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My definition of blogger outreach has always been about acquiring earned media coverage from bloggers and online influencers. My definition–and my assumption–has always been that blogger outreach is public relations and not paid media. I may well be mistaken.

Earned media (or free media) refers to favorable publicity gained through promotional efforts other than advertising, as opposed to paid media, which refers to publicity gained through advertising.[1] Earned media often refers specifically to publicity gained through editorial influence, whereas social media refers to publicity gained through grassroots action, particularly on the Internet. The media may include any mass media outlets, such as newspaper, television, radio, and the Internet, and may include a variety of formats, such as news articles or shows, letters to the editor, editorials, and polls on television and the Internet.” (Wikipedia)

I recently had a Twitter chat with Serena Ehrlich, Director of Marketing for Mogreet during which we discussed the fine points of blogger outreach. We agreed on everything except on whether blogger outreach was pay-per-post or earned, what bloggers wanted from a marketing pitch.

To quote @Serena, “Just smile, pay and disclose,” in response to my post, “don’t roll your eyes at social media influencers.” I quickly responded, “Funny. I am an “earned media” social media marketer. There’s never “pay” so much as “gift” which is generally access, info, news,” and Serena asked, “do you find them moving towards pay? All blog conference preach payment (but I’m earned too so I get ur point)” and I responded “Don’t forget, most bloggers online have never been corrupted by blogger conferences :)” and, finally, “You don’t NEED to be sneaky in social media. You cannot CONTROL the conversation and you had better be as open as humanly possible.”

And that’s really the reason why people prefer the blogs and bloggers that offer predictable and controllable paid-content. Because you can control them by virtue of contracting with them over currency and sponsorship.

That comforts many but it lacks a number of important things, the most important of which is penetrating deeper into the conversation online, engaging with the newest talent–bloggers who have never been kissed or who have been blogging and sharing with their small circle of compadres in perceived invisibility (“what am I even doing this for, didn’t I start doing this so that I could get free review swag from Brooks, Nike, Saucony, and Mizuno?”) and in utter desperation (“I don’t have the time for doing this any more–I should be running about running instead of writing about running”).

What my version of long-tail blogger outreach offers is the ability to efficiently get deeper into the conversation, move further down the list of bloggers, into a social media conversation that’s a hell of a lot more like the blogosphere circa 2006:  a cloud of conversations, reviews, insights, editorials, and exposures that reflect something and someone a lot more in touch with what they believe rather than the political and commercial give and take associated with the slick, safe, produced, and programmed world of mainstream media.

In my experience, bloggers want content that’s fresh, relevant, and germane to their topic of interest or expertise; they also want to be associated with something cool or flattering:  a brand they like, a company they respect, or a product they have always loved, have been interested in trying, or have never heard of (or have yet to be released). Being offered exclusive content, getting to be first kid on the block for something, or having the bragging associated with being identified, tapped, and invited, openly, into the fold of a worthwhile organization.

If you need to pay a blogger a posting or linking fee in order to get them to write about you, your social media agency is not doing their job; in fact, they’re just spending your money and they’re getting easy and safe posts but they’re certainly not doing right by you when it comes to identifying, engaging, and building a true relationship with the taste-makers and influencers in your space.

And, because you don’t have to earn their coverage based on the merits of the pitch, it calls into question the quality of the gift.

First, let me define “gift:”  a gift is anything that a blogger considered valuable or germane to their news cycle. It could be exclusive content, it could be unique access to a person or technology, it could be the generous use or advance access to a product or service with the express intent of giving them time to experience, review, and critique it to share it with their readers. It can even include exclusive blogger access to giveaways, discounts, membership, or coupons for the blogger’s readers.

But no, apparently every single blogger who has ever been to a blogging conference has been convinced–conned–into holding their posts ransom to a fee card. I mean, I see it all the time: folks who respond to any query with a fee sheet, be it their price for a “sponsored” post or even for just a keyword link. I can understand offering me a price list for advertising space in the form of a banner or sponsorship credit, but these bloggers, who I will not name, are impenetrable when it comes to working on building a relationship, on becoming a preferred news channel, or even taking the audition towards becoming an official permanent member of one or more communications programs. This is a pity.

Why is this a pity? Well, most of the true A-list bloggers do not put such a mercenary barrier between companies, organizations, and brands–which is how they became A-list bloggers–by being likeable, accessible, having character, being popular, and having integrity.

The entire culture of the blog is supposed to be more authentic, more honest, and less under the thumb–and in the pocket–of the products and services about which they write. Right?

