Blogger Outreach: The right way to do it?

It is not uncommon to have played multiple sides of the field in the influencer game. I’ve been a blogger for fun (hi there!) and for profit, a digital marketer and a community manager. While never working specifically in PR, many elements of the last two jobs in particular have seen reasonable overlaps between my role and that of a PR and communications department or agency.

Something I thought we’d all left behind when so many of us started batting for both teams  is the ‘us vs them’ mentality; bloggers endlessly berating PRs for bad practice, and PRs claiming unprofessionalism in the other direction. In a world where it’s very possible that half of the equation is doing what they do as a sideline, or even a hobby*, there is still a lot of suspicion about how to deal with each other.

Straight off I’m going to say I simply don’t think there is a one way to do this well. I’m slightly wary of “five steps to outrageously good influencer outreach” type posts because all influencers are people, as are all PRs and comms professionals, and people have to work within the nuanced world of, y’know, other people. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that this is all based on relationships. You can think logically about supporting a good relationship – keep in touch between projects, RT that post – but it makes me very uncomfortable to think of gaming it.  I don’t believe it can even work in the long term, anyway; your inauthentic approach will eventually give you away. If you project frankness and reliability, you’ll get it in return; you might even end up with some new friends. Honesty is everything to bloggers – it’s pretty much all they have to build a reputation on, and I can’t see why that shouldn’t extend to brand partners, too.

Of course, sometimes things will go wrong. The ask won’t be quite right. The timing will be off. It’ll turn out that for some reason you couldn’t possibly have been aware of this was exactly the wrong person to ask. No-one gets this right all the time or even every time. But I think there are ways to avoid getting it actively wrong.

So having said I don’t think there’s a right way, there are some general common sense tips that I would like to think are a part of every decent strategy already. I repeat them because I find it’s sometimes all too easy to overlook the fundamental steps. Below are my observations, all of which I think could grease the wheels on this creaky cart of a parley.

Please note that all of this assumes you’ll have targetted your audience correctly and done your research.

1. Work out what you want

There is simply no point in doing anything if you don’t know what you want from it. Is it coverage? Is it target market research? Is it a review? Whatever it is, work this bit out first. If you don’t, you won’t know how to measure it and, crucially, what to ask for or how to ask for it.

2. Work out what they want

Bloggers are not a uniform crew. There are some that will only work for cash, and this is quite fair enough. Though, as someone who’s done her fair share of writing for free when it suited me, I don’t actually think it is or should be anathema to work without pay. Still it is unquestionably silly to request it of a blogger who sets out a rate card, unless you have a really, really good reason (even charities can stump up something, particularly the bigger ones). And if you’re working with a brand which looks like it should have budget, tread carefully.

If the particular project is a review and you can reasonably assume your chosen blogger is open to not-cash, then you can sail in with the stuff. The obvious starting point is a review sample, but try to sweeten the deal; if you have budget to add value, then do it, and put some thought into what you send so that it complements both the blogger and the brand. Not every blogger enjoys a giveaway, but giving the option – x amount of y if you think your readers would like it – is a nice added extra. I would always recommend pitching first rather than going for the surprise unsolicited gift, unless you’ve established a solid relationship with the blogger in question. It just avoids any possibility of it not being received in the spirit you’ve intended, but is also your chance to lay out your expectations for the project.

On the whole, I’d say that offering bloggers a chance to take part in a competition through blog posts is a shaky business. I’ve seen it work well, but I’ve also seen furious bloggers loudly slam brands for it. I think it can be done – if there is a gift or remuneration for all or everyone involved gets something unique like exclusive access to a product or event – but it can also be done really badly. Particularly for those bloggers for which this is a primary income source, asking them to compete for a prize is a bit like demanding someone puts hours of work into a pitch presentation for a job they didn’t apply for and might not even want.

3. Remember that less can indeed be more

There’s a temptation to think all blogger outreach has to be grand and dramatic, but thoughtfulness goes a long way. It takes a good deal of time to assemble a really nice pack or plan just the right event. Better to go small scale, use your budget wisely and work with just a few people to make something really effective and positive than to end up seeming indiscriminate. Basically, from an initial pitch email to the final denouement, anything that so much as offers a whiff of “spray and pray” will be treated with suspicion. And rightly so.

Having mentioned events, I do think these a particularly interesting area all on their own. I work largely with bloggers like me, and when approaching parents in particular I would consider the following questions before setting any plans in stone.

