Very often I’m invited to give presentations to PR or Advertising agencies on the work we do with Style Coalition and our partnership with Hearst, as well as the state of the industry in general. There is still a lot of confusion in this new emerging space and many of the things we learn as we go. One topic that keeps coming up in every conversation I have with agencies is the separation of editorial vs sponsored opportunities when it comes to working with influencers. Is there always a pay-per-play?
I think the problem is twofold: one is the lack of education on the bloggers side, and another one is caused by the blurring roles of the agencies. PR, Advertising and Social Media used to be separate practices, handled by different people, divisions and agencies. These days we are seeing more of a holistic approach, where the same team is driving all three vehicles for one brand.
I support this practice wholeheartedly and think it provides the best value for a brand. Some of our most successful marketing campaigns included multiple mediums: sponsored content posted across several blogs, video, photo shoot, social media promotion and a media buy attached to it. These types of campaigns are usually managed by one agency and fully executed by Style Coalition – we are in charge of all communications with the bloggers and day-to-day operations of the campaign.
The issue comes up when the same agency manages directly sponsored campaigns AND press outreach, thus causing bloggers confusion. Put yourself for a moment in a blogger’s shoes – getting hundreds of pitch emails daily and trying to manage relationships with lots of PR professionals and brands, all while wearing two hats – editorial and business. If the same person who hired a blogger for a sponsored gig is reaching out with the latest press release from the same brand, it will obviously raise questions. Bloggers may not always understand the difference between the two – sometimes due to lack of education and sometimes due to lack of time it takes to learn the different aspects of every brand’s representation.
How can brands and agencies solve this? My advice is that even if your approach is holistic, have internal separation between these two, so when facing direct communication with a blogger you have two points of contact – one for news/PR and another one for marketing/sponsored opportunities. Define their roles very clearly from the beginning, while building relationships with bloggers. Of course this could be a challenge for smaller brands or agencies, which don’t have multiple resources to allocate for blogger communications. However I think there is no shame in communicating it to the bloggers, as well as making a clear statement about your brand policy regarding paying, gifts etc. This will only make a blogger’s job easier.
Another great way to prevent any confusion would be to use a network to execute any paid marketing/advertising initiatives, thus guaranteeing the separation between the two. At this point, almost all prominent/professional bloggers are represented by one of the networks. Networks make your job as a marketer worry free by handling all communications, negotiations, contracts and billing, as well as providing insights into the best way to work with the influencers.
I’m sure as the space evolves we will see changes in this process, but right now smart brands are realizing the importance of relationships with influencers. They allocate resources to manage the diverse aspects of their relationships, preventing the awkward negotiations and confusion. Still, the main reason for the awkwardness is in the different point of views of the bloggers – what is pay-for-play for some is an opportunity of a lifetime for others. In my book I use several pages to define the differences between editorial and sponsored content, and then a few more to talk about the various kinds of sponsored content. When in doubt whether this should be a pay-for-play engagement or an editorial feature, ask yourself a few questions:
- Does it add value to blog’s readers? Will they be interested in actually reading about this subject, or will they feel like they’re been duped into reading an advertisement?
- Does it have a story? Some promotions can be pretty clever and have an interesting/unique story behind them. However this doesn’t make them editorial.
- Was it advertised on other sites? Have you seen this content as a paid banner, advertorial or newsletter campaign on other sites?
I think if both sides ask themselves these questions it would help prevent any uncomfortable situations and focus on building healthy working relationships between bloggers and brands.