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The news about two tech bloggers from India being “stranded” at the IFA, because they denied the sponsoring companies “offer” to promote their products is all over tech blogs last couple of days. The sponsoring company is Samsung and the Tech bloggers are correspondents of The story has caught attention all over, that it is now reported on CNet, The Guardian, The Next Web (Reported it first), BGR and many other tech blogs.

Samsung has issued an apology, but no word from the bloggers yet.

This incident is sort of a case study to both bloggers and companies trying for “outreach” campaigns. I’m going to analyze it both from both perspectives, as I’ve personally been at both ends, as a blogger as well as Social Media agency co-ordinating the brand’s outreach programs.

what does it mean to a blogger, being approached by a top brand

Before even jumping in, let’s try and define who a blogger is. Rewind back 5-7 years. Tech blogging in India was at the nascent stage. Amit Agarwal (whom I always refer to as the “Father of Blogging in India”) single handedly made blogging glamorous, when mainstream media reported that he was making a living entirely from blogging. From my talks with bloggers around the country since then, I’ve noticed that he is the one person, who has inspired people to start blogging. A majority of the bloggers who came on board were college/school students (along with many tech professionals).

At that point of time, blogger outreach programs weren’t heard of. Bloggers used to make their money from Google AdSense and other small gigs. Fast forward to 2012 and we have over a thousand (assumption) tech blogs in India. Many of them making five and six digit figures per month over a variety of income streams. Google AdSense still remains the single most income stream – but interestingly, there has been several other income channels in all forms. One of them is the blogger outreach program and social media gigs (for popular bloggers). All thanks to Social Media.

My point is that, today bloggers are a community who are getting a lot of eye balls and attention. The community is big and influential. Social Media has made them more influential than mainstream journalists – so much that they can make or break a brand. There has been several incidents in the region (and elsewhere) where brands had a hard time fire fighting with opinions and comments on social media.

Well, this is more a result of the societies evolution, where everyone has the power to stage their opinion on social media today. Gone are the days where one could edit and moderate media according to their will. There is a revolution happening, where people have become aware of their free speech potential, and people who used to enjoy their “crafted media images” have started becoming uneasy about the opinions voiced.

So, essentially bloggers as a community is a huge moving force today. We’re talking about a community where opinions are pretty much organic and formed rather than generated.

This is the reason why brands have come up with “blogger out-reach programs” – influence, trying to get a bite of it.

But what are blogger out-reach programs, really?

Well, technically they are these multiple touch point program where brands who has a strong message, and want to gather crowd opinion about them, try to reach out to the community and look for feedbacks. That is what it really is supposed to be, in my personal opinion.

But again, this is a social media world and things keep evolving.

Couple of years back, when social media was at the nascent stage, outreach programs were seen more as a feedback mechanism. Introduce your product to couple of experts, and then get their feedback, positive or negative and get the word out. If the product is good, the response would be good, if bad, you would at least know what not to highlight when going mainstream.

The single most important factor however was influence. The blogger community would be scanned for the most influential folks and approached. (I’m talking all this from couple of blogger out-reach programs I’ve helped brands do, while working with an agency in the Middle East.)

So, out-reach programs were more like a paid gig, but an organic one. Bloggers were often “gifted” not paid. They weren’t bought like traditional media is – where you could buy an ad-space or editorial and your message pushed across without any edits. Outreach programs had a certain level of integrity with it because, bloggers would blog genuinely about the product. It could mean they would talk about a flaw in the product, and brands had to prepare for it, and deal with it when it comes.

That is the other side of out reach programs. It could back-fire anytime and you got to have a disaster plan, not to avoid or brush the problem under the carpet but to minimize damage, or dodge the bullet or even, turn the table around and make it work out in favor for you ( the brand that is).

The Problem with Blogger Out-reach programs &the people doing it

Now, the problem is clearly the middle men. From my experience, 9 out of 10 times, the ones to screw up things are the middle men, mostly social media agencies or the company’s social media/ PR co-ordinators.

Seasoned social media agencies, work closely with bloggers and often have someone within the blogger community advising them. Problems occur when the community is tried to be “bought”. Most of the time, folks inside the company, do not understand how the social media community works. They are typically folks who have “bought” media and there is always pressure from them to “buy”.

I’ve found CEO’s say stuff like “Let us pay them $XXXX and get them to write about us. Send them a copy of our press release. Oh! We could also gift them the new phone.”

Well, it might work with newspapers. But with a volatile social media community, things don’t work that way. You got to give them something really really good. It could be engaging, a good product, a nice piece of juicy gossip, what ever it is – its got to be 10X times beefier that your typical traditional media buy at a newspaper. Where you could throw peanuts and get a front page coverage.

The “value” from a social media conversation is 100X more valuable than a newspaper ad. But you will not get it with the same cost or tactic you used to buy traditional media with. Brand these days do realize it, but there are these middle men whom come in claiming “We’ll do a social media out reach and get tech bloggers to talk about your product – all good. Buy them coffee that is all.”

This my friend, is the wrong way to go about it. If you know there is value in the conversation, don’t throw peanuts across. And DON”T sign in agencies who claim they can buy anything on social media. Nothing can be bought on social media. Period.

So, the problem is not the campaign or the strategy but the people who deal with it.

In the above case, the problem looks like some one with a bad communication problem.

I mean, cancelling tickets and threatening? Dude, that is so 2000!

But anyways, we’ve got to see this both sides. I trust there should also be some upgrading from the blogger’s side too.

What should bloggers know about social media out reach programs

1. Talk and communicate like a professional, even if you’re not.

I mean, of course you’re a blogger I agree. You might even be a college student but when you get it to any kind of engagement with a brand, at least act professional. If someone is putting money on you, they will try to get it back, so don’t take it for granted that you’re kind of a big deal and they’re trying to make you happy. No.

2. Get everything in writing. NDA? Yes, but read that damn thing fully.

NDAs will have several clauses in it that might put you to trouble, so read them carefully and make sure you understand it, before jumping in.

3. If you’re taking money for a gig, pay it back.

Nobody will sponsor you a trip to Berlin if they think you’re not going to promote them. But how much is a question you got to figure out and get clarity on. Some brands play it nice, but there might be a typical marketing guy somewhere who wants his ROI. Realize what it is.

4. Don’t get caught up in the hype.

There might be some folks who’ll think that they’re being treated like a celebrity because they are. May be that is true but, there might also be a reason why. Don’t be surprised if Nokia asks you to wear a T-Shirt.

5. Have a legal consultant verify your offer.

It helps. That is all.

From the Samsung incident, it looks like two bloggers who didn’t care much about what they were supposed to do, and were taken by surprise when asked to do things that they didn’t want to. And from the brand’s perspective, it looks like a poor communicator trying to buy media, the traditional way.

Hope we all get up and raise our standards a bit. Good for all.