General Mills Recruits Blog Backers

NEW YORK Bloggers, particularly moms, are an audience of such growing importance to General Mills that the consumer-goods company has built a formal network to feed them free products and enable them to run giveaways for their audiences.

MyBlogSpark has recruited more than 900 bloggers — over 80 percent are moms — to register to be eligible for everything from sampling campaigns to product coupons to news of a new ad campaign. General Mills plans to use the network to promote its wide portfolio of products in the food and beverage, beauty, home, electronics, health and automotive categories.

General Mills can be confident the program will fill blogs with positive reviews. One of the requirements for participation reads: “If you feel you cannot write a positive post regarding the product or service, please contact the MyBlogSpark team before posting any content.”

Stacy Becker, an account supervisor at Coyne Public Relations, which worked with General Mills to construct the program, said the clause does not constitute a requirement to write good things. “We want to know if someone does not have a good experience with one of our products so we can share [that feedback] with the brand,” she wrote in an e-mail. “They are free to write anything they’d like, though.”

Becker could not point to any reviews that weren’t positive, but she assessed some as “not so great,” adding: “We don’t tell them not to write, but most want to only write positive things.”

The company suggests bloggers inform readers they receive products for review, although that is not a requirement for participation in the program. It does not compensate the bloggers in any other way, according to David Witt, brand public relations manager for the company.

“We want them to disclose they’re a member,” he said. “We want to be really upfront.”

The Federal Trade Commission has suggested it might put in place regulations requiring clearer disclosure from bloggers who review products. A half-dozen product review posts from MyBlogSpark members sampled did not include mention of General Mills. The typical disclosure was more discrete.

“If bloggers want to maintain editorial integrity, they need to disclose their variables for reviews,” said Sarah Hofstetter, vp of emerging media and client strategy at 360i, which has run blog-influencer programs but is not affiliated with MyBlogSpark. “If they’re only going to review things they like, they need to disclose this is part of their deal: they’re receiving a lot of products from a lot of vendors and they only review what they like.”

The General Mills program highlights the growing importance of bloggers to marketers, particularly packaged-goods companies. So-called “mommy bloggers” are an influential group, increasingly courted by big brands because moms control up to $2 trillion in annual spending. That’s led companies like Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Wal-Mart to up their efforts to reach them. Walmart, for example, began the much-lauded Elevenmoms program that invited a select group of mom bloggers to give product feedback on the retailer’s site.

Thanks to the popularity of blogs, particularly among moms, brands can get reach that rivals or tops traditional media. The 910 bloggers in MyBlogSpark draw an audience of 8 million visitors, according to General Mills.

“Some of these bloggers have bigger distribution than newspapers,” said Witt. “They’re pretty important.”

General Mills has already put the network into use for a couple of its brands. It contacted 100 mom and food bloggers in conjunction with the launch of a new blueberry acai flavor of its Yoplait Yo-Plus yogurt. It provided coupons to try the product as well as tote bags and other swag to give to readers. General Mills also sent out key product messages touting the yogurt’s health benefits.

The effort resulted in several blog posts, nearly all of them positive containing similar product messages. Most posts did not disclose they were written as part of the General Mills program. “I had the opportunity to be one of the first to try the new Yoplait Yo-Plus Blueberry Acai Yogurt!” wrote Abby at Me and My Boys! blog. “I loved it!”

Other reviews picked up on product talking points. “I have a new midnight snack,” wrote Christy at the blog Shake the Salt. “A healthy midnight snack. (Next step is not eating at midnight, lol.) Not only is it very tasty, but they come in 4 oz cups, which I love. In addition to tasting yummy and coming in a perfect size cup, they have many other wonderful benefits.”

Overall, the program resulted in 5 million total impressions and over 8,000 comments with no media costs. (General Mills does not buy ads on blogs, Witt said.)

The network will make such programs easy to run quickly, he added, rather than the ad-hoc approach it had relied on with its blogger relations. An upcoming program would include 500 bloggers, he said.

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“Influencer Programs Likely to Spread”