a peek inside the fishbowl

15 Nov, 2010

Brain drain to brain dump

Posted by andrea tomkins in: The business of blogging|Yaktivism

Last week Shannon and I hosted our third Ottawa Brain Brain event in which we talked about two recent social-media related conferences.

Every time I walk away from OBD I feel reinspired and all floaty and happy to have the opportunity to learn from so many smart and wonderful people. Thank you to those who braved Elgin Street parking and came out to share your knowledge and experiences with the group! I know how hard it can be to put yourself out there and open up. BUT YOU DID. Thank you for that. New OBDs are being planned for the New Year.

Blogging about blogging is so META. Isn’t it?

I’ve been wondering if I’m becoming even more jaded and cynical the longer I hang around in the blogosphere.  Why is it that some people are able to skim the surface, look at things on a superficial level whereas I am seemingly unable to chill out about certain topics?

I am gearing up for a huge rant here – one that has been percolating for a few weeks and I’m finally drumming it out now. I’ve been talking and thinking a lot about this World of Blogging and I want to finally clear my head.

I attended the Shes Connected conference in Toronto (SCCTO) back in October. SavvyMom was one of the sponsors and extended the invitation to me.

SCCTO looked like a great opportunity to meet other likeminded women living and working in the area of blogging and social media. As a time-crunched mama I had to consider the pros and cons of attending.

Pros: meeting people, networking, learning.
Cons: time and money.

The conference itself was free to attend but I’d be driving down and staying overnight. I decided to stay two nights because I didn’t want to drive all the way back to Ottawa after the conference. Thankfully, fuel was cheap (HELLO PRIUS. My consumption was 4.4L/100kms on the trip down. Woot!) and I snagged a deal at a hotel within walking distance.

I haven’t been to as many conferences as some other people out there but I’m willing to bet that conference participants aren’t often stopped, greeted and hugged by conference organizers. But then SCCTO wasn’t like many other conferences. I got a big hug from Donna Marie Antoniadis, co-founder Shes Connected. I was cool with that. In fact, I thought it was nice.

SCCTO was ultimately about connecting brands (i.e. Kraft and Coke and Maple Leaf) with top “influencers” in the online world…  women who influence public opinion within their own spheres (like Facebook, via blogs etc). The idea of “Influencers” is not new. There’ve always been women who like to chat and share information but it’s traditionally been happening at the playground, over the back fence, or over a cup of tea.

Blogging is the new back fence.

I was aware of what I was getting into because I took the time to read the marketing material that was given out to the sponsors (a.k.a the brands) of the conference. (PDF here.) This document was right on the SCCTO website, available for all to view in black and white.

“… brands will have direct access to some of Canada’s top digitally connected women, (moms, bloggers and leaders in social media). Learn how to engage these influential women with your products and services.”

and

“If you connect with 1 influential digital woman at our conference – she has the ability to connect your brand with thousands of other women. Now imagine connecting with 100 of Canada’s most influential women in a one day event!”

Participants should not have been surprised to discover that by attending the conference they were essentially giving brands (who each paid $5000 to be there) permission to pick their brains for the cost of lunch and a conference pass. (Oh, and a bag of swag, which was heavily emphasized in the lead up to the event.)

Brands see dollar signs in the relationships that women have with other women (we’re influencers, remember?). So it was with a healthy dose of scepticism that I attended this conference.

Social media represents a giant challenge to these big companies.  Traditional media cannot accept swag, bloggers can, and blogs don’t work in the same way as print ads and television commercials. Traditional advertising is one-way, and broadcasts a tailored message to a very wide audience. Social media is narrowcasting a customized message to a niche audience, and it’s made even more complicated (not to mention risky) because there’s an added level of interaction that wasn’t there before. At no other time in advertising history have campaigns been able to backfire so horribly and become PR nightmares. Equally so, a great idea can spread like wildfire and gain exposure to insanely huge numbers via viral marketing.

Brands are finding this a tough transition but we are all muddling through as we go. Changing attitudes and changing technologies are making it even harder.

I was eager to attend SCCTO because I wanted to see what the brands are thinking about on their end. What are they doing in the realm of social media? How are they engaging bloggers? What are they looking for? What’s in it for me?

I can’t deny that the idea of employment also crossed my mind. I think I’d make a great sounding board. (I’m still wondering why brands don’t call me up and ask me about campaigns they’re planning. And pay me to do so.)

