Last week’s Gore-Tex blogger summit offers a compelling illustration of how advertising will happen in the years to come. Here’s what happened: GTX hosted 15 outdoor bloggers for a two-day pow wow designed to do two things: Burnish the company’s brand and build positive vibes online at very low cost. Of course the company had a cover story about wanting feedback from actual users, but please: 15 is a pretty scant sample size.

Back of the napkin calculation: roundtrip airfare for 15 people: $7,500; two days food/lodging: $4,500. Gore-Tex would have to pay twice that for a single fullpage ad in Outside that we’ll all gloss over anyway.

What GoreTex gets for its $12K is worth, well, a lot more. Jason Klass, for instance, first posts a 3:57 ad for Gore-Tex on his blog one day, and the next day he’s posting about how eVent is perhaps no better than Gore-Tex despite all the anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

From a corporate branding standpoint, this is positively brilliant. Professional video producers would’ve socked it to GTX for several times more than it cost the company to fly Jason in. Getting hobbyists to do the work of pros at pennies on the dollar is as smart as it gets when Joe Marketing Executive is putting his ad budget together.

I’m singling Jason out because he’s smart, capable and video-savvy — all requirements for a good blogger. I can’t say for sure that he’s an all-around nice guy, but I’ve twiddled with video enough to know that producing them for free is a supreme act of decency.

Jason’s general goodness no doubt figured in the calculation to invite him to the summit. You’ll notice that a certain trained skeptic with 20 years in the news biz was not invited.

See, here’s the thing: if I’m Jason and GTX flies me out at their expense, puts me up in a hotel, buys me lunch and gives me a really cool tour explaining how all their cool fabrics work, what am I going to do? Produce 3 minutes and 57 seconds of GoBlog smart-assery? Or am I going to be as generous as my hosts?

This is the dollars-and-sense calculation Gore-Tex made when it threw this shindig together.

None of this makes Gore-Tex some kind of Snidely Whiplash curling his mustache as he gets bloggers to do his bidding. GTX actually took considerable risk — the company can’t control what the bloggers will say, nor can it control public reaction to its summit. The rest of the outdoor blogosphere could write it off as a publicity stunt and in a fit of “why wasn’t I invited” pique rain scorn on all who attended.

And here’s the thing: Gore-Tex doesn’t want stroke pieces from pliant bloggers; it could hire hacks on Craigslist for that. It wants actual users of its gear to say what they really think (even if it’s “waterproof/breathable is neither and we all know it.”).

My decade in Silicon Valley taught me one thing too well: any business can be wiped out if somebody else invents the technology they need to survive in the marketplace. Gore-Tex honchos don’t want to be around when somebody else invents a permeable membrane fabric that won’t wet out.

I’ve read only a few of the bloggers’ reactions to the summit. So far they’ve all been glowing. So Gore-Tex gets a short-run ego boost that will be of no use when somebody in a basement invents GTX out of existence (Google did it to newspapers; it can happen to any of us).

Who should be the most terrified of what all this means? Anybody relying on “traditional” forms of advertising like print ads and 30-second spots on TV. The world is getting better and better at tuning them out, leaving companies no choice but to throw in with users of their products to figure out how to market them.

Conclusion for bloggers who get invited to events of these kind: Attending doesn’t make you a pawn in some dastardly corporate marketing scheme.

By the same token, you’re under no obligation to be polite just because your hosts were. The best “thank you” you can give a company is to tell ’em how you see it with no sugar-coating.

Blogs represented at the GTX Summit:


Gear Talk with Jason Klass

Teton AT

Camping Blogger.

Modern Hiker.

Rock Climber Girl.