What’s happened to influencer marketing?

Over the past five years or so, one of the key tactics of branding has been convincing “market influencers” to promote products and services through endorsements rather than relying on traditional advertising. Not only does “influencer marketing” save on paid advertising costs, presumably the brand promotion appears more “genuine” to consumers of the information.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work according to the textbook theory.

But let’s dissect this a bit.

Some of the earliest forms of “influencer marketing” were the so-called “mommy bloggers” who were stars of the social media world not so long ago. The blogs run by these people were viewed as authentic portrayals of motherhood with all of its attendant joys and stresses.

Mommy blogs like Heather Armstrong’s Dooce.com, Jenny Lawson’s The Bloggess and Glennon Doyle’s Momastery once held sway with stratospheric monthly traffic exceeding the million page level.  But once that volume of engagement happened, it didn’t take long for many bloggers to begin to command big dollars in exchange for product mentions and brand endorsements.

Various meetings and workshops were organized featuring these bloggers and other stars of the social media world – moms, style gurus, interior decorators, fashionistas and the like – providing a forum for consumer product and service companies to interact with these social movers-and-shakers and pitch their products in hopes of positive mentions.

Eager to jump on the bandwagon of this phenomenon, several years ago I recall one of my corporate clients attending their first conference of bloggers — in this case ones who specialize in home décor and remodeling topics.

To put it mildly, our client team was shocked at the “bazaar-like” atmosphere they encountered, with bloggers thrusting tariff schedules in front of their faces listing prices for getting brand and product mentions based on varying levels of “attention” – photos, headline story treatment and the like.

Even more eyebrow-raising were the price tags attached to these purportedly “authentic” endorsements – often running into the thousands of dollars.

Quite the gravy train, it turns out.

It would be nice to report that when the bubble burst on these types of blogs, it was because their readers wised up to what was actually happening.   But the reality is a little less “momentous.”  Simply put, blogging on the whole has stagnated as audiences have moved to other platforms. The rise of “mobile-everything” means that consumers are spending less time and attention on reading long-form blog posts.  Instead, they’re interacting more with photos and related short, pithy descriptions.

Think Facebook and Instagram.

Along with that shift, product endorsements have reverted back to something more akin to what it was like before the time of social media – product promotion that feels like product promotion.

Look at blogging sites today, and often they feel more like classified advertising – more transactional and less discursive. Photos and video clips are the “main event,” and the writing appears to exist almost exclusively to “sell stuff.”

Many consumers see through it all … and it seems as though they’ve come to terms with the bloggers and their shtick.  With a wink and a nudge, most everyone now recognizes that bloggers are “on the take.”  It’s a job – just as surely as the rest of us have our 8-to-5 jobs.

Still, it’s an acceptable tradeoff because in the process, useful information is being communicated; it’s just more transactional in nature, like in the “old days.”

So where does this put influencer marketing today? It’s out there.  It still has resonance.  But people know the score, and few are being fooled any longer.

It’s certainly food for thought for marketers who are thinking that they can use influencer marketing to replace advertising.

They still can … sort of.

The world of blogging: Just how does it operate?

wbMost people in business know at least one or two people who publish a blog. Chances are, they know people who blog on non-business topics as well.

Have you ever wondered what are the common practices followed by these bloggers? Speaking as someone who has published blog posts since 2009, I certainly have.

Now the “wondering” is over, because Chicago-based web design firm Orbit Media Studies has just published its 2016 Blogger Research Study, which presents the results of surveying ~1,050 bloggers about how they go about their blogging business.

Here are some of the most interesting highlights from the study:

Where do bloggers write their articles?

According to Orbit’s findings, the vast majority of bloggers are creating their content at home or at their home office:

  • At home/home office: ~81% of respondents cited
  • At the office: ~32%
  • Coffee shops or other foodservice establishments: ~19%
  • Co-working spaces: ~4%
  • Other locations: ~7% (primarily on trains or planes, or at a library)

What is the length of a typical blog post?

From the Orbit research findings, it’s pretty clear that the most popular blog post length is 500 to 1,000 words. (This one is, for instance.)  Anything longer than that quickly migrates into the “feature story” mode:

  • Less than 500 words: ~21% of respondents cited
  • 500 – 1,000 words: ~61%
  • 1,000 – 1,500 words: ~13%
  • 1,500 – 2,000 words: ~4%
  • More than 2,000 words: ~1%

Do bloggers use editors, or act as their own editor?

