Miscellaneous title here
the holes in it

More power than we think

In the name of disclosure… I’ve been blogging for almost four years and I’ve been in marketing for over ten. When I say “we” in this post I’m referring to bloggers, myself included.

I’ve been following the blogging / branding / marketing debates going on in (primarily) the momosphere for awhile but I haven’t really chimed in. For those who aren’t familiar with these debates, in a nutshell (or two or three)…

  • Some bloggers feel product reviews or endorsements done by bloggers (especially unstated reviews by bloggers who do nothing but reviews) devalue the community as a whole.
  • Some bloggers who are just trying to make a little money feel guilty, and victimized by other bloggers for just trying to make a little money.
  • A lot of bloggers feel their community isn’t truly understood and their voices are under-valued (as evidenced, in part, by the lack of compensation for reviews).
  • Some bloggers just want to know how to get in on this whole branding thing.
  • Traditional media can be just plain snarky to bloggers (as we’re all just a bunch of unprofessional sell-outs who are threatening their industry).
  • And marketers – as it is well known – are a bunch of slimy hacks who are making us buy things we don’t need and are either pushy with bloggers, taking advantage of us, or ignoring us (depending on your point of view).
  • Many marketers are also long time bloggers and accepted members of the community.


That’s not even the whole story but you get my point; it’s complicated and there are a lot of sides. So my brain being what it is (because even I admit it makes unusual jumps sometimes) I skip over all the nuanced arguments to take sides and I start thinking about the big picture of this debate.

What I came up with, at the end, was, “What conversations do we need to have to change the structure of this dialogue?”

Because, frankly, I think we’re missing a huge opportunity.

The truth of the matter is most of the companies out there are afraid of bloggers, they are afraid of the consumer’s voice. Really afraid. They’re afraid of not being able to control us or spin the influence we have.

In turn, we don’t trust companies. Big business doesn’t care about people. We feel that they don’t get community and what we’re about. That they’re trying to gyp us and devalue our voices.

And nobody trusts marketers because they are the face of the companies. Hell, marketers are often not even trusted within their own companies. (I speak from personal experience.)

That’s a lot of distrust, and it’s been going on a lot longer than the blogging world. It’s been here since The Jungle was published and probably before. This isn’t anything new, just the latest incarnation of the art vs. sell-out debate, big business versus the little guy.

Except this time around, because of blogging… we have a viable, accessible medium for our voices. Which is what makes us extra scary. And also gives us potential power.

Now I must segue into my personal life, which is one of the reasons I’ve thought so much about this lately, feeling like I’m in the heart of some segment of this debate all the time.

My latest job is working for a company who has (I think) this really cool software. Software that I haven’t talked about because I thought, “Well, everyone is going to think I’m shilling.” I’m not immune to this either. Every time I’ve gushed about a product that I really, truly liked (I’m so a marketer’s dream) I’ve been accused of shilling. But I’m going to talk about it now because I think it’s relevant to this conversation.

The company I work for is called Helpstream and their software merges a traditional support ticket system (think help desk software) with community and social networking. Basically, you can go to a company’s support site who’s using this software and get help from a help desk agent online, just like many companies. But there is also this whole community aspect where you can ask the community a question, you can search for answers, you can submit an idea, or discussion, and of course reply and comment on everything. The difference with this software is that most companies out there have either help desk agents OR a community providing answers; if they have both the systems are completely separate. This software is truly integrating the two sides - a case (help ticket) can get submitted to an agent who can ask the community for help, and a community question or discussion can get sent to agents. Ideas can go back and forth. Content can be created from wherever it’s viable, be that a community member or from a company person.

I’ve got to give a lot of props to Helpstream for trying to open up the conversation between consumers and companies. For providing a system where trust can take place. I mean, sure, it isn’t completely altruistic, Helpstream needs to make money like any other company… but they understand the value that a community provides, and they especially see the potential of what open communication could bring to business and consumers. It’s a process that values both sides and actually stimulates a lot of collaboration. In theory…

… because it has to be implemented to work, yet you still hear companies say things like, “We understand communities are important, we want to build our community, but we’re afraid of what they’ll say.”

Companies want our goodwill and endorsement, they want to trust us but they don’t know how.  And I think that we want to trust companies… or at least we want them to take our opinions seriously and not feel like we’re getting screwed. We both want to be valued by the other, but the distrust blocks communication.

Here’s where I think bloggers could have a lot of power if they choose to take it… I think it’s in OUR hands to open up that communication. I don’t think the companies will be making the first steps toward dispelling the distrust because they have more fear on their side. I think if things are going to change we have to make companies engage with us in an open conversation. I don’t mean getting everyone pissed off on Twitter until a company concedes to something either; that just feeds their fear. I mean, showing these companies that an open communication with bloggers is valuable, that we are worthy of respect and trust. That a fan base is not just a fan base but a source of ideas. That criticism is not meant to harm but be an implement of improvement.

I honestly don’t know if we can make things change or how they would change. It might mean, in the end, we aren’t cashing in on free products, or that no one has ads. Or maybe everyone has interactive ads and our revenue sharing is a lot higher. Or there is NO revenue, but there’s great content and absolute transparency about products. I’m not even sure how we would accomplish opening up the conversation, but I think that if we’re not happy with the way things work then we should use our impressive debating skills to brainstorm some ideas.

