Targeting influencers: More marketers test blogs to build buzz

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In the wake of controversy over Nike placing a Web log on the site Gawker.com, marketers have been quietly investigating promoting all manner of products on blogs, from cleaning supplies to camera phones.

The hackles Nike raised with a blog for its indie-film series "The Art of Speed" seems to have demonstrated to marketers what is possible with these online diaries. The Nike brouhaha also showed what blog readers will permit-and even welcome-in terms of marketer involvement.

"Consumer adoption of blogs has been on a steady rise for two years or so and marketers have realized that you can't ignore them, because they tend to disseminate information so fast," said Peter Blackshaw, chief marketing officer at consumer-research firm Intelliseek.

In round numbers, blogs have heft. Experts estimate there are up to 8 million blogs on the Web. Some 14 million to 20 million people read blogs.

But their real power lies in bloggers' influence. Bloggers are "catalysts" of public opinion, said JanMarie Zwiren, strategic catalyst for Edelman Worldwide. The public-relations firm started a practice nine months ago to harness the PR opportunity of blogs.

"They are individuals who have a passionate opinion about a product, and instead of talking over the fence to a neighbor, they are talking to a neighbor online who may be in another state or another country," Ms. Zwiren said.

The Washington Post, arguably the foremost purveyor of political news, is loudly proclaiming the legitimacy of political blogs by running a contest for the best ones in this presidential-election season. The Post's goal is to get bloggers to post the paper's URL (washingtonpost.com) to drive traffic to the site and promote its Real Simple Syndication service.

The Post wants as readers these "news junkies" who read many articles a day on a variety of sites, and discuss them, said Julie Rutherford, marketing director at WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive.

"I would love to get huge [traffic] numbers," she said, but added that she's just as happy reaching influential people who will talk about the Post's site.

not necessarily edgy

In spite of blogs' snarky panache, the marketing methods advertisers are using are not all edgy stuff. But those doing it right all share a sense of immediacy and the notion that the consumer-not the company-controls the brand.

Take Procter & Gamble Co. The company hadn't formally launched Mr. Clean AutoDry-a car-washing product that dries spot-free-when Bob Gilbreath, marketing manager of Mr. Clean, realized that auto enthusiasts were trading notes about the product in auto blogs and chat rooms last fall. To seed more discussion, P&G gave away AutoDry kits to bloggers, asking for their honest review. Some 80% gave the item a thumbs-up.

The result? By the time AutoDry was on store shelves in January, product awareness was 25% among consumers, and 45% among car aficionados.

new vulnerability

"The moment the product appeared in stores, we were able to say to retailers, `This is a hit,' " Mr. Gilbreath said. The online chats are "the biggest payoff P&G has gotten from any of its online marketing surrounding the launch."

The downside to all this interactive gab is consumers may share negative reactions, too, initiating what Mr. Blackshaw calls "a new era of vulnerability" for marketers.

One product sector that should be worried about vulnerability is mobile phones with built-in cameras. The device has spawned Web sites, called "moblogs" (for mobile-phone blog) featuring consumers' photos-and honest product impressions.

In a case of brand imitating life, Cingular Wireless is operating its own moblog (rucingular.com/election) to engender positive PR for a new product, Motorola V400, with the target group most likely to use the photo feature-18- to 34-year-olds.

Even behemoth marketer Microsoft Corp. has found that its blog, Channel 9, has humanized the company in the minds of software developers, a key audience. The site features videotapes of Microsoft tech pros talking about their work. Discussion occurs in real time, said Lenn Pryor, Microsoft director of platform evangelism.

Blog smart

Do's and Don'ts of marketing with blogs

Don't throw money at bloggers. These influencers will not respond to outright, traditional ad placements.

Do present humorous, engaging creative that makes blog readers want to pass a link along to their friends.

Don't pretend to be a consumer and infiltrate blogs to plug your product.

Do engage in a dialogue, and listen in to blog-talk, both positive and negative.

Don't think of blog users as consumers.

Do think of blog users as individuals who can even become your company representatives online, valued for their opinion.

Don't talk at blog users in the manner of typical messaging.

Do indicate up front who you are, presenting facts and even apologies when necessary, telling readers how to get help and service from your company.

Sources: Edelman Worldwide, Intelliseek

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