What mainstream media and bloggers can learn from each other
Twelve years ago the CEO of Reuters, Tom Glocer, published an article in the Financial Times titled Old media must embrace the amateur. It was a provocative piece at the time and bold in its assertions that mainstream media needed to embrace its community and collaborate with citizen journalists in order to tell the “complete story.”
It took quite a few years before media executives were comfortable including amateurs in the editorial process, citing concerns about reputation, trust, and legal issues — concerns that fueled a reluctance to relinquish the traditional gatekeeping role of professional journalists.
The tide slowly turned and today many publishers are inviting non-professionals into the content creation process. But the relationship isn’t always a harmonious one.
It’s a love-hate relationship
User Generated Content (UGC) can make or break a brand. This is particularly true with millennial consumers who rely heavily on cohort reviews in their buy/no buy decisions. 84% say that UGC influences what they purchase and fashion brands, in particular, haven’t been shy about capitalizing on the phenomenon.
From Michael Kors’ #whatsinyourkors campaign to online fashion retailer ASOS’s #AsSeenOnMe gallery, and everywhere in between, fashion designers are exploiting the power of UCG to grow brand awareness, equity, and revenue.
But despite the financial rewards these influencers can have on the industry, some fashion media executives still hold them in disdain, calling them “pathetic” and responsible for “heralding the death of style.” They look forward to the day when “people will wise up to how particularly gross the whole practice of paid appearances and borrowed outfits looks.” The backlash from influencers to these disparaging remarks was not pretty.
Two years later, nothing’s changed. Love them or hate them, these bloggers’ and influencers’ impact on businesses can’t be ignored.
“You can learn from anyone even your enemy.”
Ovid, Roman poet, 43 BC
A recent survey by the Association of National Advertisers found that 75% of brands use influencer marketing, with almost half planning to increase budgets in 2019. However, they are reducing the number of influencers they work with — focusing on quality over quantity. It is a prudent move given the amount of abuse and fraud that exists in the space.
Duplicitous practices such as buying fake followers and likes to demonstrate higher reach, and using bot comments to show engagement is a widespread problem in the US$1B industry.
But legitimate influencers bring high engagement and monetary value to brands across all segments. According to a poll from influencer marketplace, Tomoson, for every dollar invested in quality influencer marketing, businesses generate US$6.50.
If media’s biggest revenue generator is advertising, how can UGC help?
According to Digiday’s October 2018 survey of media executives, advertising will drive 69% of revenues next year — 18% from branded content.
This focus on advertising aligns with the growth we’re seeing in publishers bringing brand and content studios in-house in their efforts to develop deeper relationships with advertisers. The question I have is, “Given that media is the least trusted institution globally this year according to Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer, will its homegrown advertising be trusted enough to influence readers?”
Not according to Nielsen’s research which reported that 92% of global consumers trust UGC and word-of-mouth recommendations more than they trust advertising.
So how does mainstream media capitalize on that? What lessons can they learn from bloggers who are trusted influencers in digital marketing and advertising?
What successful bloggers get right
Although there are lots of musicians, actors, and sports figures who promote brands, I was more interested in looking at successful influencers who actively blog (or vlog), post regularly on social media, and engage in related activities to try to inspire and persuade audiences to act.
I don’t own a personal blog, but know a number of people who do — people who use it to share their passion with others of like mind. One is a colleague of mine in marketing, Stefanie McAuley.
After working at Hearst Magazines in London for a number of years, Stef decided to travel and explore the world. During that time she started sharing her stories on her blog, Broad World. 50 countries later, she ended up in Ghana working as a consultant — an experience that inspired her to write her first novel.
Working in both new media and traditional publishing, Stefanie has a good understanding of both sides’ strengths and weaknesses. She contends that bloggers and publishers can learn a lot from each other and that the most successful ones are willing to put aside their egos and prejudices and recognize the value they can bring to each other.
“Successful bloggers know that if they want to be taken seriously and be successful they need to grow up and start acting like a publishing business. To avoid being yet another flash in the pan, they must develop a business mentality like traditional media and follow professional journalistic practices. And they must develop a solid value proposition which lays out what they’re offering their target audience, how they interact with that audience in an authentic way that aligns with the brand, and how they’re going to get paid for that.”
When asked what publishers can learn from bloggers in order to attract, engage with, and influence readers both editorially and commercially, she offered five recommendations.
1. Find a niche and own it
Magazines have an easier time with this by the very nature of their niche-ness. Not all are experts at it, but there a number that excel and are reaping the rewards — National Geographic, Vogue, Men’s Health, People, and Better Homes and Gardens, to name just a few.
But it’s a real challenge for general news publications that offer nothing remarkable — nothing that makes them stand out from the competition.