Part of SCCTO provided some great learning and networking. Other parts I felt taken advantage of. For example, each of the big sponsors had 20-odd minutes to make a presentation to the audience. (Keep in mind, we were supposed to be 100 of Canada’s top social media influencers.) Calvin Klein used their time to give me the hard sell, not tell me about their social media or marketing strategies, or really engage my interest from a business perspective. I was trapped in an informercial – for 20 minutes.

It’s obviously hard for some companies to understand that they don’t need to do the hard sell. This was not supposed to be a trade show. Building brands can happen indirectly by building relationships. CK’s presentation would have been so much more effective if they’d approached the audience as professionals, not as a future sale.

Brands also had the opportunity to talk to us about their social media campaigns in a round-table format with smaller groups. I found myself at the Maple Leaf table. There were four people from their marketing department, including a chef who’d made a presentation earlier that afternoon.

They asked us if we enjoyed our lunch. (It was provided by ML and they’re promoting various “natural” cold cuts and a new line of Dempster’s bread.) The answer all around: a resounding yes.

“I liked your bread,” I said. “But I’m a big label reader and didn’t have the opportunity to read the ingredients. Is there glucose/fructose in it?”

Sidebar: why am I concerned? Why is anyone? This next part is from Wikipedia (from here):

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) — also called glucose-fructose syrup in the UK, and glucose/fructose in Canada — comprises any of a group of corn syrups that has undergone enzymatic processing to convert some of its glucose into fructose to produce a desired sweetness. In the United States, consumer foods and products typically use high-fructose corn syrup as a sugar substitute. In the United States, it has become very common in processed foods and beverages, including breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments.

Glucose/fructose is derived from corn, and it’s a cheap substitute for sugar.

“Critics of the extensive use of HFCS in food sweetening argue that the highly processed substance is more harmful to humans than regular sugar, contributing to weight gain by affecting normal appetite functions.”

So I asked the question. I had to! There was a pause. No one from Team Maple Leaf seemed to know. The pause grew longer.

And then, as if she was unsheathing a sword from its scabbard, a fellow blogger pulled one of the Dempster loaves out of her bag. WHOOSH.

I scanned the ingredients as the whole table waited.

“Yes,” I said. “There is.”

Aaaaand that’s where the conversation ended, or at least the one that I had tried to kickstart. I could have pushed it but the moment quickly passed and the moment was gone. Whether or not they understood the controversy surrounding HFCS, no one from ML addressed my concerns. An excellent opportunity was lost, but at least I got to make a point. And hopefully it will be passed along to someone who has the power to do something about it. I don’t want to buy your bread if it has glucose-fructose in it.

I know that this conference couldn’t have happened without companies like Maple Leaf. Their commitment meant that I was able to attend for free. But why couldn’t they have been prepared for my question? I know for certain that I’m not the only person who’s concerned about HFCS.

In the end, I have to be honest … and I might be burning a bridge … but I am really on the fence about SCCTO and if it doesn’t change I probably won’t attend future versions of it. Despite the big hug at the outset – the one which signalled to me that I am being embraced by my community – the rest of the event seemed too heavily weighted on brand side and much less so on the community side. And when I think hard about what blogging means to me, why it’s important, it’s because of the community, not about the swag. Or Kraft. Or Maple Leaf.

See? Jaded.

On one hand I was happy for this small opportunity to hang out with my tribe and network with new people, but as I drove home with one thing on my mind: Bloggers, we are undervaluing our worth. Big time.

Gah. I need to break this up into two posts. There’s just too much to cover. More later.


23 Responses to "Brain drain to brain dump"

1 | coffeewithjulie

November 15th, 2010 at 10:30 am

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Why weren’t they ready to answer your question? Because you are a mom blogger and you’re supposed to be stupid.

2 | Lana

November 15th, 2010 at 10:52 am

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I’m so happy to hear your review… from their materials it really sounded like an old skool trade show… and clearly, it was!

I had to laugh, as soon as I made comments on Twitter that were negative about the conference, they unfollowed me. Oh no, I have no influence now… they don’t like me! boo hoo! : )

3 | bushidoka

November 15th, 2010 at 11:14 am

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Everything I heard about that conference made me extremely skeptical about it. My wife was one of the first people invited to it, and where I am unemployed we decided that she could not go. But I was glad the decision was so easy because even if I were employed I would not have wanted her to go because it sounded too much to me like exactly what you described.

