Rethinking the Return on Relationship

I hated the term "Return on Relationship" the first time I read it. I had been screwed over and used by a few people that I considered friends around the time that this phrase was becoming popularized. I wasn't wrong about being upset that people were talking about cashing in on  friendships, but I might have been a little too hurt at the time, making my initial response to the concept pretty negative. Can you blame me? "No" is the correct answer, okay?  This morning, I woke up to a mention on Facebook by one of my favorite Social Media stars, Scott Monty. He was responding to a discussion about why bloggers want relationships with brands, what does that relationship look like, is it worth it for the brand, what were the drawbacks, etc. After his initial cheeky response ("Free stuff"), he talked about working with bloggers in a creative way that was more important and meaningful than just giving random bloggers free stuff.

This is by no means a new conversation, but the questions keep being asked, so clearly, we are all still wondering whether blogger/brand relationships work and who is doing it right. For some reason, I've been lucky enough to work with a few amazing brands, so I thought I'd opine.

Last week, I spent a day and a half at Verizon's Innovation Center in San Francisco. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I found that I was surrounded by artists, promoters, popular tech writers, a couple of VP's... and then it came to tell the table about myself. I started by saying:

"Hi, I'm Sugar Jones, and I have no idea how I got in here."

It was an awkward moment that got a good laugh, but truly, when I'm on some of these trips, I can't help but line myself up against the other attendees and wonder what about me got me on the plane and behind the curtain. As I gave a quick background, (sales & marketing, blogger for a few years, decent following on Twitter), it started to make a little more sense. I'm pretty much an average female consumer with kids that has x amount of dollars to spend on stuff. Also, I have a big mouth both on line and off. Beyond that, I get really excited about the things I like. Not only do I get excited about interacting with a product or brand, but because of my sales & marketing background, I get excited (while being fully aware the whole time) how it is that brand is reeling me in.

In case you think I get suckered a lot, I must tell you that I'm quite a discerning person and definitely not a fan of crap. I called the Volt out way back when, didn't I? Okay then.

Knowing I was in over my head with all the pros on the Facebook thread this morning, I still jumped in and gave my plebian response... to which none of the pros responded. I'm taking that as a resounding "Meh" from the elders. That's okay. They were talking about PR stuff. I was just responding as a simple blogger.

Here were the simple points I was trying to make boiled down to their essence:

  • Most bloggers DO just want free stuff. The return on that relationship is going to suck.
  • SOME bloggers are incredibly loyal for the experiences that a brand creates for them, regardless of stuff.
  • Being treated like we belong in the room makes us really freaking happy.

The return a brand gets from a blogger depends on so many factors. You see a bunch of companies (or their PR group) sending out thousands of emails hoping that something will stick. If the blogger responds, they'll ask for the product for free, maybe a payment for the post, and IF they like the product, they might tweet about it. That's all they should expect with that level of engagement.

Then you get a company like Verizon that gathered a group of us together to ask us how they were doing, what could they do better, and how can we work with them in the areas that they are lacking. Then, they wow us with their new technologies and their third party products that we got so excited about, we couldn't wait to snap and post pictures to all of our platforms. Before we left, they gave us a few cool products and a T-Shirt that proves we got to hang out there. What do they get in return? A loud group of outspoken people talking over each other about all of their shortcomings and praising them where they are getting it really right, PLUS, some of us run straight to our Verizon store after our trips to buy (with actual dollars) the cool stuff they introduced to us.

Yes, that's what I did.

Or take Ford. They bring a group of bloggers along with their traditional auto journalists out to Detroit, give them inside information into their technologies, making us swoon with delight at all that they are doing to be better stewards of our world, followed up with some great experiences on their test tracks, including drag racing each other in F-150's, and guess what? They now have boots on the ground talking all of their friends and neighbors into buying a Ford.

Yes, we are still planning to buy a Ford. We're just enjoying a few more months of no car payment.

Then there's Nintendo. They have the blogger relationship DOWN! The group that handles our ambassadorship is constantly delighting us with random packages and fun experiences to showcase the functionality of their products. When you add up how much all of our "free stuff" costs, it's really not very much. I mean, we could all go out and buy these items without a second thought. But the cool part is we get these games before everyone else and in a way that delights us. For instance, for the release of one mystery game, we received a random package with a message in a bottle. The message wasn't visible until we used the blue light flashlight from the second package to decipher it. We knew something else was coming, but had to wait until the next day to find out what that something was. It was a mystery about a mystery.

Delightful!

Brands that are thinking about working with bloggers need to decide what return they want on those relationships. They don't have to take us on lavish trips or send us free stuff all the time, and bloggers shouldn't expect that. With all the noise out there, brands do need to get more creative; be more delightful. Do they just want a bunch of random links leading back to their site or do they want to create an army of raving fans, sold out on their product or service? Do they want to give a thousand bloggers a little tchotchke or do they want to give a smaller group of compelling bloggers a really cool experience? Neither is right or wrong. It just depends on the return the brand is looking for. Regardless of which approach a brand takes, the old axiom rings true:

You get what you give. 

PS: Bloggers... this goes for us, too. ;)