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Are You A Blogger Sell-Out?

This past week, I spent a day at Hispanicize, a self-proclaimed “iconic annual event for Latino trendsetters and newsmakers in social media, journalism, marketing, film, music and innovation”. In just four years, it’s become quite the event. Corporate sponsors, celebrity film screenings and Latino music stars were aplenty. I was actually contacted a few weeks before the conference by the good folks at General Motors, who were one of the event sponsors. Apparently, they got the crazy idea that I was a blogger of some import and invited me to attend the four-day event on their dime. They let me know that I was free to attend any event I wanted but they would love to have me at one of the GM sponsored presentations.

Now, I’m many things but I’m not ungrateful. So, despite a busy week of video shoots, I managed to make it down to Miami and pop in on their “How to Plan and Execute a Great Latino Blogger Event” presentation. And no, I have no intention of ever planning and/or executing a great Latino blogger event, but again, I’m not ungrateful. Moreover, I had always been curious about the growing interest from corporations to bloggers and the seemingly endless blogger events of all kinds going on weekly (it seems) around the globe. Attending this particular presentation, however, did make one thing unreservedly clear.

Bloggers are being used by corporations.

Now, I’m not talking about the A-List blogs with tens of thousands of subscribers; the interest there is pretty obvious – tap into their massive audience. That particular blogger, however, doesn’t really need the brand boost as they’ve already built up their audience and possess quite a bit of leverage. I’m talking about the mid-level blogger with a few hundred subscribers; the guy or gal that holds down a 9-5 job (or is supported by a spouse) and blogs on a particular topic (tech, fashion, parenting, filmmaking, etc) in their spare time. That blogger.

The blogger who saves up every year to attend conferences like Blogworld and SXSW because they feel they “have to” be there. The blogger who emails/tweets (stalks) the folks from the high-traffic blogs in the hopes of landing a guest post spot. The blogger who desires to earn a living by blogging. The blogger who dreams of becoming the next Arianna Huffington or Pete Cashmore (but deep down knows it’s just a dream). This is the blogger I’m talking about.

Now, let’s move on to where I start getting suspicious, yes?

Helen Warner Photography

The presentation featured a panel of social media/PR folks, Connie Burke, Communications Manager for General Motors, Rory Lassanske of Mama Contemporanea, a Spanish mommy blog, Megan Connelly, PR & Events Assistant Manager for Bloomingdale’s, and Jose Resendez, Account Executive for Fleishman-Hillard.

During the hour presentation, the panelists all stated that they give certain bloggers exclusive access to VIP events, offer them free beauty products, even give them a brand new car to drive for a week. What’s the catch? A blog post, that’s what. A positive blog post.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a blogger who spends lots of time on their blog in the hopes of an eventual return (we all know that there are probably several dozen better ways to spend your time in the hopes of making money but to those who blog – more power to you). Along comes a major brand inviting you to an exclusive event, or giving you free products to try and/or to give away to one or more lucky readers of your blog, or offering you the opportunity to drive a brand new car around for a week.

Wow! All the hundreds of hours I spend blogging is finally starting to pay off!

It’s called validation. And when you spend a lot of time doing something for little to no money, we need it eventually, no? Validation means somebody has acknowledged that what you do has value; that you’re on the right track, that your tiny little blogger voice crying out in the online wilderness has been heard; that you matter.

Anybody who’s been there knows that feels good, right?

Ok, so here’s where I get suspicious. Corporations validate the blogger, reach out their hand to them like the cartoon guy to the girl sitting in the diner in the A-ha video "Take On Me", get them thinking about that private island they’re gonna buy with all the dough they’re finally gonna start making with their blog. But what the corporations really want is to channel their voice through the blogger to the blogger’s audience. I get that and I’m cool with it.

So here’s my dilemma: How credible is the blogger’s voice after that?

Helen Warner Photography

I get the whole full disclosure thing, but am I really gonna expect a poor write-up of a company’s product or service after they made that C-list blogger feel all warm and fuzzy with their validation? After they offered them free products? Gave them exclusive access to VIP events? Gave them cool stuff to give away on their blog? Let them drive a new car for a week?

Sure, it can happen. But then that blogger, who finally broke on through to the other side, can kiss away that relationship with that brand. Maybe even land on a corporate blacklist ("Bloggers Who Might Just Tell It Like They See It") and go back to just blogging as a full-time hobby. And what about the "perception" by your audience that your blog suddenly matters because GM gave you a car to drive for a week?

"Wow! GM let you drive a brand new car for a week? You must be a really important blogger!"

"Yeah, but then I wrote that the car sucked monkey balls on gas mileage and didn’t have enough horsepower to pass a Fiat on the highway. Now GM won’t return my tweets or emails. Oh, well."

There goes the private island.

I spoke about this after the presentation with Connie Burke of GM. She assured me that blogger honesty and integrity were very important in deciding who to let drive a brand new car. I believed her. My problem lies more with the blogger and their sudden feeling of importance. And what about ROI for GM using bloggers as spokespersons for their automobiles? Burke stated that other than the usual social media metrics (hashtags, mentions, etc), tracking sales is still a work in progress.

Megan Connelly of Bloomingdale’s informed me that she goes as far as establishing long-term relationships with her bloggers; staying in touch with them and really getting to know them. A wise move. People like people who like them...but do they really believe in the product? There’s the rub, yes? Do I still trust you or are have you sold out?

Helen Warner Photography

Ultimately, as in all things business, sales and profits will determine whether catering to bloggers (and the so-called online "influencers") can move product or not. But what about the integrity of the blogger? One day you’re sharing with your audience the deepest fears and desires of your soul, the next day, you’re pushing Pam Non-Stick Cooking Spray on them. When you stop telling and start selling, people are gonna get suspicious.

I’ve seen it happen. So have you. Especially in the mommy blogger circuit which has quickly become a main target of those eager corporations. So has the Hispanic community, as evidenced by the overwhelming corporate presence at Hispanicize. Hispanics accounted for most of the nation’s growth (56%) from 2000 to 2010. Moreover, with a purchasing power of $1.2 trillion dollars, big brands are looking for a way to engage with this fast-growing and fiercely loyal demographic.

And they’re also looking for a few good bloggers.

So as more and more corporations dig deeper into the blogosphere for brand ambassadors, I wonder what effect it will have on the state of blogging, which has already become a rank toilet bowl of redundancy and thrice told tales. Blogging today is more of a strategy than an artform anyway. Coloring by the numbers will often get you farther along than those who dare to color outside the lines. The buzzwords of "authenticity" and "transparency" have become as bastardized as the word "author" these days. People are gonna do what’s best for them - now and always. As long as you can live with yourself, I guess it’s all good, right?

If Metallica’s massive sell out with The Black Album taught us anything it’s that if you fail one audience, another, larger audience might just appear. That’s why we sell out in the first place, isn’t it? To get more. Lots of big brands are looking to hook up with bloggers to spread their message and lots of bloggers are looking to hook up with big brands to boost their blogging cred.

The blogging game has certainly changed, people.

But is it changing for the better?

[Photography by Helen Warner]

NOTE: I want to thank Catherine Cuello of profero.com and GM for their kind invitation, it was very nice meeting you all.

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