Naina Redhu is a luxury & lifestyle photographer and a blogger. Naina has been blogging for over 12 years now, covering visual stories that she experiences in her daily life. Some of the biggest brands have collaborated with her for storytelling and photography and sometimes she shares her first hand experiences with no branded agenda. Back in 2004, Naina’s blog focused on anything interesting and creative under the sun. Brands had barely accepted the internet and the millennials were still getting out of college and not everything was on Social Media. The world has moved fast - from a stage of non acceptance, to a time when every single person and every brand has become active on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and of course Twitter. Here are excerpts from Vivek Khandelwal’s conversation with Naina Redhu on the ideal brand blogger engagement and her experience as an entrepreneur, blogger and photographer.
How has the world of blogging transformed over the years?
My bosses didn’t really understand why I had to be on blogspot.com and what it was that I was writing about. They always thought of blogging as a hobby; something that I would be doing out of my office time. The only social network as such which I was also on used to be this thing called Ryze as the whole concept of blogging picked up in India only around maybe in 2008. So initially it moved quite slowly. I had some of my clients abroad. They used to say it was really cool to see someone blogging in India and doing something in social media. Slowly a lot of platforms started popping up and I made sure I was the first one to sign up on all of them.
In India, brands and people like me are trying to figure out how to make it work even now because there are still many smaller boutique brands who do not have an online presence. They might be on Instagram but they don’t have a website, so it doesn’t really translate into a business product.Now, it’s like a competition; they are on a platform because everyone else is. I don’t think we are there yet, in the Indian market, but of course, it’s nothing compared to what it was in 2004. Clients had no website, there were no social networks and nobody was looking at it as a commercial activity. But now the times have changed and bloggers get paid to do a blog feature because it involves so much work.
How do brands engage with bloggers or influencers nowadays? Has there been any change in the brand blogger engagement?
Yes, it has changed in the sense that they definitely see value in collaborating with someone who has a blog or someone who has an Instagram feed which is interesting. There is a long way to go to achieve the 'perfect' brand blogger engagement, but in the last 2 years, the level of professionalism has definitely gone up, from PR agencies to some brands directly themselves. The more time you spend doing this, the more you realize that this is a business.If you are going to run it as a business, then there are things that you need to fulfill from the point of your brand and from the point of your PR agency by maintaining a successful blog. So, it has improved in the sense that people are understanding that this is a serious business venture and can be a long term investment, but brands still don’t.
My biggest problem is that brands and PR agencies, find it difficult to differentiate between a blogger, a person from the press or a person from a traditional print media.They conduct celebrity events, where celebrities launch and endorse products. Some celebrities are even paid just to attend an event, to show off their face and to be photographed. So a lot of brands consider that a blogger would come to their event, take pictures, come back and blog about their event just because there were celebrities there. This is a model that lots of traditional print media follows.
What is an ideal brand blogger engagement ?
What I would call as an ideal scenario, is when brands, PR agencies and bloggers are considered as 3 separate parties. The best way to do is to meet the person who is making all the decisions. So if it’s the client, the brand or the PR agency, we sit and talk to them and find out what their brand goals are and how they usually work with a blogger. What happens then is that you put your cards on the table and say that this is what worked for my blog and my audience, this is what will be relevant to the brand from that point of view and then you listen to what the brand goals are, what are they trying to do - is it a product that they are launching, are they trying to reach a certain type of audience and if their blog has that kind of an audience in the first place. But that is a good approach for bloggers to look at a brand as a singular client.
I think having a conversation is always better to understand how a blog works. There is no time to usually do that, because there are so many brands and there are so many verticals, so one can’t actually meet face-to-face with everybody. But it is necessary to atleast communicate clearly and maintain transparency over the phone or through emails. After this finalize the terms and conditions regarding payment; if you want to be paid 100% in advance or if the brand wants you to start off with one blog post or two blog post. One must think of it as a business venture also - what value are you bringing to the brand in the long run. Otherwise you won’t get any work, why will a brand come to you when there are 20,000 other bloggers in the country.
The ideal approach is to figure out how a particular blogger and audience will add value to the brand and then how that brand can translate it or turn it into a campaign. It’s better to have a conversation and understand if the blog is even a fit and then see if that person is a professional. I mean there is no point in using a blogger saying that this is what we do with media, so this is what we want to do with you. It’s a different industry, it’s a different profession. Painting bloggers and saying they are all like Page 3 people that come to these events, is never going to work.
Do we need to hire a media agency in the middle?
The PR agencies have a huge part to play in brand blogger engagement and vice-versa. Because a lot of people who work in PR agencies understand the value of traffic or someone who has a large Instagram following and how it works. Most brands have ad agencies that produce their campaigns. And there are ad agencies, where you have a social media arm or a PR arm. So I think an agency in the middle is very important because otherwise it gets lost in translation. The agencies can pinpoint and say that these are the bloggers that will work for clients. The clients harass them from one side saying why aren’t you making this happen and why do we have to pay for these bloggers. On the other hand, there are bloggers like me who say we don’t know what you are doing, what kind of a client are you bringing to me, why are you not paying me and why are you expecting me to work for free.
I think PR agencies and a lot of people have put in a lot of work over the last few years trying to get brands to understand why bloggers are valuable and also educating bloggers on how brands work, what value can a blogger add to a brand, etc. Again, long way to go because, for example, a lot of agencies that are based in Bombay, introduce only Bombay based bloggers to their clients. Blogging runs across borders, like an international brand can work with a blogger based in India. An Indian blogger can travel to New York and do a campaign with an Indian brand or with an American brand. So it’s not about - Oh! This blogger is in Bombay, so let’s work only with them because we are also in Bombay. I think having an agency in the middle makes it easier for all partners.
