Some bike bloggers are no-hope blaggers pitching for free kit, but which ones? Which are the blogs which will bring home the digital bacon and which are the ones it's really not worth following on Twitter?
BikeBiz asked a whole bunch of bike bloggers, journalists and suppliers to pitch in with what makes a worthwhile blogger from a supplier's point of view, and asked their views on how social media is changing the way suppliers market their wares.
With some one-man bloggers having bigger readerships than well-established, hugely expensive to run magazines it's sometimes easy for suppliers to be suckered into supplying test kit to bloggers that may not be as big as blogging behemoths such as BikeSnobNYC.
On the other hand, there are some suppliers who wouldn't know a blogger if one bit them on the hand (not all are this unfriendly).
Reaching consumers with product news and reviews used to be easy: dispatch pretty samples to the publishing houses, wait a few months and hope for a 5-star review, which you could then plug to death in your follow-up marketing.
Today it's easier to generate a very quick buzz about a snazzy new product via a viral video but in our multi-channel, always-on world, it's also easier to get lost in a sea of me-too launches. You can be famous on Twitter but for just 15 seconds, not Andy Warhol's 15 minutes.
Can bike bloggers help brands extend their reach?
We started getting calls from PR when they saw us talking about their products on Google. We're also engaged in other channels where cyclists are, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr.
Mavic certainly noticed when we were the number one hit on their name for a few months when they released their shoe line.
We also have a readership that rivals magazines; especially across social channels.
[We review products] but not in the same manner as magazines. We differentiate by reviewing product like we'd do in a shop conversation or on a ride. It's more informal, conversational, and we absolutely do not give anything gushing reviews.
At the beginning of blogging, the biggest difference was we were not on a print deadlines. Now with magazines offering websites and blogs that dynamic has changed and you've got to hustle way harder to get the first post out on a new belt drive or bamboo fixie.
The blog disruption has occurred and now it's not about search, hits, and impressions, but the social filter of friends and colleagues and being a trusted voice. Now there's certainly a media planner at a mag either laughing or cringing at what I'm saying because they're basing their business and ad rates on the supposed massive traffic they're getting. I'd ask suppliers, "really, what are magazines and their sites returning? What is their influence v. ad impressions?"
Who should suppliers send their bikes to? Definitely send your new, and improved-with-way-better-lay-up-than-anyone-else, carbon fiber race bike to Bicycling magazine, 'cause they'll give you want. Social media is very hard to measure and no one has gotten fired for running an ad in a magazine.
When you want relevance in other channels where a mag isn't creating buzz, then start talking to the bloggers.
If a magazine like Cycling Plus reviews a piece of kit then the supplier knows that a lot of people will read that review. Even if only 1 percent of readers buy it, that could account for a significant increase of sales, given the number of readers.
On the other hand, if you have a blog whose author is respected by a relatively small number of readers, there could be an equivalent sales increase.
I think suppliers have to look at prior responses. Personally I trust a reviewer who is prepared to criticise more than one who always give positive reviews. If someone I trust tells me that a particular pair of pedals is worth the price tag, and I need new pedals, I am more likely to pay for it.
I know people have bought kit based on my recommendations. I also know people who ignore any reviews by sources that never criticise, so a magazine with a big readership that never has anything bad to say may well not equate to a significant increase in sales, despite always being positive.
The positive reinforcement of the short attention span, information-on-demand-world of the internet means that internet media MUST be taken seriously. A print magazine has to offer something unique, bespoke, even artisan in order to compete. It has to be fresh, each time, because it's not as disposable. Print costs, and people look to be given extra value for that cost because what's on the internet can be had for free.
Personally, I think that traditional magazines that offer no more than news, reviews and editorial comments have to step up their game or they're going to fail.
