How to Set Up a Brand-Run Blogger Network

White Paper

There is no denying the power and influence that bloggers can hold, particularly when it comes to shaping and influencing consumer opinion. Businesses are recognising this by setting up brand-run blogger networks - with differing degrees of success. This white paper, authored by Wendy McAuliffe, examines some useful lessons for setting up a brand-run blogger network.

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“There’s someone doing market research; these are bona fide opinion formers”, wrote Guardian journalist Zoe Williams, in response to the 34 high profile companies that recently chose to sponsor BritMums Live 2012, a UK event attended by 500 parent bloggers.

There is no denying the power and influence that bloggers can hold. As content becomes ever more niche, bloggers are filling the ‘holes’ that mainstream news outlets are unable to cover, often offering a more subjective ‘voice’ than journalists can. Established bloggers are helping to shape consumer opinion around products and services, mobilise support around particular causes and events, and gather instant reactions to content and situations arising around them.

As BBC immersive journalist, Cherry Healy, puts it: “The perception of bloggers has really changed. They used to be a bit twee and silly, but bloggers have huge power now.” Over the past six months in particular, many brands and businesses have begun to explore the benefits of setting up a brand -‘run’ blogger network ... with differing degrees of success.

A brand-run blogger network is a community of bloggers supporting (not necessary representing or endorsing) a brand’s cause or providing honest commentary around products or services online. Inherent in any brand blogger network is the assumption that some key core values are shared between the individual bloggers and the brand or business that has set it up. Bloggers are often selected for their social ‘klout’, online readership, niche, and level of blogging activity. To a lesser extent, their quality of writing or photography, can also be a factor

This paper explains how you can build a blogger network that works for your brand whilst avoiding some common mistakes.

When to set up a blogger network

Setting-up a blogger network is a longterm commitment. If you are a brand or business that has an active blogger outreach campaign already underway, you may feel that establishing a blogger network is a natural extension of what you are already doing. You may see it as a way of ‘formalising’ the blogger relationships that you have spent some time nurturing.

Remember, the most successful blogger networks are those where there is a clear affinity or shared interest between the brand, blogger and their audience, and this isn’t something that can be established overnight. All parties need to recognise that the tie-up is mutually beneficial , and that’s easier to acknowledge when you have a pre-existing relationship and the blogger is well aware of your brand and its core values.

Some brands may feel that they don’t want to miss the boat and need to move more quickly, possibly because they’ve noticed that their competitors already have a well-established blogger network. If this is the case, be certain that you have sufficient time and resource to devote to a brand-run blogger network, particularly as there will be a lot of relationship building to do in the early stages.

All senior stakeholders must be sold on the idea, so that it can be prioritised. It will be crucial that you seize every opportunity available to offer value to your network of bloggers (don’t think monetary- based), which can be anything from exclusive information or content, to sneak peeks at newly launching products, review opportunities, invitations to events, or guest blogging opportunities to grant the blogger bigger exposure.

Additionally, consider whether this is an interesting time for your brand or business. Be sure that you have an exciting timeline of news to involve your bloggers in. Don’t automatically assume a blogger network is the right thing for your business just because your competitors do.

Best practices for recruiting bloggers

Can any blogger join a network? There are two main ways of recruiting bloggers to a brand-run network. Some networks are invite only, and others bloggers can apply to join.

Polly Gowers, from UK charity Give as you Live, offered one very useful piece of advice to bloggers at BritMums Live! this year, which brands should also take heed of: “If you wouldn’t talk about it [in conversation], don’t blog about it.”

Make sure that your brand or cause sings well with the bloggers who are joining your network. They don’t need to be huge fans of your brand or even endorse your products or services, but they do need to have a keen interest or affiliation with what you do and the core values that you stand for. Make sure the relationship is a really good fit.

If you are inviting bloggers to join your network, make sure you research your targets effectively. Avoid the temptation of buying into a blogger list, which is likely to be an expensive and untargeted way of approaching matters. Instead, allocate a generous amount of time for undertaking quality research yourself so that you are making an informed selection and will be able to approach them in a personalised way.

