Gadget blogs gain in popularity and PR begins to take notice

On March 24th, loyal readers of gadget blog Gizmodo were rewarded with some grainy pictures of Danger's hiptop 2, the second generation of popular mobile device that allows users to email, browse the Web, IM, call someone, play video games and, with a camera accessory, take pictures.

On March 24th, loyal readers of gadget blog Gizmodo were rewarded with some grainy pictures of Danger's hiptop 2, the second generation of popular mobile device that allows users to email, browse the Web, IM, call someone, play video games and, with a camera accessory, take pictures.

The hiptop 2 has not yet been released and the photos, taken from a trade event, were not supposed to be viewed publicly. While not commenting directly about the incident, Susan George, Danger's director of marketing communications said, positively, "It's nice that people are excited about it." While leaked photos are not new to the public relations industry, the sheer speed and absence of unwieldy hierarchies at blogs allows leaks reach the public instantly. Professionally-done blogs have become the firebrand of the media world: quick, dedicated and unapologetic. With the use of RSS feeds, readers can be alerted the minute that something is posted. Among the leading gadget specialist blogs are Engadget, developed in partnership with Weblogs Inc. Network (WIN); and Gizmodo, published by Gawker Media. Even though professionally-done blogs such Engadget, Gizmodo, Boing Boing, The Gadget Box, et. al. are popping up everywhere, there still remains a lingering stigma that blogs are just for people with a penchant for airing personal trauma. How can PR reps know which blog to pitch, if any at all? "My advice for PR people is that you ignore Engadget and other blogs at your own peril. It doesn't mean that [PR people] should instantaneously start soliciting a new blog. It doesn't mean that you have to try to pitch 5,000 blogs; it just behooves you to pay attention to the ones that have an effect," said Peter Rojas, editor of Engadget (and the former editor of Gizmodo). Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson concurred. "Companies definitely take Gizmodo as a legitimate news source, as they should. I don't want to sound self-important, but Gizmodo reaches tens of thousands of very targeted consumers a day. If readers are using Gizmodo as their place to find the latest and greatest, that's all that the legitimacy a company needs," Johnson said via e-mail. The posts, reviews and links are a mix of gushing praise that is to be expected and wit that alters the tech geek stereotype. In one post, Johnson wrote: iRiver's aesthetic decisions have been somewhat hit-or-miss with me, but something about this IFP-1000 combination camera/radio/MP3/voice recorder with a 1.2 inch color display really gets me worked up. (I think it might be its resemblance to one of my favorite gadgets ever, the flask.) Engadget's Peter Rojas writes: Dottocomu has some links to video footage of the Enryu, Tsmuk's giant rescue robot, driving around, ripping the door off a car, and picking up steel girders. Apparently it requires a special "rescue robot driver's license" to operate, which effectively dashes our plans of hijacking one and wreaking havoc in downtown Tokyo. The readers have responded in numbers. According to Gizmodo, the website attracts more than 50,000 visitors per day and more than 1 million page views per month. Gizmodo is 44th on Popdex's historical ranking list, which determines strength based on links. The top site, moveabletype.org, is the software that enables the creation and design of many blogs. Boing Boing, which has been in operation since 2000 and covers a variety of technological topics, is ranked fifth. Engadget, launched on March 2, 2004, was ranked second on Popdex's daily index on March 3rd. WIN chairman and co-founder Jason Calacanis said that Engadget should have over 1 million visitors and 1.25 million page views for the site's first month. Gizmodo's 2003 readership survey tells potential advertisers [though it is also of import to those in publicity] that more than 25 percent of its readers have direct responsibility for technology purchasing for their company, while another 50 percent influence technology purchasing for their company. The survey stated that 75 percent of respondents check the website more than 5 times a week. Rojas boasts a well-informed and influential audience, including journalists and engineers. "Nine times out of ten, the engineers of the [gadget] companies read my site. They then say to the PR people. "I want to read about the product I'm working on on Engadget," Rojas said. Rob Walker, freelance writer and author of the New York Times Magazine's "Consumed" column, said that he is an occasional reader of blogs, including Engadget and Gizmodo. "Both of those sites are worth looking at. I assume both of them are hyper-aware of what's going on [in the gadget world]. It's beyond just [writing about] the iPod mini. I would assume that their audience is one that is keenly interested in up-to-the-minute information about gadgets." Walker quoted Rojas [while he was still working for Gizmodo] on one story about the Treo 600 for his "Consumed" column. The two bloggers have had experience outside of their current positions. Rojas recently wrote an article for new shopping magazine Cargo and has written for Slate, while Johnson has written for a variety of online publications. All of the surveys, data, claims and buzz can obfuscate the most important point: these blogs can be more efficient for marketing than any other technique out there. The PR and marketing people who are calling up magazine and traditional outlets run the risk that their product will be lost in the swirls of disparate information. If Company A sells an accessory for the iPod, it could pitch it to one of the litany of periodicals with the prefix Mac. However, that publication's readers could be predominately graphic designers with 10 year-old computers who subscribe to the magazine to find out new advances in design software, but decry the consumerism behind must-have gadgets. The company may pitch the Wall Street Journal, but a majority of the readers might look at the iPod as something too confusing or youth-minded for them. There certainly will be a wealth of gadget-obsessed loyalists in both readership folds, but the editors of Gizmodo and Engadget promise and deliver almost nothing but gadgets. This is turn delivers a high percentage of readers who share the same fervor for these products as the editors. "If [PR people] honestly think they have something useful to tell them, it's