Investigating the failure of firm-blogger collaboration initiation: A blogger perspective
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Investigating the failure of firm-blogger collaboration initiation: A blogger perspective Marianne Sepp, Johanna Gummerus and Veronica Liljander Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland Introduction Blog marketing is becoming an increasingly accepted form of marketing. In order to communicate with end customers who read blogs and are therefore subject to blog marketing, firms can either have their own employees blog or comment on blogs, or employ external sources such as public relations professionals or private bloggers to do so (e.g. Smith, 2011). Collaboration with private bloggers has become increasingly common in many industries, especially in fashion and beauty where a growing number of companies have started blogger outreach programs (Clark 2010). About 29% of people from the 18-24 years age group seek advice from bloggers before they buy beauty products (Tesseras 2014) and therefore an increasing number of companies are trying to persuade bloggers to talk about their brands. In fact, recent research reports that at least in fashion industry, blogs influence readers positively (Halvorsen, Hoffman, Coste-Manière and Stankeviciute, 2013). In this study, we therefore focus on private beauty and fashion bloggers who are relatively independent of firms and whom the customers therefore perceive to be reliable information sources. Although some previous research on the collaboration between firms and bloggers exists, the main focus has been on bloggers who have already chosen to collaborate with a company, and the underlying assumption has been that the firm-blogger relationships are predominantly harmonious and successful. Studies have focused on how bloggers incorporate marketing messages to their blog (Kozinets, de Valck, Wojinicki & Wilner 2010; Kulmala, Mesiranta & Tuominen 2013), how corporate collaboration enhances bloggers’ taste leadership (McQuarrie, Miller & Phillips 2013) and how bloggers incorporate brands to their personal storytelling (Kretz & deValck 2010). Furthermore, Uzunoglu & Kip (2014) investigated how companies and PR-agencies pick out influential bloggers for their campaigns. However, we know little of what can go wrong in firm-blogger collaboration in general and their initiation in particular, although many firm-blogger collaborations fail at the initiation stage (Clark 2010). Due to the focus on successful collaboration and brands that bloggers willingly add to their blogs, there is a lack of studies investigating why and how establishing collaboration (i.e. relationship initiation) fails. Such failures are costly and should be minimized, or learned from, and consequently the underlying reasons for failure require research. What are the factors that shun away bloggers? Could perhaps also bloggers learn from these failed initiation attempts? These questions, as well as others, stand open. To the best of our knowledge this study is the first to investigate what makes a company’s effort to establish a relationship with a blogger fail. We do this by taking the blogger perspective, looking into the reasons bloggers give for abandoning collaboration suggestions. Consequently, the aim of this study is to examine collaboration initiation failures from the bloggers’ perspective. Our results contribute to relationship marketing by exploring the prerequisites and hindrances for firm-blogger relationship initiation and to social media marketing literature by studying the barriers of firm-blogger collaboration. Literature review Relationship marketing (Berry, 1983) focused originally on the relationships between firms and private customers (Gummesson, 2002), extending later to any two parties and networks (e.g. Anderson, Håkansson & Johanson 1994; Grönroos, 2000; Håkansson and Snehota,
1989). The network approach has been emphasized in the nascent marketing environment, partially due to the rise of consumer networks in social media (Kozinets, de Valck, Wojnicki and Wilner, 2010). It highlights the interconnectedness of actors, and outlines important third actors, such as external part-time marketers (Gummesson 1991; 2002), who may act as sources of word-of-mouth (Christopher et al. 2004). Bloggers can act as such third actors, communicating messages with marketing content to their readers. Marketing where one consumer is a middleman reaching a network of other consumers has been coined the “network coproduction model”, (Kozinets et al. 2010), and it is characterized by the “use of new tactics and metrics to deliberately target and influence the consumer or opinion leader” (p. 72-73). In social media marketing, we however know very little about the tactics that firms use to initiate relationships with bloggers and what makes bloggers reject the attempts. Although there is limited information about the firm-blogger collaboration, previous research on relationship initiation and blogger motivations can be useful, and we will discuss these research streams next. Because relationships are two-sided, relationship initiation depends on the needs of both parties and how collaboration supports these. Relationship initiation studies (Dwyer, Schurr and Oh, 1987) outline the relationship development as a process that starts with awareness (recognition of the other party as a potential exchange party), after which follows exploration. During exploration, both parties consider the pros and cons of the collaboration, including expected obligations, benefits, and