Brits don’t buy the brand blog

Blogging may be the latest buzzword among consumers, and research unveils the considerable effect it has on their purchasing, but that’s no reason for marketers to jump on the bandwagon.

Last week at the Internet Advertising Bureau’s Engage conference, Niall Fitzgerald, former chairman and chief executive of Unilever, warned marketers against being seduced by the technology of online. But recent data from the IAB shows that online ad spend in the UK jumped 40% in the first half of 2006 to £917m. While many brands were seemingly slow to react to the Web initially, this year marketers have embraced the online environment, so much so that Yahoo! chairman and chief executive Terry Semel, speaking at Engage, said the UK is “years ahead” of the US in internet advertising (MW last week).

User-generated content has moved beyond theory and entered the mainstream arena as brands seek to communicate with consumers on their own terms and allow users to set the agenda by making the content themselves. The past 18 months have also seen a huge increase in the number of blogs, community-driven websites and MySpace pages. There has been a heightened level of discussion in the national press, with more than 1,000 articles written on blogs in the UK in the past year alone.

At Hotwire we wanted to make an honest, rational appraisal of the situation, so commissioned Ipsos MORI to investigate consumer attitudes towards blogs, and how they process information they read online.

The research polled 2,214 internet users in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, representing a population of 115 million European internet users. For anyone who thought – or hoped – blogs were a fad they can ignore and are holding out for a return to traditional, easier to influence media, the findings won’t make for happy reading.

While awareness of blogs is relatively low in the UK compared to our Continental cousins, they are a highly influential information source. Across Europe, blogs are now just behind newspapers as a trusted information source, with 24% of respondents considering blogs to be the most trusted source of information. This may still be behind newspapers (30%), but is ahead of television advertising (17%) and e-mail marketing (14%).

Within the lucrative high spenders segment, the trust levels are even greater. Of those who spend more than £100 online each month, the proportion of people who trust blogs the most rises to 30%.

Interestingly, France leads Europe in term of blogging. Across Europe, 61% of internet users are aware of blogging and 17% have read a blog. France is the most blog-savvy country in Europe, with 90% of respondents being familiar with blogs.

The British are the least blog-aware, with only 50% having heard the term. In Germany, 55% have heard of blogs, 58% in Italy and 51% in Spain. The fact that blogs are increasingly well known and highly trustworthy is interesting, but the findings also show a clear link between user-generated content and attitudes towards a company and its products/services and, more importantly, people’s intentions to purchase those products or service.

Consider two of the key statistics from the research. Just over half (52%) of Europeans polled say they are more likely to buy a product if they have read positive comments from private individuals online. A third (34%) of Europeans say they have decided not to buy a product after reading negative comments online from other customers.

People instinctively trust friends and family because of the nature of the relationship with them, now blogs are providing this relationship and it is having a major impact on consumer buying behaviour. Word of mouth, no longer restricted to close friends and family, can now have a similar level of influence upon millions of people across the world via blogs.

Yet, marketers must be warned against taking these findings and rushing blindly to target bloggers. People trust blogs almost as much as they trust newspapers, so the influence of blogs is impossible to ignore. However, any campaigns targeted at blogs must be thoroughly researched, well planned, monitored and measured. Brand owners could needlessly waste a lot of time and money by rushing into a blogging frenzy without appropriate preparation.

When deciding how to target a blog, it’s good advice to try to learn more about it. How popular is it? Who is the author (not always an easy one to answer immediately)? Is it a leader or a follower? Is it well referenced by others, either in the blogosphere or mainstream media? Some bloggers are simply regurgitating something they have read elsewhere, so your time may be better spent finding the source, rather than responding to every blogger who mentions your company.

Should you consider launching a company blog? Many decide to set up a blog, possibly because it seems the fashionable thing to do, and then neglect to keep their communication channel open, forgetting to regularly update users on new developments. When considering this, it is worth taking into account that the research shows just 2% of people in the UK trust information written by a chief executive.

Perhaps the best way for companies to view blogging is for it to be perceived as an early warning system. After all, companies spend huge sums every day to gain feedback on their products or services, and here you have a community of 115 million (and growing) consumers feeding back their likes, dislikes and commenting on every little nuance of products and services.

Participation in this giant conversation between existing, past and possible customers is the only credible way forward for companies. Bloggers are not like journalists or publishers; they rarely have anything to lose, though they might see plenty to gain from their blogging being recognised.

•Brendon Craigie, UK regional director at Hotwire, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

Trust and the blogging stranger
Marcus Rich, managing director, EMAP Advertising and ECM Lifestyle Magazines

While there is no doubt the “blogosphere” is playing a role in helping guide people’s opinions and purchase decisions, we have to assess carefully how big or important a role that is. It is critical for media owners and agencies to understand this to plan campaigns effectively using new media. Our belief is that the blog may not be quite as influential as the Hotwire/Ipsos MORI results suggest. Comparing consumer levels of trust of blogs to television advertising, as Hotwire/ Ipsos MORI have done, may come up against the problem that consumers are naturally reluctant to ascribe effects to any form of advertising – however much we all know how effective it can be.

Research conducted among EMAP Advertising’s new 10,000 strong insight panel, The Inside, (MW November 9) suggests that while people enjoy reading blogs, they read them far more for entertainment purposes than for information, and that people are still reluctant to fully place their trust in a blog. Over half the panellists who read blogs (61%) say they take what they read with caution, and only 13% of the panellists say they really trust the information in them. Our research also shows that while panellists are keen to listen to new music on the recommendation of a blog (49% agree), they are considerably less keen to buy goods (only 18% agree).

There is a wide range of evidence to suggest consumers are still crying out for trusted voices, with real authority, who can help them navigate the online world, and help them in offline purchase decisions. Generally, people are still wary about how far to trust the opinions of individuals they experience online. Our survey also shows how this apparent lack of trust also applies to the world of social networking sites, with only 14.4% of the panellists agreeing they would trust people they meet in these spaces.

A current example of this is evident in the recent issues with Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s central tenet, that the masses could be trusted to update an online encyclopaedia, has proved to be flawed. While it provides a source of information that covers a fantastically wide area, with nearly 1.5 million articles in English, there are serious doubts about the veracity of some of its output, and concerns about vandalism. If it’s being updated by members, how do we know the information contained is really true? How can we ensure their input is not biased? These sorts of problems reflect themselves in all our interactions on the Web. One of the first things we are taught as children is to beware the advances of strangers, and while those we interact with on a regular basis on the Web don’t quite count as strangers, there is a sense of caution as to how much we can trust them. In this context, it appears brands still have a valuable role to play as tried-and-trusted voices of authority that consumers can use to navigate the online world – fulfilling the same roles they have traditionally played in offline. While consumers are aware that brands are commercial entities, great brands will retain their place by offering something of genuine value to their consumers.

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