Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bloggers+Indie Brands = OTP Part 1:R.E.S.P.E.C.T

I've only been blogging for just over a year, so I'm hardly what you'd call an expert on the subject. However, for a good ten years before I started blogging I was in Marketing and PR for various different firms, across a wide variety of industries.  While I'm still not an expert in marketing per se, I do have a ton of experience about how to get the most out of interactions between small media and small brands. Most of my career was spent convincing regional papers to cover things like Stamp Collecting Month, so if I know anything, it's how small media and small brands can help each other.

Just imagine customers are the crab - sorry customers.
Picture from National Geographic
Indie cosmetics brands and beauty/nail bloggers, in ideal circumstances, have an amazingly symbiotic relationship that I find absolutely fascinating from a marketing point of view. Indie brands don't have a lot of money to advertise their products (usually), and in a happy co-incidence, bloggers tend to be a pretty cheap form of marketing. Indie brands can't afford blanket awareness campaigns for their products, and so the vast majority of their sales are made through positive buzz, word of mouth, and reputation. It just so happens that these are the things that bloggers rely on for their audience, and also the primary thing they have to offer indie brands. Without a positive reputation, positive buzz, and word of mouth recommendations, both bloggers and indie brands are likely to severely limit their audience - but by working together well, both parties can gain a ton of what they need. Indie brands that work with bloggers get their products in front of eyeballs that might otherwise never see them, and bloggers who work with indie brands get a great deal of goodwill and "cool" status from covering products other people don't.  Indie brands and bloggers are truly what fandom calls OTP - one true pairing, an ideal pair of perfectly suited parties. When it works smoothly, everyone wins - but I've noticed it doesn't always work as smoothly as it could.

Image from Fanpop
There seems to be a lot of confusion as to how bloggers and indie brands can go about working together successfully, and I've had a lot of thoughts going around my head for a long time watching various situations play out. I decided I wanted to put down some advice that I find myself repeating over and over again for posterity. Just to be clear, I also don't claim to actually follow every single bit of this advice all the time. We're none of us perfect, and we can only do our best. But I think if everyone tried to follow at least some of this advice most of the time, the brand+blogger marketing symbiosis could be a lot more effect. None of this advice is aimed at any particular brand or blogger, and I've attempted not to point to any specific instances - these are just my thoughts on how indie brands and bloggers can all have a more successful relationship. 

Rule One: R.E.S.P.E.C.T

I am absolutely blown away by how often this very simple rule is thrown out the window by bloggers and brands alike. A little respect goes a long, LONG way, and is absolutely essential from both sides of this transaction. It's so incredibly easy to treat each other with the respect you all deserve, and yet it's so often ignored.

Indie Brands: Understand that bloggers who blog about your products, swatch your polishes, promote your sales are doing so for very little financial compensation, if any. While some bloggers make a little money, I would pretty damn surprised if any of them are making serious coin from covering indie brands. So when bloggers blog about indie products they do it (for the most part) for the love of it. Since respect is what indie brands have to offer bloggers (as opposed to money), you need to demonstrate your respect for the effort, skill, and dedication it takes to become a successful blogger whenever you communicate with them.

You don't need to respond to every "cold" approach from everyone ever. There are only so many hours in the day after all! But if you put out a specific request for bloggers to approach you about reviewing your products, be sure to respond to everyone who takes the time to apply, and do it in a timely manner. Your response in this instance can be cut and paste - you don't owe every single person a specific explanation as to why you didn't choose them. But you DO owe them a response if you asked them to apply, even if it's just, "Thanks for your information. I won't be using you this time, but can I keep your information on file?" Asking bloggers to take the time to send you their media kits etc. and then not taking the time to reply shows a distinct lack of respect. 

Another common communication faux pas is simply not responding to contact anymore, for whatever reason. Maybe the blogger in question wouldn't agree to terms you wanted, maybe you decided to go with someone else, maybe you just got busy and forgot. These things happen, we all know and understand that. But suddenly cutting off a conversation is just plain rude. If you're not interested in proceeding with the relationship because you don't like the blogger's terms, or they're just not as suitable as you thought they were, tell them. Just telling them straight up, and in a timely manner is the professional thing to do - you might not want to say it for fear of hurting feelings, but as someone who has had some rejection emails in my time, I gotta tell you a brief, professional "thanks, but no thanks" is ALWAYS preferable to radio silence. If you've gotten busy and simply forgotten to get back to a conversation, start with a simple apology, and continue from there. The person you're responding to might be ticked off you took so long to get back to them, but they might also accept your apology and then you can both move on with helping each other. Saying nothing and letting the conversation die without explanation just ensures resentment next time you try to contact them.