Long-story-short is that my long-tail strategy for blogger outreach, influenced heavily by the Cluetrain Manifesto, digs much deeper than just the top-50 or even to top-600 bloggers; in fact, my strategy doesn’t care anything at all about Klout, Compete, Google PR, or even page views or age of site. The only thing my strategy cares about is whether they’re topically-, linguistically-, and geographically-appropriate, targeted, and viable.

When you have a list of 1,000-9,000 viable and germane blogs for any particular campaign, you can readily dismiss anyone and everyone with a hand out and spend more attention grooming, encouraging, and rewarding those bloggers who are interested in being part of an interesting campaign, and innovative product, a special appeal, a new opportunity, or hot (exclusive) news.

At the end of the day, I will certainly collect a spreadsheet of all the folks with their hat in their hand, asking for payola for a positive post or a pre-written link through (they’re explicit that the link is a follow-me Google link-juicy link and not the hated “nofollow” blockade). I will deliver that spreadsheet to the paid content and paid advertising folks–if they exist or are interested–along with their price sheets and offers. But when most of my colleagues and I, in our sundry agencies and associations, are hired to engage in blogger outreaches, our tasks are very similar to the tasks associated with traditional PR: connect with journalists and see if they’ll be willing to cover you. These campaigns don’t have a discretionary bribery fund. We’re lucky if we even have the kinds of endless review copies that we want to circulate to all interested parties.

Our mission requires that we simply thank the folks who get back to us with their rate sheets and their requests for links and sponsorship, put them aside, and move on to build a connection, a conversation, and a relationship with all the other bloggers who are willing to enter into a conversation–a negotiation, if you will–first, before you shut me down before I even have a chance to make my appeal or to reach a mutually-beneficial agreement.

What I had to say, in appreciation, is that my team and I don’t need to waste a lot of time–these bloggers surely do get to the point right away. There’s not a lot of resource-intensive back and forth:  it’s very clear what you’re getting.

But it comes right back down to what I thought blogger outreach and blogger engagement was: earned media public relations campaign wherein you pitch bloggers cum citizen journalists and they decide whether or not what’s in it for them or their readers is consistent with the quality of news, offer, or “gift” that my team and I are willing to give.

And I don’t even know what is valuable anymore, really. I understand the desire for revenue and the desire to not be taken advantage of by big brands (with deep pockets, assumedly) who should really be willing to put up or shut up. Fair enough, but there’s a lot of opportunity and future associations that are dismissed out of hand as a result.

What these brands, associations, nonprofits, companies, and their associated advertising, marketing, and PR companies want is earned media even though they could very well afford the $150 link fee or the $250 sponsorship in any single blogger’s rate sheet; they could probably afford a thousand of those, presumably. The reason they come to Social-Ally or an agency like mine is because what they get for that money up front is PR garbage. They’ve all been through IZEA, they’ve all been through the SEO link-buying frenzy, and they’ve all bought sponsorship and ads just about everywhere.

What they haven’t found is authentic journalism from someone who is not paid for nice things; someone who has the integrity and character to offer balanced, quality, reviews and insights, be they good or not so good, consistently and over time–and these folks, the folks that my clients are looking for when they look for blogger outreach are not the folks who sound like car-salesmen or infomercial pitchmen when they write a client-friendly (or even client-doting) sponsored post, they want someone who is really passionate for Mizuno running shoes for example or has had a relative build a Habitat for Humanity house of has hosted a child during the summer for the Fresh Air Fund.

They’re looking for taste-makers, of course; they’re also looking for brand ambassadors; they’re looking to get married rather then just getting lucky; and they’re hoping that the enthusiasm of being associated with a real PR campaign from a recognized brand is enough (for now). And, what they’re really hoping–all except a very few clients (and those are really just in it for the links, I’ll be honest–is that that boundless pride and excitement really translates into an irresistible, passion-infused, post that no longer ever happen in mainstream media. They’re not looking for neutrality or objectivity–they’re happy with fanboys, fanbois, and bona fide enthusiast-obsessive, but they’re more excited that the end-result is organic, hearth-felt, and extemporaneous–what each earned media blogger wants so say rather than saying what he or she thinks we want to hear (which, like I said before, almost always sounds like the forced song-and-dance of a veteran used car dealer).

Anyway, there are loads of mommy bloggers, sports bloggers, gadget bloggers, tech bloggers, and sundry other topics and categories–none of whom are in their top-50–who have decided that they’re not citizen journalists but something more along the lines of the paid circulars in the paper or the “paid advertising” or “advertainment” section of most commercial magazines.