  • Is it offering something exclusive, unique or especially worthwhile? (Is dropping everything going to be worth it?)
  • Can the kids come? (Do I need to arrange childcare?)
  • Is there any budget to offer help with travel? (Are you giving me enough time to get cheaper tickets?)
  • Could it be held somewhere other than London? (For God’s sake, the world doesn’t end outside the M25…)

I’ve spoken to quite a few bloggers about this and these things come up time and time again. Although I live on the outskirts of London myself, I know many bloggers outside the Home Counties who get fed up with routine requests to drop everything at the last minute and bolt down to London, without any financial assistance.  It’s particularly irksome if this also excludes the very people they spend most of their time writing about – unless, of course, the whole point of the event is, for example, pampering time away from the kids.

In a way, I shall feel quite pleased if people get to the end of this post and think “I already knew that”, because it means that the job is getting done properly. I’d like to believe most of the criticism I see is because of the natural inclination to complain more than we praise, and I know there is really thoughtful and excellent outreach going on all the time. So in the spirit of that, I’d love to invite anyone reading, whether blogger or PR, to give some examples of really excellent influencer outreach that they’ve seen. I think spreading the love can only be a good thing in this industry, so let rip – in a good way!

*Contrary to popular belief, this does not preclude professionalism. No, really.

Facebook, give a Community Manager a break, huh?

Facebook threaded comments have been a long time coming, and as both user and CM I’m glad they’re here. It is ridiculous to be unable to have a clear discussion with people without tagging them – formally, often with their full name as people still don’t realise they can lop off the surname, or don’t want to – and it’s definitely, definitely a bonus to brand pages.


Oh, the irksome ranking. It actually doesn’t make sense for the most apparently engaging comments to go to the top.

No, not because it makes your life difficult if someone makes a criticism that lots of other people agree with (that’s just something you’re going to have to live with). But – and these are all examples I’ve seen that have been irritating –  sometimes a later engaging comment spins out of one made earlier, but perhaps the second person didn’t add their comment as a reply to the first, so now they’re out of sync. Sometimes a single critical person rises to the top simply because the community manager has done their job and followed best practice to respond with a clarification or apology – and the criticism might not even be relevant to the original post because people on Facebook do often occasionally rant wherever they may be, as is their prerogative. Sometimes it just screws with your ability to follow what the hell’s going on – the very issue threaded comments are meant to resolve.

I’d seen it already for some time on pages I’m a fan of; in the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies community, which got threaded comments in the beta phase months ago, practically every other lively thread had complaints and eye-rolling from users about not being able to follow the conversation. So I know it’s not just an irritation to community managers.

For community managers, however, there is the further annoyance that it’s now incredibly easy to miss a comment. The double whammy of changing the notifications so it’s harder to see which are unread and reordering the comments means that once a thread hits as little as 20 comments it’s more difficult; when really successful threads take off it’s a mind-melt. You rally because it’s your job to and we’re not talking back-breaking labour here, but it leaves you with a slightly bitter flavour in your mouth because it should have been so good.

I have quite a lot of confidence that it will change and re-ordered comments will either be refined or removed (though one would have thought that would have happened during the lengthy beta stage). But in the meantime, both as a normal Facebook user and a brand page manager I will keep making this face:


So there.

Update 04.04: Facebook has now launched new APIs “so developers can build tools that make it easier for brands to monitor and respond to comment replies”. Which is handy if you use a tool to manage your page, but seems to be a roundabout admission that the ranking system is flawed. Let’s assume the convoluted solution is a temporary fix while the real problem is resolved.


Out with the old…*

So, things are changing here at Goldstein Mountain. It’s really hard to believe, but in two weeks I will be hanging up my bright yellow logo for good, and heading off to join the team at TMW as a community manager.

I don’t really want to focus on what I will be doing yet as I haven’t started it and there’s a lot to take in and I will need time to adjust. But a brief look back at a little less than five years at Dogs Trust seems appropriate. Indeed, I could hardly stop myself.

Dogs Trust has been really key to me working out where I want to go. I arrived as a bewildered tech blogger, and am leaving as an experienced digital marketer who’s been allowed to experiment, learn and develop on the job, knowing for sure that I want to specialise more in social and communities. The amazing freedom and respect that the digital team has always been granted here has, I think, been the envy of various discussions held at NFP Tweetup and similar events. I’ve been proud to help contribute in my small way to the reputation for openness and forward thinking that Dogs Trust carries in the digital world.

