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Deep in the Cotswolds countryside is a little cottage decked out entirely in Matalan products which, for six months, will act as a weekend retreat for journalists, bloggers and their families.

Erica Davies, fashion journalist and blogger at Modern Mum Must-Have, stayed in the #MatalanHome and blogged about the experience. ‘Matalan is trying to position itself as a ‘family brand’, she explains. ‘This initiative worked really well. We were really delighted to have been asked to take part in this project and had a lovely weekend.

‘Brands are changing how they work with bloggers: they’re immersing bloggers in their product. It would be naïve to assume that bloggers don’t have an influence.’

The explosion of online blogs is big business. According to research by outsourced accounting firm Ignite Spot, 6.7 million people write on blogging sites, while more than three in every four Internet users read blogs. It’s a phenomenon which brands are not only starting to recognise, but one which they’re also hoping to capitalise on.

‘Testimonials show that investing in social media, of which blogs are a big part, is incredibly worthwhile: 92 per cent of consumers are more likely to purchase goods through peer-to- peer recommendations than via adverts,’ explains James Thomlinson, partner and managing director at digital consultancy Bell Pottinger Wired. ‘It’s no wonder retail brands are collaborating in new and increasingly elaborate ways with bloggers.

‘Some people are still sceptical, especially older comms professionals, who question the editorial credibility of blogging. They’d still prefer to see an article in a leading newspaper. But the more savvy brands are starting to understand the benefits of working together with bloggers.’

‘The relationship between brands and bloggers is changing,’ argues Ernest Opoku, co-founder of London-based creative blog Yin&Yang. ‘Brands are recognising bloggers more. They’re realising they can reach the right audience through blogs.’ Yin&Yang’s other co-founder Niran Vinod, agrees: ‘Blogging is at a tipping point. There’s a lot more money going into UK blogging right now, and there’s also just a lot more people blogging in general.’

But what is it about blogging that creates such a good opportunity for brands? To begin with, it’s the sheer number and variety of blogs. ‘The blogging industry is becoming saturated,’ says Sophia Marinho de Lemos, founder of fashion blog Girl in Menswear. ‘Often the top bloggers might not be the most relevant [for a particular brand]. A more niche blog might have fewer readers, but a higher engagement in terms of comments and shares.’

Blogs can rival traditional journalism in more ways than just numbers, however. ‘Blogging is very honest. We don’t have the political agenda that some journalists working for a larger newspaper might have,’ says Davies. ‘So this is a good opportunity for brands to showcase their products.’

‘Blogging provides a fantastic opportunity for retail brands, as bloggers document their first-hand experience of a product,’ explains Priyanka Dayal, content manager at public relations software provider Cision. ‘This can go much further than advertising, and it’s something that works for both parties.’

‘Blogging is a real person endorsing your brand,’ agrees Marinho de Lemos. ‘Blogs show real people wearing your outfit, as opposed to traditional media which will just showcase a product [on an anonymous model]. A blogger gives you airtime, as well as an easy way to navigate to your website through links.’

‘Blogging is about personality; that’s what people follow,’ explains Thomlinson. ‘You’re getting your individuality across. When you ask bloggers who the demographic is that they’re targeting, they always say It’s me. They have great insight because they know exactly who their audience is.

‘The fact that bloggers are so personable works well with the public. Celebrity culture is huge, but with the recession, people are becoming more realistic: they can see that celeb culture is not always attainable. Bloggers give realistic tips, such as how to look good on a budget. As a result, some of the most successful bloggers, such as The Man Repeller, The Sartorialist and Cupcakes and Cashmere have morphed into micro-celebrities: styling the rich and famous, securing publishing contracts, appearing on TV interviews and enjoying front-row seats during Fashion Weeks.’

Generally, PR agencies approach bloggers on behalf of brands to seek out potential collaborations: many blogger outreach programmes are now as evolved as traditional media engagement programmes. ‘Brands are thinking of more creative ways to work with bloggers,’ explains Marinho de Lemos, who has been invited to take part in a range of blogger initiatives, including styling shop windows at Christmas. Other high profile examples of brand and blogger collaborations include leading fashion blogger Susie Bubble styling a photo shoot for Clarks’ Sportwear shoe range, or Banana Republic inviting lifestyle blogger Joy Chu and her husband to recreate their first date while wearing Banana Republic clothing.

There is of course a risk that blogs end up being simply a platform for product placement. At London Fashion Week in February, bloggers were given special behind-the-scenes access but flaunted this, and appeared to blatantly promote products, resulting in a backlash on social media. ‘Followers don’t like obvious placement: they lose trust,’ says Thomlinson. ‘Brands and bloggers should work together to do something more subtle.

‘There’s also a risk for brands that sending products out cold can backfire, and they can end up with negative comments from bloggers. To minimise this risk they should trial the product as part of a wider experience. For example, don’t just say Try on this pair of shoes and write about them, but say Come to the launch event of these shoes, hear about the design, talk to the designer, try them on. This will help bloggers understand the product. There’s still no guarantee they’ll write something favourable, but a good relationship can help.’

‘Brands shouldn’t be naïve,’ argues Marinho de Lemos. ‘Working with bloggers is a marketing campaign: it needs a strategy. Blogger outreach has to be the same as if you’re working with traditional media. You can’t just send bloggers stuff in the hope that it’ll be featured.’