There’s little differentiation in behaviors here; the vast majority of bloggers report that they edit their own work. An even greater ~91% of the survey respondents either edit their own work or use an ad hoc review process.  Bottom line, most blog posts have never been seen by anyone other than the author before going live:

  • Edit own work: ~73% of respondents
  • Show it to one or two people: ~30%
  • Use a formal editor: ~12%
  • Use more than one editor: ~3%

How long does it take to write the typical blog post?

The responses ranged widely, but the most common length of time is between one and two hours:

  • Less than 1 hour: ~17% of respondents cited
  • 1-2 hours: ~37%
  • 2-3 hours: ~20%
  • 3-4 hours: 13%
  • More than 4 hours: ~13%

Are bloggers writing for other people besides themselves?

Generally speaking, bloggers are writing for their own publication, but there are many instances where bloggers are writing for clients as well.

  • 75% – 100% of blogger’s posts written for clients: ~9% of respondents cited
  • 50% – 75%: ~6%
  • 25% – 50%: ~9%
  • 5% – 25%: ~13%
  • 1% – 5%: ~18%
  • 0%: ~47%

How are bloggers driving traffic to their posts?

Two words: social media.  Direct e-mail marketing is also a common technique, as is search engine optimization:

  • Social media marketing:  ~94% of respondents cited
  • Search engine optimization: ~51%
  • E-mail marketing: ~35%
  • Influencer outreach: ~15%
  • Paid services (SEM/social media advertising): ~5%

The high SEO figure is hardly surprising, considering that bloggers are, by definition, focused on writing inherently interesting, newsworthy content.

More details from the Orbit survey can be accessed here.

The Federal Trade Commission vs. Native Advertising: Score One for the FTC

ptpbIt’s pretty much a given these days that “native advertising” has it all over traditional advertising when it comes to prompting prospects to try a new product or service. Study after study shows that positive recommendations and ratings from family members, friends, key influencers and even simply fellow users are what prompt people to try it for themselves.

These dynamics mean that suppliers are looking for as many opportunities to publicize their offerings through these native channels as they can.

There’s a bit of a problem, however. Bloggers and other influencers have become wise to this reality — and many are taking it all the way to the bank.  The market is replete with conventions and other events such as the annual Haven Conference, at which these key influencers congregate and “hold court” with suppliers.

While there is no prescribed agenda regarding what’s discussed between suppliers and influencers, generally speaking there’s a whole lot of quid pro quo going on:  Things like receiving copious free samples in exchange for publishing product reviews, receiving monetary payments for mentioning products and brands in blog articles and on social media posts, and more.

One can’t really blame the influencers for peddling their influence to the highest bidder. After all, many successful bloggers and other influential people derive most or all of their livelihood from their online activities.  It’s only natural for someone whose influences ranges widely and deep to expect to be compensated for publicizing a product, a service or a brand — whether or not they themselves think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

But there’s a growing problem regarding the “pay to play” aspects of native advertising. This past December, the Federal Trade Commission reiterated its opinion that such sweetheart deals are tantamount to advertising, and therefore must be prominently identified as such in online and other informational content.

Of course, including a prominent announcement that payment has been exchanged for an influencer’s commentary significantly lowers the positive impact of native advertising, in that the commentary being valued by consumers precisely because of its inherent objectivity and credibility is no longer much of a hook.

Until recently, it wasn’t clear how strict the FTC was going to be about enforcing its stated policy about disclosing financial remuneration for brand coverage by influencers.

L+TLWell, now we know.  It’s in the form of a settlement reach this month by the FTC with retailer Lord & Taylor over a particular online ad campaign that contained native advertising and social media components.  It’s the first time the FTC has brought an enforcement action since its native ad guidelines were published.

The settlement pertains to a promotional campaign for Lord & Taylor’s Design Lab private-label line of spring dresses. The initiative reached more than 11 million Instagram users, and the particular sundress at the center of the publicity campaign sold out quickly as a result.

The native advertising portion of the promo effort stemmed from an article about DesignLab that appeared in the online magazine Nylon.  That article was paid for by Lord & Taylor, which also reviewed and approved the article’s content prior to publication.

