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Bloggers Mean Business

They’re not the future of fashion magazines—they’re the future of fashion branding
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Gap takes a similarly low-pressure approach, seeking to generate feedback with impressions as a secondary (and yet often successful) consideration. “It’s a constant two-way dialogue,” says Gap’s Olivia Doyne, director of partnerships, brand engagement and PR. In August, the company offered to outfit speakers at a conference run by blog network BlogHer; nearly all opted to don a Gap-provided outfit on stage. The brand received almost 2 million online impressions related to the conference without a single piece of paid media or advertising.

Several previously cold-faced fashion houses have even developed their own down-to-earth blogger voices, including Oscar de la Renta’s OscarPRGirl and Donna Karan New York’s Twitter account (@DKNY), an insider-y peek at the brand and its author’s “life as a PR girl.” Personal? Check. Relatable? Check. Aspirational? Check. Branded? You bet.

But elaborate deals involving giveaway contests, blog content, design collaborations, photo shoots, and appearances are difficult for fashion brands to pull off. PR reps are still learning to treat bloggers as more than an easy PR hit, says Jennine Jacob, founder of IFB, who blogs at The Coveted. Too often, a brand hosts parties and distributes free samples, expecting a fawning blog post, she says. It’s a turnoff. “My student loans don’t accept free products from a brand and neither does my landlord,” Jacobs says. And the quid pro quo agreements are not just tacky, they’re illegal.

Ann Inc. learned that when a January invite for a schmoozy party to preview LOFT’s spring collection promised gift cards to attendees, but only after they blogged about the event. The result: an FTC investigation, since it happened shortly after the agency had adopted rules requiring bloggers to disclose when they’ve received payment or goods related to coverage. (The investigation concluded with no fines to Ann Inc.) Standard practice now is to note an item is “c/o” or care of the brand.  

Other complications: As blogging talents grow in influence, so do their fees—some bloggers command $5,000 for a one-day appearance. And as fees for design collaborations can range from $5,000 to $30,000, according to Macala Wright, former account manager of GCI Group and publisher of FashionablyMarketing.Me., convincing brands to shell out has been an uphill battle.

Compensation is also muddled by the fact that fashion bloggers occupy an in-between area in endorsement contracts. They are technically the talent, like any celebrity. But unlike a celebrity, bloggers offer a package—Facebook fans, blog visitors, Twitter followers—and need to engage free of wording restrictions and exclusivity clauses. Brands, accustomed to working with advertorial teams, struggle to give up control. “[Brands] have to know that nobody is jeopardizing anyone’s image,” says Karen Robinovitz, co-founder of fashion blogger agency Digital Brand Architects. “A blogger knows what will resonate with her audience, even if it means never capitalizing her ‘i’s.”

Robinovitz started DBA with former Fleishman-Hillard vp Kendra Bracken-Ferguson after watching bloggers undervalue themselves in deal negotiations. She represents more than 50 fashion bloggers. “We don’t believe every moment has to be paid for,” Robinovitz says, “but once the brands realize what they’re paying for is above and beyond basic editorial coverage, they start to understand.” Driving the point home: Bryanboy, one of fashion’s most famous bloggers who earns six figures a year from appearances and ads on his blog, recently signed with CAA.

(Not everyone agrees that bloggers need agents. Wright has written that bloggers need lawyers, not agents. Others say agencies prey on bloggers.)

But perhaps the most important question for a marketer is: How do brands measure the success of blogger collaborations? The ROI metrics aren’t easy to articulate and there are no best practices. Juicy Couture looks at everything, such as share of voice, sentiment, awareness, referrals, resonations, support response, clicks, fans, retweets, views, etc., says Michelle Ryan, its vp of digital and social media. DBA is developing an algorithm for a brand perception metric that links traffic from its bloggers to purchasing data.

The issue found its way into the news last week when reps from Ann Taylor, Kate Spade, and PR firm Starworks publicly trashed Tumblr’s attempt to sell them expensive blogger-driven marketing partnerships related to Fashion Week, when the platform doesn’t provide basic analytics to its dedicated brand users. But blog-brand partnerships are still relatively low risk, which is why more brands are trying the campaigns on for size. “The beauty of doing something online is that it’s much more forgivable than spending $1 million producing a TV commercial,” Wright says. And with fashion bloggers’ uniquely deep engagement and influence, “the return on that money is much higher than giving Kim Kardashian 10 grand for one tweet.”