I’ve been very privileged to work with two excellent digital bods, who will be friends for life. And though I needed to branch out and challenge myself and learn more, it is wonderful to leave with utter fondness and on a totally positive note.

I really think whoever nabs the currently available role in the digital team will be a very lucky person. It is not exactly my job as it is / was – a slightly restructure means it’ll be a bit more admin, and a bit less strategy – but for a junior marketer looking to take the next step, it’ll be a golden opportunity to make that leap in a supportive and fun environment.

A few fabulous memories I’ll be taking with me:

Rehoming our first dog through Twitter

– Finally hearing that Bentley, a Canine Care Card dog whose first owner passed away and who was then returned to us due to his second owner’s illness, had settled into a loving home for good – thanks to a Facebook post.

– Speaking in front of a huge crowd of dedicated animal welfare professionals at ICAWC in Stresa, Italy, after only a few months in the job.

– Attending two Dogs Trust Honours award ceremonies.

Although I only have a couple of weeks left, I’m still leaping on every opportunity to be 100% involved until the last possible moment. I was chuffed that my first go at Vine for the charity got quite a bit of positive attention – feels like as good a parting shot as any! (And I just happened to brainstorm a load of other ideas and email them to people because I’m that kind of colleague.)

At the risk of sounding like Joey Tribbiani and his giving and receiving, the next fourteen days are going to be a lot about endings and beginnings. With all the strangeness, sadness, delight, excitement and confusion that come with them.

I can’t wait.

*I was going to call this “Winds of change…” but then I thought of The Scorpions and that song that was EVERYWHERE for one apparently endless Summer and whose opening lines (allegedly “I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park”) actually sounded for all the world like “I follow demosquat, and down to Bonkly Ponk”. So… yeah.

What constitutes a PR disaster? My perspective on Argyll and Bute

It took just 24 hours for Twitter to catch alight, the ban to be reversed and a proliferation of ‘bad PR’ posts to spring up – most of them packed with good advice, and worth reading, mind. But I can’t help thinking that when we all leap on the latest outrage, we’ve sometimes lost sight of the actual extent of people power through social media. It is tremendously impressive at times, but sometimes, I think, we congratulate ourselves too warmly and too soon.

Is anyone still boycotting Poundland for its allegedly anti-poppy stance? Nestle already had plenty of PR issues – was anyone permanently convinced by the KitKat logo page hijack? Is Habitat finding it impossible to recruit interns and suffering as a result? Or, to put it bluntly: is anyone’s bottom line permanently affected by a social media storm?

That’s a serious question. I’d love to see case studies where people power has permanently changed things long term for a business (aside from the News of the World – the backing of legal wrangling tends to help make your point). I suspect that there are some cases, but also that the biggest, brashest, brightest storms more or less died without a trace, remembered and dredged up mainly by social media pros – like me, in fact.

I wince when I see slow, reactionary and arrogant reputation management because, well, it’s slow, reactionary and arrogant. I think you should fix things – and not act stupidly in the first place, as the council clearly did – because they should be fixed, not solely for economic reasons (although for any business or charity, that is a good reason). But in the end, it would have made no difference to the coffers or workings of Argyll and Bute council if they’d just done nothing and stuck to their daft line. Because they’re a council. Are people going to refuse to pay their council tax? Not buy or rent a house there? Withdraw their kids from Martha’s school? Of course not.

What does worry me is that there might have been a human cost, both for Martha and for people being harangued or treated badly either by fellow council staff or members of the public trying to show their support; I do think this should be a major consideration, because I can’t think what’s more important than people. But, again, it wouldn’t have lasted long.

And, of course, many have shown their marvellously subversive human nature by raising £2,000 while the blog was allowed and active and, at last count, nearly£50,000 in protest. Which is definitely good news for Mary’s Meals.

My point is this: of course spokespeople, PRs and community managers should be responsive, intelligent and, above all, possess some compassion and consideration when dealing with outcries and complaints. They should not get heavy with the ban hammer, or rush out poorly-considered statements. But I also don’t think we should get carried away with declaring crises, disasters or catastrophes. 

