Be it new LED TVs, designer stilettos, Hollywood DVDs, home decor, independent reviews by bloggers are increasingly swaying customer choices and opinions.
Brands have seen this coming for some years. Today, they are actively engaging with bloggers to market their brand ethos and products. "When a blogger writes about our brand, it's an independent view. It's not brand-speak . It's an opportunity to see how people see our ethos," says Neeraj Goyal, general marketing manager at Johnson & Johnson. His company organised a meet for women bloggers in the 19-35 age group in Mumbai last May in association with Indiblogger, as part of its product, Stayfree's "It's time to change" campaign. "Bloggers have the potential to change the thought process of readers," says Goyal.
With fun contests, games and giveaway goodies like mobiles involved , such meets attract good numbers. For instance, the Indiblogger-Spice Mobiles blogger meet in Delhi in June had around 250 bloggers in attendance, reportedly the largest one in the capital so far. T M Ramakrishnan, CEO of S Mobility Ltd says, "You are open to criticism at a bloggers' meet. We instantly get to know what people think of our product. Such interaction is very important."
That kind of interface can inspire blogs which create a buzz around the brand. Blogger and creative writer Arvind Passey says, "I have had a lot of readers get in touch with me through Facebook or Twitter or even direct messaging and mail... and I have made serious attempts to address their queries every time." He says brands appreciate that bloggers have a deeper online penetration and a mass-perception that they express and reflect the truth according to their sensibilities; they can be won over by a fraction of investment that other traditional forms of advertising entail; they add their unique insights to product perceptions and also tend to reflect the changing moods of the public.
The "thinking population" might be the target audience as of now, partly because net penetration is low in India (10.2 percent), as compared to China (38 percent) and Japan (80 percent). But that might not matter, says Veer-Chand Bothra, chief strategy officer of digital communications firm, Netcore Solutions. "Tech bloggers are already established and they are authentic voices and people trust them. I get most traffic through Google."
One platform that promotes this level of interface is Indiblogger, which has around 28,000 registered bloggers. "Our core philosophy is engagement. We organise the events. It's up to the blogger to participate . A number of brands now have separate budgets allocated for us," says Vineet Rajan, one of the co-founders of the site. Goyal of Johnson & Johnson adds, "Companies are putting aside 15-20 percent (and increasing) of their ad budgets on digital campaigning."
Industry watchers say there are no "payments" involved at present. "Most bloggers tend to be happy with small gifts (disguised as prizes) and write about brands in their way. Remember , bloggers can be friendly and they can be harsh. But they would like to remain as close to the truth as their individual perception allows them to. This is important to them as their readers too aren't absolute suckers. Blogging does pay you but a good blogger doesn't run after money," says Passey.
But money matters for brands. "We need to find out how many Facebook "Likes" or blog hits are actually converting into brand participation ," says Goyal. However, the bottom line remains - ignore blog power at your own peril.
*Saira Kurup is a reporter for online journal The Times of India.com.