ORLANDO, Fla. —
A video shows Bess Auer cruising through Mount Dora, Fla., in a metallic-orange Camaro.
“One biker actually stopped his buddy and pointed at me as I drove by,” she wrote on Chevy’s Girl on the Go blog, which she linked to her own blog.
Auer is one of five Florida bloggers — two in Tampa and three in the Orlando area — who received a 2010 Camaro recently to enjoy for a month at no cost. The only requirement: Record a video and write two posts a week about their adventures in the cars.
The English teacher is part of an evolving movement in the world of blogging, in which businesses call upon popular local blogs to help market their goods. And bloggers are embracing the idea, often getting a service or product for free or even collecting a small paycheck.
“It sounded like fun, and it drove more traffic to my site,” said Auer, who created her blog, called Central Florida Top 5, a year ago.
For years, bloggers and marketing executives have searched for a fine balance between independent bloggers staying true to their readers and businesses promoting their products. Now, the blogging/marketing relationship has become so common that blogging conferences devote sessions on how to connect to companies.
Last year, Cadillac sought out 64 well-connected Orlando women to receive a 2010 SRX crossover for a week in exchange for sharing their experience on a blog, Twitter and Facebook.
“For many years, bloggers weren’t given a lot of respect or authority, and now people really see them as a go-to resource, and they have influence,” said Esther Crawford, 26, a Wisconsin blogger who created sheposts.com, a website dedicated to keeping women informed about blogging trends, conferences and marketing campaigns.
Paul Rand agreed. He is president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a nonprofit organization that advances the “discipline of credible word of mouth marketing, both offline and online.”
“In the past, word-of-mouth was always critically important, but it didn’t have the mass reach that we have when the Internet and social media come into play,” he said. “Now, everyone’s opinion can be heard ... as people grow with their social prominence online, their reach becomes even further.”
IZEA, an Orlando-based social-media marketing company, tapped that influence several years ago with PayPerPost, which initially drew criticism from those who feared it tainted blogging and crossed ethical lines. The company has developed more programs that pay for blogging, tweeting and checking in on Foursquare.
“Over time, it became more of an accepted practice,” said Pete Scott, vice president of business development.
But Kelly McBride, an expert in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that’s kind of the way it has always worked. Auto writers in the past were loaned cars, drove them around a week and wrote reviews, she said.
With the introduction of more bloggers, businesses are doing this even more, she said.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission published guidelines requiring bloggers to “clearly disclose” what they receive in exchange for the endorsement: money or free goods.
In March, for example, the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. paid for a group of eight bloggers to visit local theme parks and write about their stay. Each one told their readers what a great time they had — but also explained how the convention and visitors bureau had covered their costs.
But McBride questioned how the FTC would be able to enforce the rule.
Readers are always going to seek trusted voices. And bloggers tend to be closer to their audience, she said.
“They are truly unpaid spokesmen for a product. The company is benefiting off it,” said Carolyn Massiah, a marketing professor at University of Central Florida. “It’s amazing how consumers will believe what the average Joe will tell them over the many experts in a field.”
The Southern Chevy Dealers in Orlando and Tampa sponsored the Girls on the Go campaign to help attract more women into the stores. Similar programs may start in West Palm Beach, Miami, Fort Myers and Jacksonville in the next several months.
“There’s whole network of women who constantly share their stories ... interacting in a social environment,” said Kandi Kirkland, Florida management supervisor for Velocity Marketing, which is helping coordinate the Chevy campaign. “The best way for us to become part of that community was for us to join that social-network community.”
That’s why they chose women who were influencing others online. They started last winter with the Traverse and did another month with the Malibu.
For the Chevy Girls on the Go Campaign, dealers are providing the cars and gas money. The bloggers are not told what to say — an important distinction to them.
Kim Taylor, who blogs for Pulse of Central Florida, wanted to stay “authentic” to her readers and be honest.
“Frankly, I think I would have bowed out gracefully if we’d been told that we could only speak positively about the product,” the 34-year-old public-relations executive said. “The blogger community and readers are smart enough to know when they’re being sold to. ... There’s plenty of room for that in traditional advertising.”