That’s fine. But because most blogger outreach campaigns are resource poor and their agencies a little lazy, the experience of most blogger outreach campaigns don’t go very far down the list of bloggers–or are restricted to just a certain class, PageRank, Klout, or Compete score, all they ever get is a load of jaded mercenary bloggers who readily hold their posting ransom, posting–or dropping links–only for the highest bidder.

The reason is simple: most brands are not national or global enough to command the attention of the real top bloggers. These bloggers have mostly maintained a semblance of journalistic and community integrity–being honest and open in their review, coverage, or sharing; however, they also have a strong level of discernment as to what they will cover, when they will cover it, and what sort of terms their article or post will follow (first right of refusal or first post or an ability to leak before an official announcement, etc). TechCrunch will only cover your startup if you’re willing to reveal financials to them in a big way; Om only covers it if he things is personally cool; etc.

I am not saying that these top guys are saints. There is a lot of money going on. There is a lot of access. There are a lot of business class tickets and flights to corporate headquarters being offered, but none of these things (should) effect the quality and comprehensiveness of the copy, be it a review or announcement or just the editorial commentary.

Below them, there are the folks who have been able to accrue the correct metrics–the semi-pros or the advanced amateurs. To them, their “blogs” have become businesses, which is cool enough, I get it; however, they’re exclusively pay-to-play. They’ve sold their souls to the real market of the Internet these days: keyword phrase links designed to transfer Google juice from a blogger’s blog directly to a company’s site, product, service–or to deposit an affiliate link into an advertorial review designed to drive a direct sales funnel to a commissioned sale. These strategies are part of my previously-mentioned social media robot armies and zombie hordes: link-farming, affiliate marketing, and inbound marketing.

That’s all well and good but it is not blogger outreach. And if it is, maybe we need to rename blogger outreach to blogger relations instead. Or, rather, I think we need to make sure that we call these payola blogger outreach what they really are: inbound marketing campaigns with a blogger component.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we at Social Ally call it, it’s what you hear (thanks, Frank Luntz). Let me ask you: what do you think of when you think of a blogger outreach campaign? Do you think of earned media first–traditional PR mapped to bloggers–or do you think of blogger outreach as a way of identifying bloggers who would be amenable to sponsorship, paid posts, or bough links? Or, both? I really like to know how that phrase is used circa 2012 instead of 2006, when I started Gerris digital, RIP, and if I should even be using blogger outreach to represent earned media blogger relations campaigns on the Social Ally website. I would love to hear your feedback in the comments.

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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

8 replies to this post
  1. Definitely a lot of great points here.

    Though many organizations have come to appreciate the role bloggers and social influencers play in generating positive branding, far too many refuse to elevate them to the level of traditional/mainstream media, and in an ego-driven world, that is a costly mistake (insofar as you do care about getting “earned media” from bloggers).

    The mistake of belittling bloggers and hoping they’ll jump at any opportunity to interview someone from your company or give away a small gift to their audience is rampant, and it occurs even within successful PR firms that were launched after the “social era” had already begun.

    And even bigger than that, the question PR teams need to ask when approaching blogs is how the content they wish to share will add value to THE BLOG rather than THE BRAND! A blogger might love a brand and want to do all he can to promote it, but at the end of the day, his top priority is gaining traffic and credibility for his website. Helping him do that is the best way to win him over and get your content shared.

    Consider two major television networks who attempt to garner coverage on an entertainment site/blog I run. While the outlet is not one of the largest online, it does have a good influence footprint, and many of the original pieces are cited by the “big boys.” It is thus worth courting for “earned media.”

    One of the networks, which reaches out to me with an in-house PR team, does not create custom content for me but does include my blog on the same media lists as the mainstream forces like People, the LA Times, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, etc. I get the same access to high-profile interviews with marquee stars, the same screeners, the same assets, etc. This heightens my enthusiasm to provide content, as I not only respect the network for elevating me to this level, but also see PERSONAL value in getting to post major interviews and TV show reviews in the same media wave as the more famous outlets. Posting this stuff gives my site credibility, so I want to keep posting.

    Another reaches out to me via a digital strategy firm, who initially called me a “top influencer” in the space. Yet it quickly became clear I’m not *REALLY* seen that way. The interviews they line up are with supporting cast members/lower profile cable talent, and the other media on the calls are typically random, low-profile sites of which I’ve never heard (nothing against these sites, as they often feature talented writers, but I just feel more “valued” when in the room with USA Today than I do TVisLife.Netfirms.com/Geocities). The content they share is often more about promoting THEIR material (we’re letting you…and 500 other sites…post our new show trailer EXCLUSIVELY!!!) than it is thinking about what would help me build my own brand.

