Wag The Blog
The numbers should make every media buyer salivate. Even skeptics concede there are hundreds of thousands of active blogs, and 15,000 to 20,000 new ones are created every day, though most don't remain active.
Even better, blogs deliver a higher degree of consumer engagement than perhaps any other medium. From political fulmination to gardening tips to the hipster music scene, the highly specific subject matter and the expectation of consumer participation make blogs the ideal niche marketing vehicles.
"All blog audiences are quality audiences, in terms of having people's attention," says Joseph Jaffe, author of Life After the 30-Second Spot and a blogger on JaffeJuice.com. "By definition these people are in a lean-forward, active participant mode."
And bloggers' affiliation with ad networks is making large-scale blog ad buys easier than ever. "It's a lot easier to do blog advertising now than it was even just a few months ago, because bloggers are affiliating themselves in networks like BlogAds and Gawker, which really simplifies ad buying," says Gary Stein, director of client services at BuzzMetrics. "In addition, companies are creating metrics and aggregating demographic information about who's creating blogs, who's reading them, what they're saying, that kind of thing."
One such network, Pheedo, is typical. According to Bill Flitter, Pheedo's vice president of marketing, "We have an ad server and an analytics engine to tell advertisers the number of subscribers they have, the editorial popularity of particular articles, open rates of specific feeds, planned duration, and so on." To maximize the niche value of its blogs and RSS feeds, Flitter says Pheedo "works with publishers and advertisers to match ads with the most appropriate content streams."
Most blog ad networks strive for the same kind of harmony, of course, but it doesn't always work. Given their obsession with context, it's no surprise that media buyers are concerned about the potential for cross-messaging or "interference" from blog content -- more bluntly put, when a blogger bashes the very brand sponsoring the site. When it happens, it can be a buzzkill.
Examples abound. Some auto bloggers appear to delight in heaping derision on vehicles peddled on their blogs; new ads provide new targets for these tech-savvy enthusiasts. Here the cozy "niche" starts to look more like a treacherous ravine filled with well-armed partisans.
"With blogs, as with other media, you can certainly get advertising backlash," observes Gina Smilyansky of Carat/Fusion New York, who recently managed a collaboration between music video channel VH1 and Gawker Media's Gawker/Wonkette blogs. "There are content areas where, for example, the bloggers might do reviews that aren't favorable. Does that mean we would throw out those blogs as potential partners? That seems a little extreme. But obviously we don't want them to bash a particular client that we're working with, and that is a possibility," she says.
Biff Burns, vice president of marketing at Burst!, an ad network representing vertical content sites, including many blogs, concedes: "Simply because of the nature of the medium itself, you're much closer to your customers, and that brings truth to you in both good and bad forms. [Media buyers] have to be prepared for the chance that people will talk about their product or service in a negative way."
Given the blogosphere's democratic sorting of fact and opinion, a well-reasoned critique can emerge from nothing to achieve ubiquity in days, and with devastating effect. Blogger Jeff Jarvis' assault on Dell, which began with his BuzzMachine post on June 21st, 2005 expressing dissatisfaction with its customer service (titled "Dell lies. Dell sucks") is a powerful example. As hundreds of other bloggers linked to Jarvis' post, Dell found that its main marketing tool -- the Web -- suddenly began working against it. Indeed, its ads became lightning rods for bloggers echoing Jarvis' views and airing their own, leading to a marketing "perfect storm" -- widespread cross-messaging of Dell's ads in a medium that it by all rights ought to "own." Worse, Dell's slow response turned Jarvis' initial complaint into a kind of meta-critique, proving the company was indeed out of touch.
In January Wal-Mart also tasted the wrath of the blogosphere when its online "mapping" technology produced movie suggestions in a way that appeared racist. Wal-Mart issued adamant denials, explaining that its mapping technology was simply flawed -- but only after a sudden flowering of "blog rage" called the matter to its attention. By the time Wal-Mart responded, the damage was done.
In this sort of situation, buzz-tracking services monitoring the blogosphere are invaluable. One such service is BlogView, the product of a partnership between Biz360, which specializes in Internet buzz, and Feedster, which tracks about 20 million live feeds and has also compiled an archive of hundreds of millions of XML documents.
BlogView scours the Web for words, phrases, and sentences in order to paint a broad portrait of sentiment concerning a product. Biz360's Brian Glover explains: "People gather intelligence from social networks, and BlogView greatly expands your ability to tap those networks for information, because now there's a digital text trail of people's opinions."
Services like Feedster and Biz360 can aggregate myriad text trails to get a handle on overall sentiment, allowing advertisers to conduct rational, cost-effective triage in responding to negative comments. According to Glover, "We can help clients track how messages proliferate in the blogosphere, and needless to say, it's helpful to be able to spot something that isn't going well and tweak it."
Of course, this begs the question: Tweak how? The blog-savvy are adamant that the usual responses -- press releases full of counter-spin, more ads, or different ads -- are simply outdated. George Simpson, a blog consultant who works with Feedster and is a MediaDailyNews columnist, explains: "What we're really talking about here is how to engage the audience to blunt the damage. But that's going to require a new approach in which you not only read these blogs, but understand where the audience is coming from and engage it on its level."
Simpson cautions against a one-size-fits-all response: "The challenge is that each blog is unique. Can you really generate a boilerplate response that is going to cut across the editorial uniqueness of blogs? It's impossible."
Indeed, as the Dell/Jarvis feud proved, a ham-fisted response will only make the situation worse. But Dell's misfortune also points up the importance -- in the blogosphere and elsewhere -- of distinguishing between advertising and public relations responsibilities. Jarvis' post wasn't inspired by a poorly placed Dell ad but by his own frustration with the company; if anything, it would be more accurate to say he was calling Dell out on its ad promises.
Responding to such complaints "is a discipline that belongs in the PR silo, and most people's advertising staff don't have the time, the money, or the inclination to deal with it," observes Chris Batty, sales director at Gawker.com. Echoing Simpson, Batty goes on: "Frankly, there aren't that many PR firms that would really want to take it on either, but if they care about Inter-net buzz, brands are just going to have to start thinking about pr in a new way."
Here's the rub: Any critique valid enough to become widespread shouldn't be viewed as an enemy to be beaten but as advice to be taken. Pheedo's Flitter notes: "People are going to be talking about your brand anyway, whether you've bought ads or not, and you should embrace that."
This may not sound like good news to media buyers, who seldom control the quality of the inventory, but it does create an opening for customer engagement that, if sincere, might just salvage a campaign. Touting BlogView, Biz360's Glover asserted that "you can mine blog data to catch shortcomings in a product that the public may have discovered, and if you do it intelligently you may be able to solve the problem early on."
A good example is the recent push by many consumer electronics brands to clarify their often muddled user manuals, effectively addressing a secondary problem unrelated to the products' core functions. Simpson concludes: "From a customer service standpoint, if someone has a problem with your product, you don't try to talk them out of it, you try to help them resolve the problem. There's certainly nothing new in that; it's called customer service."