BlogHer, an online network of female bloggers, has a tagline: “Life Well Said.” But the organization’s fast-growing conference—an annual two-day symposium—could have its own moniker: “Event Well Sponsored.” On Friday and Saturday, the sixth iteration of the conference attracted some 2,400 attendees and 100 sponsors to the Hilton New York, an increase over last year's conference in Chicago by 1,000 guests and 50 vendors, respectively.
The swell in numbers is a key indicator of the rapid growth of women who blog and the scores of high-profile companies looking to actively engage their attention. For example, the BlogHer 2010 conference added two new brands, Hillshire Farm and Ubisoft, as top-tier sponsors, a roster that also includes Wal-Mart. And many returning sponsors opted to broaden their presence.
“They realized the value of having this in-person connection with bloggers,” said Erin Groh, who heads up sponsor services at BlogHer. The goal for sponsors is to build relationships with attendees, and thus Groh encouraged companies to create experiences that would resonate with the audience rather than just hand out products. “We counseled them to offer a service to attendees.”
That push was evident throughout the event. Sara Lee-owned food companies Hillshire Farm and Jimmy Dean created the largest booth on the expo floor, an 80- by 20-foot kitchen for chef demonstrations, tastings, and a sandwich-making competition hosted by Padma Lakshmi. Procter & Gamble also occupied a significant area with its “Home Away From Home” concept, which involved space where bloggers could attend presentations, get product news and giveaways, and relax. It also sponsored a swag exchange and water stations. (Every attendee was given a reusable water bottle in an attempt to “green” the conference.)
PepsiCo’s platform, similar to its recent Refresh Project, hit a number of different topics through various activities. A discussion moderated by Campbell Brown sought to highlight the role and impact of women as influencers, the BlogCast Studio focused on allowing bloggers to connect with each other and share opinions, the Propel Writing Lab Lounge offered writing workshops, and a Diet Pepsi-sponsored shipping station helped swag-laden attendees get their goods home.
Despite being in a large hotel, the two floors of event space felt intimate, Groh said. One level was dedicated to all opening and closing sessions, keynote speeches, parties, and the entrance to the expo hall. The other floor housed breakout sessions, the swag exchange, an Internet café sponsored by Chevy Bolt, press and speaker lounges, and a lactation lounge.
That’s right, a lactation lounge. Many women bring their babies, “and we encourage that,” Groh said. It’s a nod to the conference’s mom-centric audience and an acknowledgment of how the BlogHer attendee differs from that of a traditional B-to-B conference. “They’re not just here to network; they’re here to form relationships with people,” said Elaine Wu, BlogHer’s marketing programs manager. “I think people are really interested in meeting the people that they follow online and meeting new people to follow. It’s making the whole social media process personal.”
Keeping it personal factors into the conference planning in other ways, too: programming is largely attendee-generated. “We put out a call for ideas in the fall,” Groh said. And because most attendees pay for the event out of their own pocket, the organization works with venues to keep room rates down. BlogHer also made an effort to clarify for attendees which were the official BlogHer events by keeping almost everything on site. Only two sanctioned events, a Liberty Mutual event at Ellis Island and a party hosted by AOL, were held off site, both on Thursday. But that didn’t stop other brands—like Schick, which hosted a Thursday night cocktail party at Stone Rose—from piggybacking on the conference.