Part 1: Starbucks Dawdlers, Tupperware Bloggers, and a Defense of Blogging’s Old Guard
I see them all the time in Starbucks, especially in the branches beside institutions of higher learning.
A table for three, occupied by a single student, selfishly cocooned in a space meant for sharing.
The kids sit solo, buds or Beats shutting off the sounds of the world around them; their lips moving silently, memorizing an assignment or talking to themselves? I can’t tell. But I can tell that they studiously avoid the stares of other customers looking for somewhere to sit. They affect a thousand yard stare or a resting bitch face, tiny facial tics hardening into scowls when they see a potential challenge to their thrones: another Starbucks guest who might have the audacity to approach them and dare ask if they can borrow one of their unoccupied chairs. There are two extra, sure – their stony, heavy-lidded gazes seem to say — but sorry, I need one for my backpack, another for the essential ephemera of my existence, or sometimes, I will really need the chair for my poor Stan Smith-clad feet that have fallen asleep.
It boggles the mind. The deep, misplaced sense of entitlement of some of these students. Entitlement. It used to be an honorable word: a reward, a right. These days, it’s just another dirty word, another way to describe an abuse of privileges. I’m not certain if this demeanor is simply an affectation of this generation of college students whose allowances include a daily budget for fraps, or a symptom of a deeper malaise, the slow demise of delicadeza. Perhaps it is both. Perhaps it’s been a slow burn, but brighter and more obvious now, thanks to the spotlight that social media shines on everyone.
Social media is a boon and a bane. A boon, because it gives everyone a voice; a bane, because most use it to shout, rather than speak. For many, it doesn’t matter if anyone is listening. What matters more is that “I’m talking here!!!”. From there, it’s a short hop to popularity or notoriety. It all depends on the number of followers. Few casual observers pay attention to the quality of followers, or even their veracity. What counts most? The quantity. And if you have a Facebook or Instagram following in the tens of thousands, it’s instant fame, even if one is as relevant to the real world as a Kardashian. That’s ground zero for the so-called “influencers”, GenX-ers and Millennials alike. Their absurd sense of entitlement arises directly from their skill in getting attention. They’re famous simply for being famous. Period. Full stop. Nothing follows.
However, there are still so many wonderful, hardworking, passionate people who blog, and whose content is substantial. Unfortunately, whenever news about blogging becomes viral, it’s almost always a negative portrayal, and a condemnation of bloggers in general, no thanks to the bad apples in our midst. Take the case of the “Take Out” bloggers, who give reusable plastic containers a bad name. Apparently, it’s been going on for a while now: gatecrashing bloggers who attend events, ostensibly for a coverage, but in reality, attend in order to get a loot bag or a free meal. It’s nothing new, really. One of the older online magazines used to send out emails with this irresistible entreaty: “Hello! We would like to cover your restaurant for __________ . In order to write a comprehensive feature, we usually arrive as a group of six, so we can try ALL your specials, and include them in our article”. Wow. Seriously? They said this with a straight face. And it worked, again and again. It was like a weekly fiesta. Family and friends eat for free!!! Restaurant owners have gotten much smarter since, but I’m certain that some restaurateurs are still smarting from similar schemes. My favorite horror story is of a “blogger” who managed to wiggle his way into an exclusive launch party by asking to use the restroom. The person of interest took some time inside, and when no one was looking, snuck out and simply lost himself among the guests, eventually, even getting a photo op with the guest of honor. Amazing.
The Tupperware Bloggers have a much simpler modus operandi. Thanks to amateurish PR practitioners who don’t vet or update their lists of legit bloggers, these literal bottom feeders of the blogging community still find themselves treated as valued guests in many product launches, hotel events, and the like. In all fairness, they do bring their cameras, take pictures and video, and publish the corresponding articles in their blogs. No complaints there. The problems begin when privileges are abused. “Extra food please! Can I have more drinks? May I order some more items to bring home?” The bemused young interns assigned to take care of these Rated PG bloggers (PG for “Patay Gutom”) often have no recourse but to reluctantly say yes, afraid that their bosses and their clients might berate them if, God forbid, a negative article is published by a blogger whose every whim was not granted. Sad to say, this happens every single day.
