Cigar Article: A Bloggers Place Within the Industry

WHAT PLACE DOES A BLOGGER HAVE WITHIN THE INDUSTRY IT REPRESENTS?

And how do manufacturers and brand owners perceive bloggers?

If you follow cigar blogs closely, or are active on Twitter, you’ve likely run across an ongoing conversation – what role do cigar blogs play within the cigar industry. The debate goes back and forth mostly among cigar smokers, with manufacturers and brand owners rarely entering the conversation. However, the latter group does express their opinion in other less-direct ways.

Some large manufacturers have fully embraced social media – such brands as Drew Estate, Tatuaje, CAO, Miami Cigar and Company, Rocky Patel, Padilla, and Illusione, and more recently, with the release of the 107, La Aurora. These brands are all very active on social media and regularly engage their smokers at the ground level. Some of these larger companies have the financial ability to regularly advertise in Cigar Aficionado – and they do, along with also giving attention to social media. Other companies however simply can’t afford the bill, or deem it not worth the risk, and have avoided print advertising, instead focusing on grass root efforts, which almost always includes social media. 262 Cigars, Jameson Cigars, and 13th Floor Cigars all come to mind as newer companies that are very active on social media.

Regardless of the reasoning, or the motivation, there are a great number of cigar manufacturers and brand owners turning to social media, and like it or not, a large part of social media is the blogosphere. And there are a lot of cigar blogs out there.

To start the conversation, I’ll briefly explain how I got involved in cigar blogging. I have been a cigar smoker for around 15 years, while getting very serious within the last 5. I began my first cigar blog a little over 3 years ago and, within the last year, deleted it and purchased a domain to start a second blog, Toasted Foot, with a close friend and fellow cigar smoker.

When I started blogging, I didn’t know there was an actual place for us within the industry. Quickly that changed. I began reading Stogie Guys, Stogie Review, and A Cigar Smoker, and I realized there were a lot of smokers interested in what these guys had to say. Prior to starting my cigar blog, I knew others existed, but my inspiration was derived from the cigar reviews found on forums, not on other review websites. Soon after we started, we began receiving requests from advertisers and from manufacturers interested in having their product reviewed. I was shocked to be honest with you, and it quickly changed my approach to blogging – I began taking it much more seriously, and began spending more time crafting my opinions of cigars – I realized people were paying attention. About this time we bought the domain and began Toasted Foot. Our motivation was not the advertisers or the product; rather, those provided validation for the work we’d begun – so we continued, and became more serious about what we did and how we did it. If I had to guess, I’d say 95% of the cigars we review are obtained through our own money, not as gifts. And the money we make from advertising is spent on the cigars we review and on the cost of maintaining our website – there is no money made.

It is hard to deny that bloggers hold a place within the cigar industry – take Stogie Guys for example, who have been around for nearly 5 years – according to their website, they average over 53,000 unique readers per month. That is a lot of cigar smokers, and if your cigar is reviewed on their website, positively or negatively, there is a great chance that will churn sales. And Stogie Review, around since 2006 – they attract over 35,000 unique readers per month. They seem to have interviewed every brand owner out there, and their readership is incredibly strong, with a forum of 1,000 members connected to their website.

I’d like to think that Toasted Foot, as small and as new as we may be in comparison, has developed a loyal readership, and that our readers respect our opinion enough to try a cigar that we review, whether we give a negative or positive rating on a cigar. Our readers are educated enough to decide for themselves if they like a cigar, and they realize that our opinion is just that – our opinion. For that reason, I believe that the exposure is more beneficial to the manufacturer than the actual rating is – regardless of how a cigar is described by a blogger, exposure is exposure, and our power is not strong enough to harm a large cigar company, or even bruise it.

I haven’t researched statistics, but it seems there are a growing number of smokers giving more weight to what their peers say about a cigar, and less attention to what the editorial board of a magazine says. With the influx of cigar forums, blogs, and social media, the conversations are fluid and replies are instantaneous. And there seems to be a growing distrust of large magazines, and how their scores may be affected by advertising.

There is without a doubt a place for bloggers within the cigar industry – the real purpose of this article is to ask how manufacturers and brand owners view bloggers. Ultimately, I don’t believe their opinion will change what bloggers do or how we do it – we’ll continue to review cigars because that is our passion, and because we enjoy the community it creates, and, honestly, because we, or at least Toasted Foot, enjoy the exposure it provides us to the industry.

Since I began blogging, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a great deal about cigars, to interview brand owners, to be invited to tour a Dominican factory, and to give away lots of cigars to our readers (given freely by companies). I never thought I’d have these kinds of opportunities. So yes, the joy I receive from running Toasted Foot is enough, and I don’t need accolades from manufacturers or brand owners to continue blogging, but aren’t we always a little curious of what the cool guy or the good looking girl thinks of us? Of course we are!