When working with bloggers, it's also important to show respect for their skill at what they do; telling bloggers what they can and can't write shows lack of respect. When products are sent for review, you always run the risk that the review will not be favourable - this is true in any industry, about any product. Someone who always writes relentlessly positive reviews of everything they ever receive loses the respect of the audience, and their reviews lose their value. Speaking as a consumer, I know that if I read a review by a blogger that I know never says a negative word about anything they're sent for review, I will take it MUCH less seriously than someone who's not afraid to point out when something is substandard, or even just not right for them. The review becomes so untrustworthy as to be almost valueless. Why would you want to waste precious resources on that? An honest review, even if it's not 100% glowing, is always more valuable in the long run than patently ghost written praise.

The point of difference between blog reviews and straight up advertising is a blogger's personal style: and if you, as a brand, approach bloggers with straight up demands as to how and what they should write about your products, you're treating them like they're just a blank ad space to be filled. By all means, give bloggers information you would like them to include, like where to get the product, RRP, availability, ingredients, etc. Asking a blogger to include information you would like their readers to have is very different to telling them HOW to present that information - suggestions are fine, but if you want to write the coverage word for word, you're better off running an advertisement. A blogger's audience becomes familiar with their particular voice over time. Regular readers will know when a blogger is just regurgitating a press release, or when there's been overt "editorial suggestions". It's like a friend suddenly talking like Data from Star Trek - you know, you notice, it makes you suspicious, and suddenly what they're saying loses it's ability to influence you. The power of a recommendation from a blogger is like the power of recommendation from a friend, but if your friend doesn't sound like themselves anymore, you're going to stop listening to their recommendations.

Quite apart from all these practical, budget based considerations, trying to tell bloggers what to write is just plain disrespectful. Writing (or YouTubing, or Instagramming etc) is what they do. It's their thing. It's how they express themselves, their voice. Editorial demands take their voice away from them, and shows no respect for the value of their voice, their skill, their input. How would you feel if you thought someone was treating you as a blank space, a mailing list of followers, a hollow mouthpiece? I imagine you'd be pretty ticked off, and that's how bloggers feel when brands try and control how they cover products sent for review.

Bloggers: If you want indie brands to respect you as a professional, you have to behave like a professional. Even if you're not getting paid for your blogging, if you're working with indie brands you're affecting people's professional lives. A lot of indie cosmetic makers do it as a hobby, but some do it professionally, and your lack of professionalism could effect someone else's income. It's a serious responsibility, and it should be taken seriously.

Approach indie brands with respect - respect that what they do takes effort, skill, and dedication. If approaching a brand "cold" ie. without having spoken with them about anything before, be as friendly, considerate, and professional as possible. Show respect for the brand and what they do by doing at least a little homework before sending that first email. There are several really easy things to tick off your list before sending an email that will save everyone a lot of time, and a lot of annoyance.

As I've spoken about before, some indie cosmetics (especially nail polish) can't be sent internationally. So the first port of call for any blogger attempting to reach out to an indie brand should be to find out if they are actually able to ship their products to your country. If a brand's website states that they are unable to ship their products to the UK, and you contact them from the UK, that indicates to the brand that you've done no research on them whatsoever. It signals to them that you don't even respect what they do enough to find out where they're operating from, and that's a pretty fucking low bar of respect to expect from someone who is asking to be a part of your marketing campaign.
Secondly, try and determine what language the owner of the brand speaks. If their website is all in Spanish, and you don't speak any Spanish at all, perhaps this potential relationship is just not the right fit. Sending an email in English to someone with a website in Spanish, unless you know the person in charge of the brand ALSO speaks English, is just an enormous waste of time - both yours in writing it, and theirs in deleting it. The same applies if you're a non-English speaker wanting to approach a primarily English speaking brand owner - how are you even going to communicate the wants and needs of both parties, let alone come to an agreement, if you can't put together a basic email in a language you can both understand? It's pointless, and not bothering to figure out what language to approach someone in shows a lack of respect for an indie brand's crowded timetable.

Once you've determined that you can actually be sent product by the brand in question, and that you both speak the same language (or enough to get by) I suggest you then set about finding out whether they ever work with bloggers at all - not all indie brands do, and if you go chasing a brand who've never sent out product for review before, and clearly state that they don't do it, on the offchance that maybe you might be the magical exception, you're wasting everyone's time.

If the brand DOES have a history of working with bloggers, or has something on their site inviting blogger contact, find out how they prefer to be contacted. Contacting a brand directly by email when they have a blogger contact form RIGHT THERE on their website shows a lack of respect for their wishes and by extension, a lack of respect for them. If someone told you they actually really don't want to be called on the phone on a particular day, because they're in the middle of something and a text would be much better, would you call them anyway? I hope not, because that would be a really shitty thing to do, and totally disrespectful. To extend the metaphor further, I would hope you would also recognise that it would be even more disrespectful to then repeatedly call that person who had asked not to be called, until they pick up the phone just to make you stop. In the blogging world, sending a direct email, a form contact, a Facebook message and a public Facebook wall post in quick succession is exactly as disrespectful, and exactly as annoying. Send your email, or fill out your form, and then just CHILL. Play it cool, bro. Wait a couple of days. If you don't hear anything, maybe dash off a quick, polite inquiry following up and asking if they've had a chance to read your initial email. If you still get no response, then leave it alone. For serious, just keep your damn mouse off that Send button. Maybe come back to it in a couple of months - your approach might be better by then, or maybe what you have to offer will simply be more appealing; maybe the brand owner will just be straight up less busy and can actually read all their emails. But no one, NO ONE, likes a nag. 