There’s a diverse range of bloggers out there with differing goals, falling somewhere between professional and recreational. Many bloggers have a separate career or profession that is independent to their blog, and they consider their writing more of a hobby - with some admitting to longer-term writing aspirations. Their blogs tend to be very personal to them and the space within them is valued highly. Some bloggers are journalists or write for a living, and may be looking for ways to further their reputation or make more money. Increasingly, however, many bloggers are a combination of the two.

When undertaking your blogger research, try to answer the following questions about each of the bloggers you identify:

  • What topics does the blogger write about, and what is the content split between opinion, news and reviews? Ideally you should be looking for a good balance of content that is not too product led.
  • Which blogger networks, if any, are they involved with already? Consider whether they may already be already part of a competitor’s blogger network, for example, and what their other interests are. While it’s important to take a realistic approach and appreciate that most bloggers are likely to have more than one brand affiliation, avoid bloggers who appear to be spreading themselves a bit too thin.
  • Does the blogger appear to be monetising their blog? For example, does the blog have advertising, and does it run sponsored posts? A blogger should always be transparent about their commercial interests. This will also give you an indication of whether the blog is a hobby or a profession.
  • Who is the blogger’s audience? What are their demographics?
  • What is the blog’s reach? Look for traffic and subscriber figures.
  • How influential is the blogger across other social networks? Looking at their Klout score on Twitter and/or Facebook, for example, can be a helpful indication of their social authority.

Once you have selected your bloggers, it’s best to approach each of them individually with a personalised and targeted invite to join your blogger network. If they accept, it is typical to offer them a badge to add to their blog which showcases their involvement in the network.

To streamline your outreach process and ensure you connect with the right influencers, consider using an email finder tool like ContactOut to efficiently gather contact information and personalize your invites. Some brands take an alternative approach to recruiting bloggers for their network - the Next Blogger Network is a good example. Instead of cherry picking bloggers to work with, Next allows bloggers to register to be a part of its network via a simple online form. It functions more like a private online community, and, within it’s ‘About’ section, claims “We wanted to create a platform where our favourite bloggers could share their blogging passions with us, and in doing so help us tailor our communications to your preferences and interests”

Lucky magazine combines a variety of approaches for its fashion and beauty blogger network. It claims “We’ve combed the web for months to find our favourite voices from fashion blogs, beauty blogs, style blogs, really—any blogs. Along the way we found some incredible women with so much to share that we couldn’t help but bring them into the Lucky family."

Additionally, the Lucky Style Collective also accepts blogger applications to be a part of the network, which are reviewed by the editorial team to ensure the site is appropriate for the network. Currently, the Lucky Style Collective is comprised of 118 bloggers, which is no small undertaking. Each has a photo profile on the site.

One Lucky Style Collective blogger wrote “Lucky has a page in the magazine where they feature different bloggers from the network every month - It’s pretty cool because essentially, the featured bloggers get to actually write for the magazine - They also feature members from the network on their site. One of my DIYs was featured on their site, which sent me a ton of traffic that day.” – Grace, Stripes & Sequins.

Do’s & Don’ts: Managing a brand-run network

Whether or not a brand has new products or services launching to review, it should be in regular contact with the bloggers within its network. Managing a network is about having a genuine interest in your bloggers, their ideas and any issues they face. Be sure to subscribe to their blogs and keep up-to-date with them. Post occasional comments on posts which you have a genuine view on. Be warned that a network may turn on a brand that does not demonstrate real belief in its bloggers’ work.

Brands need to live up to expectations and promises set out at the start of the relationship. Think carefully about the frequency of your communications to bloggers, and ask each one how they prefer to be contacted. A monthly email newsletter can be a simple way of keeping in touch, letting bloggers know what’s coming up.