How to make things work?
If it’s a client that I have maybe worked in the past with or even if I have been associated non-formally, if I have met them socially somewhere else, then I can tell them openly this is not how this works; this is how it works - you tell me what your requirements are and then we can see what we can do. Now in 99% of the cases, this will never work out. A client might tell me you don’t understand my brand. Obviously I don’t understand your brand, you understand it better, because it’s your brand. Let’s sit across the table, talk about it. You tell what your brand guidelines are and I’ll tell you this is what I can do and if you think this doesn’t work for your brand, no problem, it’s a business transaction, it doesn’t work out. Not every conversation has to result in a positive outcome for either the brand or the blogger. As a brand, it is a business transaction, we are trying to promote each other because at the end of the day, my brand also gets promoted if I work with an amazing brand. So, it’s a two-way street. I can’t sit and educate everyone, so I blog about these issues. I have a weekly column, because there is so much material, there is so much interaction I have with brands which could have gone better in so many ways.
I can’t sit and tell everyone that maybe this is how we could have done it. Nobody calls back and gives you a feedback. This is not a good way to run any profession. One must have feedback. But it doesn’t really work like that. If someone calls me up, I get calls from Brand Managers or Marketing Head who say we are considering doing a long-term thing with bloggers, can you tell us how it might work. So I have done that also, I have actually consulted brands and said this is how you could probably look at it. That thing works but I don’t have the onus to educate everyone on how this works.
Why is transparent communication important?
If you are trying to hide something from the service provider whether it’s a blogger or anybody, they won’t be able to provide the best value because they won’t know what they are getting into. For example, if you are not giving the brand brief, how will the service provider know what to do. So you have to be clear about your goals, specifying what you want them to do and how they can help us for a good brand blogger engagement.
Is it necessary to differentiate between a blogger and a Page 3 journalist?
If a brand wants to say that this is one blog which we have identified where we want our product launch to appear and then they hire that blogger and say this is the event, what do you want to do? Do you want to take photographs of the celebrity with the product? Do you want to come and take photographs of the celebrity on the podium interacting with the product? What do you want to do and what works for your blog audience? If that is the case, then you going makes sense. But if you’re going to invite 500 people and then you are going to invite 50 bloggers, what are the bloggers doing there and what is the media doing there.
Generally, Page 3 and press who land up at these events are people who have a salaried job at a print publication. You have to as a brand understand, does this blogger stick with what I am trying to do and bloggers don’t have salaries. Everyone is an independent entrepreneur trying to run their own business. So you can’t ask people to attend events and waste time.
How should a brand manager approach a blogger and a journalist for an event?
They don’t have to treat a blogger differently. For example, if they have invited 10 people to a small exclusive event, they treat everyone the same. My problem is that the person who is coming at your event, what is the value they are adding. Are you inviting a blogger because they are famous and popular with a million followers just for safe value? Are you treating a blogger as a celebrity? I am not saying that’s wrong but please understand why you are inviting them. A professional blogger should be paid for the work done.
One should understand what is the value that is being added to the client’s brand and the value being added to the blogger. I’d rather go to an event where I can interact with other people, I will learn something from them. If an agency sets up a meeting and it says we have 10-15 people traveling to Delhi, we all want to meet you, we want to understand how our clients can work with you. Excellent, I will come for that. You call me for lunch, I will go for lunch. That’s a business meeting. A lot of bloggers are not interested in page 3 meetings because it’s a waste of time.
What is your advice to that young blogger who has just set up his/her blog and gets approached by a brand right now?
If you are a new blogger and have just setup your blog and your blog is a couple of months old and you are already getting approached by brands, Congratulations! Because within a couple of months, it is highly unlikely that any brand is going to be interested in you. That said, they only want you to publish their press release and they will not pay you anything. So it’s not going to happen that you are making money in the first couple of months. If that is happening, Brilliant! That means you are bringing something to the table that probably no other blogger is and brands want to work with you.
The moment a brand approaches you, it is a professional requirement that you understand what a contract is, you understand how to price yourself, not just bloggers, across industries in India where people work on their own (I hate using the term - Freelancers), but people don’t know how to price. People don’t understand what the cost of doing business is. So for these things, you must talk to people around you and luckily in the last 1 or 2 years, I have seen that brand blogger engagement in increasing. A lot of industries in India, professionals don’t talk to each other, the industry is not very friendly. Luckily in blogging, I have seen in the last couple of years that it is getting better. People talk, they discuss what are the terms that one must work on, why we must not undercut ourselves, what professionalism is, people sharing their contracts, so that’s excellent! But to a new blogger, I would recommend you to have a side job. Blogging is not something that will pay your bills, you must have a side job.
I am a photographer, the blog just happened to take off, so I have 2 streams of income. You must have a source of income because it is not currently a full-time sustainable thing unless you are setting it up like a business where you have a team of 20 people who contribute to your blog. If you are running it as a business like that, then Yes! But if you are an independent single blogger who does not even have a photographer on your team, I would highly recommend you to have a second income stream as well. That is very important. Blogging is a long-term investment. It’s not going to pay overnight. It takes time to set up and create credibility in the market. So that’s probably the only advice I can give.
Listen to the entire podcast here. You can also check out our other interesting podcasts like Writing Impactful and User Friendly Copy - 5 Blogging Tips by Upasna and Understanding the semantics of Client-Agency Relationships with Himanshu Khanna.