BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- If you were wondering where the media budgets have gone, you might have tried looking around Chicago late last Thursday through Saturday, or maybe even check out one of the city's pawn shops this week.
At the BlogHer '09 conference in Chicago marketers were lining up to woo around 1,500 mommy bloggers with swag, celebrity appearances, shopping sprees and lavish entertainment of the sort that seems part of a bygone era to most of the marketing world.
Cash for one of the few areas of marketing that marketers can't throw money at fast enough helped fuel a remarkable energy level -- from a combination of genuinely enthusiastic moms on a highly entertaining getaway to marketers giddy with enthusiasm for the next big thing.
Cracking the social-marketing mystery
BlogHer helps solve the mystery of how marketers will manage to spend money on social media despite showing relatively little interest in ads on Facebook or MySpace and the numerous free opportunities available everywhere.
It's a world where for now the normal rules of return on investment don't really apply. Asked how PepsiCo, which appeared to be the biggest sponsor of BlogHer activities, would be measuring its success, Global Chief Marketing Officer Jill Beraud, said: "We believe it's the way of communicating in the future, so this is not a short-term ROI ... this is really an investment in our brands and understanding our consumers."
In one corner of a convention hall at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers on Saturday, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Tide and Bounce had Tim Gunn of "Project Runway," not to mention a luncheon topped off with an invitation-only shopping spree at Gymboree.
In another corner, Walmart had celebrity chef Paula Deen was showing off a new line of her products to be sold at Walmart bakeries. A day earlier, Food Network chef Dave Lieberman was cooking dishes using products from Walmart's Great Value private-label megabrand.
Not that they would be hungry with so many luncheons and dinners, including a lavish Ragu luncheon in the convention hall and a list of around 20 non-sanctioned BlogHer events akin to Olympics ambush marketing throughout Chicago.
General Motors, which scaled back its Escalade shuttle service at the Super Bowl in February amid some concern about appearances for a company on the dole, wasn't concerned about shuttling BlogHer moms around in hybrids in Chicago.
Though Nikon signed on Carson Kressley, star of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "How to Look Good Naked," it was hard to outdo Kodak, which had the most sought-after swag of the activities -- a Zi6 handheld digital video camera valued north of $100.
Reports of purloined swag
The rub, however, was that some of the bloggers who had RSVP'd and were supposed to be guaranteed swag reported not getting their due on their blogs. And reports circulated via blogs, Twitter and good old traditional word of mouth that some of the swag bags had been stolen off a luggage cart at the Hyatt Regency, where the SocialLuxe event was held and the bags were to be distributed.
If so, the theft would have occurred despite particularly tight security at the hotel due to an appearance by President Barack Obama at a separate reception at the Hyatt.
A spokesman for P&G, whose Swiffer brand was the primary sponsor of the SocialLuxe festivities, said he was unaware of any such thefts, but that P&G hadn't participated in the swag giveaway. A spokeswoman for Kodak didn't return a call and e-mail for comment by deadline.
Beth Feldman, principal of BeyondPR, an organizer of the SocialLuxe Lounge event, said in an e-mail statement that the program was "a tremendous success" for brands and bloggers in attendance. BeyondPR had allotted more than 200 bags for the attendees on a first come, first served basis and had communicated that prior to the event she said, but 500 attended after it was moved to a larger venue. Asked about the reports of theft, Ms. Feldman said in a follow-up e-mail, "We were quickly made aware that a handful of bloggers attempted to leave the event with more than one gift bag, and within minutes of being apprised of the situation we posted an attendant at the door to ensure that each guest received one bag only."
Regardless, despite giving away all those cameras, Kodak ended up ruffling some feathers. "Thanks for the nice pictures but that event left such a sour note in so many of our mouths," said one commenter on Kodak's 1000Words blog Saturday. "It's such a shame because Kodak put such awesome swag out there for bloggers but the people that were supposed to get it (those who RSVP'd) didn't."
The true sweet spot?
Blogging may seem so 2005 to many digerati, and many mommy bloggers may still feel a lack of respect, but they're far from unnoticed by marketers. The BlogHer network, its 1,200 members and touted unique visitor reach of 15 million moms, they may be the true sweet spot of social media for marketers today.
While far from tame, mom blogs tend to steer clear of politics, sex and other controversial subject matter that makes social media a dangerous neighborhood for advertisers. And they reach a self-selected audience of moms who are pivotal consumers in a host of categories.
Package-goods marketers in particular have taken notice in a big way. Last year, BlogHer had one laundry brand in attendance. This year, it had four -- including two from P&G, one from Sun Brands (All, replete with a man dressed up as the Laundry Fairy), and Clorox GreenWorks, which hosted a lunch to solicit feedback on its current laundry detergent launch. That doesn't even count Method and Seventh Generation, which had representatives but no booth at the event.
A year ago, P&G's Pampers brand was just discovering mommy bloggers, preparing to fly a group into its Cincinnati headquarters. This year, P&G had five brands participate in some way at BlogHer, and by next year, BlogHer is predicting about 15 will participate. Unilever had six brands participate, "and we'll probably have 20 next year," said Jory Des Jardins, BlogHer co-founder and president-strategic alliances.
Indeed, it's serious business. On his flight to Chicago for BlogHer, a P&G assistant brand manager could be seen poring over his three-ring briefing binder filled with rules of engagement, talking points and thumbnail biographies of top mom bloggers.
PepsiCo had perhaps the most visible presence of all, with a huge booth and sponsorship of "LobbyCon," an area in the Sheraton lobby for more than 100 bloggers who still wanted to come and hang out even though the conference and its breakout rooms were already booked to capacity.
"Moms are not only our consumers, they're also the ones making the shopping decisions," PepsiCo's Ms. Beraud said. "They're the gatekeepers of the family."
PepsiCo sees its participation in BlogHer and social media generally as a combination of listening to its consumers and reaching consumers through influencers.
Not that PepsiCo is much interested in buying banner ads, even on mommy blogs. "Banner ads probably not the future as much," she said.
Yet it's still media dollars at play with BlogHer. BlogHer used to work almost exclusively with PR agencies. Then with PR agencies and marketers brand teams. "The majority of our revenue is now coming from media agencies," said Exec VP Gina Garrubbo.
Ad revenue, at least for BlogHer's network, is growing at a healthy double-digit pace, Ms. Garrubbo said, though she said most advertisers are interested in broader tie-ins with bloggers that go beyond the ads.
"We believe it's still early days," Ms. Des Jardins said, dismissing the notion of a bubble. "I think [BlogHer] will move from something they're sort of playing with to something they're going to rely on as part of their communications strategy."
Travel expenses and other perks
Of course, all the swag, entertainment and perks will raise eyebrows. Beyond the event festivities, hundreds of bloggers disclosed that sponsors had paid their travel expenses to the event as well.
But before critics go all J-school on the mommy bloggers, it's worth noting that the media vertical they're competing with primarily isn't The New York Times or Washington Post, but beauty and women's magazines for which swag and junkets have been a way of life for decades. The ROI problem for marketers, of course, is that there are dozens, possibly hundreds of mommy bloggers for ever beauty or shelter magazine editor, which is increasing the cost of swag and junkets considerably.
In a "Business of You" session, when attendees were asked how many write reviews on their blogs, about half raised their hands. About half of those said they sometimes write negative reviews, with other saying they just don't mention products they don't like.
Ms. Garrubbo said BlogHer guidelines prohibit bloggers touting products in their editorial wells that are advertised, and require disclosure of swag, trips and other consideration by marketers.