Sounds like some of these companies really blew it. They just don’t get what is so different about social media versus the old way of doing things. The old way was a one-way street – they blast information at you. The new way is a 2 way street – and just as much information should flow each way. They really blew a golden opportunity.

And kudos to you for doing such a great job while there! If this was burning a bridge, then it is one you probably did not want to cross anyway. If you were looking for a job, can you really say you’d like to have worked for Dempsters given what you know about their bread? Personally, I’m sick of compromising my beliefs and morals for the sake of a job – and you strike me as the sort of person who would not do so lightly either. I’m unemployed at the moment and am trying hard to get a job that I can fell good about at the end of the day.

4 | Stacey

November 15th, 2010 at 11:30 am

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As one of Canada’s LEAST influential women blogger’s, I didn’t attend this or Blissdom. However, I wasn’t surprised to see this post and others like it talking about the feelings regarding the expectations placed upon attendees during the conference, and indeed approaching it, that in return for a free ticket and in this case, a free lunch, you should be quiet with criticism and shill for the sponsors. This was evident when a tweet request went out asking for attendees to tweet ABOUT MEAT and ML products. WHAT??? It missed the ENTIRE point about why these women are influential. People like me follow them on twitter and read their blogs because they write about things that are true to them, matters upon which their readers are interested in. Some of the most influential blog and tweet about very focused interests. There may have been some whose readers would read an entry or tweet about deli meat, but for the majority it was fake, contrived and as a reader it made me cynical. What it didn’t do was make me run out and buy bread or deli meat. I’m glad you spoke up at the conference. As a “dabbler” on twitter and normally passive reader, I was hoping that someone was going to stand up and ask some pointed questions at the conference, especially when I saw how questions about the sponsors were addressed ahead of the conference. Good for you!

5 | Lori

November 15th, 2010 at 11:32 am

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Great post Andrea. I was happy to read your review of She’s Connected. I passed on the conference because I’ve heard Donna Marie Antoniadis present at SM conferences in the past, and I’m not at all surprised by your impression of the conference.

The brand-heavy, hard sell-based marketing that She’s Connected focuses on is the whole premise of her business. The last time I heard her speak was at last year’s pod camp where she talked about how She’s Connected has focused on hiring female bloggers to pitch/review/write about brands. I was unimpressed by her presentation, and to me, her approach seemed insulting and a touch condescending. She seemed to be banking on the premise that female bloggers have swag on the brain, and while would like to believe that isn’t the case, I have to say that from all the #shesconnected tweets I read leading up to the conference it seems that, sadly, in several cases, she was right on the mark.

I will probably anger a lot of people by saying this, but based on the tweets & blogs around She’s Connected, BlogHer & the like, it’s disappointing to see just how many intelligent women appear to be focusing on swag, and very little more.

6 | Lori

November 15th, 2010 at 11:36 am

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Sorry to post again, but I just wanted to add that I think it is great that bloggers like yourself are speaking your mind and showing your integrity. It’s why, after years, I keep reading – and enjoying your blog :)

7 | andrea

November 15th, 2010 at 11:39 am

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bushidoka – no, I couldn’t work for Dempsters because if I did I would be be a hypocrite, but I also understand why they add glucose-fructose to their bread. They’re a business and they want to make money. Bread needs a sweetener and the one they’ve chosen to use is cheaper than sugar.

One of the participating brands that I would have liked to talk to more about social media engagement was Kobo. (Disclosure: all conference participants received a Kobo reader.) And yes, I could work for them. :)

BTW, here are a couple of other insightful POVs about the conference:

http://mypointsofview.ca/2010/10/22/authentic-and-engaged/

and here:

http://bargainista.blogspot.com/2010/11/marketing-to-women-its-not-about-free.html

8 | Lana

November 15th, 2010 at 11:40 am

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Oh – that contest to “win” tickets annoyed me to no end, Lori! Agreed! Also, I feel that the brands in attendance could glean a lot more from customers who disagree or ask questions rather than … dare I say it? Sheeple.

