Because It's Still Cool To Blog

Bloggers & Sponsors: Co-Existing In Harmony

As you may have noticed from the unusual frequency with which this blog has been updated this week, I’ve been mulling over BlogHer pretty much constantly since returning from the meeting – still feeling the highs of the awesomeness and the lows of the, well, really low behavior. And as I burned countless hours of work time this week reading BlogHer follow up posts, those by Amelia Sprout and Liz Gumbinner both touched on major issues I have been thinking about – that of the intersection between bloggers and sponsors, and how to improve things moving forward. From Amelia Sprout:

There has to be a way for it to work. I think bloggers add value to the whole product process. I think we have power to support and encourage small businesses. The kinds that can't afford a PR firm but that support us in return. I think we can bring about change (I hear something good came out of Camp Baby). I think BlogHer, being a huge gathering of bloggers, is a great way to reach us. Something has to give however.

There has to be something that allows the sponsorships of the conferences, the support of bloggers, and the dialogue, without selling both us and the companies themselves short. I saw some little things that worked. I saw things given without pitches or obligations. Things I was excited to see and try out. I was allowed to give opinions and feedback to brands I love and ones I have issues with. I saw parties turned to no swag zones (I still hope you take my idea on the women's shelter donation) and swag given out late in a party to encourage you know, actual partying.

Sometimes I think that things have to go horribly wrong before we figure out how to find balance. I hope that this was the extreme. I'm sure people sponsoring and giving out swag don't want to be judged by the actions of few either. We need to talk about this so things can change.

From Liz Gumbinner (per bullet point list of shameless behavior examples):

The "sponsored" bloggers who were so inept and amateur with their outreach, they simply shoved products into your hands, however irrelevant, or interrupted conversations and interviews to tell you about their sponsor's VERY VALUABLE GIVEAWAY.

The sponsored bloggers who took the money and ran, all but ignoring their obligations to their benefactors over the course of the weekend.

The empty cardboard boxes that unapologetically polluted the halls outside rooms of bloggers there to hand out swag as the Sheraton's overtaxed janitorial staff struggled to keep up with it.

These two excerpts touched me because I truly believe there are ways for bloggers and sponsors to co-exist in harmony, and even - lo! - build meaningful, mutually beneficial partnerships. I was immensely grateful to be sponsored by 360 Public Relations and Stonyfield Farm and I did not overwhelm strangers with pitches and crap for my sponsors, nor did I neglect my responsibilities. I also was not a “swag hag” yet was able to enjoy and appreciate various items that were handed to or earmarked for me. It was, in fact, possible to achieve tasteful balance on both of these fronts.

If you haven't read it already, Jory’s post about the development of sponsorship since BlogHer’s inception was so moving and enlightening; the reality is that by BlogHer bringing sponsors into the mix, they could offer more programming, more food options for those with special dietary needs, goodies to take home that showed that brands valued the conference and attendees, etc… It made me realize how important sponsors are on so many different levels (beyond the vague understanding that they're the money). So, doesn't it make sense that bloggers not scare them off with greedy, irresponsible behavior, and that bloggers and sponsors find ways to build meaningful bridges?

And yes, as Amelia Sprout suggested, I do believe there is a way for this to work. I think we can learn from the mistakes and come out stronger on the other side. I think it is possible for bloggers and sponsors and occasional free goodies to co-exist in harmony without exploding on contact or resulting in bruises, welts, or injured babies. The world’s not perfect and we can’t expect everyone to act to the same moral code or manners, so perhaps if some tweaks are made that essentially encourage accountability, we can enjoy less ugliness and more awesomeness next year. Here are my recommendations on a multi-faceted approach to holding bloggers and sponsors accountable. If you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them.

EVENT COORDINATORS

1. Set guidelines about waste removal. Liz’s point about the janitorial staff really touched a nerve, having grown up in a working class family where I was one of those people breaking down boxes and cleaning up messes (thankfully, not the vomit in the Sheraton elevator) at my parents’ market. To make waste removal easier for the hotel staff, require that brands and bloggers break down boxes if they are having crates of swag shipped to the hotel. Work with the hotel to impose an additional charge to rooms left with an excess of mess. The idea is similar to air travel; when you have to pay for service (e.g., number of bags) it makes you think harder about what to bring or what to leave behind. I also feel that instances such as this, where hotels are abused in this manner is bad for so many reasons; bad for the staff, bad for fellow lodgers, bad for other conferences in the future who wish to book events.

2. Reiterate sponsored blogger rules. Though I don’t remember all of the details (I remember reading the guidelines and thinking, OK, none of this applies to me. Moving on…) I know that BlogHer issued a set of rules for sponsored blogger engagement and they were very reasonable -- basically asking sponsored bloggers to act with decency. Unfortunately many sponsored bloggers didn’t get or read or care to act on the memo. Reiterate the rules by including the link in all newsletters leading up to the conference, point to them again at the keynote housekeeping, include them in the conference packet, etc. Basically, the more available the rules are, hopefully the more difficult it will be for bloggers to ignore them.