But more than the insatiable appetite for freebies and food, what I really don’t get is this: “May I bring a plus one?” In my decade plus of blogging, it’s never even crossed my mind to bring a date to a coverage. I’ve never even asked. I can count, on the fingers of one hand, the number of times I’ve brought a companion, and it was only because it was the express wish of my hosts. My thinking is this: every invitation is a tacit request. Either to spread the word, or to provide constructive criticism. I’ve always felt that restaurant owners would benefit more if I invited one more blogger, obviously, rather than if I invited a lady friend. Blogging is blogging. Dating is dating. One is business, one is personal. Parallel lines and all that. Compartmentalization. And again, delicadeza.
We bloggers have tried to regulate ourselves, but admittedly, to little or no avail. Many have tried to establish some sort of self-policing body with a set of blogging standards. All have failed. There are just too many different personalities, too many unique characters, too many divergent opinions. The word blog, after all, was coined in the ‘90s as contraction of “web log”, a fancy term for an online diary. So obviously, making blogs conform to one set of rules would be as impossible as ensuring that all handwritten diaries follow only one format. Blogs are deeply personal publications. At least, they used to be. Oh well, most still are. But you know and I know that there are so many so-called “blogs” now that were put up to get free stuff. So yes, I would like to apologize for the existence of those miscreants. We pioneers opened the doors for them, after all. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I can confess to these things because I have intimate knowledge of the various goings on in the blogging community. I’ve been a blogger for almost a dozen years now, and I’m very proud to be one. I know of what I speak of, and I can speak on behalf of my peers, and discuss the good, as well as the bad.
What really rankles me, however, is the fact that many of the articles that are critical of bloggers are not written by bloggers. There’s always a whiff of condescension, an arched eyebrow, a Cherie Gil tone: “I’m a writer, excuse me. I’m not a blogger!” As if blogging were something to look down upon. The critics may not admit to it, but it’s certainly there if you read between the lines. Sometimes, you don’t even have to. There’s outright snark. I’ve confirmed that a hip publication’s writers are given specific instructions to never write in the style of certain bloggers. Oh excuse me. Pardon our syntax. Excuse our vocabulary. News Flash, hotshots: the first generation of bloggers never had any intention, or pretensions, for that matter, to be considered as great writers. They just wanted to share their stories. Their blogs, souvenirs of an epic meal or a memorable trip. But along the way, many of them have become good writers. Very good, actually. The result of a thousand hours hunched over a keyboard, pecking away over the past fifteen years or so.
I don’t think any of us who started blogging in the early to mid-2000s ever expected to get freebies, invitations, or even monetize our blogs. We were all very pleasantly surprised when our little hobbies evolved into major endeavors. Many of us have been fortunate enough to leave the drudgery of our corporate day jobs, and become our own bosses. A new kind of entrepreneurship, a barrier-breaking business model: revenue generating home-based personal publications that allowed us to reboot our careers, and continue to provide for our families. Quite a few of my blogging peers are now published authors, and many more have contributed to the country’s most respected broadsheets and magazines.
So don’t dis the original bloggers, kids. Many of them have become proficient writers and photographers, and they probably can teach you a lesson or two. Seven years ago, I broke the news about a plagiarized Department of Tourism logo on my blog, Manila Boy. That led directly to President Aquino scrapping the logo, and paved the way for Mon Jimenez to take over the department, and the result? More Fun!
The difference between new and old? We never needed to resort to sarcasm and snark to get clicks or stay relevant. Stay classy, kids. Take a page from the old guard. We continue to do what we’ve always done. Blog about what we love and what makes us happy. Blog with dedication. Blog with passion. And above all, blog with good intentions.
PS: There’s a storybook ending to my DOT saga. I submitted a More Fun meme to Secretary Jimenez’s crowdsourcing campaign, and it was subsequently filmed and included as part of the international launch TV commercial of the global ad campaign.