I like to think I do my job well, because I consider each and every individual whose issue is sorted out or who feels closer to us as a result of interaction online important – I genuinely care. But I also do my job well because I understand that there’s a bigger picture. Argyll and Bute can’t shrug and say “oh well, we did our best”, because they didn’t, but they can say “oh well”. Now, that’s an important difference (you should always do your best) but it’s not going to have a tremendously different outcome in this case. The great skill of the community manager, one that we all have to work at improving every day, is understanding when to adjust the lens. Argyll and Bute did it embarrassingly late, but their critics didn’t really do it at all.

The other issue is, of course, social media’s role in turning slacktivism (which I think it unfairly denigrated, at least for its short-term effects) into longer term activism. If this has inspired just one person to tackle poor provision at their own council then that’s great.

In the end, the learnings from this, as far as I’m concerned, are pretty much the same as they have been from every other case study of its type:

  • Don’t be stupid
  • When you stop being stupid, everyone will forget about it, and you can get on with things
  • Again, don’t be stupid

Or, I guess, summed up in one more positive assertion: be human, with all that entails.

Why I haven’t written an analysis of Google+

In the swirling social media maelstrom, new products, especially from the likes of Google – remember Wave? Launched with fireworks and died like a damp squib -cause a lot of excitement. And busy professionals do need to sometimes make snap judgements about whether these things are going to be worth investing time in.

However, sometimes I think people are driven more by the desire to write the ten-ways-google-plus-will-help-you-make-10-million-dollars-of-sales/donations-OMG article than to actually give the new platform or product a chance.

The thing is, it’s not brands that are going to make or break these things. They are not being built, primarily, for us to use professionally (although Google is planning a professional platform, which should be interesting). The proof of the pudding will not be whether we think on first acquaintance, with just a few hesitant conversations going on, we can build as vibrant communities here as we have on Facebook or Twitter.

Suddenly the fact that communities have a very different character depending on the platform gets forgotten. We try to apply what we’ve learned from Facebook because ‘it’s a bit like Facebook’. We try to apply what we’ve learned from Twitter because ‘there are Twitter-like elements’. We forget we have to learn some new things from Google+, if it succeeds, because it is Google+, and not anything else. Sure, tribal human behaviours online are pretty similar wherever you go, but the specific ways they manifest themselves take on quite astonishingly different flavours on different channels. Google+ will have its own.

My first approach to a new tool or platform is always, always to approach it on a personal level, as myself, and learn its etiquette, syntax and possibilities. I have to have this knowledge of this as an ordinary user if I have a hope in hell of understanding it and using it effectively as a marketing professional. Customer services breakdowns and crises happen when brands forget to be human. The basics of marketing stay pretty much the same online and off, but each individual interaction needs to be appropriately tailored.

So, while I’ve read an article or two musing on interesting points of development, I’ve deliberately shelved any premature analyses for later, and held fire on making any. Of course I have ideas about how this might go, but I like to give these things a chance to breathe and grow.

In the meantime, I’m building circles.

Community moderation: when trolls cannot be ignored

Every so often there’s some sort of awful bullying campaign online that makes me wince at the honking great downside to all this instant, often anonymous communication. I could no longer get by happily without the Internet: it’s the hub of my friendships, the focus of my livelihood, a massive convenience that I mostly love. But there is this horrible pit of nastiness that rears its head every so often, and gets me thinking about how we should deal with it.

It’s often said ‘don’t feed the trolls’. And as a community manager, I do believe in that. But there’s a context to it, and a limit.

A troll is generally someone who invades another’s space in order to post inflammatory comments. I’ve had it once or twice on dog-related fora, where someone’s come along to say something indisputably outrageous like ‘all dogs should be put down’ and is promptly dealt with. Communities are getting pretty smart and most people will just ignore them and report them to the moderators, who can remove or shut down the posts as necessary; I think this is one of the few areas where no-one really argues with deletion, as it’s not shutting down a debate, it’s getting rid of something which is there just to upset and annoy. But what about those cases where Facebook groups are set up to bully some poor kid, or someone creates a thread on their own website ripping someone they disagree with to shreds? What about when it goes beyond a few needles in the haystack and becomes a big, scary juggernaut of threats, insults and intimidation? Should you just brush it off as a hazard of the Internet, maybe report it to the mods / hosts / site owners and keep quiet in case the bullies realise they’re getting to you? But that provides the bullies an outlet without also giving the victim a voice. It doesn’t seem fair.

