Blog this!

BlogPaid content, sponsored posts and brand ambassadorships – in theory, today’s blogger can be just as valuable to brands as mainstream media. But does blogger outreach actually work? In an article that first appeared in Encore, Nic Christensen investigates.

“I get approaches from PR companies constantly,” says blogger and author Kerri Sackville, with more than a hint of exasperation. “I have never done a sponsored blog, on my own site, but that doesn’t stop them from asking.”

“There’s also the things you get asked to review. ‘Dear Kerri, we know your readers would be fascinated to read about this latest line of cleaning products.’ Really? Because I don’t think they would be,” she says.

A prominent blogger, Sackville is increasingly inundated with requests from public relations firms performing what is known as ‘blogger outreach’, the tactic of approaching bloggers on behalf of leading brands that are eager to advertise to large online audiences.

“I’ve done sponsored content on other websites but never on my own, however, I am still inundated by PR companies,” says Sackville. “It depends on the week but I can get at least a dozen requests and I’ve actually asked to get off the list of a lot of places. Also, often it’s for baby products – for the record – my youngest is five and my oldest is 13.”

“The emails often start with ‘we love your website’. Well if they loved my website, or actually bothered to read it, they’d know I don’t do sponsored posts and I don’t have a baby.”

But not every blogger is having the same frustrations with blogger outreach as Sackville.

In Australia, blogging has changed dramatically in recent years. Many of the country’s top bloggers have worked out how to monetise their online offerings off the back of their audiences which in many cases number in the tens – or in some cases even hundreds – of thousands. Prominent Australian bloggers can now demand as much as $3,000 per sponsored post. The shift towards monetising the blogosphere has been a slow and steady march but one which has gathered dramatic pace during the last 12 months.

David Krupp, Australia country manager for Nuffnang, a company which describes itself as Australia’s largest blogger outreach and blogger advertising agency, says: “I’ve been with Nuffnang for four years and I’ve seen a huge transformation. In the early days we were having to explain even what blogs were but now we are on the map.”

Nuffnang was founded in Singapore in 2008 and today boasts offices in Australia, Malaysia, China, the Philippines and Thailand. The company claims to have more than 6,000 Australian bloggers on its books, a network which it says offers Aussie marketers a display advertising network that generates around 12m page impressions a month, as well as an established outlet for sponsored content.

“What we do is match bloggers with advertisers,” Krupp says. He argues that the blogosphere has matured dramatically in the last few years and as a result, marketers are increasingly factoring bloggers into their campaigns, driving the spread of sponsored posts.

“In the early days clients were really dipping their toe in the water but weren’t sure what they were getting into” says Krupp. “Today we are seeing a longer-term vision where they are getting bloggers to be ambassadors for their brands. It’s not just a one-off campaign as brands are building bloggers into the marketing plan.”

This perspective is shared by Matthew Gain, director of consumer brand and digital marketing at public relations firm Edelman. “Bloggers come in many different forms and varieties and they span a scale,” says Gain. “There are bloggers who behave like journalists and then at the other end of the scale there are bloggers that behave much more like celebrities. They are more like brand ambassadors.” Gain adds that one of the biggest changes to occur in the space recently was the launch of The Remarkables which spruiked itself as Australia’s first “blogger talent agency”.

“If Nuffnang was the 1.0 then The Remarkables is the 2.0 and I think what they have done is a better job of recognising the power is the individual. The Remarkables have set up an ambassador-style program,” says Gain, who works with both organisations.

The bloggers themselves agree.

“The way I see it, I graduated from Nuffnang to The Remarkables,” says Corrie Sebire, the blogger behind Retro Mummy. She moved across to The Remarkables after first working with Nuffnang. “Nuffnang gets lots of bloggers on a campaign – they might have five or 10 bloggers writing about a product – but with The Remarkables it’s more tailored,” says Sebire.

The Remarkables launched with a roster of five of Australia’s most prominent “mummy” bloggers in May 2011 with former Naked Communications PR manager Lorraine Murphy at the helm. Within weeks of launching, the organisation faced an online backlash from others in the blogosphere not represented by the agency. The Remarkables were accused of elitism and selling out.

One year on, Murphy says the outrage has subsided and the group has expanded with more than 12 bloggers on their books and a client list including major brands such as Woolworths, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra.

