I walked into the dimly-lit hotel meeting room, unsure of what to expect. A bartender poured me a glass of Pinot Noir, and a server would appear shortly with a revolving selection of hors d'oeuvres. Staff people did their best to make small talk with me, struggling to maintain expressions of interest on their faces, and tables with products pimped for holiday gift-giving lined one end of the room. Participant gift bags decorated the other. Intentions were dressed-up with red tissue paper and nervous smiles, but the evening's true purpose hung low yet in plain view, like a stranger's exposed undergarment from which you cannot pry your gaze. My hosts wanted a product recommendation on my blog, and the expense to which they were willing to go was stunning.
I was invited to an event about techie gift-giving, specifically for bloggers. I was promised some freebies and interesting contacts in a low-pressure setting, but I appeared to be in the midst of a full-blown press junket. A well-known office supply chain wanted to get the word out that they carried gadgets and gift ideas in addition to paper and pens. There was one other blogger in attendance; we were both moms who wrote personal blogs, nothing technical or product-review-oriented. The rest of the women in the room were writers who covered product reviews for online sites and publications. After a presentation about product features and important buzz words we might want to include in possible write-ups, we were sent home with press kits in our little gift bags.
To enter the party we signed video release forms, giving the office supply store permission to use our image and speech, which they would be filming, any way they chose. The camera peeked over shoulders like a nosy relative while women mingled at the beginning and talked around the product tables. As an "extra service" to the bloggers, there was an opportunity to introduce ourselves and our blogs for the camera in an interview that also conveniently included a brief interview about the products with which we were the most impressed. The video segments would be posted on YouTube along with the code to embed any video content on our sites. You know, just in case we were interested.
The videographer asked about my blog, and I told him about our family's recent move to New York City from the Denver suburbs. He says that he's been entertaining the idea of moving in the other direction, out west to Boulder. "I think any place you live has its own set of pros and cons," I said. "Sometimes you're just ready to deal with a different set." He said, "You're singing my song.” We talked about how American cities are losing a distinctive sense of place as they host a predictable set of chain stores and franchised eateries. "You won't find an entire city free from those companies," I told him. "Not even in Moscow or Tokyo. The best you can hope for is a neighborhood with a sense of character." He agreed, rolled the camera and we went on, promoting one of the chain stores that homogenizes cityscapes.
Similar events are becoming common as companies look for ways to use the growing influence blogs have on public (and private) opinions to their advantage. Instead of reaching out to bloggers and building relationships, this event was about pushing products. It failed for the simple reason that advertising and personal blogs don't mix.
Word-of-mouth recommendations are effective—my friends and relatives are always exchanging tips about Great New Finds. My grandmother's wooden box of "family recipes" is filled with foods that originated from old family friends. The meals and dishes were sampled, enjoyed and added like staples to our family's cultural pantry. My New England aunt attended a professional meeting in which the moderator asked participants to share their greatest discovery in the previous year. Not detecting his deeper intention, my aunt declared, "Oh, definitely Smartwool. It changed my life."
When seeking a recommendation, we're not just looking for an announcement of a product, service or event. We are primarily asking someone to build our trust that a new thing is worthwhile, or to warn us about things to avoid. It is the context of the relationship that gives a recommendation its power. Trust is built, not in a vacuum, but in a context—a history of reliability and agreement.
In 1900, the research institute behind the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval was founded and the power of the magazine's product recommendation was undeniable, as though Word-of-Mouth Auntie was vouching, heart-to-heart with a million of American housewives. It must not have taken long for other magazines to add product reviews to their contents, or for advertisers to shift their funds to securing mentions on those pages, as well.
When I was young, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval had become part of the cultural jargon. Until recently, I harbored a fantasy anytime a magazine presented their Best Product Recommendations that staff writers were out exploring every interesting shop and boutique like treasure-hunters. I assumed Product Reviewers donned aprons and spent hours scrubbing miracle stain removers onto the worst blood, grass and wine stains they could find--doing their best to find the loopholes in advertiser's claims. Now I know these writers have products brought to them via large marketing firms, such as the one hosting my Strange Event, and products with little or no marketing budget have little hope of seeing the light of fame.
