Working With Beverage Bloggers: DOs and DON'Ts
April 14, 2011
The other day I gave a talk on social media at the WSWA convention in Orlando. The audience was mostly distributors, brand owners, and PR professionals.
We had five people on the panel and just an hour to to talk, so naturally I was the last one to speak and we were already over our allotted time in the room. I had to make it fast so I condensed a ten-minute talk into about three minutes, which is longer than it will take you to read the rough outline of my talk below.
Working With Cocktail Bloggers: DOs and DON'Ts
- Don't call, unless you are asked to call.
- Don't send packages without your information or sell sheet. Mystery booze is nice but won't help you get press.
- Don't treat every blogger the same. The National Enquirer isn’t the same as Cat Fancy; it's the same way with blogs. Different bloggers publish different sorts of content- one person may review your blueberry vodka, another may publish recipes with it, and another might write an industry trend piece about the rise in berry flavors. Familiarize yourself with the top blogs and pitch accordingly.
- Don't think a blogger is obligated to write about your product just because you sent a sample or a recipe. Instead of following-up with “When will you be posting?” try: “I hope you enjoyed the sample. Is there anything I can provide you with?” (Also, bloggers aren't obliged to respond to emails- we're busy too.)
- Don't block access to information. If a blogger has a question that only the master distiller can answer, do your best to get that answer. Be a conduit for information, not a roadblock.
- Do create shareable content and shareable media, and give it away. Shareable content includes brand histories, tasting notes, distillery profile, and especially recipes. (And hire somebody to create good new recipes.) Shareable media includes photos (bottle shots, cocktail pictures, party shots from events, cell phone snaps from bar visits), videos (How-to-make cocktail videos, distillery virtual tour, live tasting with distiller), and projects (send out tools to help bloggers build their own content: a comparative tasting kit, home blending exercise, cocktail ingredients, bar tools, punch bowls, etc.)
- Do Provide Incentives and Rewards. These include Samples: send large size ones and send them often. Someone reviewed your product positively? Send even more! Admission: to press events, parties, out for drinks with the brand ambassador, etc. Bloggers don't get as much love as traditional journalists, so a little bit of love goes a long way. Money: Some blogs charge for spirit reviews, recipe development, and of course ads, but you can also hire bloggers to cover events, to photograph cocktails, or to be the party photographer. Fame: If a blogger posts something about your brand, use your own social media tools to retweet, post on Facebook. etc. to drive traffic to the blog. The blogger gets more hits and the brand gets more attention. It's a win-win.
I focused on just my top tips. I welcome your additional suggestions in the comments.
To see the slides from all speakers for this presentation, follow this link. Mine are last.
Thank you Camper for participating on the panel. Next time you'll go first.
Posted by: Steve Raye | April 14, 2011 at 02:01 PM
"Money: Some blogs charge for spirit reviews, recipe development, and of course ads, but you can also hire bloggers to cover events, to photograph cocktails, or to be the party photographer."
Isn't all of that just plain old conflict of interest? Should I believe Blogger X's review of a product from Company Y when Company Y is paying X's bills?
Posted by: Stephen Beaumont | April 15, 2011 at 06:05 AM
Every spirits competition charges brands that enter. Why should blogs be any different?
My real opinion is this: You're not paying for the review, you're paying for the time spent on the review.
And well, you choose to believe who you believe whether they charge money or not. Anyone can write a review.
Posted by: Camper English | April 15, 2011 at 10:54 AM
So wait, I don't think I understand this right: if I'm a spirits blogger (assuming I have enough traffic) a liquor company will send me a free bottle of their product AND pay me to drink it? Wow. I'm either an idiot or a saint, but obviously I'm doing things a little differently (wrong?) on my blog. Don't the liquor companies start thinking—and reasonably so—that they're paying for a good review? I'm with Stephen Beaumont here: you lose your integrity by selling your space. And it sounds kind of sleazy. Am I crazy? One more thing: don't blogs now legally have to disclose when they are compensated, or even sent free products?
