Word-of-mouth marketing is a very powerful thing. When you can generate buzz for your product among the people who are using it, what they say about it will probably do more good than any traditional marketing campaign. So, it stands to reason that when you have a new online product or service, bloggers can be pretty influential. In addition to the word-of-mouth marketing potential of bloggers, inbound links from bloggers can significantly impact Google Page Rank. That’s why so many groups (non-profit and for-profit alike) are reaching out to bloggers to market their products.

Only most of them do it terribly.

I get bombarded with marketing requests on an almost daily basis. I sometimes even get sent books and other items. There’s no way I could possibly read or examine all of the products I’m being asked to look at. And for the most part, I don’t look at any of them because their marketing pitches are so bad. I figure that if they don’t take the time to craft a good message, I’m not going to take the time to look at their product, no matter how interesting it might be (and usually it isn’t).

Here’s one that I received recently from a non-profit organization:

After doing a web search for bloggers interested in education, I came across your blog at http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/index.php. I would like to introduce you to a unique new children’s education nonprofit called GLOBIO. We’re creating the world’s first safe children’s global online community, for kids 7-12 years old; a place where kids discover the world, share what they learn, and are inspired to become involved. As someone who is focused on children’s education and the resources available to educators, we think that you will be especially interested in our work to date.

… [several paragraphs about their product] …

We are very excited about sharing our resources with kids and educators. Please help us spread the word about GLOBIO and Glossopedia™! If you find our materials and approach engaging and helpful, add a link to us on your blog and tell your colleagues and friends about GLOBIO!

The email was then signed by the CEO of GLOBIO, though the email came from someone else in the organization. It was so obvious that this was a lame form letter designed to get bloggers to link to their product (and yes, I actually do know the URL of my blog, thanks). No matter how good what they’ve created is, and how altruistic their motives are, this sort of email is really bad marketing. It’s insulting to the intelligence of bloggers. No one likes to be manipulated like this, and I can’t imagine that most people who received this email actually wrote about the product.

Another thing that really gets me is when marketers try to sell to me in the blog comments. That’s even worse because they’re trying to get to my blog’s audience to see their product without my permission. It’s called spam.

The other day, David from College Source.org did some nice comment spamming on a post totally unrelated to his comment:

Hi, I think you have a great blog here. I wanted to ask if you deal with students asking about college planning or college finding resources on a regular basis? There is a ton of information out there, and I just wanted to see which resources you’re aware of online. CollegeSource and CollegeNet as well as CampusExplorer and eLearners are all good sites that I direct my students to, whether they are interested in researching traditional schools or smaller, private, trade-oriented schools. eLeraners lists only online programs, all accredited and valued. Anyway, hopefully you know of some other useful sites out there that are good tools for high school and college kids to utilize as they plan for future education.
Thanks, and keep up the good blogging!

As if I — or anyone else — would allow that to stay in the blog comments.

The thing is, I think marketing to bloggers could be done well if the people doing the marketing actually had some respect for their targets and actually bothered to understand the culture of the community they’re trying to engage with. Here are my tips for marketing to bloggers:

  1. Do your homework
    Come up with a list of bloggers whose messages are strongly related to your product. This means doing more than a Google search for “education blogger” or “library blogger”. You need to actually read their blog posts. Get to know them. I get a lot of people sending me information about screencasting products. That makes sense because I’ve written about screencasting. It does not make sense to send me information on educational sites for little kids or college prep sites. That has nothing to do with anything I’ve written about before. Susan Etlinger writes about the importance of knowing the culture you’re getting into when you market to bloggers in her post from BlogHer 2007:

    At another point, a couple of PR people helpfully pointed out that the best way to pitch bloggers is to read their blogs. For a PR person, this is akin to gospel. But what many PR people don’t get is that, more than anything, bloggers care about community and authenticity. And they don’t like to be manipulated.

  2. DO make it personal.
    Putting the URL of my blog into a form letter does not make it any less a form letter. Even if it is a form letter, you should write it in such a way that makes me believe you wrote it just for me. If you haven’t made the effort to personalize my email, why should I make the effort to check out your product? Also, make sure that the person sending the email is the same person whose name is on the email. If the CEO can’t be bothered to send out the marketing emails that are in his/her name, I can’t be bothered to read them.
  3. DON’T ask them to link to you, write a review about you, or spread the word about you.
    If a blogger gets excited about your product or service, they will write about it. Being asked to write about something makes people less likely to do it. Bloggers don’t like being treated like your personal advertising service.
  4. DO ask their opinion of the product.
    I’m much more likely to follow a link when someone is asking for my opinion. I want to feel like my opinion is valued and that you want to design a product that better meets my needs and the needs of people like me. This is exactly how Blinklist got me to switch to their social bookmarking tool in late 2005 (I switched back to del.icio.us about 8 months later because of a usability issue — how easy it was to hit delete instead of edit and lose your bookmarked content). It’s like wanting to be “more than just a pretty face.” People want to feel like they’re wanted for their insights; not for their blog.
  5. If you do make a “fan” of a blogger, DON’T ask too much of them or make them feel they’re being taken advantage of.
    I was a huge fan of PBWiki software when it first came out. One day, the CEO of the company contacted me and we chatted on the phone about my thoughts on how to make PBWiki better. Next thing I knew, I was asked to be on their educational advisory board which they said wouldn’t amount to any sort of a time investment. I said yes and then started getting bombarded with requests. Requests to give my 2 cents on new features seemed totally reasonable. Requests for me to tell them how to market their product to educators and librarians (and to give them a list of people and publications to contact) was not. You should never ask too much of people who were nice enough to help you out early on. They also contacted another blogger who was helping to plan Five Weeks to a Social Library and asked her to promote PBWiki to our students! ICK! I still actually like PBWiki software, but I ignore any emails I receive from them these days and I am very careful to let people know about the full range of hosted wiki options out there.
  6. DO make this sort of marketing just one part of a conversation with your community of users (and potential users).
    Don’t just send out press releases designed to look like personal emails. Engage with your population. This means having a blog yourself where you engage in a dialog with your users and become part of the community. Read books like Naked Conversations and Marketing to the Social Web: How Digital Customer Communities Build Your Business and learn how to build relationships. Give to the community as much to them as you get from them. The relationship should be mutually beneficial; no one wants to feel used at the end of the day.

I’ll end this post with another on-the-money quote from Susan Etlinger:

Social media is called “social” for a reason. When you approach bloggers you are not approaching them in their office–you are approaching them in their home. And whether you realize it or not, you’re asking to join their community. So don’t “pitch” bloggers simply looking for a new free outlet for product reviews or coverage. Engage with them because you can bring something to their community, and they to yours. Does your service help them in some way? Would your relationship complement their brand? Would you consider them more as a partner than a “target?” Finally, consider who is doing the approach, and make sure that there is real common ground. If you can do this, and you’re in it for a mutual relationship, you’re on the right track.