Brand-named writers, marquee editors, and publications named after founders is nothing new to publishing. Think H.L. Menken, Walter Winchell, Anna Wintour, Helen Gurley Brown, Brill's Content, O, Martha Stewart Living... In some cases, the brand elevates the writer or editor to recognizable status; in others, the publication is purely an extension of an individual's personal brand.
With the rise of social media, the professional is personal. Social is fundamentally entwined with media. Yet as it has always been for old media, there is risk for new media too reliant upon the one-man-brand. When a brand is bound to a single personality, there are issues of scale, growth and, of course, the potential for implosion upon the eponymous leader's departure.
Arguably, the risks are greater in the social media sphere. In the context of social media, it is considered de rigueur to interact on a personal level. In fact, when media companies issue policies that prohibit or limit staff members' personal input via social media channels, there is usually a riotous outcry from pundits that without the personal, social media is little more than old media in a new suit.
It can be a challenge in the new media echo chamber to step back and view the industry objectively. There are, however, a few people who have found themselves at the epicenter of this shift from media to social media, from old media to new who are able to provide some clear-eyed insights on how to embrace the personal while building a reputation -- and roadmap for success -- that is purely professional.
Strong Foundations for Growth
Staci Kramer, editor and EVP of ContentNext Media, was the first fulltime employee at paidContent.org, founded by Rafat Ali. She has been with the company through its acquisition by Guardian Media in 2008, Ali's departure, and the company's sale in February to GigaOm (which was named for its founder Om Malik). Yet as Kramer says, "there are still people who still refer to it as Rafat's site."
Interestingly, Kramer joined Ali when he was addressing his own issues of managing a successful one-man operation. paidContent had grown to a point when Kramer says he'd "realized he couldn't just turn it off for two months while he went on vacation" and leave readers and advertisers to fend for themselves. She says they worked well together because they balanced each other's strengths and weaknesses, something she'd urge any blogger with larger aspirations to keep in mind. "If you are going to scale, if you are going to grow, if you are going to build out a full fledged business, you've got to be prepared to face your own limitations along with your potential."
Kramer was the first of many employees as ContentNext Media built up a staff, hired a management team, and launched sites to extend its reach -- not to mention stability, scalability and salability -- well beyond the strengths of its lone-blogger foundations. As Kramer points out, "When The Guardian acquired paidContent, we already had a COO, a CEO, and a team of writers. You have to professionalize the business for it to scale."
Marshal Kirkpatrick, known from his years at a number of new media companies including ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, and Weblogs, Inc., is intimately familiar with the growing pains in scaling from lean startup to formidable new media company. In fact, he is in startup mode himself these days as CEO of Plexus Engine where he's putting his expertise at discovering emerging information to work in an automated-research venture.
Kirkpatrick points out that for small one-person-driven startups, "The absence of a dedicated sales and support staff can make it hard for big personalities to stick with their jobs of being the content creators because in many cases, once they find success ... those successful content creators become administrators and CEOs."
He believes that "Pairing the right people with these entrepreneurial content creators and can go a log ways in offsetting the risk. That perception of the lone blogger may always be there, though it may be more a matter of perception than reality. Without the right hires, training, and support these [successful new media ventures] wouldn't be growing the way that they are."
Branding the Writers
Certainly, people have always found singular voices they like in media. Columnists whose opinions they trusted, who became valued friends they followed in print, long before they would have the opportunity to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Kramer says that, "A lot of what we are talking about now is no different than it was pre-internet. News organizations always had a few people with strong personal brands -- columnists, beat writers -- and a whole lot of people working that no one ever thought about."
"In a way," says Kramer, "what we're seeing now is that more people can be personal brands. Your name can reflect the brand or the brand can become an adjunct to your name."
The ability to build a personal brand may well be part of what draws writers to these new media ventures in the first place. Kirkpatrick says that "especially in high growth start ups where ownership is disproportionally allocated, I think it is important to provide star players with the opportunity to amass some social capital themselves."
While there are many media organizations that view social channels as just another distribution mechanism, and restrict staff activity, Kirkpatrick is among those who would discourage an overly-restrictive approach to social media. He believes that "Twitter is a really personalized medium and so are blogs, really. There are people who might not follow ReadWriteWeb but say 'give me David Strom's enterprise cloud channel any day.'"
According to Kirkpatrick, the benefits of encouraging staff to engage in social media outweigh the risks. He says, "we're in an exploding phase of new media and helping content creators build their personal brand is an important part of the win-win paradigm for self publishing at scale."
John Biggs, editor of TechCrunch Gadgets, does not put too much stock in the personal brand of journalists online or off. He says "I never thought of paidContent as Rafat's site and I think a lot of people come to TechCrunch and don't think of Mike," referring to the much publicized departure of founder Michael Arrington a year after its acquisition by AOL.
According to Kirkpatrick, "TechCrunch is an interesting example, Arrington has been gone for some time now and they have been making some really interesting hires. They may prove capable of growing far beyond Arrington's personality and what it was in the short term."
Biggs points out that, "If you look at the New York Post, you rarely look at bylines
At TechCrunch, looking at bylines and who you want to read is pointless" given the volume of content produced by the site. "Maybe you look at the byline to write a nasty letter to the editor ... but there has to be a tipping point past I really like the guy, I really hate the guy."
However, Biggs does believe that social media plays a significant role in media strategy saying "I think there needs to be someone to organize social media, to make it work for the brand." Biggs points out that for many large media companies "a Twitter stream is a broadcast medium, not one-to-one communication," though he believes that writers should interact with readers via their own Twitter stream.
"The brand itself really has no personality so it is the people, the characters, that add a lot of personality to the site," according to Biggs.
Attempting to over-manage the social aspect of social media is not only risky, according to Kirkpatrick, it is not likely to succeed. He says "Were organizations to take too much ownership over the social media accounts of their content creators, it would probably be like trying to catch a fairy in one of those glass jars."
Kramer's advice to those who are concerned with the risk cost analysis of brand-bearing writers is, "If you've got a Mathew Ingram, Robert Andrews... don't see their brand as a threat, see it as an amplification of your brand. But don't assume they will say or do or think what you want them to."
Professionalizing the Personal
One new media name brand that has recognition well beyond its founder's name is The Huffington Post. According to Kramer, "Huffington Post was never designed as a one-person blog. People always knew it, and it just used her celebrity and name to get attention." Biggs agrees, pointing out that "Arianna had a lot of famous friends and she grabbed a lot of big personalities early on."
Through her personal experience with paidContent and now GigaOm, Kramer has seen how each of these sites' founders took their own route to building their respected solo voice into a well-orchestrated business. She points out that when they started their blogging-based businesses, Rafat Ali, founder of paidContent, was covering a beat and that Om Malik, founder of GigaOm was a well established blogger. However she says that early on "Om saw a possibility of getting equally talented people to come on board and create something that was much more a network. He never meant it to be all about him."
"There are similarities between them," says Kramer. "But I think that Om was a lot quicker to the idea that for this to work as a business, it couldn't revolve around him. But that doesn't mean that his DNA isn't baked into the company."
Ultimately, what may be the most challenging issue for those who want to poise an entrepreneurial new media start up for growth beyond the personality of its founder is that of the entrepreneurial drive itself. As Kramer points out, "You may be able to replace a person's abilities, their writing ... but one of the hardest things to replace is drive. What makes someone obsessive about making something happen. If all you are is a business and nobody has that drive, you aren't going to have that soul."
"Personal Branding" photo from Shutterstock.