Part 2: Pseudo IG Influencers and a Tale of Two Bloggers
Hot take: Instagram is overrated. Hashtags are cheats.
It’s a proven fact that IG followers, both human and robots, are available for purchase, and also a proven fact that every so often, Instagram culls fake accounts from its ranks. Add the propensity of people to add a proliferation of hashtags — some regularly copy-paste 20 or more hashtags per post — and you have the conditions to game the app. In theory, like-minded folks will use these hashtags to search for posts of common interest. In practice, ‘bots use these hashtags for various nefarious purposes. Simply put, it’s possible to attain 10,000 followers in one day if you know what to do; a quick Google search will provide a plethora of options. The current algorithm of Instagram, which replaced the previous chronological display of posts, doesn’t help. IG now “chooses” which “popular” posts it feels you will want to see, and as a result, you can go for days or weeks without seeing anything from a friend’s page, and then suddenly be inundated with a multitude of posts from that particular friend, one after the other, overwhelming your feed. Think of it in 1980s terms: a friend leaves for a vacation, and you don’t hear from him or her for weeks; and then suddenly, two dozen postcards land in your mailbox. So who benefits most from the new algorithm? The accounts with the most followers. Of course. Let’s not even discuss the dissipating effect of sponsored Instagram posts on genuine, organic engagement.
I suspect the real reason for this new algorithm is to make the app even stickier, since IG users now have to stay on Instagam for a longer period of time to actively search for a particular account if it fails to show up on their feed. From a digital marketing standpoint, I see the value. In theory, at least. But as to actual effectivity, I’m still on the fence. I’m not a fan of bandwagons, and that seems to be the instinct of many marketers these days. Count the followers, without analyzing if they really comprise one’s target market. Wait. Are majority of the followers even from the same demographic, or even from the same country??? Quantity over quality. Again. And that’s what’s given rise to the “Influencers”.
Let me confess, I think that’s the corniest, cheesiest new marketing jargon of the past couple of years. I imagine wannabe marketing experts bandying that word about during client meetings, and everyone nodding sagely, as they oooh and ahhh over the thousands of followers: “Ohhh, she’s an… Influencer!” In the practice of law, there’s a doctrine called “the fruit of the poisonous tree”; it states that evidence gathered illegally is not valid. There should be a similar edict in marketing: influencers with dubious followers should not be credible. It’s amusing how the “Instagrammers” who try hardest, if you know what I mean, are the most adamant about being identified as “Influencers”. I’ve even met a few with that title on their business cards. Okay, you can roll your eyes now. The way I see it, calling yourself an influencer is the same as calling yourself a hipster. If you have to make an effort to market yourself as such? Sorry, dear. You’re not.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of fine folks on Instagram, who stay true to the app’s first and purest vision: to share beautiful photographs. Allow me to recommend my three favorite IG accounts. These are the ones I religiously follow, and I promise, they’re well worth your precious time. Excellent photography, humorous and personal engagement, and the most mouthwatering food in Metro Manila:
1. The Bald Baker : @thebaldbakerph
2. Eatsplorations : @eatsplorations
3. Your Foodtographer : @yourfoodtographer
All of the three above have day jobs. The first, a former advertising professional, now spends his time baking bespoke cookies and gorgeous banana bread. The second, a teacher, and the third is a banker. They’re all successful in their respective fields, and the acclaim they receive as microbloggers is essentially a bonus, and the respect from their fan base, icing on the cake. Their hobbies have turned them into popular online personalities, and they are the ones I consider to be genuinely influential.
They remind me of a couple of old friends who started blogging at around the same time I did, in the mid-2000s. They’re two of the bloggers who literally blew the lid off the Tupperware Bloggers scandal. Our blogging culture has changed so much since we started, and to a certain extent, it’s been damaged. But with veterans like Jeman Villanueva and Enrico Dee as guardians of the gate, I’m confident that blogs, the good ones, will continue to prosper, and remain very relevant. There’s a certain noblesse oblige I observe with the old guard. I love the fact that a decade and half later, they continue to be as dedicated to their passions as they were at the beginning, and more importantly, they’ve taken it upon themselves, through the examples they set, to mentor the young and the ambitious. By doing so, they’ve uplifted and professionalized our blogging industry.
