n November 2010, Bernard Smith (not his real name) of Tree.com Inc. asked Peggy Gartin, leader of SD Tweetup — a local socialnetworking group with over 1100 members — to help him assemble what he called a “blogger army.” At the time, Smith worked for LendingTree, but he’d originally worked for an internet software and services company in Carlsbad called Morefocus Group Inc., whose assets and team LendingTree had contracted to acquire in 2009.
The reason for purchasing Morefocus was to “socialize Tree,” Smith says, thus reducing the costs of traffic acquisition through social and content marketing. While chief marketing officer of Morefocus, Smith wrote the plan that would provide the basis for Tree’s push into social media.
“The kinds of content that Tree was using to attract people to the site was both the opinionated kind you might find in a blog and the more objective kind you might find in an encyclopedia,” says Gartin. “I was brought in to work on the blog, which we advertised through social media like Facebook and Twitter posts.”
Tree.com Inc. is the parent of LendingTree.com, RealEstate.com, DegreeTree.com, LendingTreeAutos.com, InsuranceTree.com, and three other businesses. According to Smith, “This was a time when Tree was really committed to the idea of merging all the [company’s] different businesses under one roof. I’d written a plan, and they decided to fund it.”
Though he won’t give an exact number, Smith says his budget was “north of six figures,” and when prodded further, he adds, “It was closer to seven than six.”
Gartin, familiar with Smith through San Diego’s social media scene, says the job he offered her was “a dream job.”
“He said [he was] looking to fill up these 14 blog channels with 10 or 15 bloggers, each of whom would be experts on their subjects,” Gartin says. “The money people could write about money. The insurance people would write about insurance. That kind of thing.”
Smith hired Gartin on as the director of social media in December 2010, and she went about gathering the channel leaders. Although the project would have a national scope, Gartin believed that “for the ease of communication and management,” it would help to have the channel leaders in San Diego, near the Carlsbad office, which housed the rest of the project’s team. By February 2011, she had found 13 bloggers to fill 14 channels: automotive, education, entertainment, food and dining, home and garden, insurance, legal services, lifestyle and leisure, money and finance, real estate, small business, sports and recreation, and travel. Of those 13 bloggers, 11 live in the San Diego area.
“A typical corporate mind-set is very quarter-to-quarter,” Smith says, “but despite being run on a quarter-to-quarter basis, which was LendingTree’s business m.o., we were told that we could invest in the future on the Tree side. [They said] don’t worry about making money this quarter or immediately. It’s about building value, and a year from now, we’ll worry about that.”
During the month of February, Gartin trained the channel leaders. They, in turn, hired approximately 140 bloggers, some living in San Diego, others across the country and the world — as far away as New York and Prague. The launch date for the site was set for March 1. That date came and went without the launch. Meanwhile, the bloggers blogged at as much as $100 per post. Each of the 14 channels was putting up at least one post per day, though some as many as 15 per week. The tech people made tweaks on the tech side until, finally, three weeks late, Tree.com went live by way of a “soft launch,” advertised mainly by Twitter and Facebook. No press releases went out.
The site lasted three months.
On June 30, the same day monthly invoices were due, Gartin received a call from Tree’s vice president of product management. “[The vice president] said, ‘There’s been a change of plans. We’re changing our strategy with respect to Tree.com. We’re not going to pay for content anymore, so you need to contact your channel leaders and let them know their services aren’t going to be needed by the end of the day.”
Gartin was stunned. She’d heard the site was getting significant traffic, and from what she understood, feedback from Tree headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, had been nothing but positive.
The termination came as a shock to Steve Adler, too. Adler ran the project’s sports channel. “We had the lowest budget and the most traffic. But it just wasn’t enough,” he says.
A former salesman, Adler understands the need to meet performance goals. And although he has had positions terminated before, he’s disappointed with the way the company handled it this time.
“One thing that bothered me about it is that the people who knew that there were concerns never told anybody else,” he says. “If they’d come to us and said, ‘We need to see more of this’ or ‘We need to tweak that’ or ‘We need you guys to start implementing these kinds of things,’ then cool. But there was no indication.”
But Smith, who had left the company a month before Tree disbanded his blogger army, says that when he hired Gartin, he’d told her not to count on or promise anything more than month-to-month employment.
“When I brought her in on the project, I warned her,” Smith states. “I said, ‘You can’t promise anybody anything. This is a month-to-month relationship with these bloggers. At any moment, anything could happen. She heard me, but at the same time, to do her job effectively, she had to block that out. And then I don’t think she wanted to believe it, so she didn’t believe it.”
This warning came from Smith’s experience with Tree. He says he had been on guard from the time of Tree’s acquisition agreement with Morefocus. (Because Morefocus shareholders have begun a lawsuit to enforce the purchase agreement, Smith does not want to speak to the specifics of the agreement.)
“It felt like a shell game from day one,” Smith says. “It was like being in an abusive relationship, where you know you’re going to get hit. I knew what I was getting myself into. And in this economy, you don’t do a double take at a job, even if it’s one that you don’t feel fantastic about.”