|Bloggers build brands through product awareness|
|Written by Natalie Gillespie|
|Tuesday, 28 May 2013 05:37 PM America/New_York|
Community engagement through the popular journaling and product-reviewing sites creates buzz—for good or bad
People around the world began posting their thoughts in journal format on the World Wide Web starting in the late 1990s. Short for “weblog,” the “blog” format grew in popularity, and today Wikipedia claims there are close to 200 million blogs in existence.
In the last decade, blogs that developed large followings have become full-time jobs for some of their authors, or “bloggers.” In fact, blogging has become a full-fledged industry, with some bloggers raking in thousands of dollars per month by allowing advertising on their blogs, receiving affiliate and referral payments for visitors who click through their blog to other sites, and even for reviewing products.
But how successful are blogs at building brands and selling products? And are blogs making an impact in the Christian products industry? While it is difficult to pinpoint exact sales generated because of blog entries, publicists, publishers and many suppliers believe that blogs can be invaluable in building buzz and brands.
MOMS AND MEDIA
To see the power of a blog demonstrated, take, for example, an energy/nutrition bar brand called Balance Bar. Several years ago when New York City-based publicist Wendy Hirschhorn needed to get the word out about the product, she turned to a somewhat unexpected source: “mommy bloggers.”
Mommy bloggers are generally women in their 20s and 30s who chronicle on their blogs some of the joys and pitfalls of parenting. Many of them also exchange information on stores, money-saving tips and products they love.
Hirschhorn scoured the Internet for mommy blogs that were well-written, appealing to the eye, had developed large followings, posted banner ads on their sites and showed other telltale signs that these bloggers had a position of influence among a large group of readers. She then sent cases of Balance Bars to the bloggers and asked them to post their opinions. The result: hundreds of thousands of product impressions and a happy Balance Bar client.
“After seeing how much brand awareness was built with the help of mommy bloggers, I knew they were an important marketing tool,” Hirschhorn said. “After that, I began researching and compiling a list of top mommy bloggers. In the past, if I sent 100 cases of Balance Bars to 100 magazine editors, I might get three or four outlets that gave it coverage. If I sent 100 cases of Balance Bars to 100 bloggers, I was guaranteed 100 reviews. And the bloggers were thrilled to get the product.”
Hirschhorn now has a network of what she believes are the top 200 mommy bloggers of influence that she brought into a venture called Wendy’s Bloggers (www.wendysbloggers.com). When a company wants to market a product through top mom blogs, Hirschhorn’s new company is the bridge that takes the products to the bloggers, who receive a free product to review and sometimes one to give away. When the review is posted, potentially thousands of followers see it.
Hirschhorn says it’s a win-win. The blogger gets to keep the reviewed products and may attract new followers, while the brand gets a boost.
Walt Disney’s Marvel Studios recognized the influence of mommy bloggers in April when 23 of them were treated like major media outlets and invited on an all-expense-paid trip to Los Angeles to walk the red carpet, interview the stars and review the new movie Iron Man 3. Although it’s difficult to quantify how much influence the bloggers had, the film became the first in the “Iron Man” series to gross $1 billion.
“Blogs create community, and from that, bloggers have a natural readership of people drawn to the same interests,” said Annette Bourland, senior vice president and group publisher, Zondervan. “Having a blog creates an authentic relationship between a reader and a blogger.”
Publicist Jeane Wynn, co-owner of Wynn-Wynn Media, sees “a perceived trust factor” in blogs.
“You can generally tell by following a person’s blog if that person has similar beliefs, tastes and preferences,” she said. “If the blogger then reviews a book or product, a reader may feel she can trust that blogger’s opinion.”
BOOKS AND BRANDS
Wynn, who has been a publicist for hundreds of Christian fiction titles in the last decade, saw the difference blogs can make in book branding when “blog tours” were launched in the Christian market.
“Blogs were one area where we were actually ahead of the game as an industry in terms of promotion,” she said. “Now we encourage our authors to develop a good blog as part of their efforts to connect with readers, and we still send a lot of books out to bloggers for review and for blog tours.”
So what exactly is a blog tour? A blog tour is similar to an author going from physical store to physical store on a book tour, except that in a blog tour, the book—and sometimes the author—“travels” to different blog sites.
In a blog tour, a new book is scheduled to “appear” on a variety of blog sites in typically a one- to six-week timeframe. Through reviews, interviews with the author and giveaways, a book will get its name on a number of blogs in a short period of time to build buzz and, hopefully, generate sales.