worth it to [pitch]. The people who read those sites are pretty micro-targeted," Walker said. While Mark Lemmons, the director of creative software for Creo, hasn't read Engadget or Gizmodo yet, he's very enthused about blogs and their potential. "Blogs are an effective way to reach people. It is a low cost way for people that share a common interest to receive the info [they want] and for the companies to distribute the message," Lemmons said. The company has its own external blog - creo.com/sixdegrees - where they post information about their product Six Degrees, a software that enables email productivity. The company has recently posted information that relates the theme of Stephen Wolfram's book, A New Kind of Science to its Six Degree product. Lemmons said that the external blog was something where members of the Creo product team could post about topics that were points-of-interest, but didn't fit into three-word marketing slogans or weren't detailed enough to pitch to a magazine. He said that while Creo's existing customers can use the Six Degree product, it was important to reach new market segments and a blog can help that. Johnson estimates that he gets 15 to 25 pitches a day and he handles them with a very simple policy. "I read them, try to determine if our readers would find the product useful (or at least interesting,) and run with it. I do get a lot of pitches that I don't consider to be appropriate for Gizmodo, and while I try to write back and let them know why I won't be running it, sometimes I just don't have the time," Johnson said. Rojas said that he doesn't have to chase contacts. "Communication tends to come from the companies. However, there are occasionally times when I call them. I know a lot of people at Microsoft in the mobile device division. We reported on a phone that we saw in Germany that used Microsoft's OS. We called up one of the contacts and said, "You really have to give me that phone." Johnson isn't vexed if the company doesn't link to his review. "I know that for many marketing professionals we're just another in a line of promotional outlets and I don't take it personally if they don't point us out on their site, especially if we've taken a chunk out of their hot new gadget." This may be a factor for some PR hesitance. Much like those who work in music criticism, Johnson and Rojas' passion cannot be misinterpreted for a warm sense of total inclusion. Ill-advised products are pointed-out and, sometimes, mocked. A diatribe may continue for some time. "I don't exist to say nice things all of the time. PR people have gotten on my case for bad reviews," Rojas said. Rojas pointed out that a company's director of marketing irately called him after Rojas lambasted one of its products. Six month later, he said, the phone was discontinued. "I suppose it's possible that they do [worry about bad reviews], but there really isn't a way for me to augur that. If they send me a product or a press release, I can only presume they're confident enough to take the bad with the good," Johnson said. Johnson said that since those at Gizmodo also "dig up our own news" he might come across something that the company might not have intended for public viewing, which can lead to a difficult relationship. The hiptop 2 incident serves as a good example of a media outlet that doesn't have to wait until the morning before posting. Nokia's N-Gage phone, targeted to and beleaguered by gaming enthusiasts, was a multiple subject of such derision. Rojas told the Chicago Tribune back in November 2003, "When you try to make a call with it, it looks like you're holding the bottom end of a taco to your head. It's impossible to not look ridiculous when you're making a call with one." He follows up in a March 25th Engadget post. We've got to admit that we're almost saddened to hear that Nokia is going to try and fix all the problems with the N-Gage - the foibles and hijinks of the phone always proved incredibly entertaining. "I've heard of Gizmodo, but I don't think I've read either [blog] yet," said Keith Nowak, a member of media relations at Nokia. "It's an interesting area that, as we move forward, it's something that we may consider more." Nokia mostly targets print broadcast and standard online publications for its consumer products. The company is also trying to build relationships with the enthusiast websites where, Nowak said, their products are much more than phones to the readers. "Any [outlet] that people look at as an authority in the area is something that we should at least [consider]," Nowak said. George also said that Danger has not pitched either Gizmodo or Engadget. She said that the company has to be wary of jeopardizing its relationship with the more traditional media when considering when to give product photos and to whom. She works closely with editors of all the tech trade pubs and did not want to slight one or the other. "We do want to treat them as a member of the mainstream media. Any means for communicating with current or potential customers are important to us and we need to stay on it. We try to treat all mediums as important," George said. "There are different audience segments and different media vehicles. [The blogs] are a great way to reach the early adopters," said Shari Yoder, director of marketing programs. Some PR firms are more than happy to pitch, but to less-than-enviable results. Johnson said that one company continues to send him pitches about instant soup mix. "It might be great instant soup mix! Who knows? If it had a robot inside the can that shaved soup powder from an ancient flavor-stone ... yes, we might write about that. If a scientist had used nanotechnology to engineer the perfect soup molecule ... one hundred words and a picture, easy! But no, it's just soup in a can," Johnson wrote. Walker commiserates with Johnson. "I get a tremendous amount of [pitches] from people who don't seem to read what I write," he said. For those who actually have a product that Gizmodo might review, Johnson gave a simple explanation of what he's looking for in a pitch. "If you want to get your product noticed, take sixty seconds and write a real email. Don't be pushy, but don't be afraid to ask me about my interest in your product, or if I need more information. Be proud and excited about your product.... Be flexible: I'm working with just as many different companies as you working with different editors." He also wryly suggested that the PR reps "work for a company that doesn't make total crap. You'll have a much happier time pushing the product."

Comments? Feedback? Please direct them to keith.obrien@prweek.com.

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