burdens. The benefits may stem from similarity of values, beliefs or personality. According to Dwyer et al., several aspects are necessary for successful relationships initiation: the parties must communicate effectively, negotiate roles that correspond to their inputs, and form expectations for promising future interactions. These factors thus relate to communication and negotiation of the collaboration content. The study of Edvardsson, Holmlund & Strandvik (2008) add characteristics of collaboration which move the relationship initiation process forward: time (timing of activities), trust (in people and firm) and service offering (its distinctiveness in comparison to alternatives). The relationship inhibitors entail bonds (structural and perceptual ties that create inertia), risk (estimated difficulties in the co-operation and possible negative outcomes of it) and image (perception of the seller). In a blogging context, bloggers can be expected to evaluate similar collaboration characteristics for themselves but also from the perspective of the blog readers. Furthermore, marketing via blogs can vary from contract-based (where obligations and benefits are set) to open sponsorship (e.g. handing out merchandise with loose obligation), meaning that different types of firm-blogger relationships exist. Collaboration can also restrict to one-time marketing cooperation, but at the initiation stage this may be difficult to define, as the first collaboration may either lead to the beginning of a long-term relationship or end it in its bud. Regarding blogger openness for collaboration, Smith (2010) identified three important aspects. First, bloggers are well aware of firms’ attempt to persuade them. For bloggers, collaboration decisions in general create tension, because the blogger needs to merge his/her roles of blog community creator with that of commercial actor (Kozinets et al. 2010). Because of their dual role, bloggers have both private and community interests to guard (Kozinets et al. 2010). Bloggers perceive a variety of social gratifications of which many stem from the interaction between the blogger and the readers (Sepp, Liljander & Gummerus 2011). Often, the bloggers experience an obligation to their readers (Halvorsen et al. 2013; Smith, 2010). Bloggers see their blogs as a “personal medium for self-expression, community connection and sharing opinions” (Smith, p. 176). Second, the bloggers expressed the wish to receive neutral information rather than carefully crafted marketing communication. Third, the blog content may vary due to the evolvement of bloggers: in the introduction phase the blogger is mostly testing out, in the community membership phase the blogger’s main concern are the
reader connections, and in the final phase, autonomy, the bloggers experience ownership over content creation. (Smith 2010) Finally, Hinz, Skiera, Barrot & Becker (2010) compiled literature and summarized four general viral marketing success factors from the firms’ perspective: 1) content in terms of message attractiveness, 2) structure of the social network, 3) behavioral characteristics of the receivers and the incentives suggested and 4) seeding strategy, referring to the choice of targeted recipients. Consequently, marketing collaboration initiatives may be assessed in terms of their alignment with the self, the expectations of the blog readers, the communication style of the firm, as well as the maturity of the blogger. Table I summarized factors which, according to previous studies, may influence bloggers’ decisions about collaboration. Our study will explore which factors lead to bloggers rejecting firm-blogger relationship initiation attempts. Table I: Factors that influence bloggers’ decision to collaborate or not Blogger characteristics Blogger motivations such as image building, satisfy Sepp et al. (2011) vanity, offer good content Blogger personality Smith (2010) Blogger style Kulmala et al. (2013) Blogger maturity/experience Smith (2010) Previous obligations (structural and perceptual ties) Edvardsson et al. (2008) Blog characteristics Congruency with the central themes in the blog Segev et al. (2014) Blogger-reader Reader expectations Smith (2010) relationship Mutual trust Halvorsen et al. (2013) Firm characteristics Image of the firm (held by the blogger) Edvardsson et al. (2008) Service offering distinctiveness (blogger perception) Edvardsson et al. (2008) Firm-blogger Mutual trust Edvardsson et al. (2008); relationship Valtakoski (2015) characteristics Collaboration Obligations Dwyer, Schurr and Oh (1987) characteristics Benefits offered , stemming from similarity of values, beliefs or personality Dwyer, Schurr and Oh (1987) Burdens Dwyer, Schurr and Oh (1987) Risk (estimated difficulties in the co-operation and Edvardsson et al. (2008); possible negative outcomes of it) Valtakoski (2015) Timing of activities Edvardsson et al. (2008) Communication Message attractiveness See Hinz et al. (2010); Chiu et characteristics Efficient communication during which roles are al. (2014) agreed upon and expectations for future interactions Dwyer, Schurr and Oh (1987) are set Valtakoski (2015) Personal relationships between the company Hintz et al. (2010) representative and the blogger Seeding strategy i.e. firm choice of targeted recipients (bloggers) Methodology In order to examine collaboration initiation failures in firm-blogger relationships from the blogger’s perspective, we interviewed 14 beauty and fashion bloggers in Estonia (for choice of context, see Sepp et al. 2011). The interviews were conducted in the native language of the informants and one of the authors. All of the bloggers wrote their blogs in both Estonian and English and had readers from countries beyond their own. Beauty and fashion bloggers where chosen because companies in the beauty industry are actively collaborating with bloggers
