Innoculation – or, How Food Bloggers Can and Should Arm Themselves Against Viral Marketers

If you’ve never received one, then consider yourself lucky. If you’re a recipe blogger, you might never know the greasy, depressing feeling of opening up your email inbox to be assaulted with fake flattery and a patronizing cut and paste formula-based invitation. But eventually, because that’s their whole premise, the viral marketing companies will get to most of us, luring innocent food bloggers with flattery and booze, hoping you’ll sell your soul for a party and a gift bag, or some free samples.

While not a new phenomenon, in the age of the internet, viral marketing has become more and more pervasive. The original viral marketers used kids to inadvertently sell their products – put a pair of (free) fancy sneakers on the feet of the most popular kid in the school and watch as his classmates flocked to the store to buy the same gear. It works for clothes, technology (“hey, cool phone!”) and even vehicles – Torontonians should wonder any time they see a shiny new scooter parked on a sidewalk in front of a hip club or restaurant.

At its heart, viral marketing is about manipulation. This website outlines the six simple principles of viral marketing

  1. Gives away products or services
  2. Provides for effortless transfer to others
  3. Scales easily from small to very large
  4. Exploits common motivations and behaviors
  5. Utilizes existing communication networks
  6. Takes advantage of others’ resources

From the standpoint of the food blogger, it is important to be aware of these principles if you regularly receive offers of free products or invitations to promotional events.

Let’s look at a recent invitation I received to demonstrate these principles.

Hi Sheryl –

My name’s [PR person], and I’m with [PR company name], a marketing agency with offices in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles. As a gourmet food expert, on behalf of [product name] I’d like to extend an invitation to you and your site to attend an EXCLUSIVE evening on Monday, May 4th.

As opposed to invitation or press release emails from PR companies for actual media events, viral marketing companies often use a more casual tone when contacting bloggers to make them seem friendlier and more approachable. They use a great deal of false flattery to make the blogger feel special or that they’re considered to be an expert. This plays on principles #1 (give away products or services), and #4 – exploit common motivators and behaviours (people like free stuff, they like to feel important.)

This particular invitation included the client name and product, which is less common, but sticks to the standard viral marketing invitation MO of not revealing the specific time or location until the blogger has replied indicating their interest. If anything, that’s probably the biggest clue that you’ve been contacted by a viral marketing company – their hesitancy to give you the event particulars.

At this event, you’ll be the first to know this summer’s hottest cocktails and learn how to make them alongside [mixologist’s name], [product name’s] master mixologist. Together with entertaining expert [name], you’ll be guided through a sophisticated evening of cocktail and food trends. Plus, as an attendee, you’ll receive a complimentary [product name] gift set to take home. [ note- all bold emphasis is mine]

Again, by promising the blogger free stuff and exclusive information (which they hope you’ll use in an upcoming post about the event and/or product), the marketing company uses principle #4. By guiding attendees through the event (which usually includes a tasting of the product alongside other similar products, and of course, a comparison in which the promoted product is said to be the best), the marketers use principle #2 (provide for effortless transfer to others) by pretty much writing the script that the blogger will eventually use in their own post.

This invitation is good for you + one guest, and we’d love to see you there! If you’re interested in being one of the exclusive bloggers to attend, please RSVP at your earliest convenience.

Real media events almost never include a +1. Viral marketers allow bloggers to bring a guest because they know that many people might not want to come alone to a party-type event.

Once the event is over, bloggers who attend and don’t immediately write a post about the event/product can expect to receive a follow-up email from the PR person. Sometimes these offer more information to help you write a review of the event/product, but sometimes they’re a bit more demanding, asking when they can expect to see the piece, or to be sent a URL once the review is published.

This is where we get into principles #5 and #6. Having bloggers write about your product utilizes existing communication networks (ie. your blog) and takes advantage of others’ resources (your time and your blog, which you probably pay for in some way, however small). Viral marketing companies that deal with bloggers rely a lot on the “guilt factor”; they know that many bloggers will feel guilty if they attend an event and accept free product and don’t write about it – even if what they write is negative. And most of the time, even if the blogger didn’t like or understand the product, they’ll write a positive piece because they want to stay connected and be invited to future events where they’ll get more free stuff.

The cost of throwing a party and giving away sample products to bloggers is considerably less than running ads on billboards or in traditional media forums. For the cost of some hors d’oeuvres and samples (all of which can be partially considered a tax write-off), viral marketing companies score free publicity for their client that might cost them a considerable amount of money in a more standard ad format.

So what makes this so different from how PR companies deal with the mainstream media?

Despite their best efforts, PR companies, and their clients, know that editorial content is at the sole discretion of the publisher/editor/writer. In larger publications such as widely-read newspapers or national magazines, staff are inundated with free products, invites to media events, and potential story ideas every day. Amy Rosen of the National Post once commented on her personal blog about receiving five unsolicited sample packages in one day. With that much competition for the attention of food and lifestyle writers – and the space on the pages of their publications – PR companies are now looking to bloggers as an easier way to spread the word about the products they represent. After all, space is unlimited, and unlike those pesky newspapers that people discard at the end of the day, bloggers leave their writing up indefinitely. Not only is it free advertising for the client, it’s constantly accessible.

Now, I know that there are probably readers going, “so what, that’s the way of the world, that’s what advertising is all about.” And yes, in a way, it’s no different than what the mainstream media does every day. My work at TasteTO scores me free samples and invites to media events (some of them quite swank) every day. And yes, the people who send me those samples and invites definitely hope to convince me to write about their client.

The difference is in how it’s all done. Real media press releases comes with actual information. Invitations acknowledge the fact that writers and editors don’t have time to play games, so useful information like dates and times and addresses are clearly outlined. No one insults us with fake flattery (because seriously, food bloggers – do you think that you’re the only one getting the “gourmet food expert” line in your invitation email? Are you gullible enough to really believe they mean that?); no one toys with us by dangling the prospect of free stuff like a giant bribe (of course there’s free stuff at real media events – that’s how we know what the product looks and smells and tastes like); and while PR people are almost always polite to a fault, no one pretends that we’re going to be BFFs and go out to karaoke after the event is done.

Unfortunately, there’s no medicine against the spread of viral marketing. Someone out there will believe the fake flattery, or be lured by the prospect of a free cocktail shaker and some canapes, because it makes them feel important. But if you’re smarter than that, beware of the viral marketer. Learn to recognize their invitations, be aware of the principles they’re using to manipulate you; visit the PR company’s website to get a handle on what they’re about, and then choose wisely. If you’re offended by how they’re trying to manipulate food bloggers, call them out; either in a reply email, or as I’ve done, in your own blog. And if you choose to accept the invitation, don’t be bullied or manipulated into writing about the product they’re pushing if you don’t want to. Sure, it may mean they never send you another invitation to a mediocre party at an undisclosed location, but in the long run, that’s probably not a bad thing.