The evolution of community: BlogHer at 5

by Susan Getgood on July 19, 2010 · 5 comments

in Blogging, BlogHer, Conferences

On Saturday, I hosted the second annual Boston pre-BlogHer BBQ at my house. While a few of the guests also came last year, it was largely a new group of women (and their families). Pathetically, I have no pictures even though I had taken out my camera that morning fully intending to shoot some. Hopefully some of the other guests will post some pictures.

It got me thinking about how communities evolve over time. We collectively notice the big changes — a website redesign, a new logo, new editorial policies, but the small things are almost unnoticeable until cumulatively, they become major change. In the five years (since the very beginning)  that I have been part of the BlogHer community, I’ve seen both. And it feels like we are on the cusp of another  significant shift in the BlogHer community.

So walk with me down memory lane as I recall some of the seminal moments — as I experienced them — in BlogHer’s history. Other people’s experiences will vary. You can also check out this post on my professional blog Marketing Roadmaps that recaps all my post BlogHer posts.

July 2005. The first BlogHer. Held in a tech meeting space in Silicon Valley. One day. A real eclectic mix of women (and from the beginning, always a few men. Chris Carfi and Jay Rosen come to mind from that first year). Heavily tech, small business and non-profit. Debates that raged at the conference, and will rage on ad infinitum because there is no one right answer:

  • Are bloggers journalists?
  • What’s the proper role of companies in the blogosphere? If you take money to blog, are you a shill?

Seminal moment: in the closing session, Jenn Satterwhite took the group to task for not giving  mommy bloggers sufficient respect.

Best thing about the conference for me? Meeting women like Yvonne DiVita, Toby Bloomberg, Elisa Camahort Page and Celeste Lindell who have since become good friends.

BlogHer 2006. Held at a miserable little hotel near San Jose airport that completely failed on the WiFi even though BlogHer had warned them.

2006 was the year of the mommy blogger. Largely absent the year before, women writing about family life attended the 2006 conference in force. To the point that BlogHer, a community for women bloggers, still contends with public perception that all women bloggers are mom bloggers. The content of the conference seemed to shift very much to the personal blogger, making it less applicable to a business oriented blogger ( I wrote about this in my follow-up post.) Seminal moments: As already noted, the arrival of the mom blogger. And commerce came to the community with the first big sponsors and the BlogHer advertising network.

BlogHer 2007. Chicago. In between the 2006 and 2007 conferences, BlogHer had made a major shift in its conference programming by  launching the BlogHer Business conference which was held in New York City in spring 2007. The business oriented content — material aimed at companies planning to integrate blogs and social media into their marketing plans — was shifted to the Business conference. Making the summer conference pretty much all about the individual blogger — mom, food, craft, political etc. etc. A real highlight was Elizabeth Edwards, both from the podium and in person.

The seminal moment, though, had to be the explosion of anti-PR sentiment. Bloggers — especially mom bloggers — sick and tired of irrelevant pitches and the lack of respect shown to them by PR agencies and companies. I wish I could say this problem has been solved, but alas, it has not. Content about the best way for brands and bloggers to work together has been part of the BlogHer conference programming, both main conference and Business, ever since.

BlogHer 2008. San Francisco. A bit of a blur really, as I had brought my mom and son with me, and was dividing my time between spending time with them and the conference. The Community Keynote was a highlight, as was celebrating the publication of Sleep Is For the Weak with so many delightful bloggers whose essays appeared in the book.  A real lowlight was the increase of pitching from the floor, a tactic I find almost as annoying as pitching from the podium. Ask a question. Or if you want to make a point, do so quickly. If the organizers had wanted you on the panel, they would have asked you. Folks who were there know exactly which panel irked me the most.

Seminal moment: No single thing, although I recall thinking that BlogHer now had all the  positives and negatives that go along with any professional conference. Pulling everything back into a single venue was a huge improvement over the 07 Chicago conference, which had felt a bit scattered. Sessions and conference materials were as professional as any other conference I’d ever been to. And the increase of private parties and off-the-floor swag suites just as divisive.

BlogHer 2009. Chicago. My experiences in Chicago last summer were highly colored by personal events, including the launch of Blog With Integrity and meeting the acquisitions editor for the For Dummies series at the conference, which resulted in my book. I was also overwhelmed a bit by the size. There were people I know well at the conference that I never connected with. And some thankfully that I got to spend quality time with, so it balanced out.

In 2009, BlogHer held the Business conference the day before the main conference instead of at a different time of year. The sponsor space also was literally a mini trade show (and I expect next month in New York to be the same.) That meant that there were far more marketing and PR reps roaming the halls. And quite a few private events.  The swag was off the charts. Both on the show floor and at the private events.

Seminal moments:  While there were a few blogger relations dust-ups (notably the Nikon off-site party), BlogHer 09 will go down in the books as the “SwagHer” year. Compensation, blogola, swag, free products. All these issues had been swirling around the community for months, and things really came to a head at BlogHer. For the first time, blogger behavior, not advertiser/marketer behavior, was under the microscope.

There were two principal issues: personal sponsorships and swag bags.

Personal sponsorships. Many bloggers attended the conference as representatives of companies. Some personal sponsorships were handled well, but many were not. As a result, things played out very poorly in the public spaces, with bloggers literally thrusting their sponsor’s materials at everyone they met. BlogHer addressed this with guidelines for bloggers attending the 2010 conference as company representatives.

Swag. It’s all good. Until it’s not. There were numerous swag related incidents last year, from the free for all that happened at one of the onsite parties to the reported attempt to blackmail the Crocs representative for a pair of shoes. Now, the reality is that swag isn’t going to go away. It’s part of the conference game. Always has been. And it can bring out the worst in people. Last year at BlogHer, it did.

Hopefully, this year, people will behave better, and those handing it out will do a better job of managing the process. End of the day though, it will all come down to the attendees. It’s a bit like forest fires. As Smokey the Bear says, only you can prevent them.

BlogHer 2010. New York City. A blank slate.

While there will be many private events again this year, BlogHer controlled the on-site space. All the parties at the Hilton are co-sponsored by BlogHer and were open to all registered attendees. Attendees had to sign up for the parties they wanted to attend, but purely for capacity control. Events not connected officially with BlogHer are all off-site. As I understand it, there also are no onsite invitation-only swag suites either. If it’s at the Hilton, it’s part of BlogHer and open to all.

I think this is a good change. While I don’t see the number of unofficial events decreasing, that they have to be offsite means they won’t be as visible to those not invited as they have been in the past. And the sheer size of the conference will offer plenty for folks even if all they attend are the official functions.

As for this shift that I feel we are on the cusp of? I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I will be thinking this through over the next few weeks, and hope to be able to put words to the feelings when I get back from the conference in August.

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