(Clark 2010). The informants were chosen purposively using intensity sampling (Patton 2002). Initially 20 Estonian beauty and fashion bloggers with most followers on Bloglovin and Google reader were identified. Out of these bloggers 14 agreed to be interviewed. All of the bloggers had at least three years of blogging experience and were actively collaborating with numerous brands, being among the leading bloggers within their country and niche. The bloggers wrote mainly about fashion, beauty, health, design and other similar lifestyle topics and had an active readership. These blogs had between 750-4500 visitors per day and the bloggers wrote 10-30 blog posts per month. All of the respondents were women, aged 18-28. Only female informants were included because there were no influential male beauty and fashion bloggers in the country. Previous studies about fashion bloggers have also concentrated on female bloggers (McQuarrie et al. 2013; Kulmala et al. 2013). Narrative interviews (Riessman 2008) were conducted with the bloggers where they were asked to tell about their experiences of being contacted by firms or collaboration with them. The interviews were semi-structured (Patton 2002) and covered a list of topics, but let the informants freely direct the conversation. The interviews lasted between 30-75 minutes and resulted in approximately 10 hours of recorded material. The interviews were then transcribed and analysed. All of the informants reported more than one incident where the initiation of collaboration/relationship had failed. The data analysis started by identification of different themes in the data (Silverman 2006) and then based on these themes, the categories of reasons for failure were derived (Spiggle 1994). Additional iteration of the data and categories was performed to reveal the dynamic nature of the actions, that is, to separate categories that preceded other categories, (Spiggle 1994) before finalizing the results. Findings and discussion All of the respondents had experienced success and failure in establishing initial collaboration. In accordance with the aim of the study, to examine collaboration initiation failures from the bloggers’ perspective, our analysis concentrated on the failures. The bloggers gave several reasons for the failures of firm-blogger collaboration initiation, and perceived these failures to stem from firms’ poor planning and communication of collaboration. The bloggers provided more frequently examples on failed relationship initiation with big, often multinational companies, while there were more success stories of collaboration with smaller firms and startups. First of all, the bloggers perceived that in many cases, the firm sent the same collaboration offer to several bloggers within the same interest area and market (in this case lifestyle blogging). This was perceived to be a problem for three main reasons. First, the bloggers aim at providing original material to their readers, who follow many similar, competing blogs. If the firm message is pushed through numerous blogs, the bloggers fear that they are not able to provide their readers with distinctive, interesting postings. Secondly, the bloggers reflected their identity vis-à-vis the other bloggers whom they believed or knew were contacted by the firm. Some of the respondents for example expressed feeling insulted by receiving the same offer as other, much less experienced bloggers. This finding may be due to the respondents being leading bloggers within their field, and expecting more appreciation from the firms contacting them. Furthermore, in some cases the bloggers perceived that the other bloggers who collaborate with the company differed from them in style and taste, and refused any collaboration with the firm because of this. Third, the bloggers expressed their wish to feel special or original, but receiving the same offer as everybody else contradicted with this endeavor. Secondly, in some cases the blogger refused collaboration because the firm, the brand or the product did not fit with the blogger personality or the blog. This finding is in line with previous research reporting that bloggers wish to maintain and enhance their image through
the blog, and do this by selecting content (Sepp et al. 2011). In some cases, the object that the collaboration regarded simply did not fit the blog area. In other cases, the object did not fit the blog style or the reader characteristics (such as youth product for elder readers or vice versa). Third, in some cases the respondents felt that the collaboration could not be established because the firm tried to dictate the terms of collaboration, and treated the blog as a medium for paid advertising. In these cases, the bloggers felt that the firm did not recognize the role of bloggers as autonomous actors. Instead, the respondents told how they failed to establish relationships with firms, for example, because they were asked to guarantee a positive review, use the exact wording proposed by the firm, or because they were expected to provide a media plan where all the blog posts with their content and date of publishing would be presented. This may be a sign that some firms think of bloggers as professionals with whom they can agree on precise terms and conditions. The companies in