Because, us bloggers, we are damn good at communicating. That is our power.  And we've got the whole Internet as our think tank.

Maybe if we dispel some of the mistrust between ourselves and companies we can get the blogger on blogger hating to stop as well.

       - the weirdgirl



Not too strangely, one of the most open, respectful, and warm review requests that I’ve received from having this blog was from a sex toy company. I think that’s entirely due to the fact that they are quite used to having difficult conversations, and building trust is key.

In defense of marketers… there are a lot of marketers who DO get that bloggers feel devalued because marketing itself is often devalued. If you work in marketing you will have been called a hack at some point or other. Trust me, you’ve got to love it a lot to put up with some of the crap you get.

Comments

Matthew

Wow. I have lots of thoughts on this. I currently don't have ads on my blog and have resisted for many years. But that will changing in the near future with a redesign of my blog. I figure, why not? If people are turned off by it, so be it. I'm not in a business and I don't rely on the income so it's different for me. I do get lots of product review requests that sometimes come with a free sample. I have been given books, headphones, food and I got to drive a ford taurus for a couple of weeks once. I'll write about them if I like them and I mention that I got the item when I blog about it. And then I move on. No big deal as far as I'm concerned.

As for being a company or marketer, using blogging and bloggers is a way to build community. This has always been the secret to good marketing. Have a great product, engage the community and be accessible and the community will respond. Blogging just expands the community.

I have a google alert sent to me every day telling me what people are blogging about the YMCA or my Y in particular. It allows me to celebrate with those who like what we are doing and allows me to address concerns that I otherwise would not have known about. Either way, it builds trust with our brand that I am reaching out.

Anyway, I can go on and on but as far as "what a blogger should and shouldn't do" I am tired of this debate. We all write for different reasons. Those that do it well find an audience - no matter what their topic is or if it includes product reviews or not. Everyone is entitled to blog and write what they want. Ultimately it's the consumer or reader that determines if that blog has value or not. So be it.

the weirdgirl

Matthew - I absolutely agree. I've never thought that whether a blogger advertises or reviews or not should be that big of a deal; to each his own. I think my biggest gripe is that if people are frustrated with the relationship between blogs and business then they should do something to change it. I see a lot of finger pointing and accusations but not a lot of action. Barring Mom-101's suggestion to drop the term "mommy-blogger", which I think is excellent.

I also shouldn't imply that ALL companies are afraid to engage with bloggers because there are many who do. And since there are so many more that are poised to engage... we have an opportunity to dictate the openness and tone of the conversation.

TwoBusy

Sorry — I'd meant to reply to this yesterday, but got caught up in other stuff... including an interview where I actually brought up what you mentioned here. Which is to say: I loved this post. Thank you for so adeptly articulating the challenges, preconceptions and need to move forward toward some level of mutual understanding/acceptance that results when social media and marketing collide.

the weirdgirl

TwoBusy - Thanks! That means a lot.

It's funny (when you mentioned preconceptions it reminded me), it used to be assumed in marketing that if one person took the time to write an angry letter, that letter represented another thousand angry letters that weren't sent. However, when you start working with communities you realize that a few angry letters often just represent a few angry letters. A LOT of angry letters means something is wrong. Sometimes a community can get you closer to real numbers, as well as real people, which also means there is opportunity for real change. And, as you said, moving forward.

Mom101

So many very very good thoughts here, I'm sure I'll comment and then have a million more ideas about what I should have said later.

A few thoughts though:
-All marketers are not bad. At all. Not even close. Helpstream actually sounds terrific.
-This is all so new, that there are a few bad marketers taking advantage of blogging, but there are a lot of people mostly stumbling through outreach and collaboration, trying to figure it out (even if badly at times
-No one ever faults a marketer - say, you? - reaching out with integrity
-There's no one solution.
-I love you starting to think of them!

the weirdgirl

Hi Mom-101! - I'd love to hear any other thoughts that come to mind, because I have a hard time NOT thinking about this subject lately. My boss and I just had an interesting conversation about transparency and how much of it is truly possible. And I wonder... how much do bloggers really want? I might have to do a follow up post asking that question. (Though I'm not sure many of my readers like me in marketing mode. :) )

There are definitely some unscrupulous marketers out there that make the rest of us look bad. I know you have a lot of integrity in this field as well, which makes your feedback important!

jodifur

you know what's funny? I've been following this whole discussion in the blogosphere pretty closely and recently I threw my hands up in the air and was like, I DON'T CARE. I don't care what other people do. I don't care if people get paid or don't get paid or write reviews. I don't write reviews b/c I hated it. I blog b/c it's fun and when it stops being fun I'm stopping. I make like 2 cents from my blog. I have no plans for fame and fortune.

The blogosphere is like wine. Read what you like, drink what you like. The cream will rise to the top so to speak.

Those are my 2 cents for what it is worth.

Scott

I respectfully disagree. The company you work for may be an exception--but most businesses, especially marketing businesses, would use us bloggers to no end.

For our benefit, we should leave the corporations out of our blogs.

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