When blog tours first started, many of the blogs that reviewed the new titles posted exclusively about books. Because the blogs were limited in scope, the readership was sometimes small.
Today, publishers and marketers look for blogs that cover a wide variety of subjects, from the mommy blogs to blogs written by popular pastors, speakers or even groups such as Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS). They may also send product to high-profile speakers, authors and pastors who have influence in the Christian marketplace.
By honing in on blogs that have large followings of likeminded people, publishers and manufacturers are hoping to find a ready-made customer base. Because readers feel a direct connection to the blogs they follow, they tend to trust what the bloggers recommend.
While Christian publishers don’t always allot marketing dollars specifically for blogs and blog tours, they do often hire publicity firms that incorporate these options in with other social media coverage in their campaigns.
“When we believe there is a large opportunity for books in the online space, we hire companies and firms to do blogger outreach—soliciting reviews, interviews and more,” Zondervan's Bourland said.
LitFuse is just such a company. It was created in 2005 by Amy Lathrop, who wanted to help authors market their books through social media. Now a full-service public relations firm, LitFuse pitches books to traditional print media outlets and creates custom Internet and social media campaigns that include everything from blog tours to Facebook parties to Pinterest pinnables.
Initially working as an assistant to authors, Lathrop found that with the explosion of social media, authors could share their message directly with readers, while publishers could build brands and generate sales without investing a substantial amount financially.
“We create targeted media campaigns that include Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, blogs and whatever naturally fits the genre of the book we are promoting,” Lathrop said. “We also create street teams of people like bookstore owners, librarians, book reviewers and others to help get the word out all over the place. You can get hundreds of thousands of impressions without spending tons of marketing dollars.”
Today LitFuse not only serves authors and publishers, but also helps bloggers by providing memorable graphics and articles. The firm often creates buttons, special graphics and unique posts that bloggers can use.
In a recent campaign for the Tyndale House Publishers book Lead Your Family Like Jesus by Ken Blanchard, Phil Hodges and Tricia Goyer, the company pulled favorite quotes from the book and created “pinnables,” scrapbook-like images for Pinterest featuring a book quote. Bloggers and websites could re-post the pinnables, and followers who clicked on them were directed to a retail site to buy the book.
For the Lead Your Family Like Jesus campaign, Tyndale contracted LitFuse for a blog tour and social media iPad giveaway and created a live webcast event co-sponsored by Family Life Today and Focus on the Family. Focus also contracted LitFuse to put together a street team for the book.
“The team brainstormed ideas to promote the book, shared pinnables, spread the word both locally and online, developed a Lead Your Family Like Jesus weekly challenge blogger series and much more,” Lathrop said.
The company designed the book’s campaign with the following goals: to reach partner communities (Tyndale, Focus on the Family, Lead Like Jesus, MomLife Today and Tricia Goyer), to make it easy for all involved to effectively promote the book, to build the brand, to have a consistent message, to encourage meaningful conversation about the topic and to sell books.
Although Lathrop does not often receive sales numbers from publishers, she is confident that building brand recognition and buzz throughout various Internet sites creates interest and sales online and in physical stores.
“Our pinnables alone for this campaign were a big success,” she said. “Some of them were pinned more than 2,000 times.”
Publishers also work with bloggers directly to promote books, and many send out free copies for review. BookSneeze (www.booksneeze.com) was created by Zondervan, in conjunction with Thomas Nelson, and offers free books every month to participants in return for a review on a blog and a review posted to a consumer site such as Amazon. Bloggers accepted by BookSneeze must have at least 30 visible followers or subscribers and post new content at least once a week.
“I think there are over 25,000 registered bloggers on BookSneeze,” said Katie Bond, director of marketing for fiction, HarperCollins Christian Publishing. “Certainly, not all of those blogs are high-profile, but we operate BookSneeze on the Netflix model, [so] that a blogger has to provide a review on their blog and post one on a retail site to get another book to review. It gets the conversation going, and that means a lot.”
AUTHORS AND ARTISTS
Many authors, music artists and high-profile pastors are building their own communities of readers, followers and friends through blogs, and some authors have even been discovered and published because of their blogs. Ann Voskamp is one example. The Zondervan author’s best-selling book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are was largely developed from her blog (www.aholyexperience.com) and sold more than a half-million copies in its first 18 months.
