Two recent posts by John Rennie, Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? Part 1 and Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? Part 2, prompted me to respond – first in comments there, and then an expanded version here (and to turn a long post into something more manageable, I omitted a lot of stuff I already wrote in painful detail before, so scroll down to “additional links” for background information that may SEEM to be missing from this post).
The question is about branding. How do incipient science blogging networks manage their public image. John, for example, is not sure if SEED got what it wanted (or initially envisioned), image-wise, from Scienceblogs.com brand. But it is important to remember that Scienceblogs.com was somewhat an anomaly in many respects – it was the only game in town for a long time.
The current situation is different. There are two types of networks arising. In the new ecosystem, we are now seeing cooperatives collecting bloggers who cherish freedom, replicating some aspects of the Scienceblogs.com experience. At the same time, professional/media organizations appear to be following the Discover blogs model of exclusivity for a small number of highly respected writers/bloggers. And it is quite possible that these two types will end up being quite different animals: the blogger cooperatives vs. corporate-owned networks. One way in which Seed Scienceblogs.com was an anomaly is that the atmosphere on the site was Indie, while Seed probably expected Pro.
Blogger cooperatives, like Scientopia, Lab Spaces, Field Of Science, The Gam, Science3point0 and Genomes Unzipped, for example, are unlikely to have long committee sessions charting their long-term strategies, debating their image and branding, and fine-tuning their budgets. They are run on the cheap, and the essential factor is the feeling of community.
Indie networks like these are likely to collect bloggers who are not interested in being The Media, or, as individuals, breaking into the MSM. Their chances of getting indexed by Google News are slim. They cherish freedom. “Don’t you tell me how to blog” is a very important sentiment.
Freedom is essential – bloggers on indie networks are likely to post whatever the heck they like, whenever they like it, at whichever frequency they want. They will cross-post their stuff wherever else they may be online – from other blogging networks, to personal blogs, to Facebook. They will post some kick-ass science, of course, but they will also cover a lot of personal stuff. And when I say ‘personal’, I don’t mean ‘private life’, I mean using their personal experiences and views to discuss all sorts of things, from scientific findings, to life in academia and careers in science, to politics and religion. They will get into vigorous debates and occasional blog-wars. But they will also use their community spirit to accomplish important stuff, from getting a political appointee hired or fired, to having a media article corrected, to having a paper retracted, to having a successful fundraising action for someone who needs it.
They may make all the decisions as a collective, or there may be a benevolent dictator at the helm, usually the tech-savvy person who runs the server, who is likely to be very responsive to the community.
The indie networks can also be very nimble. There is no paperwork, no dinosaurian CFOs to appease. They can completely redesign the homepage in a few hours, just to do it all over again the next day. They can fix technical glitches in five minutes, not five months. As the Web is changing, they can swiftly change with it. If one day everyone abandons Twitter for some other new shiny thing, the site can start reflecting that over night. Which is why they will always run circles around the corporate networks.
Most of them do not now (except for Science 2.0, as far as I know), and probably never will, have any advertising and any income. Bloggers write for free, and the benefits are intangible – being a part of a community, and as such, being able to further one’s goals (e.g., science education) better than being alone (and no, Blogger and WordPress are not networks, they are software). It will be interesting to see if and how dynamics change if some of these indie networks start advertising and making money – will that change the internal dynamics as well as the outward-facing image?
Indie networks tend to be very interested in building and maintaining diversity – both in the traditional meaning of the term, e.g., gender, race, age, ethnicity, geography, and the more science-blogging focused sense of diversity, e.g., scientific disciplines, topics, formats, styles and voices. It is a difficult thing to accomplish, but they constantly think about it and try to do better all the time.
Indie networks are probably rather easy to join – friendly bloggers and commenters just need to apply, and the procedure is probably quite simple and easy. Thus, cooperatives may grow to be quite big over time. As the sense of community is essential, cooperatives will be joined by friends. This may seem cliquish from the outside, but it is important for the long-term health and survival of the network. On the other hand this may be an undoing for some networks in the future, as friends get in a fight….time will tell.
Without a big corporate brand behind them, there is no telling how long these networks will last. A couple of years or a couple of decades? Or longer? Will the complete archives be saved for posterity once the network dies?
And looking from the outside, what kind of image will these collectives garner? Probably as a fun and rambunctious bunch, smart people who can explain science very well, but who are also all quintessentially human, the good and the bad of it. The new collectives have no established brand to improve or tarnish – they are building their own new brands from scratch, and the brand will be defined by the self-selected and friend-selected bloggers themselves, by what they do, by their voices. No long-term strategy writ in stone – just keep blogging and the branding will evolve on its own.
Why would a media company want to host a science bloggers network? Good question!
I think they learned from Seed (and they are now rushing into the vacuum left by the implosion of Seed after PepsiGate, whereas they would have suffocated if they tried to do much with bloggers before). Of all the endeavors that Seed Media Group tried, only Scienceblogs.com was successful and survived. Bloggers are so much cheaper to pay for their writing than are professional writers and journalists. An online-only plaftorm is so much cheaper to run than printing a magazine or a newspaper. And bloggers are so much more fun, they bring traffic and deliver the eye-balls to the advertisers.
Bloggers are also useful in another sense. The audience has become more enlightened over the past couple of decades. The readers are bored and unhappy with, and grew mistrustful of traditional, formulaic, impersonal, “view from nowhere”, “he-said-she-said” writing. Once they discovered bloggers, why would they ever want to go back to the dry matter? Especially if they discovered expert, trustworthy bloggers who both know their stuff much better than journalists do AND are much more fun to read. You know where they are coming from, and you know you can trust them (and why), and you establish a relationship with the personality of the blogger. There is a bond that just does not exist between a reader and a professional journalist who is just a name under the headline, not a real person. What’s there not to like?