A brand should always be honest and transparent. It should never try to dupe it’s network - One particular U.S. frozen food brand learnt this lesson the hard way, when it invited leading food and parent bloggers to dine at a pop-up restaurant in New York. With food and spirits ostensibly prepared by George Duran, (of Food Network and TLC fame) bloggers were also promised access to Phil Lempert, the ‘Supermarket Guru’. All was going well until the diners learned the main course and the dessert they were served (meat and cheese lasagne, followed by a dessert called ‘Razzleberry Pie’) were not Duran’s creations, but instead were the work of Marie Callender’s, a line of frozen foods produced by ConAgra. The ‘surprise backfired massively, and a flurry of negativity hit the blogs. One article in the New York Times read “ConAgra learned that bloggers, who often see themselves as truth-seeking journalists, [found] the switcheroo less amusing, especially when it entails them misleading their readers beforehand.” One blogger wrote “Our entire meal was a SHAM!”

When it comes to assessing the benefits of a brand-run network, it’s natural for most brands to want to be able to include product and company news within their content planning. Most bloggers will appreciate why this must form a part of the relationship, but it can be a turnoff if not handled sensitively. For example, some blogger networks ask that they have the opportunity to pitch guest posts to each of their bloggers, as part of the network relationship. This can be a sensible tactic, providing that they content is engaging, exclusive, and written with their audience in mind. Heavily-branded, non-exclusive copy, is never going to cut the mustard with the average blogger.

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When it comes to managing a blogger network, manners go a long way. When a member of your network writes a nice post about your brand, or gives you a positive mention on Twitter, always say ‘thank you’ and try to give them some ‘link love’ in return. It’s a simple point, but many brands forget this common courtesy. Doing a simple return favour can go a long way towards solidifying the relationship.

Content Planning

It’s important that a blogger understands the level of involvement and commitment that you expect from them in return for the benefits that come with being a member of your blogger network. The majority of brand-run blogger networks set very low barriers to entry, appreciating that many bloggers write their blog in their spare time and will not be able to commit to anything regular.

There’s nothing wrong with a brand requesting the blogger’s consent for them to communicate with them on a monthly basis. Some brands may request that the blogger assists them with one review a quarter. But anything more than that would need to be carefully thought through.

Bloggers like to be collaborative and cocreative in terms of the structure and interaction of the network. In order to keep interest and enthusiasm going, this should be built into any sort of content plan. For a brand, it can also be your way of rewarding your most active bloggers.

For example, global grassroots campaign ONE (co-founded by Bono) has been working with top Mum bloggers in the UK to promote its campaigns, through writing, creative events and visits to the countries its campaigning work supports. It likes to work in collaboration with its blogger network and, earlier this year, had a small group of seven Mums join them in its offices to look at how best they could work together around the launch of its new campaign Thrive. This has been a very ambitious campaign, and the ONE blogger network was able to feed ideas directly into the campaign strategy.

Claire Hazelgrove, UK campaigns manager for ONE, commented “It seemed important from the outset to see this partnership very much as a two-way relationship. No one knows a blogger’s community and readership better than that blogger themselves, so we knew attempting to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach here on our own just wouldn’t work. Plus, we were very interested in seeing what great creative ideas the Mums would have of their own - and they certainly came up with ideas that we hadn’t!”

One of the core benefits a network can offer to a blogger is the chance for their by-line and content to have wider audience exposure. As a brand, there are a variety of ways in which you can offer this. Hopefully you will have an owned blog (a prerequisite for setting up a brand-run blogger network, one might argue!) - an obvious option then, would be to offer “featured posts of the month on your blog. This is a tactic that quite a few established blogger networks have adopted successfully.

If you happen to be a media brand, the opportunities you can offer bloggers within your network are endless. Glamour’s Young & Posh Network, which is ‘invite- only’, does a great job of syndicating content to, whilst also offering opportunities for paid content. One of its bloggers wrote: “I have the option to pitch and write exclusive paid content for Glamour. It’s also great that they syndicate my content which opens up my blog to a lot of potential new readers.” – Gabi, GabiFresh.