Because the thing about ‘don’t feed the trolls’ that gets my goat is that it demands that you take responsibility for someone else’s poor behaviour. If you respond to someone else’s inflammatory drivel, it  somehow becomes your fault for encouraging them, even though the decision to behave appallingly was theirs in the first place. There are times when it is just easier – perhaps even sensible – to say ‘fine, I’ll ignore them, block them, and they’ll go away and everyone will forget about it’. In the case of the one-off troll who comes in to stir up trouble, it’s the most straightforward moderation route and I would encourage members of a community I was moderating not to engage and to report it immediately so it doesn’t escalate and the troll doesn’t get the oxygen of attention. And it also works away from group discussion spaces; if I was, for example, to get unpleasant comments on this because of the nature of it, I would probably not publish them, because this is my space and I’m under no obligation to give them air time.  But to end up feeling like complaining about a dreadful act of bullying then makes further bullying your own fault is simply unspeakable.

I feel there does come a point where so-called trolling needs to be spoken out against, condemned and perhaps even reported to the police. Too often I see people writing posts about how they’ve felt victimised with comments going ‘but it’s not personal to you’, ‘they’re just social inadequates’ and ‘you know by writing this you’re giving them what they want’. And all that might be true, but surely it feels deeply personal to the subject. When someone is being bullied away from the online spaces, we don’t accept the old advice to ignore it anymore; we say tell the teacher, tell your parents, tell, tell, tell. Say it out loud, and they lose their power. Why so different online? What about when it’s adults involved? Just because we’re over eighteen, do we have the capacity to switch off feelings when real nastiness is focussed right at us?

Not feeding the trolls is just another way of saying ‘suck it up’. Sometimes you have to because it’s the best way to remain professional and just make the damn thing go away. But no-one should have to just suck up systematic abuse. Sometimes we need to speak up, and I’m admiring of anyone who has the guts to do that.

If you’re a young person reading this and need impartial advice on dealing with bullying, know that there are organisations out there that can help you. Like this one.

Community management skills: growing a thick skin

At some point in every community manager’s / social media professional’s life, there will come the Thick Skin Moment.

Actually, if we’re honest, it’ll happen with a fair amount of regularity. I always think I’m more immune to it than most, since before being a community manager, I did my time as software technical support. There is potentially little that is more dispiriting than being a support officer, since every single person who calls, emails or writes to you is doing so because something (that you have little control over) has failed. But you learn some valuable lessons from it, since you have to remember the frustration of being in their shoes and keep reminding yourself that they don’t know you personally and that they think of you as a company entity.

Company entities are untouchable, after all, right? They’re not real people, they don’t have emotions, they can’t have had a bad day, too. Most of the time, I had little sympathy for these entities even when I was one. Good customer service means absolutely putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and understanding their position. It’s showing that the company is understanding, helpful and responsive.

If I say so myself, I’m generally good at that!

Of course, sometimes things go wrong. Short-staffing is often the main culprit – things slide down the agenda and in the ultra-time sensitive world of social media that’s a Very Bad Thing. It is; I know it, and I try to practice the constant monitoring and updating I preach, knowing it’s easier with a bigger team, etc etc. And also knowing excuses don’t cut it; you just have to do your job well and consistently. If you mess up, you apologise. End of.

For all of that, sometimes a barb that I don’t think is fully deserved gets through that toughened hide. The public complaint that comes out of the blue, without any attempt at a one-on-one resolution. The advice which is little more than an insult. The threat from the person who disagrees with your rules and regulations (despite the fact that they’re clearly stated).

What can you do? Aside from doing your absolute, honest, level best not to let it become a situation again if you can possibly avoid it, that is. Not a lot. Smile, take a deep breath, respond rationally and politely and remember that you, too, will have ranted at someone at some time, publicly, when you probably shouldn’t have. Social media make that kinda easy. If you can’t be polite, take some time out and let someone else do it. Have a cup of tea and repeat after me: “It ain’t personal, no matter how much it feels like it”.

Actually, maybe there is another thing. Maybe next time you’re a customer, you can remember a few things that would make the exchange so much more pleasant for everyone concerned. Maybe you can say to yourself:

I will try and deal with this politely before I start being critical, and I’ll name and shame only if I’m getting a genuinely bad experience that it’s really important to go public about.

Basically, I’ll use social media for a good, positive outcome.

Honestly, I’m not intending this post as a ‘woe-is-me’ complaint, nor a snark-fest. It’s more that realisation that, as I’m learning to be a better social media professional, I can also learn to be a better person who uses social media.

Huh. I should contact Jerry Springer with that. It must be Final Thought material, right?