Everyone can have a blog, with a specific topic, and be bold enough to ask manufacturers for items to test for their 'audience'. However, manufacturers can not possibly give everyone goods for free. So, some lines need to be drawn and every manufacturer needs to determine what that line is for themselves. But, yes, there are bloggers who are influential within the market and should be given this consideration.
There are a few ways to figure this out. Pure statistically speaking, you'd look at their influence via Technorati or similar. However, quality and quantity aren't always the same. Someone may have a lot of traffic to their 'bike blog' but write about other things, too, whereas another true bike blog, where they write only about bike related items, may have less traffic, but have an audience that is more appealing because they are truly people coming there looking for in-depth bike information.
We are more of a mobile world now. I'll bet that the big blogs are being accessed through smartphones and tablets as often as laptops and desktops. How cool is it that you can be out on a ride, stop for a cuppa, pull out your smartphone and read your favorite bike blog? If traditional magazines want to keep up, they need to have robust online content, too.
SUSSEX MTB, UK
I've never tried straight out asking for kit, I've been lucky enough to have a decent relationship with my local bike shop (although I have since started working there as the shop manager) so I've always had access to a range of demo bikes and various bits of kit. I've been able to get my regular riders to write stuff for me too when they have purchased new stuff. People will always buy mags. That said the first thing most people do is Google something and look for other people's opinions.
SINGLETRACK MAG, UK
I reckon it's a similar thing to new bike shops and suppliers. At what point do you give a new 'shop' a credit account? What's the difference between someone trading from their bedroom and someone who has invested in shop premises? And how do you tell the difference between 'a bloke in a garage' and a 'bloke in a small industrial unit'? Nice letterhead? Website? Those are easy to make look more glam than the reality.
There are many people who write blogs that involve product. Some just review things they've bought, others repackage the work of other websites. Others just collate stuff from sites like Singletrack, Pinkbike etc.
If you think that you're going to get an impartial and subjective review, that'll be read by a lot of people, then carry on. However, if you look at mtbr.com you'll see that the reviews are either 'I bought it, it's great' and 'My mate has one and it's rubbish' - people rarely like to admit to buying a duff product.
One of the differences between the professional press and bloggers in regards to gear is that, for the most part, we already have all the bikes/products that we personally need - so a review is less likely to hinge on whether we need a fork/handlebar to finish off our bikes. Also, we're able to look more objectively at price because we don't see getting a product in as 'scoring something for free', just that it's a product that comes in and needs reviewing.
If I were to start a supercar blog and got to borrow an Aston Martin, then there's no way that my review could be independent of my excitement at getting to play with a nice car, whereas I would trust Clarkson et al to do a decent and objective job because they're able to look past the excitement of getting to play with something new and shiny and to notice that the wing mirrors are a bit wonky.
LIFEBOAT EVENTS, USA
The situation in cycling journalism completely parallels the evolution in the news business on the greater media landscape. There is, across all categories, an emergence of influential blogs that carry as much gravity as traditional news outlets. It's not black and white and it's constantly changing.
Blogging started off with angle of opinion and, in some cases, bending more toward traditional news outlets.
[How do you work out which blogs to work with?] Traction. Credibility. Centrism. Readership. What's clear is that people are getting their information about cycling and other topics across all of those channels, so if we want ours and our clients stories to be told, we need to invest ourselves in those channels with the relevant players.
SWEAT N GEARS, UK
A blogger’s opinion is not guided by that of advertisers or the publication house itself. The blogger has his or her own agenda, so, the supplier should engage with them as if they were a customer. Find out what the blogger is trying to do and help as much as they possibly can. Don’t control the review, but play open cards with the blogger.
Twitter helps the blogger reach a wider audience quickly. But it’s not just the number of people the blogger follows, but also the number of people as well as ‘who’ follows the blog. Take Fat Cyclist for example, he has the likes of Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong following him. People follow those two names and will in turn follow Fat Cyclist as he is connected to them. Almost like six degrees of separation. It makes people feel closer to the stars or the brand.