Posted by: Harry | April 15, 2011 at 12:09 PM
They pay some bloggers, yes. They pay Paul Pacult for his reviews too, because his opinion is important. I don't think anybody can be a professional reviewer without earning money doing it from the very people they review. As I said, all spirits judging competitions charge money for entries.
Yes blogs technically have to disclaim freebies, etc. Scroll down and you'll see a link to my disclaimer.
Posted by: Camper English | April 15, 2011 at 12:16 PM
Thanks for the rapid reply, Camper. I guess I'm still just not comfortable with this. I can see the rationale for spirits competitions. Everyone pays the same entry fee, which not only puts them all on an equal footing, but also pays the bills for the competition. It makes sense. And that could extend to Paul Pacult's reviews, too, in a slightly different way. It works for Pacult because he's so big and well-known that he's reviewing thousands of spirits, and if each pays the same price for entry, there isn't a conflict.
But when it gets to bloggers, doesn't that fairness break down? I mean, unless we're talking about established blogs that run enough reviews to make it fair, and charge the same thing to everyone, and refuse larger fees from people attempting to buy a favorable review. One potential problem is that a review fee policy is a disincentive for me to write about products (or try them at all) that don't send me checks. Another is that I get so few fee-paying companies working with me that it gets harder for me to write a critical, unbiased review.
I have a friend who writes a blog (not about cocktails or spirits) who won't post negative reviews because he's afraid that companies will stop sending him free samples. If he doesn't like something, he doesn't write about. I asked him if he didn't think that diminished the credibility of his positive reviews, and he replied that he felt his hands were tied—at least until he gained enough clout and readership.
So for me it's that intermediate area, between casual blogger and professional reviewer that I'm hung up on. Where is that threshold where it becomes okay to charge, where it's no longer about buying influence?
Posted by: Harry | April 15, 2011 at 12:47 PM
Yep exactly. And why would a brand pay for a review from a site that only publishes paid positive reviews if that's obvious? Most wouldn't bother; they'd pay someone whose opinion matters.
One of the mommy bloggers wrote in defense of paid reviews. She said that the bloggers needed to be compensated for their time. They'd only publish positive reviews but they'd send the negative review to the producer via email instead.
Does it damage credibility to only publish positive reviews? I'm not so sure that it does. I mean, when major magazines write about "5 new whiskies to try" they don't also include ones to skip.
There would be little need for ethical debates about paid reviews, press trips, and free samples if everyone writing was independently wealthy and didn't need them to pay the rent. But that's just not the case. I figure that it all comes down to disclosure on the writer's side, and the reader having a critical eye as well- you must decide who to believe.
Posted by: Camper English | April 15, 2011 at 01:04 PM
I guess I'm fortunate in that I started doing this stuff long before there was anything like a blog, but my view has always been that if I accept money from a brewery, spirits producer or importer/agent, then it opens the door to people questioning my impartiality. I know that it wouldn't affect my opinion of a beer or spirit, at least not consciously, but readers couldn't be expected to know that themselves.
Samples allow me to review things I might not otherwise have access to, and trips enable me to see brewing and distilling operations I wouldn't otherwise see. But taking cash to review a product -- or in other words, provide content for my blog and thus increase its relevance -- I think crosses the line.
And BTW, I'm still a very long way from being independently wealthy.
Posted by: Stephen Beaumont | April 15, 2011 at 01:33 PM
Well I guess we all decide where the lines are. It could be argued that a press trip that costs 10 grand will be have more influence on a writer than a hundred dollar review fee. It's up to the writer to uphold ethical standards.
So much of journalism is adhering to personal and the publications' codes of ethics; most of which is invisible to the reader. I think it's the same with blogs but people (and the government)seem to hold blogs to a higher ethical standard than print journalism (because it is so much easier to be unethical in the blog format).
