There was a moment after New York’s 2009 Fall Fashion Week when fashion bloggers had officially, as the press likes to call it, “arrived.” They had blogged their way to the front row of Bryant Park’s most exclusive runway shows; they were the new army of digital Anna Wintours. They wrote in Internet slang and posted photos of themselves mixing vintage with Valentino. They were so quirky! And also, influential! Or so news outlets gushed. Stiff, walled-off fashion editors, once secure in their self-preserved ivory towers, were trembling in fear of a coup.
Fast forward two years and fashion’s digerati have shown they actually have no interest in Wintour’s job. They’d rather sit across the table from her, as the faces of the companies whose ads keep publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and W in the black. Bloggers don’t want to be editors, because they’ve built something much more valuable: brands.
For the past four years, Midwesterner Jessica Quirk’s blog, What I Wore, has featured photos of her wearing outfits she’s styled. She details the origin of each item, lending an implicit endorsement to the brands she’s sporting. It’s not journalism; it’s talking about oneself. Which is to say, it’s branding oneself.
The explosion of this type of blog and the influence of the women behind them are due, in part, to readers of magazine glossies wanting to see relatable ladies in “real world” clothes. Independent Fashion Bloggers, an online community, has more than 30,000 members; Technorati lists 8,117 fashion blogs in its directory. Sites like What I Wore garner 20,000 unique visitors per month, according to Web traffic measurement site Compete; around half of those readers return daily.
Now fashion bloggers are leveraging their followers to become marketing machines for brands other than their own (in other words, to earn money), augmenting those companies’ advertising and PR strategies. They’re taking on numerous roles including guest bloggers, models, designers, and endorsers. They’re maintaining credibility with fans—they hope—by choosing partnerships discerningly, while discussing deliverables, audience composition, ROI, and conversions with their sponsors. The opportunity to convert their readership into customers for brands is huge—apparel and accessories was the second-largest category for e-commerce spending in 2010, beating out even consumer electronics with $20.5 billion in sales, according to comScore. “People are doing their best to find an audience like mine, a 25- to 34-year-old woman who spends X dollars shopping online,” says Quirk, who blogs as a brand ambassador for Timex on its website and on What I Wore, and has blogged for Ann Taylor LOFT on its site while posting photos of herself in LOFT clothes on her own. A former designer, she also designed a bracelet for charity that will sell in LOFT stores this fall.
These brands could hire a celebrity spokesperson. Instead they’ve hired a celebrity spokesperson who has her own distribution channel.
Coach probably started it. In 2009, its marketing execs noticed that bloggers, not magazine editors, were driving social conversations online. To put it in corporate terms, “they adeptly used the aspirational and visual nature of blogging to share a unique and authentic perspective,” David Duplantis, evp of global Web, digital media, and customer engagement at Coach, told Adweek. Last year, the company recruited four bloggers to custom design, for pay, limited-edition Coach bags. Karla Deras, Kelly Framel, Emily Schuman, and Krystal Simpson worked with Coach to create purses named after their blogs, which they promoted on those blogs, and on their Twitter and Facebook accounts. (They quickly sold out.) Coach is expanding its design collaboration concept to a larger group of global bloggers, Duplantis says. It also features bloggers as models in digital and in-store ad campaigns and has a monthly Guest Blogger. For last week’s Fashion’s Night Out, blogger partners, including Framel (The Glamourai), hosted an in-store party featuring clothing displays they styled around Coach bags.
The blogger-brand marriage reaches the highest of high fashion: Susie Lau of Style Bubble has worked with Valentino and Furla for events and editorial features. Rebecca Minkoff even hired Daniel Saynt, founder of blog network Fashion Indie, as its CMO earlier this year.
It cuts across the spectrum to mass market brands, too. Blogger/designer Keiko Lynn Groves hosts Facebook chats for CVS Beauty Club. Framel and Schuman modeled in ads for Forever 21. Gabrielle Gregg of Gabifresh collaborates with The Limited on designs and promotions for a plus-size brand, eloquii, launching in October.
Juicy Couture even turned to bloggers to reverse an unsavory image when it found itself boxed into a tracksuit ghetto of sorts. Through blogger outreach like events featuring after-hours shopping with DJing by India Jewel-Jackson of Glam.com, it massaged its image. “Many of my peers have a new respect for them . . . and they did it without forcing themselves on anyone,” Framel says.
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.”