So, launching a blogger network is a good idea – a sign that the media house is trying to keep up with the times, to evolve, to remain relevant. To do something a little bit risky and experimental. But not too risky and experimental….
Well, there is this thing called The Brand. The Image. Many of those companies have been around for years, decades, even centuries. The Guardian, Wired, Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American, Discover, Discovery Channel, Psychology Today, The New Scientist, Animal Planet, etc. – old and popular brands all. They have carefully built up their brands over time. Having a bunch of unruly bloggers change that image over a short period of several months is a disconcerting idea.
So, what is one to do? Make the network small, and carefully pick the bloggers, choosing the people who are the least likely to do something provocative and tarnish the brand. Go safe.
I can just imagine a committee meeting in every single one of those companies these days. Someone suggests “How about PZ Myers, Ben Goldacre or Orac? They are hugely popular and have enormous traffic to bring to our site. A sure win?” To which the others in the room start rolling their eyes…. “Uhm, I love these guys, but they are just too risky for us. We’d gain a lot of traffic, but also alienate a lot of people. And our legal department (if we have one) would constantly be busy dealing with libel suits and death threats and such, which we cannot afford. Can we find someone safer?”
Yes, the most popular bloggers became so by being fun. And they are fun because they are provocative and uncontrollable. And a corporation needs control over the image. So how do you accomplish that?
Being a brand, you start looking for people whose names are also brands. Being a media entity, the biggest brands in your mindset are a) people who are well known science writers and journalist who also blog. You may also consider b) people who are well known in the world of science and academia, who also blog. Finally, you may also consider c) people who are well known in the world of blogging, who may also be scientists or, even better, who may be interested in a career as science writers/journalists and are thus very self-conscious about their own reputation as calm, impartial and even-handed.
Ideally, you will find people who are spanning two or all three of those worlds. But such people are rare, and probably already taken by your competitors. Or due to heavy competition, they may get too expensive for you.
So you start going down the list… and find journalists whose writing you admire, in a journalistic sense, but who may not have any experience with blogging and you are just hoping would eventually adopt the bloggy style and understand the blogging norms and mores. You give them the training wheels and hope they learn to ride the bike really fast.
What you are probably not looking at are youngsters – n00b bloggers who may actually have the greatest enthusiasm and spunk – but they have no brand names yet. Perhaps your company just does not have anybody who is intimately familiar with the vast science blogosphere beyond the Usual Suspects, someone who has been reading hundreds of science blogs for years, so you do not even know any of those young ‘uns.
And in this conservative approach – looking for ‘safe’, uncontroversial, respected bloggers who are good writers – you are likely to forget about diversity and end up with a ridiculously white, male, middle-aged lineup. And the next millisecond after the celebratory launch of your brand new network, you will have a PR disaster on your hands…blogosphere is very sensitive to this and will punish instantly.
It is interesting to look at this from the point of view of a blogger. If you are paid $200 per month or $100 or zero, you expect to have zero editorial control over you, total freedom to use the blog any way you wish, and total freedom to cross-post or mirror your content wherever the heck you want.
But if you are paid substantially more, you mentally start thinking of your blogging as “a job”. You start writing more professionally. You dig deeper into the literature and documents before writing your posts. You fact-check your own ass more thoroughly before posting. You clean up your language (including not using the word “ass” in the previous sentence). You resist getting into blogwars. You start valuing your own work more, so the idea of mirroring that paid content onto other free places where you also blog (personal blog, co-op network, Facebook) becomes less attractive – you WANT to separate your more professional work from your rants. You want all the traffic to go to the place where you are paid (especially if the payment scheme is linked to pageviews). You may link to it from all sorts of other online places, but you do not want to duplicate it in places that do not pay.
If you are paid substantially, and start thinking of your blogging in a more professional light, you will probably also be much more cognizant of the inert bureaucracy of a large corporation and much more tolerant of its slowness. If you understand that everything requires paperwork and approval by several levels of corporate hierarchy, you may fume inside, but you are less likely to protest loudly (and publicly, on your blog) if a glitch takes five months to fix instead of five minutes. It will take a lot of accumulated grievances for you to finally explode. And if you are paid very little (think Seed) or nothing (think Nature Network), then there is nothing stopping you from getting mad at your host in a very public manner. It is not your job, you are not an employee, in other words the host is there to serve you, not the other way round.
The lesson for all the new media-run networks: pay your bloggers well and they will naturally behave professionally and will not tarnish your brand.
I should clarify that “pay your bloggers well” is not necessarily to be taken literally. The pay can be in $$, but it can also be (entirely or partially) in other ways – have the bloggers associated with a very prestigious brand (yours, if you are lucky to have one), treat your bloggers as professionals, as celebrities, give them a lot of support, give them perks (e.g., exclusive right to use your image/sound/video archives), promote them, help them get their best stuff published in your magazine, give them inside information, send them to conferences on your dime (e.g., to ScienceOnline or Science Online London), etc. – some of those intangibles are worth as much or more than cold cash in the mail arriving once a month. If you cater to their whims, including fast and competent technical support, bloggers will be proud of their association with you and will do their best not just to produce quality work, but also to promote your brand wherever they go online and offline. It’s worth it.
More on the topic – long musings:
More on the topic – additional links:
Is this something that NYTimes editors proudly allowed to get published?
Ha! We got cartooned (again).
Welcome Scientopia, a new science blogging network
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