General Mills has a New Recipe for the Web
General Mills is courting "mommy" bloggers with paid trips and free products. But when companies woo bloggers, are they building loyalty or just buying influence - one digital voice at a time?
Amanda Rettke started to blog when she was pregnant and hungry for a place to share the excitement and fear of parenthood. Five years later, she stood in the lobby at General Mills headquarters, staring at a sign welcoming "some of the most influential bloggers from across the country."
With three young kids, Rettke is used to working hard to have her voice heard. Now the people at General Mills "were asking our opinions and really seeking our feedback," she said. "It really did feel special."
Rettke was one of 30 bloggers invited to the sprawling General Mills campus for Baking with Betty, a two-day, all-expenses-paid event giving bloggers a chance to bake in Betty Crocker's kitchen, taste new products and, the company hopes, create an army of Betty Crocker disciples in the digital world.
As the marketing industry has become more fractured -- with television, print, Internet and social media all vying for ad dollars and consumer eyeballs -- companies like General Mills are trying new ideas to see what sticks, including wooing bloggers.
There are more than 133 million blogs, averaging 900,000 posts per day. For a company like General Mills, these people are potentially some of their biggest advocates or their worst critics. Their word-of-mouth reactions can reach thousands of people -- or more. But by offering free products, access to new recipes, and some old-fashioned attention, General Mills hopes to influence the discourse, for far less than they spend on traditional advertising.
"People are more likely to believe another person than a company," said David Hopkins, a brand expert at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Plus word-of-mouth "costs less and is more effective."
Which is why, as regulators and the industry struggle with the ethical implications, the practice is growing. A recent report from Technorati, a search engine of blogs, found that about one-third of bloggers have been approached by a brand to write about their products. Narrow that to mom bloggers, and 54 percent have been contacted.
For companies there is little risk. One of the primary rules among product reviewing bloggers is an axiom mothers would be proud of: If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all.
While some bloggers, such as Rettke, sign up with advertising networks that have their own rules governing blog posts that involved paid-for trips, giveaways and other compensation from companies, others see themselves as people of influence who should get paid for their opinions.
Migdalia Rivera, a former New York paralegal who writes the blog www.latinaonamission. com and attended Baking with Betty, says that bloggers are getting bolder about asking for compensation. "It's very important for companies to understand that we want to work for them, but we also want to be taken seriously and be respected for the time we are putting in to promote their brands," she said. Most recently Ralph Lauren has been keeping Rivera and her two sons clothed in exchange for promoting the brand on her blog. Some groups, such as the Milk Processors Education Program, pay her for posts about the health benefits of drinking milk.
That range within the blogosphere has created an increasingly murky landscape for consumers looking for advice. The Federal Trade Commission is so worried about the blurred boundary between advertising and content that it revised its endorsement guidelines last year to make sure bloggers tell readers when they are getting something of value for free or are being paid to write a review.
"It's getting increasingly difficult for consumers to know what's paid content and what's not," said Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC.
Last year, dozens of bloggers were given subcompact Ford Fiestas to drive for six months in return for sharing what they liked and didn't like about the vehicles. Wal-Mart relies on a select group of mom bloggers to share their opinions on programs and create content for their mom community www.elevenmoms.com. Many companies have created similar groups -- from Huggies potty ambassadors to SC Johnson's Family Economics bloggers.
Engle says it's up to the advertisers to educate bloggers about the disclosure rules and the bloggers to comply. "Our goal here is not to bring cases. Our goal is to have everybody understand the rules of the road."
A social brand
Greg Zimprich, director of brand public relations, likes to say that General Mills embraced social media when it created Betty Crocker to share recipes with housewives in the 1920s. "Betty Crocker is probably one of the first really truly social brands. The channels, the mediums and way we communicated back then are different from what we're doing now, but that consumer dialogue ... still exists," he said.
Zimprich won't say how much the company is spending on social media marketing, or even how much an event like Baking With Betty costs. He did acknowledge that social media is an "efficient spend."
General Mills is trying several avenues to lure bloggers. Among the roughly 100 social media sites the company says it uses to engage with consumers, it runs MyBlogSpark, a website where bloggers can register to participate in giveaways and receive product information. It now has more than 6,000 registrants, Zimprich said, and is a good place to gauge interest in new offerings such as Chocolate Cheerios and gluten-free Bisquick. It also has a similar word-of-mouth networking site called Pssst as well as tablespoon.com, a place where consumers -- whether they blog or not -- can share recipes.
The company also goes where the bloggers are, hosting tasting suites at major conferences such as one put on by BlogHer, the advertising network Rettke joined.
Then there are events such as Baking with Betty. The smell of sugar and chocolate wafted down the hall of the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens. Inside, bloggers in signature red aprons transformed brownie mix and Bisquick into Brownie 'n Berries Dessert Pizza and Apple Oven Pancakes. While one woman stirred the batter, another snapped pictures for her blog.
They were among the first to sample a new line of cake mixes as well as the snickerdoodle and pumpkin spice cookie mixes introduced for the holidays. Attendees got a peek at the company's extensive art collection, the company historian told the tale of how Betty came to be, and they took a dinner cruise on Lake Minnetonka. Half a dozen Hispanic bloggers came a day early to make churros out of Bisquick and learn about the company's products targeted to their demographic.
Days later, the bloggers gushed online about their experiences. "WOW!! I really can't express how wonderful it was!!" gushed Liz, who writes www.hoosierhomemade.com. Marla Meridith of www.familyfreshcooking.com blogged about the "gorgeous," sunshine-filled headquarters and ideal work conditions. "Everyone walks around smiling. Must be the brightness and constant smell & access to baked treats."
Readers seemed equally thrilled. "sigh ... I'm still JEALOUS! but oh so thrilled you are sharing your tips with us!" wrote one commenter on www.thesnyder5.com, a blog written by marketer and St. Paul mom Molly Snyder.
General Mills has a policy of not paying bloggers for content and emphasizes that bloggers they work with aren't required to write posts, although most do. It also stresses disclosure. "We want to be careful and do things the right way in this space," Zimprich said. Most bloggers who attended Baking with Betty disclosed that General Mills picked up the full tab, but sometimes it was buried and other times omitted on subsequent posts.
Many attendees, including Marta Darby of www.MyBigFatCubanFamily.com, raved about General Mills in the disclosure itself. "General Mills paid for my entire trip and treated us like royalty. Even if they hadn't, I would still gush about the fabulous treatment and I am still a huge Betty Crocker fan," she wrote.
Rettke, of Shafer, Minn., who added a new baking blog www.iambaker.net to her mommy blog, had a great time at the event. But she doubts she's a good fit for an ongoing partnership with General Mills because she bakes from scratch and tries to feed her children healthful, organic foods. "I just couldn't say that 'I'm going to talk about your Hamburger Helper' because I would never, never, never feed that to my children," she said.
Not that she would blog about that, though. The one post she did have was largely positive, she admits, though she took it down when the BlogHer network reminded her it violated the content guidelines.