Add into this equation the multitude of other blogging conferences bloggers can't afford, but can attend (Blissdom, AlphaMoms, etc.), and it becomes obvious that change is in the air. Rapid change.
Blogging conferences, fitting somewhere between those designed for enthusiasts of model railways, home improvement and Disney collectables and those designed to showcase new products to wholesale buyers and media (Toy Fair, PMA, CES), attract thousands of bloggers each year. It's exactly this middle ground that blogging conferences occupy that confuses bloggers and worries brands as we inexorably move toward our own, unique model.
As a colleague and I researched our report on the Blogher09, we kept running up against this confusion as bloggers expressed negative opinions both about the high cost of attending the conference (unlike a typical consumer show, in most cases it sported a higher admission price and was geographically undesirable -- i.e not local) and the (perceived) overwhelming presence of brands. This is, obviously, a conversation at cross purposes.
Bloggers are, for the most part, more (like) consumers, or small entrepreneurs than they are like journalists. Unlike journalists, no one is typically paying them to write or attend a conference. They make money (or not) in a variety of ways and finance their blogs and trips from their own pockets or with sponsor money. They are, instead, the ultimate consumer WOM marketers desire -- ones with a wide circle of influence.
They often don't see themselves that way, though, and neither do we. We and they regard them as journalists. Or, we and they see them as entrepreneurs. Or we and they see them as informed consumers. Since they are all of the above, we struggle.
As we move forward, marketers need to lead the way in resolving this conflict. Our research led us to identify several brands, at various different levels of sponsorship, from individual bloggers to a high-level conference presence, that did it right. Those were the brands that carefully trod the line between consumer and journalist ... without annoying either part of the blogger psyche.
Some best practices we found included:
1) Training Both those working the event and sponsored bloggers should be given guidelines on appropriate interactions with bloggers. This requires some upfront discussion on what is appropriate for your brand and for the conference being attended.
2) Sampling In consumer mode, bloggers, even those with the best of intentions, get caught up in the rush for "free stuff." Carefully consider what you will be distributing and your follow-up plan. Relationship building is the key to long-term success in the blogsphere.
3) Planning Many of the most successful brands at Blogher involved bloggers and the Blogher management team in their preparations. They used expert advice to avoid potential pitfalls and made efforts to reach out to those bloggers who were most appropriate to their brand strategy in advance.
As blogging conferences grow and multiply, so will the number of brands that attend them. We all need to be ready.