Businesses live in a differentiate or die world online, so before moving on to recommendation No. 2, general news media execs should head back to their writing and drawing boards and find (or start creating) something that makes them unique and attractive to a discerning audience.
2. Be authentic
While most mainstream publishers post their content (editorial and advertorial) on social media, the work is typically done by marketers with little expertise in the subject matter, no real passion about the content, and no skin in the game. They are paid to do a job and people can see right through it.
But not at National Geographic. Instead of being managed by a bunch of social media marketers, National Geographic’s Instagram account, @natgeo, is under the control of 100+ of the publisher’s best photographers. By letting its photo journalists’ personalities take center stage through their work and their passion for photography, National Geographic has become the most-followed non-celebrity brand on Instagram.
3. Build empathic relationships
What authentic bloggers do really well is build rapport with their followers. They don’t hide behind their masthead; they’re out there letting people see them for who they really are. They encourage open dialog and aren’t afraid to let down their guard and show both their strengths and weaknesses.
Successful mommy bloggers are particularly adept at this. This US$11B industry was built by women who share a common desire for community — mothers who openly reveal honest and personal experiences about being a mom while juggling careers, partners, and everything in between. Followers are people just like them — women who empathize with the blogger’s feelings of inadequacy when facing the daily tribulations of raising a family.
Content creators who want to instill trust and empathy in an audience — turning readers into fans and fans into financial supporters — can learn a lot from blogging and vlogging influencers. They can start by opening up their kimonos and letting their readers see them as who they really are. Because in the end, a name and a masthead don’t have that human touch or instill a sense of community most people, particularly millennials, crave.
4. Give back
A great example of this comes from Vogue Paris. Not only does the publication have strong engagement on social media, the brand gives back to the influencers that promote it and their advertisers by showcasing some of the best on their website.
We’ve all seen dozens of articles written about the business benefits of giving back to the community and few would argue that when you give unconditionally, you often get more in return. But what I found interesting about this post on Vogue was that the publisher wasn’t giving back to its reading community, it was giving back to its marketers. On the surface it seemed like a generous gift, but now imagine the millions of fashion fanatics this one article reached when those 15 influencers shared it with their followers. Who’s benefiting now?
Better Homes and Gardens did the very same thing on their site, so I guess this tactic is making the rounds. Be that as it may, it’s a brilliant marketing move.
5. Engage in conversation
This is probably the one piece of advice most journalists choose not to take and it’s a real shame. I understand that in the reporting of news, there is a fine line between reporting the facts and interpreting them.
But journalists have no problem talking about the facts when interviewed on TV talk shows. Why can’t they have a similar conversation with the readers who pay their salaries, either directly through subscriptions or the advertising they bring to the publisher?
Some experiments are being tried like The Information’s members-only conference calls, The Atlantic’s access to editors program, and The Globe and Mail’s luxury river cruises which create opportunities for subscribers to get up close and personal with newsroom staff.
And then there’s The Times (of London) that actively encourages its journalists to respond to readers’ comments directly, not through intermediaries like community managers. And apparently those columnists actually enjoy getting involved in discussions around subjects they’ve written about.
“We’re emphasizing to journalists that this is part of their job. Readers like it, and you can see the benefits in terms of engaging readers and renewing subscriptions.”
Head of audience development
The Times and The Sunday Times
But these multi-way conversations are the exception, not the rule. Most journalists and editors still don’t talk with their audiences; they talk at them.
A conversation doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be as simple as thanking someone for their comment and then asking them a question. This not only makes the reader feel appreciated, it gives the publisher insights into the readers who answer the questions — insights they can use to improve targeting and personalization.
The more journalists and editors know about their audiences and what they want, the better they can serve them. The better they serve them, the more likely their readers will reciprocate by sharing content and encouraging others to subscribe. It’s a win-win situation with a high ROI and low cost of entry.
Never stop learning
Today quite a few publishers incorporate UGC from the likes of Storyful or Dataminr into their paid content, or hire bloggers to produce free content on their web properties for SEO purposes. But content isn’t the gold in UGC, it’s the users who matter.
Since the dawn of the internet, bloggers have been treated like second-class citizens in the world of journalism. And given the infinite stream of digital debris that infiltrates our world, it’s hard not to throw all bloggers into the same melting pot. But I urge you not to succumb to the temptation and take a look at the minority that have proven themselves to be intelligent, influential, and successful — those who have taken a lesson or two themselves from mainstream media’s playbook.
Not only do they excel at growing audience, they know how to instill loyalty, garner trust, and influence behavior — critical elements in growing a sustainable business. So why not learn from them, engage with them, and invite them in to contribute to the success of your brand through their content and influence? Let’s talk!