Brands Court Female Bloggers in San Diego

100 corporate sponsors bring out their wallets for BlogHer '11

If there were any doubts that major brands see so-called "mommy bloggers" as a key audience, a walk across the show floor at the BlogHer '11 would have dispelled them.

The annual conference, hosted by the women-focused blog and advertising network of the same name, was held at the San Diego Convention Center last weekend. In the same venue that Hollywood took over a few weeks ago to court the geek crowd at Comic Con International, companies like Jimmy Dean, Twizzlers, and HTC erected large booths, held cook offs and other events, and handed out schwag by the bagful.

Last year, marketer Jen Drexler complained that brands had delegated their presence to "entry-level publicists and media planners," but this time, there were at least a couple of brand managers and executives on the floor. And PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi gave one of the keynotes, telling the 3,500 attendees that they were "the future" and trying to sell them on a vision of PepsiCo as a company that's as interested in healthy, fresh food as it is in sugary sodas.

Barb Dybwad, a veteran of the tech blog world (her resume includes stints at Joystiq and Mashable) and now content director at gadget site Tecca, said this was her first BlogHer in several years. When asked how the event has changed, she noted a big increase in scale (the first BlogHer had around 300 attendees) and in the presence of sponsors. Not that she's complaining. Dybwad said the conference isn't nearly as commercial as an event like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and she noted that sponsor payments lower the ticket price, making for "a more diverse group of attendees."

According to BlogHer, the conference had around 100 sponsors this year, the same as in 2010, but 50 percent more than in 2009 and a dramatic change from the conference's debut with half a dozen sponsors in 2005.

Two of the big sponsors at the event were Proctor & Gamble and Jimmy Dean/Hillshire Farm, and they both announced new initiatives. P&G has a new healthy-living campaign with BlogHer called "Life Well Lived," and Jimmy Dean announced its involvement in the "No Kid Hungry" program. When discussing their presence at the conference, executives from both companies said they have been increasing their outreach efforts to female bloggers over the years. Jimmy Dean/Hillshire Farm vice president Daryl Gormley described the shift as an "epiphany." The other watchword, for both of them, was "authenticity."

For example, P&G external relations manager Anne Westbrook said that the company's sponsorship efforts with bloggers always give the blogger room to "put [the message] in their own words . . . We want them to create really relevant content that doesn't feel like a big commercial push."

For the same reason, Gormley said he's more interested in education and outreach than he is in outright sponsorships.

"I believe that's the strategy for the medium term," he said. "It's hard to foresee a time when we'd be willing to risk compromising that authenticity."

Not everything at the conference was about money and brands. Speakers covered a wide range of topics like motherhood, immigration, and creativity. But there was a conference track devoted to business, and at a panel titled "Connecting With Brands From the Inside Out," the audience filled the ballroom, peppering the speakers with questions about how to make money from brands—through advertising, sponsored content, consulting, and promotional relationships called brand ambassadorships. The conversation became fairly intricate, covering issues like how to maintain editorial integrity and when business relationships need to be disclosed.

Professional Blogging for Dummies author Susan Getgood, who moderated the panel, said afterward that these topics aren't new. She called 2006 the real "inflection point" when the industry started to become more professional, and that bloggers have become even more sophisticated in the years since. Getgood, who is also BlogHer's vice president of sales marketing, said that shift may have been obscured by the relative inexperience of the panel audience.

"There are always new bloggers," she said. "But even new bloggers realize that what they're embarking on is a professional journey."