Traditional bike media have to re-evaluate how they approach their readers. They need to embrace the change and move to deliver content online, and on various platforms. With the uptake of smartphones more and more people want to receive content no matter where they are. No longer is there a need to go and by a magazine at a newsagent. Now you can use your phone to go online, get your daily news feed while sitting on a bench outside on your lunch break. Social media has definitely changed the way traditional bike media approach their readers.
GIRO DI LENTO, UK
Suppliers should do some due diligence on any blogger particularly if they haven't heard of the blog already. It's not the same as a magazine. In my experience suppliers are generally cautious with bloggers and I think that's the right stance to begin with. I would be too and I would respect a supplier wanting to vet me before looking at sending any product for review.
Personally I would ask for the last month and the last year of Google Analytics data from the website. I would also ask for any view counts from the platform the blogger uses. Platforms like Posterous track total views. The true visitor count will be between the two. I would also ask for the top five most viewed blog posts in the last year to see what stories they've written have been read the most.
However, I don't believe a supplier should make the decision on metrics alone - unless the numbers are simply too big to ignore and if that's the case - the blog will probably be one they've already heard of and can easily check out. I think there is and will remain a strong role for traditional bike media. I still like buying magazines but I think a lot magazines would probably benefit from a strategic review of the media landscape, the change in dynamics that I believe is slowly happening.
Today, consumers still seek out and value magazine reviews but they also increasingly read blogs and other online media reviews as part of their product research. Partly this is because magazines simply don't review enough products - but that's not just their fault - suppliers should be putting more review products with the media than they do. I've written about this before.
Fortunately for the magazines, the cycling industry hasn't really figured how to adjust and incorporate blogs either but some are beginning to and customers are looking for more info from more sources especially on higher ticket items. There is also some, in my opinion, misguided cynicism that bikes only get great reviews in magazines when they advertise - which generally isn't a factor on a blog.
For me blogging his been a lot of fun, helped me get to meet more people in the industry and has now led me to getting directly involved in the industry as the agent for NeilPryde Bikes, which was an unintended benefit.
I haven't the slightest idea how suppliers treat traditional print magazines. I think many bloggers might require more hand-holding than some magazines might need.
I might be an oddball to admit that traditional web metrics such as pageviews and unique visitors are still important. What's changed with social media is how we get those eyeballs on the page. Five years ago, search engine marketing was king. Today, social media multiplies the effectiveness of human interaction, and people who try to game the system are a little bit more obvious and easier to ignore. I get as much traffic to my site via Twitter and Facebook as I do from Google and the other search engines.
Product marketers should still ask about web metrics. Be aware, though, that some of the more influential bike bloggers have little idea of their volume of traffic. Sites such as Alexa and Quantcast can help to verify the numbers.
Google Reader tells me BIke Snob has 22,000+ subscribers and Fat Cyclist has over 16,000, while Bicycling Magazine has fewer than 10,000 subscribers to its RSS feed and VeloNews a paltry 3200.
These numbers don't tell the entire story of course. Bike Snob writes for Bicycling magazine, after all, and frequently links to stories at VeloNews.
Bloggers for the most part aren't traveling to Switzerland to cover UCI rule change discussions. With some exceptions, it's still the traditional media uncovering doping in sport and other controversies.
I won't pretend I'm unbiased in my product mentions at my website. If I know you and like you, you're much more likely to see a favorable product mention, though even a personal relationship isn't helpful if you have crappy product. Before Christmas, a super nice PR guy talked about sending me boxes of product to review, but I had to tell him I'm not interested because my experience with his company's product has been uniformly negative.
JAMES BOWTHORPE, UK
Presumably suppliers are looking for a different kind of exposure/tester when they send items to bloggers. Just as suppliers sometimes cherrypick specific journalists or publications to send items to, so they should with bloggers; what are they looking for from a blogger? Standards of journalism drop when bloggers are treated the same as journalists. Bloggers aren't journalists but can offer something different.