    And tactics like only letting people into interviews with stars if they Tweet about your brand are just tacky.

    One of the most humiliating examples was when I asked a network PR rep for a statement on a rumor I had been hearing, and he directed me to Deadline.com, a larger outlet to whom his network had given an “exclusive” a few hours prior. How does that incentivize me to share that news with my audience?

    Select the bloggers you want to target…and then figure out ways to deliver mutually-beneficial content that will build that blogger’s business while also promoting your brand.

    • I see what you mean. The reason why so many bloggers are so stand-offish is because they’ve — you’ve — been hurt before. Taken for granted, treated like crap. That makes sense. Now I feel really bad because I was blaming the victim here, wasn’t I? Thanks so much for putting so much time and thought into your comment, Brian. It was what I really needed to hear. Thank you.

      PS: I believe I have the subject matter for next week’s post thanks to you, Brian — stay tunes.

      • I’m glad you appreciated the input, and I believe our views are far closer than you may realize. I don’t really think of the blogger as a “victim” here–just someone who sees himself as more than a mere intermediary between brand and consumer and wants to assure the brands with whom he works share that perspective.

        Though progress is definitely being made, none but the absolute largest blogs really possess the resources to “break” news or frequently update content the way the mainstream media can. As a result, that actually creates a huge opportunity for brands.

        In order to function, these blogs NEED content directly from the brands and newsmakers (they don’t have as many “inside sources on the ground”). It is a pivotal part of the blogging business, and no sensible blogger would permanently close the door to FREE PR/media partnerships that result in the kind of quality content that generates social shares, search traffic, loyal readership and credibility.

        At the same time, because bloggers still lack the resources to contend with the elite mainstream publications on quantity and exclusivity of content, the QUALITY of their content becomes the core differentiator. A blogger’s analysis must be so fresh, original and valuable that a reader craves it even though he can get MORE information MORE quickly from traditional media.

        If brands reach out to bloggers with a numbness to that concept, their efforts will inevitably fail. Entertainment Weekly can get away with posting press releases and trailers and such because readers expect to get some “fluff” and “spam,” but a blogger who only posts a few pieces a day needs to deliver value in each of those pieces. Generic PR material is a wash for mainstream media; it is a COST for bloggers.

        Great content BUILDS my business for the long-term, so I’m not going to let a pay-to-play model destroy that opportunity. But most of the “blogger outreach” content is generic at best and irrelevantly salesy at worst. It’s advertising, and a blogger is right to expect compensation for it (especially since it could have a particularly negative effect on credibility).

        The fact that some brands WILL pay to play has obviously produced a chilling effect, and I don’t disagree that some bloggers will throw rate cards at anyone because they can. But, at the end of the day, their best business model is to deliver quality content to their target audience, and if your brand facilitates that, thinking about blogger outreach as a partnership opportunity rather than a billboard opportunity, you will garner “earned” media coverage.

        I look forward to next week’s post!

        • Well, while I believe that the next post will be something special, I am afraid that I kind of have a hoot with it rather than being too contrite — I might actually get into a little bit of trouble as a result — this is a case where having a relatively modest vertical audience added to my long, long, long, long-est posts — I am hoping my ceaseless snarkiness and dangerously playfulness doesn’t get me in trouble.

    • Thanks for writing such a smart comment, Brian. You want a job here as a blogger? Great points and I know Chris loved it, too. We always appreciate such an insightful response to make us think about things from a different angle.

      • Thanks for the nice compliments, Mike. It’s a very fascinating subject for me, especially given the clear perspective gap that exists between how bloggers and PR teams approach the notion of blogger outreach (that gap, alone, is responsible for a lot of the problems Chris cited).

        And, of course, good response comments can only come when the original post is insightful–this definitely was!

        I’d love to write here; an absolute fan of the site, and I feel my perspective on some of the issues would be quite unique.

  2. Great discussion. I completely agree with Chris’ view, especially as if consumers crave honest, independent writing (which they do) then the ‘pay-to-play’ model is not only not appropriate, it fundamentally breaks the the bond of trust created by the independence. I take Brian’s point in his comment, but I think it just comes down to treating the bloggers right in the first place, something that the PR industry appears to have largely failed to do. As he says, “adding value to the BLOG” must be the first question. More education on effective blogger outreach required …

    • Absolutely. All it takes is thinking about that core question: “does this piece of branded content add value to the blog?”

      If the answer is yes, the blogger is a fool to let a fee get in the way of sharing that content with readers.

      If the answer is no, the blogger is a fool to share that content without getting something (a fee or other compensation) in return.

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