So, back to the question of this article – how do manufacturers and brand owners perceive us bloggers? Is it a love/hate relationship – they love the free exposure bloggers provide, but hate their ability to express their opinion and have it read by thousands. I’m hoping it’s less of a love/hate relationship, and more about respect – respect for our shared passion for cigars, respect for our own palate, and respect for the time, commitment, and financial cost required to maintain a blog.

Though there is not a lot of negativism on paper, it is not hard to notice that some companies have less of an appreciation for bloggers and for social media in general. I am not sure if these companies feel above this type of advertising, or if it is true that once you become so big it feels unnecessary to engage your customers – either way, my loyalty has undoubtedly been swayed toward those companies that I have the opportunity to regularly engage with.

There are of course issues with blogging that has encouraged some to form negativism towards us  – take for instance the growing number of cigar blogs started each month, some of which prove discreditable and quickly fade away. These blogs have the ability to go to their B&M, pick up a cigar, and quickly form an opinion of a cigar that took 5 or more years to produce, from the first seedling. So, of course manufacturers have every right to look upon bloggers with a close and discerning eye. And then there is the pervasive issue of bad intentions. There are some blogs that have been started for the wrong reasons, such as the desire to receive free product and swag, affectionately known as cigar weasels, or to create a financially rewarding website via ad sales. Fortunately, when these motivations aren’t met, these blogs fade into obscurity. As of late, us bloggers have begun to try and hold others accountable for these actions.

There is however a community of bloggers committed to the art of tobacco, and who fully understand the joy of a great cigar and the hard work put forth to create it. There is always a bad apple or two, or ten – but there are some ripe ones in there as well.

In the end, my opinion is that bloggers provide a great service, mostly at no cost, to manufacturers and brand owners. But, before we pat ourselves on the back, we must remember that most blogs benefit from this relationship. We gain access to their time, their product, and we get the chance for a little vicarious living. And it is great; I love blogging about cigars – I love every part of it. And though it would be nice to know that our craft is respected, in the end, the approval is not necessary.

I ASKED OTHER BLOGGERS, BRAND OWNERS, AND CIGAR MEDIA REPRESENTATIVES FOR THEIR OPINION ON THE MATTER.

Believe it or not, they had a lot to say! For the sake of brevity, I’m putting their full quote in the comments section, with only an excerpt here.

Patrick Semmens – Stogie Guys

Cigar makers’ views on internet cigar media are as varied as the cigars they make. Some embrace online cigar blogs, some tolerate them, some ignore them, many are confused by the phenomenon. If there’s one thing I wish cigar makers would understand, it’s that online cigar outlets are a varied bunch: some are motivated by being independent and gaining readers’ trust, many are just a digital version of an old fashioned cigar diary, and I’m sad to say I think a few are just after free cigars. Ultimately, what scares cigar makers the most about the online cigar community is also what draws the most devoted cigar smokers to the web: information travels quickly, opinions flow freely and there’s almost nothing a cigar producer can do to control the message.

Tony Casas – Casas Fumando

Honestly, I feel that most of the manufacturers see bloggers simply as free exposure. This isn’t always the case, as there are quite a few companies out there that work really well with us bloggers. But, in a lot of cases, free exposure is exactly what we are. I would like to think that we are a bit more than just free press and that our opinions are well respected by manufactures but sometimes it’s not the case.

Anytime opinions come into play there are bound to be conflicts. This falls into place with just about any type of product in the world. Someone creates something that they believe is great, then someone comes along and not only disagrees, but spreads word of just how they feel about that product…

You have to consider that not every person will have the same opinion about anything at all. There is bound to be variance…

There are a handful of great brand owners out there who care about how we feel about their product, converse with us, and take the time to relate with us. One thing that we need to realize is that a lot of manufacturers are concerned about their bottom line…

Jerry Cruz – Stogie Review

I find that manufacturer’s relationships with those of us in the “new media” has a direct correlation to how involved that manufacturer is with social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc,)…

You will find those who participate in the conversation like Tatuaje, Illusione, CAO, La Aurora, Ernesto Perez Carrillo, Oliva and Rocky Patel are much more supportive and generous with their time and resources than say those who have a minimum presence like Fuente, Padron, General and Altadis…

I think the one reason some may not take us seriously is our lack of staying power.  Conventional media has proven that it can stand the test of time whether its boom or lean times in the cigar industry.  New media hasn’t proven that we can do that…