3. Give a little wiggle room for smaller companies. I have no idea how conference organization works and this might be a little controversial, but I would love to see smaller companies in the mix. Whether this means offering a different sponsorship rate depending on company size/earnings or allowing smaller companies to include product or postcards at a discount would not only help smaller businesses, but also allow more opportunity for sponsors relevant to the target audience to be included.

BRANDS

4. Think about what you’re sending. The fact that there was a swag-swapping center is both good and bad. It shows that BlogHer identified the reality that people don’t always want the stuff that is there. But then that means that there was a lot of stuff people were jettisoning to the Land of the Misfit Swag. The point of product insertion is to get something interesting and enticing in front of the consumer. But if it is just getting tossed, aren’t you missing the target?

5. Consider philanthropic “swag.” Here’s a novel idea. Insert a traditional business postcard to inform people about your business, but instead of including pencils, sticky notes, or whatever, make a donation to a charity and tell people about your good deed. On each card indicate that a donation was made in BlogHer’s honor to [charity name]. I would much rather have my $1’s worth of random swag (assuming per person cost of corporate pens, etc.) donated to a cause. And you bet I’ll remember your brand for that philanthropic effort. I'd probably even tell other people about you and/or tweet about it.

6. Create meaningful sponsorships with bloggers. If you were amidst the sponsors who asked bloggers to push flyers and giveaway updates on other bloggers, think carefully about next year. Your brand essentially was tarnished by association. It is OK to ask your bloggers to offer material to other bloggers, but it should be as relevant. For example, for Stonyfield Farm I did in fact have free product coupons to offer but I handed them out as was relevant (chatting over meals, about organic products, about sponsorship, etc.), not just randomly to people who may not have any interest in what I had to offer. Otherwise, the bulk of my sponsorship arrangements were via placement on my website, in my newsletter, in posts related to BlogHer, etc. The approach was tasteful, meaningful, and unobtrusive.

7. Implement accountability. One element to consider is accountability. And make it meaningful. Talk to your blogger(s) following the meeting; ask them to present feedback on how things went, how other bloggers responded to their brand, thoughts about different sessions, etc. Essentially, structure something in advance that forces the blogger to really think about their experience, so they’re not otherwise pushing their flyers on random people or spending their time trolling around trying to blackmail the Crocs guy.

BLOGGERS

8. Outline a plan. This relates to the accountability point above, but from the blogger responsibility and protection vantage. I obtained my BlogHer sponsorships simply by making the ask. I  drafted a bullet point list of what I thought the sponsorship should entail and also indicated I was flexible to incorporate other ideas. If you lay out the details in advance, think about them in a meaningful way with your sponsor, and stick to them, you can reduce the chance that the arrangement will snowball into a scary promotional mess.

9. Push back if needed. Obviously, you don’t want to anger or push away a sponsor, but if they make unreasonable demands of you (e.g., pushing swag on other bloggers with no context) is that really worth it? Do you want to be known as one of the crazy bloggers who accosted people and flooded them with material that wasn’t relevant to them?

10. Don’t be a swag hag. Period. If you either: a) showed up to a party just to score a swag bag then moved on to the next one; b) elbowed bloggers or babies to advance your position in the swag queue; c) had no idea what the suites you visited to score swag were even about; and/or d) stole swag from elevator carts, other bloggers, or small children then you are, by definition, a swag hag and you took advantage of the hosts and brands who contributed to the parties with little in mind except your own gain. Think about all of the things you collected and approximate how much it was worth. Was it worth looking like a crazy person? Was it worth the cost of shipping or the extra airline freight charges to get it all home? How much of it did you use? How much did you throw away? Did you recycle any of it? Allow all of these answers to sink into your conscience and act with more restraint next go around.

11. Do not pimp the Expo floor. I originally was going to include something about rules of engagement in the event coordinator or sponsor sections, but then I realized that the behavior of every single brand I met on the Expo floor was just as it should be: respectful, informative, and sometimes really, really entertaining. So, the bad behavior on the Expo floor (asking for extra samples, pimping for free product + one for a reader giveaway, etc.) was at the hands of the bloggers. The point of an Expo floor is to allow you to interface with brands and learn about them. Yes, learn! If sponsors give you a small sample you can choose to accept it or say no thanks. It is not grounds to score as many free samples as possible while the representative is talking to another blogger. It is not grounds for you to make arrangements to your gain on the spot. If you love a brand and would like to talk to them further about a possible working relationship, ask for a business card and if it is OK for you to follow up later. Or hand out your card and ask them to keep you in mind in future outreach efforts. Keep in mind: if you act like a crazy, greedy person on the Expo floor as you interact with brands, do you really think they're going to want to follow up with a working relationship?

Essentially, it all boils down to common sense, decency, and accountability. And if you don't have any problem acting without common sense, deceny, and accountability, then I suppose you won't mind if I bring my Flip to BlogHer 2010 so I can shoot footage in the face of greed and absurdity and post it to YouTube.