As could be expected, no notification that the piece was a paid ad placement was included when the article was published.

Skating close to the edge even more, the social portion of the promo campaign involved the retailer giving the sundress to approximately 50 top fashion bloggers, along with paying each blogger between $1,000 and $4,000 to model the dress in photos that were then posted to Instagram.

The bloggers were allowed to style the dress in their own way, but they were asked to reference the dress in their posts by using the campaign hashtag #DesignLab as well as @lordandtaylor.

Furthermore, the retailer reviewed and approved these social media posts before they went live, which enabled them to make stylistic edits before-the-fact as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the FTC’s statement about the Lord & Taylor action:

“None of the Instagram posts presented to respondents for pre-approval included a disclosure that the influencer had received the dress for free, that she had been compensated for the post, or that the post was a part of a Lord & Taylor advertising campaign.”

Clearly, the FTC is now putting muscle behind its 2009 opinion (and reiterated last year) that failing to disclose that an endorsement has been paid for is a deceptive practice.

In this particular “test case,” Lord & Taylor is getting off somewhat easy in that there have been no monetary penalties levied against the retailer. However, the company has signed a consent decree that is in place for the next two decades, which would mean “swift and stiff” penalties if the retailer were to transgress in the future.

Other terms of the settlement mandate that Lord & Taylor require its endorsers to sign and submit written statements outlining their obligation to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose any monetary or other material connections they have to the retailer.

Clearly, the Lord & Taylor settlement is a shot across the bow by the FTC, signifying that it means business when it comes to alerting consumers of the financial or other material connections that exist between influencers who are making value judgments on products and services.  In effect, the FTC is saying to the marketing world, “Be very careful …”

It’ll be interesting to see how marketers finesse the challenge of figuring out how to corral the obvious benefits of native advertising while mitigating the dampening effects of “full disclosure.”

Perhaps bloggers and other influencers will need to re-think their own business models as well, seeing as how the “golden goose” of supplier perks seems to have lost some of its luster now.

Stay tuned — this new “lay of the land” is still unfolding.

The lifetime value of a blog post: It’s more than you probably think.

bgHere’s an interesting factoid: In 2014, more than 550 million blog posts were uploaded on WordPress alone.

Add in Tumblr, and there are another 250 million blogs.

Considering the sheer volume of blogging activity, it’s surprising how little intelligence on the “value” of a blog post has been available. But now a study has been published that sheds light on the question.

The evaluation, which was commissioned by branding agency IZEA and conducted by research firm The Halverson Group, has determined that the lifespan of a blog post is far greater than the accepted measurement of 30 days.

The lifespan is more than 20 times longer, it turns out.

Let’s break down the research findings a bit more. The IZEA/Halverson study determined that by Day 700 (about two years), the typical blog post will have received ~99% of its impressions.

That’s a pretty long annuity, and it provides strong ammo for marketers who advocate for blog posts as an important way to maximize the return on their marketing spend.

According to the study, the typical blog post goes through three distinct phases in its useful life:

  • Shout: The initial spike in impressions that happens within the first 7 to 10 days, typically resulting in half of the total impressions the post will ever receive.
  • Echo: The period ending at 30 days, by which time the typical blog post will have racked up ~70% of its total impressions.
  • Reverb: The third phase that stretches from approximately Day 30 all the way to Day 700. This long-tail phase will typically generate the final ~30% of impressions.

Of course, the performance of individual blog posts will depend on the subject matter, the timeliness of the information, and other factors. But as a general rule of thumb, the Halverson findings show the potential value of a blog post as far greater than many marketers may have surmised up until now.

The Halverson study also provides a good rule of thumb for the lifetime impression value of a blog post. It can be calculated by multiplying a blog post’s 30-day monthly pageview total by a factor of 1.4.

In other words, by Day 30, marketers can know with a good deal of confidence how the blog post will perform overall.

Using this formula, marketers will be able to demonstrate the “evergreen” effect of blogging as a marketing tactic.

Certainly, the residual benefits of a blog post look very strong — particularly in contrast to volume-based media such as display or search advertising, which stop performing the instant the campaign investment ends.

The bottom line: Companies should continue to blog away … and if they haven’t started or if they’ve allowed their blogging program to flag, it’s time to get things back in gear!

Samsung gets its marketing knuckles wrapped – twice.

