Fashion Blogs + Free Samples: The PR Community Speaks

With traditional media struggling through its reinvention and the voice of the consumer growing exponentially through social media channels like blogs and Twitter, the influence of fashion bloggers as powerful allies in the quest for online PR is a growing component of fashion PR strategy. Now the FTC is proposing blogger regulations around disclosure and eyes are refocusing on just what goes on between brands, PR and blogs. More on that later, this post is about the changing expectations for both PR agencies and bloggers when it comes to sending out client samples.

Fashion Street by SideLong

Fashion Street by SideLong

From a PR perspective, there are several key benefits to developing relationships with fashion bloggers and including fashion blogger pitching as part of a client’s strategic plan. “I love print, but we are witnessing a paradigm shift to the web,” said Matt Meyerson, RPRT Communications and Management, who spent years working in product placement for fashion brands. “When you think about it, a blogger covering your client is doing you more of a favor than Vogue in a lot of ways, they are spreading the word immediately and to an international audience,” he concludes.

Positives

The immediacy of blogs can mean instant coverage as opposed to the much longer lead times required by print publications, passionate fashion blog readers find product reviews on blogs more credible than those from traditional media, blogs aren’t limited by their circulation so a blog hit potentially extends awareness to an international audience, and finally, inbound links from a popular fashion blog to your web site can provide powerful SEO benefits.

Top fashion blogs can drive significant traffic and awareness for fashion labels, and email-powerhouse Daily Candy has been known to launch more than one brand with their signature cheeky copy and monstrious database of trend-seekers. Fashion bloggers are regularly featured in Vogue, Teen Vogue, Marie Claire and Lucky, both on and offline. The L.A. Times has recently written several pieces on fashion bloggers, including one specifically about fashion designers working with bloggers for PR.

The downside

Despite all these positives, there have been a few negatives, mostly due to the fact that many bloggers are not trained fashion editors. Also, as a new form of media, PR has had to learn what works and what doesn’t work in the space. As a result, the relationship between fashion PR agencies and bloggers has been rocky, as both sides have blundered their way through a communication strategy that is at times more “show-time synergy” than your favorite Jem & The Holograms episode, and at others more like a cringe-worthy karaoke rendition of “Like a Prayer.”

A bit of history

To be fair, most the blunders have been on the PR side. In the last 3 years, the industry has seen fashion PR agencies hiring interns to post anonymous comments lauding the benefits of clients on fashion blogs, fashion weeks refusing any fashion bloggers press access and recently,  a fashion designer going into a rage over a top fashion blogger posting pictures of herself wearing said designs on her blog.

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Fashion blog fever

With the increased media coverage and endorsement of fashion bloggers, we have also seen a great insurgence of new fashion bloggers, no doubt inspired by the success stories of fashion bloggers being flown to fashion weeks, consulting for major fashion houses, and of course, the allure of that fashion editor major perk, samples.

As a result, many fashion PR agencies now receive daily emails from fashion bloggers looking for samples to review as well as requests for additional product samples in order to host give-aways on their blog. This has created a bit of a conundrum for fashion PR’s and emerging designers as they try and figure out what the ROI is on sending out so many non-returnable samples. There is also the issue for agencies of negotiating the potential coo of easy coverage on smaller blogs, with realistic results, combined with growing client inquiry into quantifying the value of blogger outreach.

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Managing expectations, proving results

Anonymous fashion designer “K” is currently working with a PR agency, and shared her frustration this way, “it ceases to be a sample request when you root through my line and find the specific free goodie you want and ask for that item in a specific color and size. You aren’t asking out of journalistic interest, you are asking for free stuff. Second of all, my products aren’t “free” for me. There is a cost I incur from supplies and shipping and labor when any piece of merchandise leaves my shop and those costs add up when no name blogs hit me up for freebies every day. The bloggers don’t seem to get this and my agency doesn’t either. It’s not just a cost of doing business when the blogger isn’t actually really exposing my brand to anyone. It’s just ripping me off.”

Part of the problem may lie in perception and a lack of understanding about how the fashion industry works. As Lauren Rich, owner of RICHPR explains, “[I wish fashion bloggers had a better] understanding of startup vs. established brands.  Bloggers must understand that asking large, established brands for samples is completely different than asking a startup brand for samples.  From my experience, I feel a lot of bloggers don’t understand why small, newer brands won’t give samples when they’ve received samples from/reviewed numerous larger, established brands.  While having those big names is certainly impressive, it’s not that the brand doesn’t want to give a sample, it’s that they can’t.  Smaller brands typically only have the budget to produce limited quantities of samples, so not only are excess samples scare to begin with, but sending one out is literally money out of their pocket.  It’s a shame because it’s these new brands that really need the coverage, and many times they don’t receive it because of “nonreturnable” sample policies which they can’t meet.”

Are you wearing my shoes? Is that my clutch?