Lindsay Heller, Tobacconist and blogger – www.lindsayheller.com

As someone who is on both sides of the fence, both working in the cigar industry and being a blogger, I know from a multitude of personal conversations that these manufacturers genuinely like the bloggers and all the free press they provide…

Cigar makers and their PR people are not dumb. Everything they do with respect to social media and personal interaction with fans is calculated to varying degrees, knowing that their actions will result in favourable exposure. It costs companies pennies on the dollar to send out a few sticks here and there to bloggers to write about & while giddily accepting these cigars, the bloggers more often than not post kind reviews… When you go to IPCPR and Ernie Pérez-Carrillo buys a few bloggers a round of drinks, yes he does it because he’s genuinely a nice guy, but also that was a business expense that will only exist in print as a tax write-off and gets him glowing praise in the blogosphere…

Barry Stein – A Cigar Smoker’s Journal

For the most part I believe that bloggers are a valid voice of the cigar world and aren’t much different than those who take part in cigar forums…Those who do not take us as a valid voice are behind the times.

The sad part is some old school cigar companies don’t grasp the power of new media and social media so they begin to fall behind. I wont mention names but I’ll try to make it a short story. I used to smoke a brand all the time, as I became a new media savy individual I branched out and tried new sticks. Well I can’t tell you the last time I smoked that company because the saying, out of sight out of mind, holds true.

Are we free advertising, yes we are. Are we accepted, yes but not by all. . But the issue is for every legit site there are 3-5 sites that are in it for the wrong reason and until we find a way to form a solid network of peers we will be stuck somewhere in the middle.

Jon Huber, Director of Lifestyle MarketingCAO International

I can’t speak for all manufacturers; however, social media in and of itself has changed the way in which I do business.  The advent of Twitter and Facebook has nearly rendered the old traditional ‘press release’ obsolete.

To that point, I believe the cigar blogging community is an essential force in our industry today.  I know firsthand how vital and influential the blogger community can be to the success of a given brand.  I have a great deal of respect for the bloggers; as a whole, they seem to be passionate about our industry and quite knowledgeable.

That said, if I had one ‘request’ to make to get across to bloggers it would be this: PLEASE don’t put so much emphasis upon the ‘burn’ and/or the ‘burn rate’ or how ‘razor straight’ the burn line is on a cigar.  The most important attributes in a cigar are flavor, aroma, and draw—period.  The ‘cosmetic’ factors are a part of it, but I’ve seen some cigars get slammed online just because they didn’t burn straight or needed a ‘touch-up.’  People, this is what LIGHTERS are made for.

John Brooke, Former cigar blogger; Public & Media Relations – Drew Estate

All we ask from bloggers is that they give our products a fair review. Good or bad, we still value their opinions. We’d obviously love to hear good opinions, but everyone has different palates. Cigars wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if everyone smoked the same cigars.

I’m a little biased, since this is what I do for a living, but “social media” is the best form of advertising out there, in my opinion. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and forums allow us to interact with our consumers like never before. Unfortunately, we as consumers have trained ourselves to ignore traditional advertising, such as commercials, billboards, etc. I’m not saying that traditional advertising has no merit, but with “social media”, we can interact with our consumers instead of trying to force our product on them. Also, social networks give our fans a place to interact with each other.

Bryan White, Brand Owner – 13th Floor Cigars

I truly believe that the blogging community provides a tremendous value to the cigar industry, especially for the smaller boutique companies…

In our case, as with a lot of the small/mid-size companies, we don’t have a multi-million dollar marketing budget. We rely on word of mouth and “guerilla marketing tactics” to drive our brands forward into the market. The reputable cigar bloggers out there help drive the opportunity for us to quickly and effectively reach a wider audience than traditional marketing strategies.

On the other hand, there is also a growing issue with what seems to be a small group of bloggers that are out there to “weasel” cigars from the manufacturers. I personally have not run into this yet, possibly because we are fairly new in the market (or we’ve just been lucky). In fact I talked with two, which I would consider very reputable cigar bloggers last week – both asked where they could purchase our cigars for review. Both of these bloggers I just mentioned, I contacted directly to initiate conversation – they were not asking for handouts. I believe that just like anything the cream will rise to the top…

Brad Mayo, Brand OwnerJameson Cigars

I’ve supported (or at least tried to) the cigar blogging community since our inception around three years ago.  Legit bloggers sacrifice their time, money, and effort in order to contribute to the overall cigar community and should be commended for it.  As a growing mouthpiece for this industry the bloggers have a responsibility to maintain credibility as well as educate their readership.  A network of responsible, dedicated bloggers only serves to grow this passion of ours and push it to the next level.