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Experiments in Product Placement: The Story’s The Thing

Experiments in Product Placement: The Story’s The Thing

Lately, I’ve been pretty down on sponsored posts and product placement. This has mostly been because I haven’t seen a lot of good placements, and because of my own experience in doing a product placement which didn’t feel right in spite of the best of circumstances. I have come to believe that perhaps some of these problems might have been generic — meaning, that product placements just simply work better on some blogs than they do on others because of the type of blogs that they are, and the kind of feel they already have. I noticed it first with design blogs, because they tend to ease into these kinds of things more fluidly, and I assumed it was because the nature of their content was so closely tied to there being so many products featured in the content anyway.

As I thought more and more about it, I realized the problem with product placement is more about the disconnect between your blog’s “story” and the product you are trying to put into it — it’s really just a narrative problem. If you’re telling a design story, then sure: a placement is going to be much easier because products fit much easier into a design story than they do in say, a creative non-fiction storyteller’s story. But when placements go bad, a lot of times it’s because either the brand or the blogger (or worse, both) is not paying attention to the story of the blog.

Finding Your Blog’s Story, Study One: Making It Lovely

When I was thinking about this, I kept thinking back to a series of sponsored posts Nicole did at Making it Lovely for American Express. The “story” of Making it Lovely, in case you don’t read it, is that Nicole is a designer who runs a small print shop and also documents her process of redoing her home on her blog. Making It Lovely’s design content lead to an elegant partnership with American Express which allowed Nicole to meet the needs of the sponsor as well as the blog’s audience, who came to read about Nicole’s efforts to beautify her home. She was able to use American Express Membership Reward Points to “buy” new items for her master bedroom, and each new post in the series featured the room as it was made over.

When Nicole announced the partnership, she did receive some flak from a commenter or two, which is to be expected, I suppose, but overall the reception of the series was positive, and I think the placement was extremely well done. It fit in to her content pretty much seamlessly, unlike most of the placements I see in the parenting community, which tend to be awkward. Of course, I assumed that this was because we are given the option of partnering with brands that make snack cakes or disposable diapers, which are difficult to to write poetically about or take beautiful pictures of to feature in our blogs without it feeling extremely awkward and staged.

Finding Your Blog’s Story, Case Study Two: Pacing The Panic Room

When Ryan started Pacing the Panic Room, the story of his blog was, I believe, to come to terms with the fact that he was newly married and his wife was pregnant, and he wasn’t sure if he was able to handle the fact that he had become “an adult” so quickly. Over the course of the past few years, and with the success of his creative endeavors, though, I would venture to say (do I presume to speak for him? Why yes, I do believe I do!) that Ryan’s blog has become more about doing what you love in life. How appropriate, then, is it that his new campaign with The Gap (launched today), is titled, Do What You Love, and features women who have been able to be successful at doing what they love in life (and shows them wearing Gap clothing doing it, of course)? This is not a Gap slogan, by the way, it is a Ryan slogan, and there is no Gap signage on Ryan’s blog (nor was there on Nicole’s blog for the American Express placement). The video, shot by Ryan, features one of Ryan’s friends, and has music by Rabbit, another of Ryan’s friends and also one of the artists featured on Ryan’s charity album. The whole thing is very much a Panic Room Ryan joint, just funded by the Gap.

The Gap placement showcases all of Ryan’s talents and features the product but manages to do so without hitting you over the head with the sponsorship. I think the fact that it’s a video is a huge help with this, and the fact that the Gap didn’t insist on making him put a logo anywhere is also to their credit. Other brands need to take note of this: this placement meets all the FCC requirements without being awkward, and that is tough (really, really tough) to accomplish. Nicely done, Ryan (and Gap).

Why doesn’t this happen more often?

1. Story and blog need to match up

I think what we should note here is first of all, that the placement has to be in line with the story of the blog. Most of the time, that is the problem: you might have a product that is, technically, part of the blog’s “story” in a really strict sense, but it’s not essential to it. In those cases, you have to find a way to make it be — with something like a clothing company, you can do this because you are selling a lifestyle more than you are selling a pair of jeans. With a snack cake or diapers, this is far more difficult.

