Vancouver public relations experts are harnessing the marketing power of bloggers, those online influencers whose websites have become the ultimate promotional avenue.
If you take a trip in the time machine back to the early days of the web, before what we know now as social media was even a glint in a gawky Harvard freshman’s eye, you’ll find hand-wringing and curiosity about a new phenomenon called “blogging.” It seems quaintly pre-web now that the business world was once so perplexed at the thought that customers or stakeholders might independently choose to start a web page devoted to their own often parochial thoughts and feelings without a thought toward monetary gain.
Now huge numbers of people feel an urge to express themselves online, but it’s not yet entirely clear what this tendency has to do with business – beyond the fact that a single passionate curmudgeon can instantly create a platform for potentially incendiary views. But almost every industry in B.C. has its own online opinion makers, many of whom have built very tall soapboxes for themselves. That’s why PR firms have hired professional blogger-wranglers to determine who really commands influence and who’s just shouting into the digital ether.
Why Vancouver bloggers can help businesses
Natasha Netschay Davies of Peak Communications believes that the image of basement-dwelling solipsists posting in their pyjamas is antiquated. Not only are some bloggers now as important to business as traditional journalists, she argues, but in some ways they’re more valuable for her clients: “If you can get a blogger to cover your client or your product or your event, it can go much more viral than, say, a piece in the Vancouver Sun.” That’s because social media, rather than supplanting the blog as a platform, have amplified the potential for blog posts to resonate throughout online communities.
A friendly blogger can offer a lot of advantages to businesses that a traditional journalist can’t. First is the power of a direct link. Most blogs are a forest of links, not necessarily because bloggers are interested in driving traffic to the businesses they like, but because links are the language of the web. Bloggers are also more likely to accept the PR industry’s overtures than traditional journalists. Then there’s the appeal of immediacy: if a blogger is invited to enjoy a meal at a restaurant, his or her (usually positive) reflections are sometimes online faster than the server can say “it’s on the house.”
But the real advantage of bloggers for marketing purposes is targeting. Rachel Thexton of Dunn PR says she goes out of her way to cultivate good relationships with certain bloggers because it lets her match them with clients looking for an edge with specific demographics or in niche markets. She’s confident the freebies more than pay for themselves, adding, “If we’re offering them an experience, we’re assuming that they’re going to have a positive experience and that the coverage will therefore be positive.”
Finding the right blogger
The real savvy comes in deciding which bloggers to approach and what to offer. If you know Raul Pacheco at all, you probably know him as @hummingbird604. He’s one of Vancouver’s most-read culture and lifestyle bloggers, and a favourite promotional channel of both Netschay Davies and Thexton. When Netschay Davies taught a course on PR and the web at SFU, she brought in Pacheco to teach a seminar on how to pitch ideas to bloggers. Pacheco draws a fine line between what he does and journalism, emphasizing that, for him, blogging is personal: “I tell my stories and the stories of the businesses, theatre plays and restaurants that I go to.”
Pacheco takes his craft seriously and insists that he’s careful to preserve his credibility. He doesn’t accept freebies from just anybody, he says, and when he does he’s careful to note at the bottom of the post that his meal, hotel room or theatre ticket was paid for by someone like Thexton or Netschay Davies. And he has reason to be careful because a blogger’s credibility is a fragile commodity. As Netschay Davies says, “There are quite a few bloggers who are charging fees for mentioning an event or a contest. We don’t tend to pay for that.” Vancouver blogger John Chow, for example, overtly offers a pay-per-post option.
So how does a business seeking publicity pick a pet blogger? The number of readers isn’t everything – indeed, Netschay Davies points out that “high circulation numbers don’t mean you’re a good blogger; they mean you’re a popular blogger.” And as with any marketing strategy, there are tradeoffs to consider. With a big readership, you lose the precision targeting that makes blogs appealing. The same goes for credibility – someone like Pacheco might be less likely to accept a pitch but command more influence if he does. The professionals have a strategy for handling the problem of knowing who to approach: they read a lot of blogs.