Samsung logoTech manufacturing giant Samsung’s “questionable” marketing activities have been in the news this past week – again.

This time, it’s reported that the company has been fined a $340,000 penalty for paying people to post trash-talk comments about competitor HTC’s products in customer online forums in Taiwan.

Back in April, the Fair Trade Commission in Taiwan opened an investigation into allegations that Samsung had recruited certain employees along with freelance writers from the outside to flack the shortcomings of its competitors’ products.

In addition to the company being held culpable, two of Samsung’s outside marketing firms were fined for their part in the marketing shenanigans masquerading as natural content.

This is pretty big news in the world of smartphones.  HTC and Samsung are major competitors in this highly competitive marketplace, and both companies offer products that operate on the Android platform.

But Samsung’s fortunes have risen dramatically over the past year as its global smartphone market share jumped from ~19% to ~30%.

By contrast, HTC’s share declined from ~9% to slightly less than ~5% over the same period.

Evidently, Samsung couldn’t resist the temptation to kick a competitor when it was already on the ropes.

Chalk it up to the “take no prisoners” atmosphere in the cutthroat competitive world of mobile technology – the “New York Garment District mentality” writ large.

“Astro-turfing” isn’t new, of course.  But the practice is usually the province of smaller companies with fewer scruples … or marketing people who are simply unaware of proper marketing etiquette (and often backed by legal opinion).

Amateur hour
“Amateur hour” at Samsung’s marketing department makes the company look just … silly.

For a company as large and as sophisticated at Samsung, it does seem a little … odd.  And certainly not in good form.

But as it turns out, this isn’t the first time Samsung’s gotten caught with its marketing pants down.

Just a few months ago, the company was discovered bribing various people to “talk up” its development activities – and “talk down” their competitors – during the Samsung Smart App Challenge competition.

Android developer Delyan Kratunov went public with ongoing correspondence in which a viral marketing company working for Samsung offered him $500 to cite positive mentions on the Stack Overflow online community.

The instructions were specific:  Mr. Kratunov would need to ask a series of “casual and organic” questions about Samsung’s app challenge over a month-long period.

Later, the marketing company attempted to distance itself from the egregious behavior — but not before the incident had been exposed.

My response to Samsung is this:  You’re already winning.  There’s no need to engage in “adolescent business behavior” of this kind.

It’s in very bad form … and sooner or later it’ll come back to bite you.

Stuff like this always does eventually.

PR Firms at Loggerheads with Bloggerheads

PR mistakes with bloggersTime was, we could get a chuckle out of television commercials where unsuspecting consumers were surprised to find out that the restaurant coffee was really Folgers®, or the day spa’s skin moisturizer treatment for their hands was actually Palmolive® dish detergent.

There was something rather endearing about those consumer reactions – and they were uniformly positive ones as well.

But to show how far removed we are from those halcyon days, consider this recent attempt to pull a fast one on unsuspecting dinner guests at a “faux” restaurant in Midtown Manhattan: Cooked up by the Ketchum public relations unit of Omnicom Group for its client, ConAgra Foods, New York-based food bloggers and “mommy” bloggers were invited to dine at “Sotto Terra,” an underground restaurant supposedly run by Chef George Duran of TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off cable program.

But Sotto Terra, far from being the “intimate Italian restaurant” of the invitation, was nothing more than an elaborate set-up – hidden cameras and all – to get bloggers to sample ConAgra’s newest offerings in the Marie Callender’s line of frozen entrees and desserts … and presumably to extol the virtues of the cuisine.

In fact, no such restaurant even exists. Rather, it was all a staged scene in a Greenwich Village brownstone. The invitation promised a “delicious four-course meal” accompanied by Chef Duran’s “one-of-a-kind sangria” … along with a talk by famed food industry expert Phil Lempert on new taste trends in food.

The invitation also promised a “special surprise” for those who attended the dinner on one of five evenings.

The special surprise, of course, was revealing the actual provenance of the food items being served. “The twist at the end was not dissimilar to what brands like Pizza Hut and Domino’s have done in the recent past, with success,” noted Stephanie Moritz, a public relations flack at ConAgra.

The plan was to use the video footage captured at the dinners for promotional clips on ConAgra’s website and on YouTube … as well as for the bloggers who attended to generate cyber-buzz about being pleasantly surprised at the revelation.

