Bloggers these days often have just as much influence as journalists at major publications (sometimes more!) and can actually help you reach a more targeted and engaged audience than, say, Forbes or the WSJ. And, luckily for PR pros, establishing relationships with influential bloggers is very similar to targeted journalist outreach – just with a larger social element – a blog is social media, after all. So, the next time you’re ramping up for a news release, add blogger outreach to your plan and follow the 3 easy steps outlined below.

1. Build Your List

If you’ve been in your industry for a good chunk of time, you probably already know who the influential bloggers are – you see people tweeting their content on social media, you see them quoted or mentioned in industry news articles and you see them speaking at conferences. However, if you’re new to your industry (or have been living under a rock), my colleague Chris Dotson wrote a fantastic article on 3 Ways to Find Online Influencers (many influencers are bloggers).

A quick tip here: don’t go straight for the big guys – bloggers with smaller audiences and less influence are probably going to be easier to develop relationships with than the more influential bloggers who everyone else in your industry is also trying to reach.

Once you’ve identified who the influential bloggers are, spend some time on their blog to see what they’re all about – what topics they write on, how often they post, how they prefer to engage with their audience, etc. I would also strongly suggest that you subscribe to their blog to receive blog posts in your inbox (or RSS feed) as they’re published, and that you follow them on social media (tip: add them to specific Twitter lists, Facebook Interest Lists, and Google Circles for quick access to your influential bloggers).

2. Engage with Them

Blogger outreach is similar to journalist outreach in that a pre-existing relationship will make them more receptive when you approach them with a story. The reason I suggest subscribing to their blog is so that you receive notifications as soon as a new post is published, which gives you the opportunity to read it, comment on it, and share it on social media first. Bloggers thrive on getting engagement – and they’re sure to notice you if you’re always among the first to engage with their new content.

So comment on their blog posts with follow up questions, or perhaps an alternate opinion that you ask them to comment on. Use your social media lists (Twitter lists and Facebook Interest Lists) to see what they’re talking about and join the conversation. If you did your research in step one, you know if they spend more time on Twitter or on Facebook – so also be sure to favorite and retweet them, or like and share their Facebook posts. If you blog, include links to their posts in your posts. Your goal is to get a conversation started, and these are just a few beginning pointers – so think up other ways you can start building an online relationship with the bloggers in your industry. Just be sure that you’re providing value to them before asking them to do anything for you – this is key for effective blogger outreach. When you’re doing this on behalf of a brand, I suggest that you share their content more from the corporate profiles and engage more from your personal profiles – people build relationships with people, not brands.

3. Reach Out and Collaborate

Once you have the beginning stages of a relationship built, reach out to see if you can work together. Start small and see how they feel about a social media partnership – you share their content if they share yours. Then, build up to guest posting – you post on their site, if they post on yours. You may also want to ask bloggers to join you on webinars as subject matter experts – you promote to your list, they promote to theirs – and you both get video content for your blogs. These sorts of activities are win-win for both your brand and the blogger, but generally work best with the smaller bloggers who will benefit from your extended reach. So start there to build up credibility with the blogger community in your industry and, as these bloggers start to mention you, it will open up doors with additional bloggers.

If your blogger outreach has resulted in an actual relationship, brand discussions naturally take place. As in “real life,” your friends will tell you about things happening in their lives, and will ask what’s going on in yours – online relationships shouldn’t be any different. (That being said, you must also remember that it’s not all about you.) Friends like to help each other out and talk each other up, and a good blogger relationship will come with those same benefits. Some bloggers will write full-on product reviews (especially if you’ve given them VIP access to your product), if that’s the sort of content they think their audience likes to read. However, most endorsements will likely be more subtle – a hyperlink in their blog, a mention at a conference, etc – and these types of endorsements carry a lot of weight from the audience that trusts them.

In exchange, the blogger will benefit from your promotion of their content because, as I mentioned in my other post this week, shares make the content world go round. Also be sure to reciprocate by mentioning them in your content, and perhaps even inviting them to participate in press activities – if they’ve used your product, they could provide a great quote for that Mashable article you’re working on (which, in return, helps them get more exposure).

In conclusion, effective blogger outreach is highly dependent upon building meaningful business relationships that benefit both parties. Relationships take time to build, and should give each party a warm, fuzzy feeling that they’re both benefiting from the relationship in some way. After all, online relationships shouldn’t be any different than IRL (in real life) ones.