Blogging Goes Mainstream

  • by August 26, 2004
Irreverent soliloquies on obscure pop bands from Asia, blow-by-blow accounts of fishing trips in Alaska, hand signal guides, and rapid-fire political debates spanning the ideological spectrum - virtually any topic on someone's mind, is fodder for bloggers. Blogs can be full of useless, arcane drivel and raunchy gossip.

In the so-called blogosphere, everybody's a content creator, editor, publisher, diarist, and critic. Quirky and acerbic rants are par for the course. Once largely an underground phenomenon, blogging has gone mainstream, attracting marketers particularly eager to get in front of hip 18- to 34-year-olds and savvy influencers.

To be sure, the majority of the blogosphere's millions toil alone for the pure pleasure of it, faces glued to the glowing screen of a PC monitor on a 24/7 basis. They are addicted to the art of blogging and are passionate about the process as a means of self-expression and creativity. They like the concept of self-publishing, building a community, and creating a dialogue based on common interests. But as with any emerging media form, marketers are racing to figure out how to harness the blog. Many will view blogs as yet another tool with which to target niche audiences of tastemakers and influencers.

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Probably the best example of the buzz-generating power of blogs is Gawker Media, publisher of several popular blogs that combined have managed to rack up some 15 million total page views per month. Monthly unique page views for each property range from 300,000 to 900,000.

Gawker Media's portfolio consists of Gawker, Gizmodo, Fleshbot, Kinja, Wonkette, and Defamer. Currently the toast of the mediarati, Gawker Media has a target demographic aged 26 to 35, according to advertising data on its Web site, although founder and publisher Nick Denton says he's focused primarily on 18- to 34-year-olds. Either way, the influence of Gawker Media properties extends far beyond those groups. Wonkette's avid following includes Washington, D.C., power brokers, wily political operatives, and elected representatives and their staffs.

More than 85 percent of readers of Gawker Media blogs are college graduates and have bought airline tickets online. More than 30 percent of readers have household incomes more than $100,000, while two thirds earn more than $50,000.

Denton is clearly onto something. His latest venture, a foray into online custom publishing, is a departure from Gawker Media's typically snarky fare. Nike, with agency R/GA, New York, teamed up with Gawker Media on a branded blog (some say advertorial) called Art of Speed, a showcase of filmmakers' interpretations of speed. The creative showcase carries no advertising per se, but Nike branding is prominent and Gawker titles Wonkette, Gizmodo, and Defamer each link to the Art of Speed site.

"We all know that 18- to 34-year-olds, particularly males, are disappearing from traditional media, so there's only so much advertising you can buy on the 'Daily Show with Jon Stewart,'" Denton muses. "There's obviously been a shift in budgets to the Web. If you're marketing a mass-market film, you'll go to Yahoo! Movies for mass reach. If you're pitching a niche movie and trying to reach tastemakers, there aren't all that many options out there."

That's the Gawker Media pitch, and it appears to be working. Denton's small sales staff has attracted such advertisers as Absolut, British Airways, Jose Cuervo, and a raft of political campaigns, nonprofit groups, book publishers, and assorted technology/gadget brands with relatively little heavy lifting. In many cases, the advertisers gravitated to Gawker. Denton plans to work on at least half a dozen more custom projects similar to the Nike effort, though he was mum on the details. And he expects to launch another blog or two, including an edgy urban travel guide and a design/style pub. Denton declines to specify revenue projections.

Nike's migration to the custom blog represents a legitimizing of the medium for established brands, according to online and offline media pundits. Nike and other iconoclastic brands have long aligned themselves with hip media; Gawker surely fits the bill.

If blogging is so pervasive, how much traffic do blogs attract? According to ComScore Media Metrix, the top four blogs - BlogSpot, Typepad, Blogrolling, and Blogger - reach about 5.5 million people per month. Google's BlogSpot, which shows consumers how to create their own blogs, has grown 56 percent over the past six months. Technorati, a company that provides search and notification services for active content on the Web, monitors more than 3 million Web logs. Microsoft's MSN has said that blogging, blog searches, and links to blogs will be integrated into the search product it's creating.

Blog networks made up of hundreds of individual blogs have also entered the scene. Alwaysonnetwork.com is an ad-supported blogging network, as is Weblogs, a blog network created by Jason Calacanis, founder of the now defunct Silicon Alley Reporter. One of the largest Web log ad networks, Blogads, enables marketers to place ads on some 500 blogs. They're blogs such as Instapundit, Politicalpundit, Talkingpointsmemo, Dailykos, Littlegreenfootballs, and Atrios. Blogads sells not on a cost-per-thousand basis but on a sponsorship model, according to its founder, Henry Copeland, who has witnessed dramatic growth in the blogosphere in the past two years.

Take Talkingpointsmemo, for example. Copeland says that two years ago, the political blog had about 300,000 page impressions per month. Now it racks up nearly 4 million per month, "the size of a decent-size magazine," Copeland notes. And therein lies the untapped potential of blogs - huge audiences of typically hard-to-reach people.

Blogdex, a Web aggregator created by the MIT Media Lab, tracks what bloggers are linking to each day, essentially offering a daily index to the fastest-growing blogs.

Without a doubt, Google AdWords helps drive traffic to blogs: "It's pretty common for bloggers to use Google AdWords in their sites," says Cameron Marlowe, a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab who works with Blogdex. Bloggers sign up for a Google AdWords account and drop a piece of HTML code into their site; Google then supplies the content when the page loads. But Marlowe doesn't buy the links-equal-traffic argument: "Within the Web log community there is a general understanding that links confer traffic, but I'm not really convinced that there's a one-to-one relationship," he says, adding, "There [seems to be a] disconnect between where the daily readership is and where people get the links." Marlowe says marketers will need to gather more readership statistics than are currently available publicly. "There are going to be proxies for this sort of information in the future," he adds.

As blogging grows up and enters the mainstream, corporations will continue to jump on the bandwagon, but the trendiness will likely wear off. Major media companies will acquire Web logs or blog networks, or create some form of blog presence. They are likely to integrate social networking and blogging functions, says Rick Bruner, a consultant to online publishers and marketers via his companies Executive Summary Consulting and Business Blog Consulting.com. Bruner cites Ryze, the online professional networking site, as a networking venue that could become more dynamic by adding blogging functions.

"I think we're still [in the] early days; a lot more companies will be using [blogs]. It's not a flash in the plan," Bruner says. He cites five blog business models for companies looking to hop on the blogging bandwagon - the thought leadership blog, the customer service blog, blogs for press (on the media section of a company's Web site, this model is for public relations professionals who seek a dialogue with journalists), blogs for internal corporate use, and adverblogging (used by marketers as blatant marketing tools).

Pheedo, an ad network made up of content feeds and Web log publishers, offers ads in RSS feeds. No Web log is necessary to have a feed; any Web site can have one. "A successful Web log advertising model is not taking the existing online ad models practiced today and incorporating them into Web logs," says Bill Flitter, vice president of marketing and founder of Pheedo. Flitter points out that because RSS is permission-based and consumers receive only feeds they request - a 100 percent opt-in rate.

But for all the potential in blogs, the truth is that there will always be a hard-core subset of bloggers who maintain blogs on the side, just for fun: "A blogger is working for him- or herself and is just incredibly motivated," Blogads' Copeland says. "Corporations are up against people who don't punch the clock at 5 p.m."

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