“The first six months of the business was a lot of education. I could definitely see the potential for bloggers but I realised quickly that brands weren’t quite there yet,” says Murphy. “My big learning was to educate the market when you are launching something new. I went to agencies and marketers and ended up doing one-hour sessions on why bloggers are so valuable to your brand.”

“A big turning point for us was landing big brands like Woolworths, Commonwealth Bank and Aussie Home Loans. Once other brands were doing it they realised they were safe to do it,” says Murphy.

Many in the Australian blogosphere believe The Remarkables launch signalled a turning point for a once small and informal industry that has fast become a lucrative business. Nuffnang has since launched its own agency, although it says this is unrelated, and other agencies are entering the space.

Agencies generally receive a slice of the revenue paid to bloggers in return for representing them. In the case of The Remarkables this is 30 per cent, plus a retainer, while for Nuffnang the fee can vary from 15 to 50 per cent.

“Bloggers are definitely wising up (to paid blogging) and The Remarkables had a lot to do with that,” says Sackville, who also makes a living through her social media consultancy work.

“Initially it created an ‘us and them’ mentality which not all bloggers were happy with,” she says, adding that she was not one of the critics of The Remarkables. “My feeling is the bloggers in The Remarkables are the cream of the crop and I think Lorraine chose very well. It has motivated some other people to more aggressively monetise their blogs and there is nothing wrong with that.”

However, others in the industry worry that monetisation in the space is having a negative effect on blog content. “The Remarkables have definitely had an impact. Whether it’s good or not, I’m still debating,” says Karalee Evans, head of digital at PR agency Text100. “The value of blogger outreach and bloggers for brands was always built around organic and transparent engagement. Whenever you monetise a behaviour there is always the element of having an agenda.”

“We are definitely seeing some blogs which are nothing but paid posts and you have to question, is that the essence of blogging?”

The Remarkables’ Murphy says she is aware of the trend but believes bloggers just doing it for the money will come undone. “If a blogger does go down that route, and it feels like they are chasing the money instead of readers, then they will very quickly lose their readers. There is a fine balance to be played by the blogger in creating great content but also securing an income for themselves,” she says.

“In our case, all of our bloggers’ readers have been going up month by month. As soon as we start to see that go down, then I’ll get concerned but I don’t think it will be an issue.”

Edelman’s Gain says the other issue facing bloggers is accountability in data and results. “There needs to be more professionalism around the tracking and measurement of the platforms,” he says. “A lot of the time they will say they have this many visitors and this many uniques but it is not entirely clear how many people see a particular post on one platform.”

Roisin Durham, interactive director at media agency OMD, works with a variety of bloggers and says media agencies are constantly examining the return on investment from blogging. “I am definitely of the belief that measurement is hugely important to any campaign and for bloggers that is no different,” she says. “One of the biggest advantages of a blogger outreach program is accountability and being able to evaluate return on investment in both paid media and earned media impact.”

Both Krupp and Murphy say this is an area that needs to be addressed further.

“It is something we are looking to evolve and we are actually in the process of a system upgrade,” says Krupp. “Accountability is definitely an area we are looking to improve but as a network we think we are the most detailed when it comes to reporting standards.”

Murphy says her agency provides data from Google Analytics to clients for each campaign but concedes: “Yes, absolutely there needs to be a discussion around this.”

“If agencies are paying bloggers, they need to ensure they are getting accountability,” she says.

Regardless of the transparency issues one thing is clear, the march of paid blogging will continue.

Murphy says she believes it will continue to evolve towards the ambassador model. “The way I see it going is bloggers entering into longer-term partnerships with brands,” she says.

“So it will move away from one to three sponsored posts per brand towards yearly, two-yearly ambassadorships. These are the kind of discussions we are having at the moment.” Her counterparts on the client side agree but say bloggers face a difficult challenge in maintaining the balance between sponsored and unsponsored content.

“They have to find the balance between making enough money to make this worthwhile at the same time as creating sponsored and unsponsored content that is engaging and doesn’t turn the audience off,” says Edelman’s Gain. “That’s the biggest challenge they are facing in terms of how they keep their audience and grow their revenue.”

Text100’s Evans says this is where the debate is most needed. “It’s not likely to go away. We’ve seen it with everything. Whenever there is money to be made it will be made,” she says. “Blogging is no different but it’s up to us as brand managers, digital strategists and bloggers to think about what we want to do with this space.”

Issue 18This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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