Recently I conducted and published a survey capturing the input of 4,000 of the top bloggers on marketing partnerships. One of the key takeaways was that the majority of bloggers want to work directly with the brands. Bloggers don’t want to be used as a campaign or marketing asset—they do their best work when they are a part of the brand.
To dive further into this topic, I chatted with one of my favorite bloggers, James Hills, who runs a very successful travel blog. James is an influencer marketing leader who started online promoting software companies from his dorm room in 1996 and later wrote for WashingtonPost.com. Since then, he has led social and digital marketing campaigns for brands including Sears, Kmart, Staples, and ProFlowers. Today, he runs ManTripping.com, a men’s lifestyle blog, and MenWhoBlog.com, which is dedicated to engaging male bloggers and creating conversations around brands, products, and tourism destinations that men love.
Once a big-time marketer who did plenty of his own blogger outreach, now James is an influential blogger himself.
Q: As a marketer, what was the coolest blogger outreach project you were part of?
A: I don’t have a single “coolest,” but the ones I enjoy the most are where we are allowed the flexibility to innovate and push the envelope a bit. For instance, the #AintMomGrand campaign I did while at ProFlowers was pretty awesome because it integrated PR, Social Media, eCommerce, and Event Marketing with all parties working together.
From a social media innovation perspective, we were able to develop custom audiences on Facebook and Twitter to target local influencers with content from the event, including photos of the giant flower wall we had erected in Grand Central Station. This helped to cut through some of the noise and reach our targets who might have otherwise ignored emails and press releases. Furthermore, we had a social stream displayed at the event where people at home, as well as on-location, could contribute content about why their mom is grand.
It was a lot of fun to do a social media activation that was integrated across multiple channels.
Q: Now that you’re a blogger, what is the coolest partnership you’ve been part of?
A: The most memorable opportunities for me are the ones that are unique experiences. Of those, probably the most memorable was with Jim Beam to Bourbon Fest when I first got started as a blogger. It included dinner at Bill Samuels house (Head of Maker’s Mark) and a bunch of other once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Honestly, though, I’ve had a lot of great experiences that are travel-related, but I think a lot of marketers (including myself, in the past) have gotten lazy and resorted to highly transactional posts. It is so easy to just hand money out to people and tell them what to write. However, the best results always come from creating an immersive experience designed to facilitate the creation of amazing content that people will want to share.
Q: Are there any awful pitches that you’ve gotten that stand out to you?
A: For some reason, I get a bunch of pitches related to “female” products, including one last month that was “perfect for my audience.” When I wrote back to the person suggesting that guys don’t need an all-natural solution to PMS, the PR person responded that she was hoping I could encourage my audience to visit the site and share the advice found there with their wives and other female friends.
Frankly, I can’t imagine any guy going there and saying, “Hey honey, I know you are feeling bad right now, but here’s some advice I read on a website.”
Maybe it’s well-intentioned, but marketers really need to put themselves in the position of their audience, instead of only looking through the lens of their client’s POV.
Q: You’re a travel blogger. People always talk about their dreams of being a travel blogger for the free trips. Is it all that it is cracked up to be?
A: Yes and no. It’s a lot of work, and not all parts of a press trip are awesome. However, the lifestyle doesn’t suck and can be a lot of fun. Waking up at 7:30 a.m. and following a schedule, sometimes planned out to the minute, until the end of the day isn’t my idea of a vacation.
I can’t say that having VIP table service or dining at some of the best restaurants in the world is terrible. However, it’s a different type of experience than simply going somewhere and doing what YOU want. I miss simply relaxing without having to worry about remembering a specific bartender’s name or how many square feet a specific club might be.
Plus, there’s a LOT of work involved with promoting the site, editing templates, and resolving technical issues that is required simply to get to the point where you are “popular enough” to be invited on a trip.
I started blogging about travel because I couldn’t afford to do it on my own. Simply the act of writing was enough to sustain me. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to start a blog just to “get free stuff.” On the other hand, if you have a higher goal that is self-sustaining, then you will be able to achieve that goal once you are established and popular enough. That process though may take years, so have patience.
Q: What do you recommend brands offer bloggers to establish a marketing relationship?
A: There are all sorts of relationships, so it depends on the objectives that a brand has in mind. The simplest form is a transactional relationship where the brand offers the blogger compensation in terms of product or money. While that is great, especially money, I think most bloggers would love to have a true relationship with a smaller number of brands where things go both ways.
Think of it like the difference between a one-night-stand versus a wife or girlfriend. It’s important to get to know each other, provide mutual value, share ideas, and be open to building something awesome together. There can and should still be money for work done to promote the brand, but there are other ways to build the relationship, too.
In practical terms, that would include things like retweeting posts the blogger does on your behalf (Favorites are nice, but that doesn’t really do anything for me). It also means getting to know me personally. Ask how my weekend was, compliment the job I did on a recent post, or send me a gift without expecting anything in return.
It’s just like how you would build any other relationship. Just remember to be open and honest about what you want to get out of it, and be prepared to work for it.
Q: Blogger outreach done well takes into consideration the brand, the blogger, and the blogger’s audience. What do you think your audience values the most about your blog?
A: ManTripping.com has changed over the past year as I transitioned it away from being “just a travel blog” and focused on becoming more of a lifestyle brand. Today, I am focused on building more of a relationship with my readers versus writing for topics to be found in search.
I focus on delivering a unique voice and perspective on different products and experiences that are important to the lives of those people in my community.
I’m never going to be the destination for the most amazing recipes, DIY project ideas, relationship advice, or even travel ideas. However, I can provide my perspective and commentary which helps build long term loyalty and value. That process of building a relationship takes time and has forced me to be more personal than I was previously.
Q: How many pitches would you estimate you get per day from marketers wanting to get mentions on your blog? How many of these would you guess are valuable to you and your audience?
A: I probably average 50–100 emails each day, and most of them are “on topic”—immediate or long term. However, less than 50% of those are actually of interest to me personally. For example, I don’t cover boxers, health, or grooming products except in certain circumstances, so most of those emails get ignored.
Of those that are of interest, there are probably 5–10 true “pitches” that are actionable but, becuase of my limited publishing ability, I am not able to do or share anything with them.
Brands that make it easy to share the information—pre-formatted tweet, high-res graphics, “copy and paste” articles, etc.—typically rise above the noise.
Q: You have the unique experience of being both a successful marketer and a popular blogger. Because of your experience all over the spectrum, what advice can you offer marketers wanting to implement influencer marketing tactics with bloggers?
A: Be honest and try to understand what the blogger is looking for, because not all bloggers are the same. Marketers need to understand that things have changed compared to how engaging with members of the traditional media used to work.
A perfect example of this is how many PR and Marketing people look at “influencer relations” as an opportunity to “place a story” by sending out a press release. Today, however, it is about creating the story along with the blogger, as opposed to just posting something based on a press release or going along for a ride through a brand presentation.
That’s the core idea behind what I am building with #MenWhoBlog. In addition to being a community of male bloggers who can share ideas and help each other, we’re building a platform to create content opportunities for brands by collaborating with influencers like myself and others in our group.
We aren’t journalists. Instead, we are content creators that make our living based on sharing experiences with our audiences. That includes planned and unplanned brand experiences, as well as our own personal life experiences.
Want to reach out to James and learn more cool stuff? Follow him on Twitter.
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