our study showed little interest in negotiating the terms of collaboration. Fourthly, in some cases the bloggers felt that the communication style of the firm was wrong. Previous studies support that bloggers prefer an informal and personalized communication style (Smith 2010, 2011). Figure 1: Reasons behind collaboration failures according to bloggers Conclusions, managerial implications and future research The purpose of this paper was to investigate bloggers’ perceptions of the reasons for why firm-blogger collaboration fails. Our findings contribute to relationship marketing by introducing bloggers as a vital stakeholder in a network and highlight the reasons for failure in establishing blogger relationships. Our theoretical part identified six potential reasons for failure: characteristics of the blogger, the blog, the firm, the firm-blogger relationship collaboration, and communication. Our empirical findings revealed that from the bloggers’ perspective, the main reason for failure is the communication from the firm. Choosing the wrong tone of communication or contacting too many bloggers without paying attention to their seniority was seen as a common mistake that firms do. Previous studies on blogger
collaboration and social media marketing have mentioned similar causes for failure (Smith 2010; Hinz et al. 2010). Thus, factors that may seem relatively trivial for firms play an important role in bloggers’ decisions about abandoning collaboration attempts. Furthermore, it was found that bloggers felt that firms do not understand their role as blogger and therefore set unfeasible requirements on the prospective collaboration. Furthermore, actual negotiation was perceived as non-existent, as collaboration suggestion were perceived as given (take it or leave it) and no efficient systems for negotiation existed. These findings have implications on relationship marketing and on how to understand bloggers as an actor in a business relationship. Our findings are interesting when contrasted to those found in previous relationship marketing research that has focused on dyadic relationships between customers and companies or between companies and companies (e.g. Dwyer et al. 1987). Our study shows that knowledge about establishing business relationships applies in many aspects also to blogger-company relationships, but that there are some special characteristics that firms need to take into account. Differently from b2b relationships (Dwyer et al. 1987), bloggers have to be considered as unique, often non-professional actors with a dual or even multiple roles. They are partly equal business partners but also the company’s customers (when consuming or testing the firm’s products/services). In addition, they are middlemen between the company and the blog readers. Even in the course of the relationship initiation the bloggers’ role shifts between an individual customer, a professional business partner, and a middle man. Bloggers prefer to be approached as business partners, that is, with a personalized approach. Like in business relationships, bloggers evaluate the image of the firm, the distinctiveness of the offering and possible perceived risk (Edvardssson et al. 2008). On the other hand, bloggers tend to avoid strict contracts, to keep the freedom of expression in their blog, which is different from a b2b relationship that may come with certain burdens and obligations (Dwyer, Schurr and Oh 1987). In this aspects bloggers cannot be treated as traditional business partners but rather as individual customers. Another important aspect of establishing relationships with bloggers is that it happens in a social media setting where the bloggers are connected to other bloggers. Differently from b2c or b2b relationships bloggers’ relationships with firms are not confined to two parties only but get affected by the firm’s relationships with other bloggers. Bloggers were found to closely observe the actions of others. For example bloggers take notice of what other bloggers are offered and evaluate the firm’s attempts to collaborate accordingly. This aspect makes blogger relationships different from other types of business relationships. Previous studies on blogger motivations support this finding as bloggers seek to socialize, satisfy their vanity and build their personal image (Sepp et al. 2011), and at the same time keep their readers engaged (Smith 2011). Our study also offers some managerial implications on how to improve collaboration with bloggers. For the social media managers it is important to keep in mind the dual role of the bloggers and understand that the bloggers prefer a personal approach but are not willing to accept strict terms and conditions. It may be a good idea to let the bloggers choose from a variety of products and let them decide what to say. In that way the final message would be also more interesting for the readers. Furthermore, when choosing bloggers for collaboration partners, the managers should pay attention to the hierarchies between the bloggers and try to contact the more experienced ones before others. Future research should focus on the types of relationships that bloggers form with the brands/firms they blog about. In addition, there has been inadequate research on brands that bloggers avoid talking about or brands that are generally disliked in the blogosphere. It would be particularly useful for firms to understand how brands end up being generally shunned away from or disliked – is this due to blogger image management or other reasons?
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