Haha, women, amirite?
Image from Ruby Lane
Speaking of being a nagging pain in the arse, be aware when contacting brands that they do not owe you free product, no matter how big your following may be, and to imply that comes across as very arrogant and unpleasant. You might think the brand is turning down a golden opportunity by not working with you, and you might even be right. But for goodness sake, keep that thought to yourself. It's their business, and they can run it however they want to - just as bloggers don't want to be told how to blog by brands, don't presume to tell indie brands how to sell product. If you want free product to review, ask politely and take rejection gracefully.

Some indie brands don't distribute free product for review at all - there are lots of different ways to work with indie brands, and not all of them involve the brand straight up sending you free stuff. Some indie brands offer discount codes for bloggers, or steeply discounted blogger specific packs of various samples. Some indie brands will provide free samples, but only if the blogger is willing to pay postage. Some indie brands will ask the blogger if they mind paying postage, but send the samples anyway if the blogger declines to contribute. Some people get quite sniffy about these different approaches, but personally I think they're all equally valid. Sending out free product is expensive, and not everyone can afford to factor it into their business plan. If you want totally free product to review, and only totally free product, that's fine too. You're free to refuse offers you don't find acceptable, but that doesn't make other ways of getting cheap promotion any less valid.
Some indie brands might provide free product, but only to one or two specific bloggers they already have an established relationship with. They might not interested in any newcomers, and this isn't a personal reflection on any blogger they don't choose to work with. It's just business, so be sure to respond to this sort of situation in a professional manner. Some indie brands might be totally happy to provide you with free product for review - in which case, for goodness sake remember to say thank you and fulfil your end of the deal.

If a brand does want to start working with you, be sure to consider what you agree to responsibly, and never ever agree to a request you know from the outset you won't be able to fulfill. It's far more respectful to politely decline a request than dash off a hurried "Yeah, sure" and then never do anything about it. Agreeing to commitments you have no intention of fulfilling shows a distinct lack of respect. Be clear about what coverage the brand is expecting - do they just want a blog post, and everything else is gravy? Do they want a blog post, Instagram posts, and a Facebook post? Do they want copies of any pictures you take? How many pictures of each product do they expect? Do they need the coverage released on or by a particular date? Find all this out BEFORE accepting the arrangement, and if you go ahead with it, fulfill ALL the obligations you agreed to to the best of your ability. If something comes up (as it sometimes does - life is annoyingly unpredictable) let the brand know what's going on, and why the coverage they were expecting might not be as good as they were expecting, or late, or non existent. It's the very least you can do, and leaving brands wondering what happened is just plain rude.   

Finally, a tip that's equally valid for both bloggers and indie brands: for goodness sake, for the love of syntax, USE SPELL CHECK. I know I sound snobbish/classist when I say I judge people by how they write, but it really does make a HUGE difference to how you're perceived. Both indie brands and bloggers are trying to look professional, and there's nothing professional about barely legible correspondence. If someone has to read your email more than once to figure out what you're asking for, here's a spoiler alert for you: they won't. I totally get that some people have issues with spelling they just can't help, like dyslexia, and that's a totally valid reason for the odd spelling mistake. But if you know your emails can be a bit of a mess, ask someone else to read it over BEFORE you send it. I'm not talking about making sure everything you send out is of academic quality, but keeping the spelling mistakes to a minimum and using punctuation means that whoever you're corresponding with will at least understand what you're trying to say. Back when I was using online dating a lot, one of my biggest pet peeves was people who sent me messages littered with spelling mistakes. There were a LOT of otherwise perfectly pleasant people who's messages I never even finished because there were three spelling mistakes in the first sentence. Maybe they would have been awesome - but I'll never know, because they didn't use spell check.

Which brings me to my next post! Coming up I have a second part to this series, in which I explore the many ways in which indie brand and blogger collaborations are like online dating. I know it sounds bizarre, but come back and take a look, and I promise it will make sense.

Stay tuned for Part 2 - The OKCupid Principle


  1. So agree about spelling and grammar. It does pay off - I'm much better with language than my husband (who, as an air force brat, went through 14 schools in 12 years) and he regularly has me vet his emails and documents, both at work and at home. 15 years on, there are a LOT less corrections.

    I regularly get technical documents which need to be reread several times to make sense. Not a good thing in IT, or any area really, as different interpretations can lead to wildly different results.

    1. It's so true, reasonable spelling and grammar matters in ANY form of communication. I know I automatically take someone less seriously if they contact me in my day job and don't bother to use capital letters in their email - and this happens ALL the time. Ugh.

  2. Love this post! I'm so looking forward to the next one. :)


  3. Thank you so much for this as a blogger and a new indie polish maker this is invaulable!

  4. Super post! Thank you for all this info!


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