outlets rather than as advertising ones. “We’re in a multimedia world, and you need to communicate on all cylinders,” he said. “I think the best way of working with a blogger is to get them deep into a brand [and] let them understand the brand and what the brand is doing that moment.”

Most of the time, he is not a fan of sponsorships, advertorials, product placement or giving away merchandise in exchange for coverage. “I find that disingenuous,” he said. “It loses integrity. I think that’s the whole point of the Internet — the freedom of it, the genuineness of it. It’s believable, it’s real, and that’s the best way to go about it. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Otherwise, if you force feed it like that, and you pay for it — bloggers have to make a living — but if you pay for it, it becomes an advertorial. Advertorials are the lowest form of advertising.”

Indeed, not every blogger-brand partnership is a success. Some efforts seem to get very little in the way of traffic or few views. Multiple mentions probably do move the merch, but not all influence can be directly measured. Some tie-ups, especially in the case of video bloggers, can appear cheesy or overly corporate or weird.

Hits alone do not necessarily translate into a success online. A message needs to be consistent across all channels so it is believable, or people will not buy, said Lipman.

“Bloggers are very, very influential,” he continued. “They’re a big part of our culture today, and they’re only going to grow. The blog is here to stay in a big way. We know how to advertise in magazines, but we’re still learning our way [online].”

 

 

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Blogs and Brands Collaborate:

 

• Jane Aldridge of Sea of Shoes and Tavi Gevinson of Style Rookie will guest blog for Barneys New York during September.

 

• Coach’s Poppy scavenger hunt and tweet contest, launched Aug. 17, gives away prizes via widgets on 334 blogs.

 

• J.C. Penney’s American Living summer campaign features Jennine Jacob of The Coveted and Jessica Schroeder of What I Wore, among others.

 

• J.C. Penney’s back-to-school marketing incorporates six teen video bloggers, including Bethany of MacBarbie07.

 

• Marshalls is promoting its Cube boutique, a contemporary department inside Marshalls stores, and b-t-s with YouTube videos with Blair Fowler, aka JuicyStar07, and her sister, Elle.

 

• Ann Taylor is working with Valerie Elizabeth of Society Stylist and 31 other bloggers on “The Little Black Dress Experiment Tours America,” a styling project and contest this month.

 

• Gap’s fall campaign at gap1969.com features looks and links from personal style bloggers such as Fashion Toast, as well as streetwear blogs like Street Peeper and fashion communities such as Polyvore and Lookbook.nu.

 

• In May, Coach unveiled four handbags designed by bloggers Krystal Simpson of What Is Reality Anyway, Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere, Karla Deras of Karla’s Closet and Kelly Framel of The Glamourai.

 

• For the November holiday Blog a Day campaign, dozens of sites and video bloggers incorporated Coach products into their regular content and blogged about giveaways.

 

• Four bloggers and Coach together created several videos with Flip cams and indie music as part of a March series called MYNY (My New York) that showed Christine Cameron of My Style Pill, Jessica Schroeder of What I Wore, Karen Blanchard of Where Did U Get That? and Joelle Van Dyne and Noelle Vallens of The Owls Are Not What They Seem wearing Coach in various iconic locations in the city, such as the High Line.

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