Originally published ANovember 20, 2008.
A few years ago my company accepted an event sponsorship from a food brand who wanted to reach out to food bloggers in our community by supporting a food-blogging session and exhibiting at the BlogHer Conference. The brand had the best of intentions: to support an important event for influencers in its target market and to be on-hand to personally meet with them.
As we were to learn, sometimes the gap between intentions and execution can be misunderstood by the Blogosphere. Branded potholders, which the sponsor included in every attendee's tote bag at the conference, were interpreted by a few attendees to mean that the brand believed something to the effect of "Women belong in the kitchen"! The blogswarm was short-lived and died down for reasons I will explain shortly, but it wasn't a fun experience for us or for the brand at the time. It did, however, provide us all with great lessons in marketing to bloggers.
I was reminded of this incident this week, during the MomBlogosphere's most recent dust-up, a campaign initiated by Motrin and its digital agency, detailed here. While marketers may see what happened this week as an indication of tone-deaf messaging, or a tangible example of why brands should never attempt to reach online influentials ever, my organization sees this as re-enforcement of our belief in the power of social media and online communities—for both customers and companies! Above all, we see social media as a never-before-available opportunity to reach out and connect with your market.
What happened to the food sponsor I mentioned earlier? Fortunately, the brand and its agency were open and agile. Almost immediately they agreed to our suggestion of creating a fun, post-conference contest, rewarding bloggers who posted the most creative use for the poor potholders. This acknowledgement by the brand of the bloggers' reactions turned things around almost instantly. Women started to join in on the brand's self-initiated joke and chimed in with their ideas. At the same time the women who initially called the brand sexist were publicly quelled by other bloggers. There was no longer a controversy pitting brand against customer, but rather a conversation about a brand that listened.
Similarly, we applaud the actions of the Motrin team: They were obviously listening and took down the offending campaign immediately, then their marketing VP posted a public apology and reached out to all bloggers who wrote negatively about it—on a weekend no less! It was clear that while their messaging may have failed to generate the response they desired, they were respectful of that response. I've often seen less respectful reactions, from denial to defensiveness, and that only fans the flame of discontent.
Now, with those immediate actions out of the way, it's up to Motrin to either restore good will or perpetuate the misunderstanding with bloggers. Full disclosure: My organization was to run Motrin's now-suspended ad campaign. We do not know at this time how the brand will react, but we do have some thoughts for all brands who want to turn around relationships and reap the benefits of interacting with influentials online…even if you manage to get off on the wrong foot.
· At the risk of insulting you all with the obvious, LISTEN! We know that we must do it, but we still often create messaging in a vacuum and insist on what we think will go over with a community, even if we don't belong to it. Though Motrin's team evoked an important philosophy among Mombloggers, Babywearing, its cavalier treatment of the philosophy offended the bloggers it was trying to draw in. One of the bloggers in our community said it best, when analyzing just what created the "hissy fit of epic proportions" among MomBloggers this weekend:
"The real issue is that Moms have been telling brands … how to approach them for years now, and Motrin didn't bother to pay attention. And Moms are tired of it. … If Motrin had been listening, they'd know that women are passionate about babywearing. They'd know that there are already debates about it, support groups, that babywearing itself is a philosophy."
-Shannon McKarney, ThreeSeven Blog
In this case, Motrin won't need to go too far for this secret-handshake information. They just need to ask for it. Believe me, MomBloggers will provide it.
· Respond. Some blogswarms have turned nasty simply because a brand wasn't aware one was brewing, or because someone had to go through so many approvals before being allowed to respond that the public assumed it was being ignored. Motrin handled this part quickly, and thus, perfectly. Again, from reaction to response was over only 48 hours…over a weekend.
· Consider turning to the community to help you refine your message. Whether it's in a private focus group, or even a public campaign for the best user-generated tagline, getting the community's buy-in before, or even during, a campaign is the single best way of ensuring there are no rough edges. Or that your rough edges aren't too rough for your market. Not all companies can have such open-kimono campaigns, particularly in pharma or finance. If this is the case, still get feedback, and make public that you did, either by sharing some of it or by showing how it impacted your decisions moving forward. Unless they insist on anonymity (not a common occurrence with bloggers) give credit to the people who provided feedback. We've seen this done in the creative copy itself!
· If after all this, you still generate ill-will, understand that the Blogosphere is a self-policing entity. As we've seen time and time again, if bloggers persist on fighting your brand, even after you've attempted, with diligence and humility, to make things right, wait for the re-enforcements to arrive: other bloggers. The Motrin incident has already generated its share of peacemakers, including this post in which a blogger acknowledges the mishandled messaging and then tells the bloggers to just chill.
Note: These bloggers who come to your defense are just the kind of people you want to approach for future outreach.
There are those who will say that those MomBloggers who complained via blogs or Twitter represent only a small fraction of actual customers out there. Of course, true enough. But as our benchmark study in March of 2008 illustrated, these women, in aggregate, reach huge numbers of U.S. women online today. Not that many may be talking, but lots of folks are listening.
Will Motrin survive this brouhaha? Absolutely. But whether it will do so while also deepening relationships with its most vocal customers is what remains to be seen.
Jory des Jardins is co-founder and president of strategic alliances for BlogHer.com and a regular contributor to MediaBizBloggers.com (http://www.jackmyers.com/commentary/jory-des-jardins ). You can comment on her blog here.