Marketing to women – it’s not about free stuff

If you build it they will come may apply in baseball but not when marketing to women as confirmed by my recent experience attending two conferences* aimed at influential women online, primarily mommy bloggers.**

She's Connected ConferenceShe’sConnected Conference built a foundation supported by the strength of relationships with brands and an online community platform. It promised to “connect top brands with Canada’s most influential and powerful digital women” for a one-day conference and yes, there’d be swag, lots of swag because that’s what these women want – free stuff. Really?

Brands (and sponsors) would have an opportunity to gain an understanding about what makes these women tick and women would have a chance to build relationships with brands while attending a conference for free. (For future reference, these women are invited to a lot of events free of charge and it still costs them time, especially for those who took a day off from being with their children and/or their jobs and/or traveled from out of town.)

As luck would have it, since I left agency life a month ago to do my own thing, I thought I’d try to attend and see for myself, especially since they reached out to me a couple times. Donna Marie Antoniadis was gracious enough to offer me a last-minute spot. I explained I’d have to step out for a few hours. She was fine with that as long as I would be able to attend the roundtable discussions in the afternoon.

I registered in the morning and stayed during the opening session and first presentation. From what I understand, most presentations weren’t designed for this audience but for an audience of the presenters’ peers – marketers, not an audience of predominantly women lifestyle and mommy bloggers.

I returned after lunch and hung out in the lounge area connecting with some very bright women, most of whom I had met and admired online for a long time but had yet to meet in person. After all this was a conference about women connecting, wasn’t it? I also spent time visiting the exhibits, chatting with brand representatives and sponsors.

Following the afternoon break, we all regrouped in the main room for the roundtables where brand reps from took turns visiting each of the tables of about 20 women. For the next hour or so, brand reps told us about their products, asked us to introduce ourselves and share our valuable insights – for free. And then the conference was over. No time for the networking reception listed on the agenda. Everyone left feeling kind of empty and there wasn’t much of an opportunity for the bloggers and brands to get to know each other or build relationships.

At the end of the day, there were still two clearly delineated groups – the bloggers, the brands – and no sense of barriers coming down or recognition of bloggers being unique, hard working individuals with different interests, backgrounds, perspectives, motives and audiences. The digitally connected women felt like they were all painted with the same “blogger” brush. On several occasions during the day, they were told they were invited to attend the conference for “free” and expected to participate.

She’sConnected could have presented an amazing opportunity for these brands to really forge productive relationships with individual women who love their products. Many of them have already had respected track records in the online and social media space. But I’m not sure this conference accomplished what it set out to achieve. The gap between bloggers and brands remained unchanged.

Blissdom CanadaIn distinct contrast was BlissDom Canada, the first venture north of the border from a group of smart women who extended their successful online community into a successful conference brand – smart enough to add Canadian Catherine Connors to the team. The minute BlissDom Canada was announced, there were conversations on the Twitter back channel wondering what this was all about. To be honest, I was somewhat skeptical when some friends were asking about religious affiliations and connotations. Yet, news of BlissDom Canada was spreading through the mommy blogger community like wildlife and tickets were selling fast – at $300 a pop, without a published agenda or the lure of free stuff. What was the secret of it’s success?

Well, from the outside looking in, BlissDom Canada had a local team of influential women (and one man) at its core. They were established members of the Canadian mommy blog community and successful entrepreneurs. The community trusted them and wanted to be a part of this thing called BlissDom Canada – billed as the first social media conference for women in Canada (well, it was actually the second but who’s counting?) – and they came in droves from across the country.

From the inside, BlissDom was a huge success. (Yes, I was lucky enough to buy a ticket at the last minute from someone who couldn’t attend.) Women with similar interests who had been friends for years online converged in one location for 2.5 days. Many met in real life for the first time, some of whom had been online friends for years. Lots of learning went on and existing real-life friendships were strengthened.

So what’s the secret? BlissDom started with a community – a group of people with common interests – and built a conference around its members. Community is not an online platform or a social media tool. It’s real people wanting to have real connections with people like them and whether they do so online or offline isn’t the issue.

Presenters and speakers belonged to the community. Attendees wanted to hear what they had to say and learn from their experiences. There was plenty of opportunity for two-way dialogue.

Sponsors who participated knew enough to research and respect the community. They were well-supported by the attendees and BlissDom organizers. It was an atmosphere of mutual respect with opportunities to build relationships for anyone who was interested.

Was there a lot of free stuff? Yes, but not as much as there was at She’sConnected unless you attended one of the unofficial, sponsored parties. It really didn’t matter. Women (and a handful of men) were there to build genuine, lasting relationships with one another.

Perhaps it’s best conveyed in the words of Dee Brun aka @CocktailDeeva in her analogy of conference:

“If the event was not that great, it’s like Bad Sex with no cuddling…Lot’s of hype and hashtags leading up to it, but as soon as it’s over…nothing…the has tag just dies, that’s the no cuddling part.
If the event is Fabulous, that’s like good sex, then the hashtag lives on long after the event is over. Everyone is chatting about, sharing, basking in the glow. Now that’s good cuddling.”

(Be sure to check out her #BeKind project. If you know any alcohol or shoe companies wanting to build a relationship with an influential lifestyle influencer, you may want to get in touch.)
More than a week later, the BlissDom Canada hashtag is still going strong.

Bottom line: Community is all about relationship building and connections. It’s critical to have a deep understanding of a community’s culture before reaching out to its members in order to provide a valuable experience to all parties. Community is not about giving away stuff for free. If I were choosing a conference to put my product or service in front of women who are influential online, BlissDom Canada would get my vote hands down.

*Since fall 2007, I’ve belonged to the organizing team of PodCamp Toronto, a free social media conference open to the public and the largest of it’s kind in Canada.

**Although I’m not a mommy blogger per se, as lifestyle blogger who is also a mom and digital strategist, I was intrigued.

Line drawn peony from Spodek & Co Digital marketing site