9 | Sasha

November 15th, 2010 at 11:41 am

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Sure, it’s possible to burn bridges, but some bridges aren’t worth crossing. Personally, I’m already a little cynical when I read a blog post that gushes about a product – which is unfair of me, since when I love something, I gush too. I enjoyed your post because it sounded fair and honest, lose that and you lose your influence; with me, anyhow.

10 | andrea

November 15th, 2010 at 11:45 am

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Sheeple. HA!

I have to say that there were some very mixed messages going on about the conference before hand.

1) The chatter on twitter was all about the swag. I’m not swayed by the swag.

2) The event was posted on LinkedIn, and highlighted the speakers.

Louise Clements
SVP, Digital Strategist
MacLaren McCann Canada Inc.

Marina Glogovac
CMO
Kobo Inc.

Sidneyeve Matrix
Blogger, Educator & Cultural Trendwatcher

Joanne Thomas Yaccato
CEO
Thomas Yaccato Group

… and more! This is ultimately why I chose to attend.

11 | Javamom

November 15th, 2010 at 11:58 am

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Good for you for speaking up. And I am not surprised that the staff of said company was not really informed about their product they were trying to market. They’re there for different reasons.

It’s just so sad…and this stuff you see at conferences, including swag bags, this happens in public schools right from the very beginning in Kindergarten! How many times are they sending out stuff via the kids to the parents for the purpose of getting into the fundraising and when you look at the incentives, it’s incredible. The whole sheet of prizes to be won if you reach such and such a target is things like plastic toys that you could buy at your local dollar store if you were so inclined.

It’s a funny world out there, what with marketing so heavily involved in the social media now.

If I may be so bold with ‘coffeewithjulie” I do not believe that the companies feel the bloggers or moms or social media leaders are necessarily stupid. I think we live in a society that is driven by ‘stuff’ and ‘more stuff’ and they are pushing that on those whom they think can make a difference.

Just look at how many people posted a comment on this post, which is likely a tiny fraction of people who actually read the post.

sorry for all this typing…gotta go pick up kid!!

Good post Andrea!

12 | Vicky

November 15th, 2010 at 1:06 pm

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I think the best part of the conference was the presentation by Sidneyeve Matrix. It was fascinating. I liked the comment that was made at BDO last week about how people stopped talking about SSCTO the next day, yet weeks later people are still talking about Blissdom.

13 | Janice

November 15th, 2010 at 1:25 pm

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Great post Andrea. I attended the day too, and have very mixed feelings about the day, and have another blog post about my experience percolating — I’m still trying to formulate the most constructive way to present my feelings on the day.
I found that most of the brands are still unsure about social media, and yes, the afternoon was one big focus group. Within that, however, some approached it more successfully than others — I was quite frankly, offended by the team from Seagrams, who made no effort to mingle throughout the day, presented their very narrow selection (branded for women btw!) and were happy to collect cards from us, but gave no contact info in return. How are we supposed to follow up should we have further questions or interest???
Furthermore, its been just over a month, and I’ve had follow-up emails (brief at that) from only 2 of the companies, and none from the organizers. I wasn’t coming away from the day expecting to the flooded with offers, but on the other hand, this was a self-selecting group of companies who said they wanted to reach out….

14 | bushidoka

November 15th, 2010 at 3:16 pm

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Lori – it is not just women bloggers who are distracted by shiny object – as others have mentioned this is the society we currently live in, sadly. Far too many people just care about their stuff and nothing more.

15 | Siobhan N

November 15th, 2010 at 4:01 pm

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I went to the first Brain Drain, but hadn’t heard about the others. Is there another way to get notified, or do I have to go to the dark side and join twitter? ;)

16 | andrea

November 15th, 2010 at 4:29 pm

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Siobhan – no need to cross over. Yet. :)
I will start using the Fishbolw FB page to post updates about OBD.

17 | Sara

November 15th, 2010 at 9:31 pm

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Thanks for posting this Andrea. I don’t think you’re burning bridges because in reality, I don’t know how many of the brands are willing to build them. Or even understand how to go about it: That its about relationships and conversation and not a one-way flow of information (they tell us about the product, we write about it).

I recently watched a conversation on twitter between a reviewer and a non-reviewer.It amazed me that the person who writes reviews considers getting free swag and products and writing about them “work”. That its a job to write favourable reviews about products that PR companies will give to anyone who will open up space on their blog. It highlighted the most disappointed aspect of Shes Connected: the expectation that we will hawk products, for free, and be grateful for the opportunity.