Jeman Villanueva is the man behind Orange, an online magazine that focuses on pop culture, lifestyle, entertainment, travel, and restaurant news, in addition to the advocacies of its founder. A BS Journalism graduate, he started his career as a researcher/writer for ABS-CBN and ABC 5 (now TV5). He eventually got hired as Sen. Gringo Honasan’s media officer, and when he established his own events company, he landed Playboy Philippines as his first major client. Jeman began blogging in 2005, and recalls how fresh and innovative everything seemed back then. Social Media was in its infancy in the Friendster Era, and blogs’ promotional usefulness was still being questioned. PR firms began their first tentative steps in organizing events for bloggers, but they were few and far between, compared to the daily deluge at present. Back then, everyone took the time to get to know one another, and since there was only a small group of established bloggers, it was easy to separate the chaff from the grain. But by 2012, the influx of the pseudo-bloggers started; virtual vultures who began blogging with only one mission: to get as many loot bags, meet as many celebrities, and yes, enjoy as much free food as possible. These days, they are legion. Jeman’s long experience and intrinsic adherence to journalistic discipline and ethics has made him the logical point person for investigating, and as needed, exposing the darker side of blogging.
Enrico “Eric” Dee launched one of the country’s legendary travel blogs, Byahilo, back in 2004. His reason for doing so was simple: to talk about his travel experiences through his words and pictures. There were no metrics or analytics 13 years ago. Bloggers didn’t waste their time chasing stats; they blogged for the sheer satisfaction of sharing their adventures. In Eric’s case, it didn’t take too long for his blog to skyrocket in popularity, as local and foreign tourists began using Byahilo as a travel reference, a homegrown Lonely Planet, in their trips around the Philippines. Four years after he started blogging, the hotels, resorts, and even airlines started noticing how influential the eponyomous Byahilo had become. Eric, along with a few other trailblazers – Nina Fuentes, Ivan Henares, Ferdz Decena, Melo Villareal, and Anton Diaz – were invited to an all-expenses paid Boracay familiarization tour. He still remembers how awestruck, and how lucky he felt to be selected to join the group. Flash forward to present day, and he rues how so many ersatz travel bloggers are lured only by the perks, and ignore the essence of blogging. But Eric, forever the optimist, believes that by guarding and policing the ranks of travel bloggers, coordinating with and advising hotel, resort, and hostel owners, and by providing invaluable advice to both backpackers and luxe travel aficionados alike, he can continue to elevate the state of Philippine travel blogging, and make them an essential component of our country’s tourism promotion efforts.
Part 3 : Sunrise Opportunities in Online Media
Do blogs still matter? I believe Jeman and Eric provided me with some of the information necessary to answer that question. And I’d like to add, that while it can be debated that people are reading less now compared to ten years ago, they are actually reading more – on their computers, tablets, and their smartphones. It’s amazing to consider that the smartphone revolution only began in 2007, when Steve Jobs introduced the very first iPhone, and forever changed the way we lead our daily lives. There must be a direct correlation between the rise of the smartphone and the demise of print. And while it depresses me to no end as an editor and a writer, to see three beloved F&B magazines cease publication this year, it gives me a measure of relief that they will continue to live on and create new content – but on the web. So yes, more than ever, blogs still matter. Lines have been blurred. The stalwarts of print are finding new homes online. Writers are bloggers and bloggers are writers. Everyone in media, in effect is now a blogger. The world is a-changing, and so is the world of blogging. It’s not enough for a blogger to simply spin words into a tapestry. Video is taking over, to ignore it is to be left behind. In a world dominated by Millennials’ insatiable desire for information, the blog with the best content is king.
