This week I had the pleasure of attending iRetreat 2014. This intimate conference has been around since 2011, when it was called Reviewer’s Retreat and focused on supporting product reviewers. It’s still small – a limited number of bloggers and sponsors attend – but the focus has shifted from review blogging to a focus on your blog as your business. This year’s conference was held in Hershey, PA, and featured many successful bloggers from the Philadelphia area.
Here is a wrap up of the top things I learned while attending iRetreat 2014.
1. Photography: Shoot into the light.
When you have a nice product to showcase and review, what is the best way to show in a photo?
Workshop leader Amy Renea of A Nest for All Seasons, had some great advice: place it in front of a window (blinds down) to shoot. When you do this, the product will be backlight and appear dark, so you’ll need to adjust your exposure compensation. This is a very important term in photography that refers to adjusting your camera to get the right amount of light onto the subject. To adjust, find the “exposure value” on your smartphone or camera’s menu. Use “+” to make the image lighter on your darker background. (Using “-“ makes it darker.) This will help eliminate the darkness and nicely balance the image. Now, shoot the product straight on. As an added tip, remember that brands already have flawless shots. They are looking for something unique and eye-catching from bloggers, and want to see the product being used as intended. For example, if you’re shooting a Margarita glass, DO put a fancy drink in it with salt on the rim!
The opening keynote, presented by Vera Sweeney and Audrey McClellan of Getting Gorgeous and Fashion Forward, was dedicated to the topic of building partnerships, which is great for better exposure and more brand appeal. More than that, though, a partner can be a great support for your blog and business. If you put a Twitter party together, for example, you can share the tweets and not overwhelm your audience who does not want to attend with information they don’t need. You can share pitching responsibilities, each one catering to a brand she prefers or knows better. And not only do you grow reach by crosslinking articles, you can share a combined Instagram account, join a Pinterest group, add yourself to a Twitter list – all great ideas in reaching more people. Naturally you’ll have support from a trusted resource when you need, as long as you build your relationship on trust and honesty. Vera and Audrey set up their LLC right from the start, so when you are looking for a partner, be sure not just to find the right fit that complements your site, but hammer out the legal details in advance.
Although this quote came from Audrey, it was a sentiment that was expressed throughout the conference, from both bloggers and brands. Audrey and Vera made it clear that they never stop working – even on vacation. Brands are always watching what you do, say and put online – or offline. Do not think you’re safe from scrutiny when you’re in real life. Always conduct yourself professionally and keep certain standards in mind. For example, true brand loyalty is a great idea. If you are a brand ambassador for one product that you actually use, don’t even review another. Vera shared how she painfully had to turn down some lucrative contracts because of this – but her integrity remained intact and that was worth it. And speaking of contracts, always have one so you can avoid the problem of not getting paid for a gig.
Video is a critical component to success today. The best thing to do? Just get started – now. Don’t worry about it being perfect or looking beautiful. It’s more important to be authentic and have fun with a topic you love. Pick a humorous or whacky thumbnail when you’re posting to YouTube because it will stand out better. And if you’re worried about video or inept at editing, Vine is a great option for short, sweet videos to get you started.
The first morning of the conference started with a panel, “Working with Brands” sponsored by Rite Aid. The critical question, “What are brands looking for?” was answered with a host of viewpoints.
Most brands are looking for numbers (how many followers you have) – or engagement (comments, shares and likes) – or a good story – or all three! The fact is, the more you can bring to the table, the more appealing you are for brands. At the roundtable discussions the next day, we discussed brand loyalty – again. The fact is, sticking to one brand and giving them regular shout outs on social media will attract their attention, depending on the brand, but equally sharing shout outs for their competitors can drive them away. While the brand reps at the conference understood the need we may have to use competing brands, upper management frowns on this kind of engagement from bloggers. In the meanwhile, pick and focus on the brands you love the most and start sharing about them. In addition, make sure your blog has a nice page flow with few ads, impeccable grammar, research your numbers and do your best to build traffic. Also keep in mind that sponsored content should be no more than 20-30% of your blog’s content.
This session, hosted by Joel Bullock, the Coaster Critic, was my favorite. He got right into it by telling the audience that if your blog was a work of fiction, your readers are the heroes – not you. Instead, you are the person helping them achieve their goals. You task is to educate or inform readers by helping them solve problems, answering common questions and sharing your unique knowledge. Posts that solve include tutorials, shopping guides, and showing how to do or solve something difficult. You can find those problems that need solving from your own readers, researching Google Trends and asking friends and family in the your niche. Another great way to get content ideas is by researching Amazon book reviews. Find books with good reviews but didn’t address some key issue – that issue is your topic. Joel also told us to pay attention to hot button issues and present them in a way that’s not judgmental but allows both sides to share their opinion.
Estelle Erasmus of “Musings of Motherhood & Midlife” gave some solid advice on getting started as an author in “Getting Published in a Crowded Marketplace “. Writing an ebook establishes reputation, builds credibility and opens writing opportunities. Join a solid writer’s group for feedback, ideas and reviews of your own ebook ideas. Reach out to brands to write for your niche. A good way to get published is by contributing to anthologies. While they don’t pay very much, they do build credibility. Find them through joining organizations in your field or niche (such as food organizations for a foodie blogger). Find places seeking submission now, such as Chicken Soup for the Soul, Go World Travel, Brain, Child, or Not Your Mother’s Book.
This is just a small sampling of the topics covered and what I attended. iRetreat 2014 also featured sessions on public relations, pitches & proposals, affiliate and Adsense marketing, getting on air, using traditional media, blog design and more. But more importantly, bloggers need to regularly attend conferences like this not only to sharpen their skill set and network, but to get inspired, move their blog into a business or write and share more effectively. I did not attend a blog conference last year – and I feel as though I missed out because now I have more direction and focus for my blog as a business in the year to come. If you’ve never been to a conference, iRetreat is intimate, clique-free and enjoyable. It’s a perfect place to dip your foot into the conference waters when you are taking your blog to a professional level.
Personally, I’ve already bought my ticket for iRetreat 2015 – what about you?
Article by Gina Badalaty
Gina Badalaty is the owner of Embracing Imperfect, a blog devoted to encouraging and assisting moms of children with special needs and restricted diets. Gina has been blogging about parenting, raising children with disabilities, and allergy-free living for over 12 years. She’s blogs at Mamavation.com, and has blogged for major brands like Silk and Glutino. She also works as a copywriter and brand ambassador. She loves engaging on social media, travel and cooking gluten-free.