‘There is a real danger of just becoming an advertising platform for brands,’ agrees Davies. ‘But personally, I don’t want to become the sort of blog which is just reviews. It’s not just about freebies. If a product doesn’t fit with my tone of voice or the character of my blog then I’ll turn it down. And I’ll always flag up if a post is sponsored.’

Maintaining authenticity and personality is another challenge faced by bloggers. ‘Bloggers and brands both have their own set tone of voice and creative vision, and will want to put their own stamp on something,’ explains Opoku. ‘It can be difficult, but some brands can be very accommodating. It should work both ways.’

Vinod agrees that the key is negotiation. ‘Working with brands is about maintaining a relationship,’ he says. ‘It’s a collaboration. Both parties need to have the same vision and cater it to their audience. You build up a good relationship with a brand by creating good work. It’s easy to regurgitate a press release; it takes effort to create good content. But that’s ultimately more enjoyable and rewarding to do.’

‘It has to be a mutually beneficial partnership,’ agrees Marinho de Lemos. ‘If I get sent something that doesn’t fit with my blog, I’ll let the PR know why I won’t feature it. I’m then more likely to hear from them again in the future asking me to work with a different [more suitable] client. Brands value trust and transparency.’

It’s the lack of transparency, she argues, that poses a real challenge. ‘Brands rely totally on the blogger to tell them, for example, how many readers they have. With traditional journalism it’s much more open as there’s very sophisticated tools to identify readership. So building trust is really important when blogging.

‘This works both ways. Brands don’t always ask to sign a contract. Lots of bloggers, from the medium tier up, now have agents to help them with this relationship and to make sure they’re getting a fair deal. Many bloggers now expect to be paid, which can cost brands a bit, but still not as much as traditional advertising. If you’re trying to make a living [by blogging], you have to be commercially savvy.’

As brands invest more money in blogging, says Thomlinson, they are becoming more demanding of bloggers. ‘Bloggers need to continue to prove to brands that they’re providing return-on-investment,’ he says. ‘They need to show them website statistics, click-throughs and so on. And bloggers need to be open to doing this.’

Will blogging ever replace traditional journalism? The consensus seems to be that there is room for both to work side-by-side. ‘There’s still a need for [traditional] journalism, especially when the brand’s objectives are to target a mass audience, which isn’t always achievable through blogs,’ argues Opoku, while Thomlinson believes that ‘blogging will cause journalists to up their game. Bloggers are communicating in more innovative, digitally savvy ways. If journalists don’t follow the trend of being content-led rather than editorial-led, they’ll fall behind.’

‘Blogging won’t replace traditional advertising and journalism, but will add a different dimension altogether,’ says Dayal. ‘[In fashion,] adverts can convey the overall ‘brand’, but they’re not so good at showcasing a collection or a particular piece. With blogging, someone wears that particular piece, they take pictures out and about in it and tell us their response to it. Word of mouth and first-hand experience can therefore complement a larger brand campaign.’

A tailored approach

‘We don’t tend to differentiate between fashion journalists and bloggers,’ says Laura Mitchell, media officer at the Museum of London. ‘We embrace the blurred line that exists there. We include anyone relevant in our outreach. Blogging is definitely expanding, and represents a really important media for us.’

According to Mitchell, the Museum of London has in the past had most success with London bloggers, such as London Historians, Ian Visits and Time Out’s Now. Here. This. However, its recent exhibitions focusing on fashion and jewellery have given the Museum a different opportunity: to engage with fashion media and bloggers.

For The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels, an exhibition investigating the collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery discovered in London’s Cheapside in 1912, the Museum of London worked with leading fashion journalist Sarah Mower, who wrote about her visit to the Hoard for the Vogue US Daily blog.

And as part of the campaign publicising the display The Anatomy of a Suit, The Daily Telegraph’s men’s blog published an article on the history of the suit, written by the Museum of London’s fashion curator Timothy Long.

‘We’re integrating owned and earned media,’ explains Mitchell. ‘We also publish our own fashion content: our fashion curators are regularly contributing in-depth blog posts and fronting videos that appear on our Museum of London blog.

‘Additionally, retailers seem to be looking outside of themselves to create additional compelling content for their readers, related to their interests. This offers exciting opportunities for arts and culture stories that reflect these interests.’ For example, high-street tailors Austin Reed ran a piece on their blog about The Anatomy of a Suit, which looks at dissecting the suit jacket and the hidden engineering underneath. Similarly, the Office Shoes blog published an article on the Museum’s Jewellery Season, which incorporated information on The Cheapside Hoard as well as contemporary jewellery exhibition Made in London: Jewellery Now.

‘When looking for relevant blogs, it’s all about research,’ says Mitchell. ‘Look at what that particular blogger is writing about. As long as what we’re pitching is relevant, we try to be inclusive of both traditional media and blogs. We also invite bloggers to all our media events and previews.

‘We take a tailored approach though; it’s certainly not one size fits all. You need to understand the content of that particular media provider. You can’t just send out a blanket press release. If you do your research and understand who you’re targeting, it will stand you in good stead.’