What I learned at conference for women bloggers

It became clear at about 4:37 p.m. Aug. 2 that this was not a typical blogging conference. That was when President Barack Obama appeared on gigantic video screens in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton New York to address, live via the Internet, BlogHer ‘12.

BlogHer is a conference for women bloggers that has grown so large and influential that attendees seemed excited, but not particularly fazed, by the president’s presentation. On the video feed, Obama praised the women in his life and conference-goers before launching into a brief, well-received campaign trail speech.

The next day, Martha Stewart caused a stir as she presided over a packed ballroom lunch. On Aug. 4, Katie Couric gave a preview of her upcoming syndicated talk show, promising that two bloggers would regularly be part of her lineup, opining on current events and keeping things real.

There was a point a few years ago when Internet pundits wondered whether Twitter and Facebook would kill blogging. Blogging instead survived, thrived and became so mainstream that it’s now the accepted delivery system for much of the news, opinion and tastemaking that flows through the Internet daily.

I attended the BlogHer conference for the first time this year to do research on mom bloggers for a personal project, but I found myself thinking a lot more about BlogHer itself, a blog network and events. BlogHer is laser-beamed on using every trick in the handbag — from strong writing to smart marketing to the informed use of new social and media tools — to push blogging forward as a publishing medium.

While I felt like an outsider at some BlogHer events (more on that in a bit), I’ve been blogging, and before that “online journaling” for more than a dozen years. Once I realized that I was witness to the epicenter of the blogosphere, I tried to absorb all I could about BlogHer ‘12 and what it has to tell us about the state of blogging. Here’s some of what I learned.

Blogging is still big business. Apart from the celebrity keynotes, the most packed panels at the conference dealt with marketing and brands. While some bloggers have quit their jobs and make a living writing online, the vast majority don’t. Many of the more than 5,000 attendees at the conference were trying to find ways to make blogging their job, or at least supplement their income, by getting advertisers or sponsors to pay them.

Some attendees I spoke to were there to scout out bloggers for big national brands or working for startups hoping to be the gateway between marketing dollars and bloggers in increasingly niche areas like military mom blogging or luxury travel blogs.

Do those dollars exist? Right now, they clearly do. The conference itself had more than 130 sponsors, so many that it took a giant, floor-to-ceiling banner to display all their corporate logos.

In three large expo halls, companies including Pfizer, Hillshire Farm, Samsung, Verizon Wireless, Best Buy and Disney held court in well-furnished booths and gave out food, prizes or other swag.

Other rooms held hospitality suites for companies like Starbucks, Hershey and Hot Wheels.

In a panel about the state of blogging, some panelists wondered whether it’s worth having a discussion about blogging for money versus blogging for the love of self-expression.

“I want to make the bucks!” a woman in the audience said in response, adding that she doesn’t want to be made to feel guilty for seeking money for her hard work.

But that big flow of money and products from companies isn’t free. On the same panel, another audience member said that bloggers work tirelessly just to get by. “We left a five-day-a-week job to work seven days a week blogging.”

At least there was Martha Stewart’s stern voice of authority to keep the bloggers motivated. In her lunch keynote, she asked the BlogHer attendees, “Aren’t you all trying to make money with your blogs?”

BlogHer is a force. BlogHer ‘12 was one of the most well-organized, focused and successful tech conference I’ve ever attended.

Next year’s July BlogHer conference will be in a larger space in Chicago. And there will be several spinoff conferences.

Appearances matter. As impressed as I was by the structure and focus of BlogHer, some attendees complained to me that BlogHer is getting too big to navigate and has become cliquey and money-focused.

I was disturbed to see one of the expo halls full of attendees fawning over breakfast biscuits and robot vacuums while the ballroom next door was half-full for a powerful keynote about using influence to save children’s lives across the globe. That session didn’t lack for star power; it featured journalist Soledad O’Brien, philanthropist Malaak Compton-Rock and former supermodel Christy Turlington. But many of the bloggers were elsewhere.

And a McDonald’s-sponsored closing-night party was a sea of dancing, drinking bodies next to trays of flat, warmed-over burger pucks in greasy wrappers. Attendees decorated fast-food paper bags to wear on their heads. To attendees, it was a homegrown part of the conference’s culture, an inside joke, but to an outsider, it looked like blogging gone wrong, a crass sign of corporate interests co-opting creative pursuits.

Overall, it did little to mar my impression of BlogHer ‘12, a conference where more than half of the panelists were women of color and where the cohesiveness of the community — women helping other women achieve their personal and career goals — was evident in every aspect of the event.

Any observer could see that in those terms, it was wildly successful.

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