But this is 2011, not 1981 or 1991. And bloggers are also quite different from the average consumer. Ketchum and ConAgra apparently forgot about the “90-9-1 rule” of online content: 1% create content … 9% comment on that content … and 90% simply lurk.

Not only are bloggers part of the 1%, they take their role seriously and certainly don’t appreciate being fooled. So instead of the food taking center stage, the event itself became the topic of (uniformly negative) conversation on the blogs. A few examples:

 “We discussed with the group the sad state of chemical-filled foods. And yet, you still fed me the exact thing I said I did not want to eat.” (Lon Binder, FoodMayhem Blog)

 “[I] pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium. I’m NOT their target consumer, and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen goods after tricking me to taste it.” (Cindy Zhou, Chubby Chinese Girl Blog)

 “Our entire meal was a SHAM! We were unwitting participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three-cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.” (Suzanne Chan, Mom Confessionals Blog)

I loved reading the PR personnel’s “spin” of the events the way they transpired: “Once we sensed it was not meeting attendees’ expectations, that’s where we stopped, we listened and we adjusted,” Stephanie Moritz remarked.

… By which she means the remaining dinner evenings were canceled.

Looking back is 20/20 hindsight, of course. But it does seem like most PR professionals could have seen this negative reaction coming from a mile away. PR agencies exist to provide not only publicity for their clients, but also counsel. Sure, the event sounds like a fun lark with a bit of a twist – and I can just picture the breathlessly animated PR brainstorming session at Ketchum that produced this idea.

But is duping bloggers and making them out to be fools the correct tactic? … Especially considering that their megaphone, augmented by the viral nature of social media, is much more effective and far-reaching than ConAgra’s corporate website ever could hope to be.

When the Public Relations Society of America was contacted by the New York Times for comment, Deborah Silverman, chairperson of the PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, responded by stating that the Ketchum/ConAgra PR stunt was “unfortunate” and “not quite where they should be in terms of honesty.”

Ya think?

The Newest Wrinkle in Social Marketing: Getting Paid to Praise

It had to happen. With the dramatic rise in the popularity and number of blogs and other social marketing sites on the web, sooner or later merchandisers would get wise to the fact that they can use them to pitch their products and services. And for just pennies on the promotional dollar.

How? By offering free merchandise or cash payments to bloggers who will then be favorably disposed to write positive reviews about new products. And with blog postings being indexed by search engines in just a few days or even a few hours, it’s an incredibly cheap way to gain positive exposure for their products and brands in cyberspace.

… Not to mention that many readers will not be wise to the authors’ tidy mercantile relationships with the companies whose products they are reviewing. This despite the efforts the Federal Trade Commission is making to update its nearly 30-year-old advertising guidelines to cover the new new-fangled techniques brought forth by the cyber revolution — tactics few could even have dreamed of just a few years ago.

How long will it be before the FTC has these new guidelines in place? Who knows? For the moment, there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding paid reviews. But there are some moves being made within the industry to provide “full disclosure” to readers. Blog entrepreneur Ted Murphy of IZEA Social Media Marketing requires his “for-hire” bloggers to insert an icon next to each product review that states: “Sponsored Post. 100% Real Opinion.”

“One hundred percent real opinion?” Does anyone seriously believe any sponsored post will be completely free of bias?

Of course, sponsored bloggers could write a negative review … and then watch as it’s the last time they ever have the opportunity to write for that supplier. Practically speaking, that’s not going to happen — and everyone knows it.

A more fundamental concern is what paid pitching is doing to the credibility of the blogosphere in general. If people find out that even one or two product reviews they read turn out to be nothing more than disguised advertising for the merchandiser, it could cripple the credibility of bloggers overall in the minds of those readers.

This whole phenomenon has the risk of turning a highly powerful consumer information resource into a caricature of itself. Those who read product reviews tend to be the more cautious – or the more suspicious – consumers among us. And so, despite providing every assurance that bloggers who are paid cash compensation or receive merchandise freebies for their posts will remain honest in their opinion … that’s not how it’s going to be received by the audience.

Advice to bloggers: If you value your credibility and your reputation, don’t accept quid pro quo compensation from companies whose products you are reviewing. Advice to consumers: As always … be careful of what you read online.

UPDATE: Two years later … and not much has changed. Here’s Honda’s latest shenanigans.