Janna Meyrowitz, Founder and President of Style House PR explains the change in online media relations this way, “Five years ago, the online section of our media outreach lists included maybe 10-20 key, important online publications. Since then that has grown tremendously. When [our focus on fashion bloggers] first started to grow I remember there was a lot of pressure on PR companies to really fully do their research before pitching a blog, or any online publication, to really understand it and pitch on-topic, even moreso than with traditional print and television. Why? Because these bloggers could publicly chastise you on their site and ruin the reputation of both you and potentially your clients. I’ve seen a zeitgeist in the past year – the tables have turned. [At Style House PR] we have learned to regularly read the blogs/online pubs that we want to see our clients in so that we can adopt their language and pitch them items and ideas that we know they and their readers will love.  Meanwhile we are getting an influx of inquiries from bloggers from all different backgrounds covering all kinds of topics who are pitching us before they have done any research on us or our clients.”

Art Comments

Art Comments

The CEO of an anonymous Los Angeles based PR firm who we’ll call Mr. Jones, agreed that fashion bloggers are getting a little greedy. He said, “I do feel fashion bloggers expect too much. Recently, during a fashion week, there were many requests from bloggers for front row seating. After looking up their sites I only granted front row to two of [them]. [Many of the sites] were local bloggers but their sites were either outdated or just not read.”

A snippet on samples, of the non-returnable kind

With traditional media relations, agencies are used to sending out samples to be photographed. While the occasional sample goes “missing”, and return of samples might be a bit delayed, the majority of the time, you get the product back. As fashion designer Heidi of WaterField Designs explains, “The interesting thing to me is that large media outlets not only return samples upon request, but are usually *required* by their publications to do so. I have read about bloggers upset that they are not treated as serious journalists by some companies. I always make sure to respect them for their work, but if they come across as bloggers who mainly want “free stuff” they should consider the professionalism of the [those] publications, and try to emulate [them]. If they do, they will see that the same professionalism comes back in how they are treated.”

Don’t make daddy (likey) angry

With tens of thousands of fashion blogs out there, it has become increasingly difficult to determine which bloggers are the best to pitch or send out coveted samples. As Meyrowitz attested, there is also concern within the PR industry that an angry blogger could generate some serious reputation damage. This is increased by the nature of bloggers to pick up on each other’s stories and spread content virally.

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Trying on solutions

As a result, Style House PR has taken a pro-active approach to moderating blogger inquiries. “Style House PR has created a Blogger Consideration Form that we send to bloggers in response to queries if we have never worked with them or heard about them before. We’ve found that it really helps us to differentiate between those who wefeel will be a valuable asset to our outreach, and those who we feel, unfortunately, are just looking for swag.  It’s also been a valuable tool on Twitter where we say Are you a blogger interested in products for review? Click here to download our Blogger Consideration Form to be added to our roster of consideration. Every time we tweet that we get a handful of inquiries and they are usually serious bloggers who we inevitably work with soon thereafter.” Meyrowitz added, “Of all the inquiries we receive via email, who then get this form, only about 40% of them take the time to fill it out and send it back. And we are fine with that because we know then that we are working with the best of the best.”

At RICHPR, clients who can’t afford samples might offer a discount code or a promo code for the bloggers readers instead. Miranda Coggins of LinoLip has started her own blog with a monthly giveaway. As she explains, “this sends people directly to MY website and hopefully will prompt them to purchase. They also have to leave a valid email address to register which gives me the ability to email them our newsletter.”

Getting on the list

So which blogs get put into the sample list and how are they evaluated? PR agencies are still checking Alexa ratings, unique visitors/traffic, comments, how often the blog is updated, the quality and length of posts, and aesthetics, as Lauren Rich attests, “visuals are key.  A well-designed site goes a long way.”

Mr. Jones uses this formula, “Unless the blog has an international following and they have data to back that up (ie unique visitor stats), we don’t send out samples or swag. I also look at the amount of viewer comments because that shows you about the blogs readership. If the count is high, you know its a successful blog. It’s also not just the high number of comments its the quality of them as well.” Interestingly, Mr. Jones also shared that “there are very very few blogs that I would send something to and they haven’t asked for samples. They work with the photos/stories I provide.”

(Stock photography courtesy of Shutterstock)

Featured image courtesy of Erika Astrid Photography. Design courtesy of Yazmina Cabrera, Girl with a Banjo.

About This Author

Known as the “fashion publicist’s most powerful accessory,” (San Diego Union-Tribune) and the “West Coast ‘It’ girl of fashion PR,” (YFS Magazine) Crosby Noricks put fashion public relations on the digital map when she launched PR Couture in 2006. She is the author of Ready to Launch: The PR Couture Guide to Breaking into Fashion PR, available on Amazon. Crosby spends her time managing PR Couture and mentoring fashion publicists through PRISM and Instappable, as well as the biannual NYC workshop, Fashion PR Confidential. Occasionally, she opens up limited consulting spots for emerging brands through her signature offering, The Brand Elixir.