Posted by: Camper English | April 15, 2011 at 01:57 PM
Most of us who write about this stuff are motivated primarily by some kind of passion, but few of us have imperial patrons or bottomless trust funds so we all struggle to make a living from what we do. I applaud Camper for engaging this demon and for Stephen and others for pushing back. We're all similarly situated and I'm sure Stephen and Camper could switch sides in the debate without losing a beat. The purest approach would be for readers to pay for content, but we all know that's a non-starter.
Posted by: Chuck Cowdery | April 20, 2011 at 11:08 AM
This discussion immediately brought to mind the blog of Wayne Curtis http://slowcocktails.squarespace.com/ which includes the delights of his "Press releases I didn’t finish reading" series along with what seems to me to be pretty frank commentary on the spirits world. Commentary that does not holdback from measured critique where it appears to be warranted.
At the end of the day its down to the reader to decide on the trustworthiness of a blog they are reading. This is no different to any other internet piece, newspaper, or book that the reader picks up. The reader must be aware that money has a way of influencing things in the world in which we live, and influence it certainly does.
If a blogger reaches the point at which they no longer write negative reviews, or (perhaps more worryingly) won't cover a quality product without the correct inducements, clearly this will have an impact on their output and on how they are perceived by their readers.
I wonder if many bloggers are missing an authenticity opportunity that the medium of the internet offers them, in that they simply don't get sufficiently meta. "This is what I thought of product x, and this is what these other people thought of it (links). Whats-his-face gave it 4 stars (link), but so-and-so observed this flaw (link)."
Kudos to Camper for triggering, and not shying away from, an interesting debate.
Posted by: Paul | April 23, 2011 at 05:21 AM
I consider it an honor to write about the good and the bad. The simple fact that a spirit is in the bottle spells passion! Unless of course the product was invented in a marketing department without any provenance or spirit behind the spirit. I just don't write about these.
Cheers Camper for a fine article!
Posted by: Warren Bobrow | May 28, 2011 at 10:46 AM
I found your point about shareable media to be incredibly important. I run RateTea.com and also have a personal tea blog, and although I don't blog much about alcohol, I definitely review some of it (especially beer) on RateBeer and I have occasionally mentioned it on my tea blog. But I see the same issue coming up in the online tea world.
One major mistake that is common among tea companies, but is even more widespread among alcohol manufacturers, is making websites that are not easy to share.
A classic example is the flash-only website. Any website where the different pages do not have shareable URL's is also an example. I don't know why, but alcohol manufacturers seem to be some of the biggest culprits of this...they have a big flashy website that's like a television advertisement.
The internet is not television! There's a reason people search the internet rather than watch TV--they want to be more active and engaged. They want to search and read written pages and navigate them how THEY choose. I think having a straightforward URL scheme that allows you to share specific product pages is very important for this.
I also have a quibble with your recommendation about money though. I'd discourage providing any sort of monetary incentive to blogger. It's one thing if a major blogger sets up a competition and charges money to cover costs. But for small bloggers, paying for a review sends up red flags. I do tend to think that money corrupts things. Often, you can tell a blog that is getting kickbacks for not-so-authentic product reviews. People tend to react against these sorts of blogs, and I think the best blogs tend to have clear and strict policies about accepting payments, and usually only do so for advertisement and material that is clearly identified as being sponsored. Legitimate bloggers may be offended (and permanently turned off to your brand) if you offer them money in a way that is not fully transparent (presented as sponsorship or advertisement) to their audience.
Posted by: Alex Zorach | June 21, 2012 at 07:48 AM
re: money. Blogging is work that has value and that takes time. I don't think that as a blanket statement money has no place in blogging.
I agree that money exchanged should be disclosed (and legally it has to be), and that there is a difference between paying for reviewers' time and paying for positive reviews.
Posted by: Camper English | June 22, 2012 at 12:09 PM