“Many authors across the houses have been published due to their blogs,” Bourland said. “For Zondervan, a few of the influential author/bloggers include Karen Ehman (Let It Go, www.karenehman.com); Sherry Gore (Simply Delicious Amish Cooking, www.sherrygore.com/blog/); Becky Johnson and Rachel Randolph (We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook; www.welaughwecrywecook.com); and Shauna Niequist (Bread and Wine, www.shaunaniequist.com).”
“Before about 10 years ago, there was really no good way for authors to connect with their readers directly,” Lathrop said. “Blogs changed that. Now, so much is about community. The number-one word in marketing now is community, and bloggers have always been community—between the author and the blogger, between the bloggers and us, between the bloggers and their readers and now between the authors and readers. And it’s fantastic how it all kind of overlaps.”
In the music world, artists often add blog links to their websites. Shaun Groves was one of the first Christian music artists to consistently blog, and members of top-selling act Casting Crowns blog at www.castingcrowns.com about everything from the group members' youth ministry (“Working with Teen Girls” was a recent post by singer Megan Garrett) to favorite books (“Let’s Talk Books” by Juan DeVevo) to musician tips (“Breaking down a drum solo groove” by Brian Scoggin). Through Twitter and blog posts, fans get to know the band members in a way that feels up close and personal.
LifeWay is one organization that has used blogs to effectively reach consumers in a whole new way. LifeWay’s Vacation Bible School blog (blog.lifeway.com/vbs/blog/) was launched about five years ago by the Church Retail Division and keeps VBS organizers up to date on the latest kits, accessories, games, skits, decorating tips and more.
“The blog helps us get the message of VBS into the hands of churches very easily,” said Katie DeCillo, social media specialist, LifeWay Kids. “Where marketing dollars may only allow us to send a mail piece to 20,000 churches, the Internet allows us to spread the word quickly and cost-effectively to any church that has an Internet connection. We get churches excited, keep them up-to-date, provide exclusive content and give them a platform to reach out to the team that is creating the resource. While the blog does help produce revenue for us through product promotion, it really exists to serve customers in a useful and interactive way. ”
LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer also has a successful, multi-author blog that studies and posts about church, culture and ministry. Stetzer’s blog highlights many of his own books as well as other Christian resources.
“We have seen several key Christian groups that have significantly influenced the Christian market,” Bourland said. “The first is pastors who have authored a trade book, such as Craig Groeschel and Mark Batterson; female bloggers, including authors like Ann Voskamp and Lysa TerKeurst; and professors, including Scot McKnight.”
STORES AND SHOPPERS
With all the blog activity, Facebook parties, Pinterest boards and Tweets, how can a Christian retailer bridge the gap between their physical location and the cyberspace community? There are plenty of ways to get in on the buzz, marketers say.
“The great thing about blogs is that anyone can read them and anyone can share them,” LifeWay’s DeCillo said. “If a Christian retailer carries a product that’s featured on any blog, they could share the post through their social media outlets in an attempt to drive traffic to their store.”
LifeWay and Family Christian each have their own blogs. Baker Book House has three blogs on different topics—Music News, Fiction with Chris and Church Connection—with the buyers for each of these areas regularly posting blog entries.
Stores can start their own blogs or offer books, CDs or gift items to local bloggers for review. Retailers can even ask them to post a link to a special discount or coupon. So, how do you know who’s in your area? Go to Google or Bing or any search engine and use the search terms “Christian blogs” and your city name. Call the Chamber of Commerce and see if any bloggers are listed as businesses with them, or search your local Christian radio website and see what blogs are listed there.
Once you find some local bloggers, make sure the blogs are appealing, well-written and have a following. Another way to find out how blogs and social media can serve your customers is to simply ask them. Lathrop suggests polling customers to see if they have active Facebook pages or blogs. If they do, you can ask if they would be interested in reviewing products.
Retailers can also connect with public relations firms like LitFuse to see what blog tours and author events are headed their way. Stores could host a live video chat with a favorite author via Skype and host it on their blog or local blogs at the same time, offering discounts or coupons to those who come into the store. Retailers can also get blog ideas from other Christian retailers and even from other local businesses, like favorite restaurant blogs, Facebook pages and Pinterest pictures.
“It’s all about building loyalty,” Lathrop observed. “The landscape is always changing, and you have to be creative. The great thing is you don’t have to fork over a ton of cash. Just start doing your research, pay attention to the people God already has in your life and try some new things.”