The Huffington Post’s “The StyleList Network” offers similar contribution opportunities to its 39 bloggers, as well as revenue share through advertising. One of its bloggers wrote “My personal blog is part of the Stylelist Network, and I have seen massive traffic spikes and sustained growth from syndicated posts through the Huffington Post and I also get revenue through advertising in my sidebar.” – Taylor from “Shut up, I love that shirt on you”

Some brands have gone down the route of setting up annual awards for the bloggers within their network, which is a tactic that can offer useful content hooks for both parties. The Sainsbury’s Bank family blogger network launched an initiative of this sort this year, where all of the 137 family bloggers within its network were shortlisted for its ‘Best Family Blog Award’, which was whittled down to a final shortlist via an open online vote. This provided bloggers with the chance to promote their place in the shortlist via all of their social profiles, and encourage their readers to vote for them. The initiative provided Sainsbury’s Bank with a perfect opportunity for contacting its bloggers on a more frequent basis , and helped to make its network feel valued.

Keeping in constant contact with the network is critical to maintaining strong relationships with key bloggers and can help with ideas creation. Ask them what social platforms they are using, and try to bring the most popular ones into your content planning. For example, if many of the bloggers within your network are active on Pinterest, it might be worth thinking about how you could involve them in a Pinterest campaign, which is also likely to be well- received by your target audience.

How should brands compensate bloggers for time & commitment?

Often brands worry about whether they should be financially rewarding active bloggers within their network. The rule of thumb is that usually there is no requirement or expectation for individuals to be paid to join a blogger network.

Some brands may offer a perk for joining, such as a gift voucher or complimentary product to a certain value. Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid monetary reward, because brand-run blogger networks need to have an authentic, unbiased voice. You may also run into trouble with Google if you are seen to be paying for links.

At the start of 2012, Google found itself caught up in a media frenzy after it was exposed for paying bloggers to ‘hype up’ its new Chrome browser. Google claimed the offending posts were created by a third-party marketing agency, and said it had no knowledge that bloggers were being paid to write sponsored posts about Chrome. As a result, Google made the decision to manually change its search rankings to ‘demote’ its own Chrome web browser for two months.

If you are inviting bloggers within your network to assist you with reviews, it has become commonplace for bloggers to keep the items that they’ve been sent for review. For expensive items, granting your bloggers exclusive access to ‘touch and feel’ the product should be organised instead.

If you are in the business of organising or sponsoring events, complimentary tickets can work well. In return, it would be polite for them to write a post about the event or share some photos via Twitter. You may also think about asking them to be roving reporters for you, and be official live bloggers during and after the event.

Additionally, you may think about offering bloggers within your network occasional prizes for giveaways that they can run on their blog. This can be a nice traffic driver for bloggers, particularly if you help to promote the giveaway via your brand social profiles.

Take heed of one small note of caution when it comes to selecting your bloggers: Avoid ‘blaggers’, (bloggers who are primarily after free stuff). In 2009, Time Out wrote an article calling bloggers ‘blaggers’, saying they were all about the freebie. This sparked a frenzy of defensive tweeting and blogging. On the same note, PRs and brands have also been accused of bribing bloggers with free incentives, an accusation you do not want pointed your way!

The important point is to ensure that your bloggers remain authentic and unbiased so that their posts carry weight.

How can a blogger network get involved in a Twitter party?

Twitter parties are becoming a popular undertaking within brand-run blogger networks. Whatever the niche, they can be something fun for a brand to involve their bloggers in, in a mutually beneficial way. If a brand is going to ask bloggers within its network to host the Twitter party, this can be a great way of demonstrating the trust that they have in their network.

A Twitter party is a fast and fun virtual party, using the Twitter platform. Usually held in the evening, Twitter parties typically last 1-2 hours and are a way for people to connect and discuss a topic of choice. Most Twitter parties have an expert panellist and party host to keep the party on topic. Twitter users tweet with a specified hashtag (#) for the party. The party host will announce the hashtag prior to the event.

Earlier this year, grassroots campaign ONE asked its blogger network to host a Twitter party on their behalf. UK campaigns manager, Claire Hazelgrove explained the outcomes: “Over lunch on the day of our international campaign launch, the Mums helped generate around 200 tweets in just an hour using our hashtag #letsthrive and #ONEMums to promote the partnership. It was a real success, and exciting to see in motion!”