2. Most bloggers do not have this skill set.

And the fact is, most bloggers are simply not talented enough to pull this off: Nicole and Ryan are both creative people who have worked professionally in precisely these kinds of ways, and it shows. That’s another reason their placements are so much better. It may be that brands will have to pull in creatives with skill sets to help bloggers with this type of thing, or that ad companies looking to land these kinds of placements for the bloggers they represent will need to employ creatives to help their bloggers with this stuff.

3. More visual media.

I cannot stress this enough: it is so much easier to do a good placement with pictures than it is with words. We need to move away from words when it comes to product placement and move more towards video and pictures, and I’m not sure why we haven’t done more of that already. These placements just underscore that for me.


Comments (13)

  1. Oct 11, 2010

    You know this is probably my favorite post you have ever done here 🙂

    I was actually very curious what you would think of the series. I also think you should know that because of you, while I was making this series, I thought a tremendous amount about “trust capital” something you introduced me to of course. All of your posts on the topic have been really helpful and insightful, and so it would be very appropriate of me to say thank you for that.

    Also, I had not really dug deep into “Making it Lovely” before and now Cole is hooked.

  2. Oct 11, 2010

    This is fascinating. It was in thinking about product sponsorship that we decided to close my old blog (and close my old business) and move The Adventures of Gray Kitty series to its own blog, which will feature posts about the App projects — a focused story. The overall App sales statistics overwhelmingly reinforce what was predicted in the Wired article Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business (http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free#ixzz124Ns2oKQ) so we decided to embrace free. The downloads for our free App were 400 to 1 download of our paid App. You can’t argue with numbers like that, so we set the paid App to free and all future Apps will be free. Some of the developers in our MomsWithApps developer group are introducing the use of Ads but it’s controversial. Most of the parent developers do not approve of ads in the Apps. I reviewed one of these Apps with AdMob ads over the weekend and hated the ads. It was a child’s story. You were given the option to purchase the paid version to avoid ads but if you opted out you got ads. There were ads for life insurance, NFL fantasy football and People magazine. If you clicked on them you were taken out of the App to the sponsor’s web site.

    We don’t want to introduce ads like this in our free Apps but how can we connect those App users to something we can generate revenue from?

    It really gets back to what you’ve been talking about since I started reading this blog over a year ago.

    I think there’s potential down the road with the blog for sponsorship and also with tastefully placed ads inside our Apps for our own story-related merchandise we’re dreaming up and hoping to offer via an Etzy store front. It’s pretty pie in the sky at the moment but you’ve provided some structure for us in terms of identifying the elements of the free-with-sponsorship model.

    I agree with you that the story is key. The blog story is about the stories and the stories center around a character and we’re hoping to build a brand based on this character.

    Thank you for all of the wonderful research and brilliant analysis!

    You really should send us an invoice :-).

  3. Oct 11, 2010

    Agree with a lot of this, although I will say think a lot of time the awkwardness has less to do with the limits of the blogger and more with the brand’s requirements for the sponsorship.

  4. Oct 11, 2010

    That’s a good point: I think most brands are dictating what the blogger has to do and what has to be shown, how many mentions, links, etc. Gap has always been on the cutting edge of their internet/social media involvement, so their partnership with Ryan is pretty exemplary in that way. All the more reason for other brands to take note of this placement.

  5. Oct 11, 2010

    Hah! I was curious to see how it would work out because I knew you had this deal coming up and I wasn’t sure of the specifics that Gap had given you for the campaign. But it’s definitely a very Panic Room post. You wouldn’t know it was a sponsored post without the link to the jeans at the end or the disclaimer at the top, which are required of course, but it still manages to convey something key about the product by showing her doing the yoga poses while wearing the jeans.

    But I do like that you found this theme for the campaign and made the central thesis of the ad be about selling that lifestyle, and only secondarily about selling that pair of jeans. I think that’s key: if people can do that more and more, I think that would lead to better placements. I don’t see how you can do that with diapers, though. It just doesn’t seem possible. There is no aspirational diaper brand, except those green diapers they sell at Whole Foods, I guess.

  6. Oct 11, 2010

    Interesting, Susan. Usually these free things are used as a means to lead up to some kind of eventual thing that leads to profit. But you should note that almost no business knows what that profit structure is going to be when it starts out. Google started out with search and only at some point in their development did they realize that they could point people to an ad database as well as websites in conjunction with search. This made them hugely profitable, but it started out with an idea of giving something away for free and a leap of faith that there would be some profit that came from it, somehow, someday.

