The power of the personal brand (in a social world)

Kim KardashianIn a recent Nieman Journalism Lab article on the possibility of newspapers making money by selling ads on Twitter, Justin Ellis notes the successful efforts pioneered by celebrities and athletes. The fact is that the reach of certain celebrities far exceeds that of traditional media companies, so why shouldn’t advertisers pay them instead of media companies to get their word out? Besides, there’s that whole illusion of endorsement thing.

Mr. Ellis says much in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a certain reality show “star.”

Not to mention non-news outlets like, um, Kim Kardashian, for whom pay-per-tweet is a long-standing phenomenon.

Kardashian may be a “non-news outlet,” but she is so only in the sense of a traditional view of “news.” Prior to social media, celebrities required the filter of news organizations in order to be promoted, but much of that is now in their own hands. Are they “media companies?” Of course they are. And just as Wal-Mart has a bigger advertising platform than the New York Times and the Washington Post combined, Hollywood and our athletic fields are cranking out new platforms regularly. It’s into this environment that the efforts of newspapers to play copycat look just a little weak in comparison.

In the last few weeks, The Hartford Courant and The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune have experimented with using Twitter as a new advertising channel. At the Courant, they’ve started offering twice-daily deals to local businesses — think Groupon by tweet — to their followers. The Times-Picayune, more controversially, used Twitter to advertise itself — or at least its website, as the online division of its parent company, Advance Publications, paid New Orleans Saints players to tweet about the newspaper’s relaunched Saints site on Nola.com.

Mr. Ellis notes that the hashtag #spon, which appears at the end of some tweets is a “semi-legible indicator of a sponsored tweet.”

“A Twitter search for #spon is an enlightening look,” he adds, “into what sorts of companies are paying people to tweet: at the moment, Verizon, Clorox, Pepperidge Farm, and Q‑Tips.”

I like what Advance Publications did in employing NFL celebrities to promote its website, but the use of a mass media Twitter news stream is problematic. It’s is a part of what I dubbed “unbundled advertising” in a 2005 essay about how to make money in the unbundled universe of the Web. It was written prior to Twitter.

If unbundled media is where we’re headed, then unbundled advertising must necessarily follow. This is a scary concept, however, for there is no command and control mechanism or manipulable infrastructure in the unbundled world. The upside, though, is that it costs very little to participate. All that’s necessary is the release what I call “ad pieces” into the seeming chaos of the Internet, where other businesses will take those pieces and reassemble them when summoned by customers who are trading their scarcity for information they actually want.

So while I fully support the concept here, we need to go back to the comparison with Kim Kardashian to understand why media companies using this particular application — in their own streams — is suspect strategically. The problem is that Kim Kardashian is a real person; The Hartford Courant is not. Ms. Kardashian’s brand is personal and as transparent as a reality star can be. Followers and fans connect with her on a visceral level. They experience emotions in their vicarious relationship with her. When Ms. Kardashian tweets for a sponsor, there’s an inference that she wouldn’t try to “fool” her fans. The endorsement also benefits her directly, and fans understand, accept and appreciate that. The few seconds it takes to “see” the endorsement isn’t wasted; it supports a real person with whom fans are connected.

Moreover, the purpose of following a celebrity on Twitter is different than the purpose of following a news organization’s stream. For Ms. Kardashian, it’s about the connection. With The Hartford Courant, it’s about the news feed. To the former, therefore, a sponsored tweet is about the person, but to the latter, it’s about noise, an interference. A sponsored tweet in the midst of a stream of news is an interruption. It’s, well, advertising.

Nevertheless, it’s good strategic thinking, because it gets us into the world of unbundling, where aggregation is the real value proposition. We’d do much better, however, if we would take up the challenge of developing the personal brands of our news people and helping them create the relational types of connections with fans enjoyed by others with celebrity. This would directly conflict with the core value proposition of mass media — the maintenance of a sterile stage from which to place advertisements — so it’s not likely a concept that media companies will enthusiastically embrace. Moreover, media companies think of employees as “theirs,” so the idea of trumpeting a brand that might one day quit and go elsewhere seems counterintuitive. This is, however, precisely the kind of thinking we need to employ, for today’s media is increasingly unbundled and social, and people follow people, not institutions.

But Mr. Ellis nails the real problem. “Newspapers,” he wrote, “are trying to insert themselves as a middleman in a medium that doesn’t require one.” He’s right. With the possible exception of aggregators, there’s just no market for middlemen online. Advertising is the new content king, because they can place that content directly in front of people in the same way we can. The people formerly known as the advertisers are now competing with us for the same eyeballs.

It’s a battle we’ll lose, because they have the money.

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