This was confirmed by GetCRAFT, one of South East Asia’s most forward thinking Digital Marketing and Media firms. It was established to accomplish exactly that: to source, create, and distribute the most premium content by the region’s most highly-regarded writers, journalists, photographers, and videographers. Last month, GetCRAFT released a comprehensive report on Philippine Digital Content and Marketing. I spoke with Kate De Los Reyes, Managing Director for the Philippines, and she provided me with an overview of the current digital landscape.
Total Philippine population is 104 million, 69 million of whom are Internet users, while active mobile social users are 59 million. On device usage: 88 percent use any type of mobile phone; 61 percent utilize smart phone; 39 percent and 25 percent avail of laptop or computer and tablet respectively. Average daily use: 9 hours on the Internet via personal computer or tablet; 3 hours and 36 minutes on the Internet via mobile phone; 4 hours and 17 minutes on social media using any device; and 2 hours and 30 minutes on television.
“Social media continues to dominate, but content marketing, influencer marketing, and sponsored content are on the rise. Brands view social media—both paid and organic— as the most effective digital channel for marketing, due to the high number of active users, the enormous amount of time users spend using the channel, and cost efficiency. Social media in the Philippines is used for searching and purchasing products or services by nearly a third of the population, with Facebook as the priority medium.
Videos lead the way in content marketing. As Filipinos spend more time on social media than in watching television, they are also increasingly watching videos from mobile screens. Global Webb index reports YouTube as the second most active media platform at 56 percent, topped only by Facebook. Of all Filipino netizens, 28 percent watch videos online daily; 21 percent weekly and 19 percent monthly. A clear factor driving online video consumption growth is the rise of mobile in the Philippines with 57 percent of the population watching videos online using mobile phones.”
See? It’s still Facebook. Not Instagram. I rest my case. But in all seriousness, it behooves every blogger—and everyone involved in social media and digital content and online marketing, actually — to seriously study the full report. Thanks again, Karen!
Full report here: Philippines Digital Content Marketing Report 2017
It’s clear that the road ahead will be dominated by online content. But let me reiterate that more so than quantity, quality will be of the utmost value. I consulted with one of the country’s top Digital Public Relations and Engagement experts, Cat Triviño, and asked her about the criteria she uses for selecting the bloggers and publishing partners she works with.
1. Content Quality – Review the output quality such as grammar, image quality, ability to make sound captions / recommendations for both their original and sponsored content.
2. The (more important) Numbers – Look into the numbers that drive page traffic and ranking, Engagement Rate, and ultimately interest for a campaign or product (through inquiries, share of voice, etc.) and not just Followers and Likes. See how their sponsored content also performs and compare alongside their original content.
3. The Audience – Who do they communicate with, who do they influence?
Ahhhhh. Grammar. Never underestimate the core component of great content. Proper writing. Ideas will never be executed properly if the basic structure is unsound. I promised Cat that I wouldn’t mention the company she works for, but I’m a big fan of her campaigns. I’m certain that you are too. Cat completely disrupted the traditional channels of advertising not too long ago with a series of short films that gained prominence, and massive popularity, even among non-Filipino speakers… all over the world.
Thanks for reading this far. And if you’re still here, let me just say how grateful I am for taking the time to read all three chapters of my George RR Martin saga on blogging. Here’s my advice to my new peers in blogging and online publications; my Lyanna Mormont to your Jon Snow:
1. Don’t rush, don’t take shortcuts. Build up your brand slowly, and find your unique voice
2. Avoid controversies; don’t stir the pot just to get quick hits
3. Keep your promises; respect, honor, and dignify our profession
4. Be wary of too many paid or sponsored posts; protect your equity
5. Work with people you can trust; find them, and keep them. Remember, it’s not a competition
6. Master your craft: write as often as you can and practice taking more photos and videos
7. Be prudent; not everything is worth blogging about. Content doesn’t mean classified ads.
And finally, I’ll let one of my blogging idols, a good man I deeply respect, close this out:
“Forget the freebies forget the loot bags. Just write. Because that’s how we have survived years of blogging: by not expecting any return or reward. It’s all about our love and passion for writing that keeps the flame burning.”
Amen. Thanks again, Mr. Byahilo.