At the start of July, Josef Seibel, one of Europe’s longest established shoemakers, teamed up with mumblogger network BritMums to host a Twitter party, using the hashtag #SeibelStyle. The topic of conversation was how do you mixing comfort with style (tweeted photos were encouraged), and five pairs of shoes were also up for grabs. The Twitter party achieved almost 500 tweets in an hour, and proved to be a great way of igniting conversation around the shoe brand.

Using your blogger network for events & webinars

Bloggers like to get together, both online and offline. They are usually very receptive to meeting the brands they are working with, and other bloggers within their network.

In the U.S., Lifetime Moms™, A&E TV’s premiere mum blog network comprised of over 100 successful social media entrepreneurs, recently teamed up with Spark & Hustle, small business conferences created by entrepreneur and author Tory Johnson. Under the partnership, a ‘Lifetime Mom’ blogger will be part of every Spark & Hustle panel on the 20-city tour, sharing personal stories of successfully building business through blogging and social media. It’s a great way for the TV network to raise the profile and awareness of its blogger network, while also granting its bloggers with exciting real-world opportunities.

In the U.S., some mega-bloggers have become household names and can attract a big following to offline and online events. UK bloggers haven’t quite reached this cult status yet, but if a brand has managed to attract high authority bloggers to its network, a sensible approach might be to invite them to speak at business events. Webinars in particular provide an easy way for brands to team up with bloggers within their network. They make it possible for a brand to work with a blogger in any location, and asking a blogger to moderate a webinar can be a nice way of strengthening the relationship and making the blogger feel valued.

One useful product of webinars is that they can be recorded and made available for streaming after the event. If your blogger network has been actively involved in the webinar, they may also like to share or link to the download of the event on their blog, and help to carry on the conversation via their social profiles.

Syndicating webinars through blogger networks can help brands build lists of followers whilst helping marketers to interact with and understand their audiences.

Reaping the benefits of your blogger network

T he most important thing a brand can achieve from building its own blogger network is to facilitate grassroots endorsement of its products or services. This will only happen if the relationship with the blog network is based on mutual understanding and interest, honest and open two-way communication and a long- term investment of time and resources from the brand. It’s crucial that the brand considers the benefits to the blogger, as much as they think about their own targets and objectives.

When assessing the business benefits of setting up a blogger network, it’s likely that a brand will be looking to boost brand perception and awareness. By forging mutually beneficial relationships with opinion formers, volume of brand mentions and positive interactions should increase. Hopefully, over a period of time, the brand will be a few steps closer to having a network of brand advocates who are happy to say good things about them.

Ultimately, review-based content produced by your blogger network can be used to enhance sales and other calls to action such as email sign-ups or competition entries. This activity can all be measured using readily available tools.

One of the most valuable things a blogger network can provide is a trusted ‘straw poll’ of your products and services, particularly if you include their own social followings within the feedback cycle. This sort of information can be gold dust, offering you real- time insight into your target audience. Savvy brands will embrace this feedback, both positive and negative, and share with their blogger network any changes that they are making as a result.

If you are able to enthuse your blogger network to write engaging content that is not driven by press releases, a blogger network can also help to decentralise brand content, spreading a brand’s’ messages and story and making its social footprint much bigger.

It’s also worth thinking about how your blogger network might be able to help you in a time of need, particularly if you are a brand prone to online reputation management issues. Maybe you are a travel brand who is sometimes at the mercy of the elements, or a business who could be hit by technical difficulties. If you risk facing any sort of negativity, work through and discuss these issues with your blogger network and let them form a part of your online reputation management strategy. Then be sure to call on them when you need them!

Ultimately, creating and managing a blogger network can be time-intensive, but if successful, it can be a long-term, cost effective way of boosting your share of voice, in a sincere and authentic manner. Having your story told by those who are passionate about your brand, and who have a strong online following, can really help to change opinion and ultimately purchasing behaviour.

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