I tend to try and build relationships with suppliers that I feel have a good fit with what I do. Also, I won't review something unless I've used it for at least 3 months and would recommend it personally.
The printed format might be better for photography and great stories, rather than reviews and opinion. Reviews and opinion disseminate quicker online, fuelling debate. High-quality printed magazines like The Ride, Boneshaker and Rouleur are fulfilling readers' need for awe and artefact, which sell products in other ways..
FAT CYCLIST, USA
I'm just a guy who writes stuff, not an savvy businessman or anything like that. I don't think about metrics or old media v. new media or anything like that very often.
Suppliers need to scrap the idea of "published magazine" vs "blogger," since every magazine has an online component, and some blogs have gained decent reach. Suppliers need to instead consider the type of audience they want to reach, the tone of the publisher (whether it's a sole proprietor, like most blogs, or a corporation, like most publishing houses), and how they want their product treated.
When a company sends something to me, they know they'll get coverage that reads more like how one friend tells another friend about some product. It feels more like word of mouth, and while not as thorough as a traditional review, may actually be more valuable because it's less remote – it fits closer to the way the reader is used to hearing about the pros and cons of something.
The downside of this folksy approach, as far as suppliers are concerned, is that if I don't like something, I will say so much more willingly than a traditional publication. I imagine the Clean Bottle folks, for example, wish they would never have sent me a bottle to evaluate.
An easy way for a supplier narrow a list of bloggers is to check and see what kind of Twitter following the blogger has. BikeSnobNYC has around 15,000; I have around 11,000. That's actually a pretty good indicator of the size of our respective engaged readerships, too. If the blogger asking you for kit has a Twitter following of under 4000, they probably are not going to reach enough people with their blog to make it worth your while.
Traditional media needs to let go of the stuff that bloggers can do faster and for free – opinion stuff, easy tutorial stuff, reviews of minor products – and focus on things that bloggers don't have time or resources for: reviews of unreleased products, features on rides in amazing places, access to cycling luminaries. Traditional media may also want to consider partnering with blogs, co-oping us to do the stuff we're going to do anyway. May as well get the clicks, right? It actually surprises me how poor of a job cycling media has done with this.
I stopped asking for stuff a while ago; I now get more offers from suppliers asking me if they can send me stuff than I have time to reply to. The new problem suppliers might need to consider is, "How do I rise above the noise and get noticed by influential bloggers?"
Interbike's policy towards bloggersis the same policy we apply to traditional media outlets. We welcome bloggers that generate quality, unique and/or insightful regular coverage and commentary about cycling and related issues that we deem will add value to the industry, our exhibitors and the cycling community.
Ultimately, we're looking for sites that we believe will, as a result of their presence and coverage, move the needle for the industry gathered at Interbike.
A friend of ours emailed us a screenshot of her My Yahoo! homepage during the week of Interbike in 2009. Alongside the celebrity gossip, stock ticker and weather forecast there was a box that featured the top 10 searched-for terms on Yahoo! at that moment in time. She was surprised to see Interbike at number 8. Interbike has become a real global focal point of cycling enthusiast interest, and bloggers have been an important source of information and a way for their readers, the consumers and cyclists, to participate in this trade-only event.
Most of our bloggers are super passionate about cycling and are great at communicating their experiences and what they see at the show. Because of the two-way nature of blogs, we've also been able to forge positive relations with many bloggers as a result of participating in their conversations online.
There are blogs out there with seriously engaged and loyal readerships that will respond strongly to any product reviews. As long as the supplier has carefully screened and qualified the blogger, I would recommend adding bloggers to a company's marketing plans.
We've reached out to writers of blogs that we find interesting to invite them to attend the show. Again, we're trying to move a needle for our exhibitors and the industry as a whole and the right blogger can have as much - if not more - impact than traditional publications.
Rich Kelly (pictured)