Giving away what we do, our opinions, our written word, for free, dilutes the value and power.

18 | Capital Mom

November 15th, 2010 at 11:25 pm

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I didn’t have any expectations for She’s Connected. I wanted to hang out with friends and learn something and maybe see what opportunities exist for working with brads.

I had a great time hanging with my friends, but there was no time to network and meet new people. I did learn some interesting things, but all the sessions were jammed together in the morning and it resulted in an information over load. I got to meet some brands, but they never met me. I actually love focus groups, seriously I think they are fun, but I was expecting more two way discussions so I was disappointed.

And also, love this: “And then, as if she was unsheathing a sword from its scabbard, a fellow blogger pulled one of the Dempster loaves out of her bag. WHOOSH.”

Now I must carry bread everywhere with me so that I always “unsheath a sword from its scabbard”.

19 | Lori

November 16th, 2010 at 4:02 pm

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bushidoka – so true. I agree that it is a problem with society in general. Unfortunately organizations like She’s Connected are banking on women specifically.

21 | Lara

November 17th, 2010 at 10:40 am

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Weighing in a bit late here.

I think the SCCTO was done wrong in a lot of ways. I’m still waiting to see if they want my feedback on why or if they think they know better than we do.

That being said, I think there is huge potential to do it right. The 20 minute presentations? I don’t think the companies were given enough information ( and don’t have enough of their own knowledge) to know how to talk to us in an effective way. That time should have been allotted by the organizers to far more useful tasks.

Everyone was learning. And there is so much to learn on how to do this so everyone feels happy with the results.

I think companies need to learn how to tap into our community better and we need to help them learn how to do that. And they ought to pay us for that help, I am in complete agreement.

One last note (maybe I do have a She’s Connected post in me even though I keep putting it off), so far the only brand who was there who has followed up with me is Booty Camp. I think they are the only ones who were there who “get it”. They offered us something large enough that it felt worth it to take advantage of it and be worth talking about. They interact with us regularly on twitter. If we blog about them, they catch it and they comment. They are engaging and asking for our opinion (with no guidelines or requests). It’s very risky and I admire them for how they’re going about it.

Ok, that’s it :)

22 | Sara

November 19th, 2010 at 8:43 pm

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I even missed the hug from Donna Marie Antoniadis!

Nice to meet you here Andrea sadly we didn’t get to meet in person at SCCTO, as I’ve said at the conference I felt I was being “connected at”, not connected with the brands. I loved the presentations from Johanne Thomas Yaccoto and Sidneyeve Matrix, and I didn’t sit through the whole brands presentations, as I didn’t feel they speak my language, what the brands could’ve done was send some communications people instead. The brands also need to understand that not all attendees are bloggers, some are business owners as well, they really missed out the opportunity to connect the first time.

I am assuming by now the brands all have our contact information and should follow up with us, only Booty Camp has done so because their Community Manager was/is a blgger and she gets the community, the brands probably still see this as traditional media and try to decide how to scale back to the marketing budget, they missed the opportunity to connect the second time.

Not sure how many of you but I actually contacted few brands I got to know more at the conference, only one got back to me (i.e. returning my email) about possible meeting, the rest including Donna, were all silent. I am willing to believe it’s close to fiscal year-end and people are working on Q1 2011 plan which including how to work with us digital women (see I am nice), if not, then they missed out BIG TIME!!

The original intention of the conference was good, and there’s certainly rooms to improve the way it executed; I really like to hear what conference organizer and the attending brands have to say, in terms of anticipations, feedback/results and next step actions.

23 | coffeewithjulie

November 15th, 2011 at 12:29 pm

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Wow, I have found this absolutely fascinating to read one year later!

Although I did read it last year (and commented!), I did not remember this post at all. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to attend SSCTO 2011, I too feel quite mixed about the event and a tad jaded when it comes to swag et al. Like you, I calculated in the cost of attending: hotel, gas, two vacation days off of work. In reviewing the expense to attend, I’m not sure it was worth it for me. The highlights for me were keynotes from the Futurist at Ford and the Founder of BlogHer. They were absolutely fabulous … but the rest? Not sure.

I really appreciate the honesty and candor of your post, Andrea.

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