    Facebook has a similar story. They waited to do full scale monetizing much longer than other startups, and only did some banner ads at the beginning. They kept adding things and expanding, giving the free service to more people for free, really without the thought of profit, and again with a sort of blind faith that there would be some kind of profit at some point in the future. Then at some point they realized they were sitting on the best database of targeted advertising that exists in the world.

    So, free is complicated. You cannot count on it, and you cannot give it out with an expectation of payoff. But it’s kind of a new agey idea that you give quality things out into the universe that are drawing from your talents, that you could rightfully charge for, and the universe has a way of paying you back, in ways that you cannot really see at first because the technology is changing so much it’s not always apparent right away. It’s kind of a mix of high tech and zen. It makes me extraordinarily uncomfortable, actually.

  7. Oct 11, 2010

    You know, being on both sides of this equation makes this series hugely helpful for me. Obviously, I’m not at any stage of monetizing my own site, but as a marketing person trying to build programs to work with bloggers, I’m trying to think of things like sponsorships from both angles. I think the points about the brands requirements is a major takeaway for me, and rings true as both a marketing person, a blogger, and a reader.

  8. Oct 11, 2010

    I think you’re especially right about the pictures being key. Pictures get around the awkwardness. I started reading Ryan’s blog when his wife was pregnant, and I remember that American Apparel clothes were a key part of it. That’s not a brand I’m crazy about at all, but the pictures were so fantastic that I subscribed anyway. If it had just been him (or her) writing about the clothes, I never would have come back.

  9. Oct 11, 2010

    Yes, I agree with your comments. That’s why Susan of Gray Kitty Studios will be putting on her glasses, sticking a pencil behind her ear and providing bookkeeping services for my best legacy clients to offset expenses as we float this out there and see what happens. And absolutely we have to put our hearts into the stories and not expect them to ever pay us back. Keeping costs low is key. The stories themselves aren’t expensive to produce. Well, that is if you don’t count the initial investment in the iPad, iPhone, Droid phone, the professional sound effects library, etc. The Apple developer program is only $99 a year. But merchandising can start to get expensive. Baby steps. It will be fun to write about!

  10. Oct 11, 2010

    I’d never thought of that visual media aspect. That’s really interested. As someone who identifies primarily as a writer (even though I do some design work) it sounds daunting. But as a reader, I think I prefer visual sponsorship type stuff. Except video content, I’m still not all that sold on it unless it’s done professionally. Amateur vlogging makes me crazy. (Especially if it’s me trying to do it.)

  11. Oct 11, 2010

    That’s a really good point.

    It must be hard to push back when you’re at the brink of a deal that seems really good. My gut is all “Fuck that, I’d walk away if someone tried to tell me what to do.” But the truth is, I’m not really sure how I’d react if I felt like I was being compensated in a good way.

    Some brands/bloggers are definitely doing it right though.

  12. Oct 13, 2010

    So glad to hear that you liked the way I handled that sponsored series. I felt like it was such a great fit for the site and I was proud of the room that I did (I had full creative control over the project). The crazy thing is that I get offers constantly for giveaways and sponsored content, and I’m mindful to only accept a very select few. It’s nice to know that that doesn’t go unnoticed!

  13. Oct 16, 2010

    This is a really good post and it got my brain all thinking, which is a good thing. I write a food blog but I don’t only share recipes. I was trying to thinking of what my blog story is and I guess it would be me cooking for and with my kids. However, I want to move in the direction of more product recommendations. I really enjoy design blogs and I want to move my blog in the direction of product recommendations that are food and kitchen related. I’ve done some review posts and some were better than other for sure.

    Now I get at least 3 PR people contacting me a day trying to get me to try out their product and write a review post about it. However, mostly it’s cheap stuff. Like “can I send you my bottled water and you can spend 5 hours photographing, writing, editing, and publishing the post?” Dude, NO!

    I could just have the water there on the table and then take a picture but it’s not worth the 1.50 I’m saving on free bottled water.

    Now my question is how much do you think the examples you mentioned above got paid? How much should we charge for product placement?

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