I lost interest years ago in the mainstream magazine I received because the articles that were supposed to be informative--even instructional--regarding how to simplify my life were thinly-veiled ads for the same companies who purchased full-page slicks. Advertising cover to cover, with the promise that a simpler life was just a fat pocketbook and countless purchases away. My life is now simpler without that pound of extra advertising in my mailbox and on my coffee table.
In recent years, the word-of-mouth recommendation has met a megaphone--one that was mass-produced. No longer would the mouthpiece be solely in the hands of staff writers in New York and Los Angeles. Opinions decentralized and found a new outlet: the blogosphere. Any amateur with a computer and an opinion could post their views or the details of their breakfast. Millions of Americans have their own blogs, and even more read them. Retailers and the media have felt the power shift, though they have yet to understand it.
There are many types of blogs now: photography, technical/professional, journalistic, and personal. Some support symbiotic relationships with advertisers, like a friendly fungus growing on a tree, but understanding the source of the personal blogs' success shows why these powerful word-of-mouth recommendations cannot be bought.
Advertising dollars are so influential in publication that posturing is done to please or avoid displeasing advertisers, and content is both created and arranged to generate a “buying atmosphere”. The light comedy in the popular sitcom, Friends, hosted prime commercial spots in which one-dimensional product claims could fly right in under suspended radar. Put the same ads in a commercial break for serious—even sad—programming, and its shallowness is glaring. Over time, this trend emaciates its audience. We are starving without substance, put off by too much polish--information that is edited and directed until it no longer resembles our actual experience. We're missing authenticity, and it catches our attention like nothing else.
For example, when Jon Stewart interviewed Lynne Cheney on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, I was riveted. It's no secret that Stewart is not the VP's biggest fan, poking fun so regularly that recurring segments are dedicated to the man. When Stewart and Mrs. Cheney sat face-to-face, the discomfort was palpable. He squirmed. I squirmed. He posed a question, then retracted it, stumbling to find his footing. It was unrehearsed and unpolished. I was spellbound, unaccustomed to seeing such humanity expressed by a television personality.
Authenticity not only catches our attention, it also gives us a sense of connection to each other. The other blogger at the Strange Event told an editor from a popular magazine's online site about her blog, on which she writes honestly about parenthood's less proud moments. The editor was twenty-something without children of her own, but she could jam on this topic.
“I have some girlfriends at work who have recently had babies. They said that people ask how they can leave and go to work every day, but the truth is that they are relieved to have the break. They feel guilty for thinking that--they weren't prepared to feel that way. They read all the books.”
It is the authenticity of the uncensored and unedited communications on personal blogs that makes them so compelling. The new mom who wasn't prepared for every aspect of parenting and the blog of a seasoned mother, posting it the way it is, are a perfect match. The formal publications don't touch on life's dark experiences except to treat them lightly, like comedy. The complications and paradoxes of the human experience don't the audience in a frame of mind to believe advertisers when they tell us we are one simple purchase away from happiness.
We're not lacking for information, ideas or products. What we're missing is comfort and connection--ingredients that are becoming scarce and rare in our society's cultural pantry. New technologies weave into our social fabric, but I don't share the enthusiasm of my friends. I worry that we are forgetting how to be in each other's presence. I fear we are trading imitations of relationship for the real thing, gradually and unaware.
The message with which so many personal blogs resonate, You're not alone in your experience of this world—let's take comfort in each other, is a non-consumerist message. It compels us to put away our wallets and take the hand of someone we love. Messages like, You are enough, Enjoy what is, Don't scarf down your life--really taste it and savor each bite, would slow commerce and those are the last conversations advertisers want to start.
The Strange Event was perplexing and surreal. I was amazed at the complete disconnection from the purpose of personal blogs and the reason for their success, and I was disturbed by the assumption that anything with that power can be bought. It was an opportunity for connection that they squandered, like a gentleman who mistook his date for a prostitute.
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