Branding Science Blogging: Cooperatives + Corporate Networks

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

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.

Corporate-owned networks

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:

A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem
Thank You
Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How
Links ‘n’ Thoughts on emerging science blogging networks

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
Bloggers, Evolving
Weekend Readings
Quick Links
Quick Links 2
Quick Links 3
Quick Links 4

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15 responses to “Branding Science Blogging: Cooperatives + Corporate Networks

  1. Again, I’m impressed by your depth of knowledge on this subject, your willingness to share your hard-earned bogosphere wisdom, and the clarity that maintain when discussing these issues.

    Seed/Sb definitely took ahit when you left. there are many lessons to be learned by everyone involved in the Pepsigate thing. In particular I hope the media companies and brands you mentioned have gotten more serious about the realities of blogs and bloggers, and stop trying to treat it as a footnote to their old media model. It isn’t, and Pepsigate can help them see why it isn’t, if they can only get of their box for moment to look around.

  2. Insightful as ever. The one thing I think you’ve missed is that brands matter as much to individuals as to corporations. You’ve discussed branding almost entirely from the perspective of the company – they want safe bloggers who won’t tarnish their brand etc. But that has tremendous appeal for many bloggers too, who just want to get on with it without the trappings of blogwars and so on. For some of us, it’s as much about us picking which brand we want to associate ourselves with.

    When you talk about this from the point of view of a blogger, you suggest that getting paid makes you “start thinking of your blogging as ‘a job’” and “start writing more professionally”. Again, I’m don’t think the timing’s right in your model. I started trying to write more professionally, dig deeper, fact-check more etc. well before I started getting “paid substantially”. Likewise, I subscribed to all the other stuff you talked about (separating professional work from rants, directing traffic to a single place, not getting involved in blogwars etc. etc.) before I raked in any noticeable income. I suspect that it’s more likely that these choices led to the income, rather than the other way around.

    That being said, I like the post and I love the last paragraph. And I have to say that Discover kicks ass in terms of the perks you mention: we’re treated as professionals, we get speedy and responsive technical support and we get lots of promotion. And they lend their brand – this may seem trivial to some people, but I’ve certainly noticed that I get many more links from big-name sites than I did when I was in Scienceblogs.

    The only trade-off that’s worth noting is that a big brand has the potential to overshadow your own. So I’ve noticed that many people link to my posts with “According to an article at Discover…” rather than “a piece by Ed Yong” or “a post at Not Exactly Rocket Science”. But that’s fine – those same links would probably just have said “some blogger wrote that…” before I moved!

  3. I can relate to what Ed’s saying here. I’m not making any money from my blog, and I don’t know if I ever will, directly. But I feel a responsibility to good editing regardless. Ideally, Ed’s supposition that success – whatever that means – follows consistent, clear, trustworthy writing.

    I also think about branding quite a bit – I’m a graphic designer by day, so it comes naturally, though I think the word “reputation” works just as well. Being indie, having control of my design, branding is much more than the words I write. For those who visit the blog directly rather than via a reader, I am setting expectations before a post is even read. I’m taking a good, hard look at my design right now, and plan to revamp the blog sometime soon. I have a much better grasp of this now than I did when I started the blog.

    What you write, Bora, about the things readers value in independent bloggers also strikes a chord. It’s an interesting balance, one I’m always playing with. How “professional” do I want to sound? How casual and personal should I get? How political? What about cussing?

    Then there are other questions: Does the post make sense to regular readers as well as first timers who just googled the name of a new dinosaur taxa? Have I leaned to heavily towards “fluff” or serious topics lately? Do posts written to engage fellow bloggers alienate my general readers?

    I’ve been writing a science blog for just over a year, and while that feels substantial to me, I am very aware that there is much to learn. In a way, I feel like the blog has entered its adolescence, so I’m pushing myself to experiment (you know, the way those crazy teens do) and make more connections with other bloggers. I really value what your writings here and the conversations they start. If it wasn’t for this kind of exchange, I wouldn’t be asking myself all of those questions.

  4. I totally ended that first paragraph with an unfinished thought. I must be getting a bit drowsy.

    I think I meant to say that ideally Ed’s right about “success” following quality of writing.

  5. Great piece Bora! You’re really in your element when you take the bird’s eye view! Here’s to hoping that some corporate blog network that pays its bloggers very well laps you up soon!

  6. I agree. The paragraph that starts with “But if you are paid substantially more, …” could also start with “But if your goal is to get to a place where you will get paid substantially….”.

    It used to be there was only one place to go – Scienceblogs.com – and only one way to get on there (repeatedly applying to Sb plus constantly commenting on Sb blogs, on top of, of course, blogging well on your own blog all along). By 2010, that became essentially impossible goal to reach – Sb was already too big, it turned it attention to adding pro journalists, and the competition that was small in 2006 turned into thousands of bloggers by 2010. There was just no way for new/young bloggers to get anywhere.

    But today, there are multiple places that can be one’s goal – half-dozen, soon probably a dozen networks run by reputable media house, each with a somewhat different concept and atmosphere, so one can choose. Also, there are multiple ways to get there – one can apply as an independent blogger, but one can also take an intermediate step: join a co-op collective that increases visibility and provides a dose of respectability that the media houses are looking for. And this is a good moment to do so: the Big Names are in short supply, so the media houses that are currently building new networks are forced to look at less known bloggers and are most likely to look to steal someone from a co-op.

  7. Hi Bora,

    You raise some really valid points that I think a lot of people are not aware of. I think Ed Yong is spot on with his comments, particularly that ‘bloggers themselves can become a brand’, as ‘Blog around the clock has become’ – can you imagine if you couldnt take that name with you when you left? Would you have gone? The idea of payment is something that I really believe could be developed. As you say the big corporations have strategies in line for this sort of thing, but their way of thinking is not to make the bloggers money, more how they can turn their click into $. I know that bloggers don’t think like this, but I dont see why they shouldnt be rewarded, in a way other than being ‘signed up’. Flattr and microfinancing in general is an interesting concept that could be massive in terms of blogging. I know people do it for the love rather than the money, but I do think that the potential is definitely there for the big names to make real money.

  8. but waitaminnit … ben goldacre writes for the guardian.

  9. Yes, but that is edited. Bloggers….not so.

  10. Science3point0 are quite cleverly looking at “n00b bloggers who may actually have the greatest enthusiasm and spunk – but they have no brand names yet” and avoiding a “ridiculously white, male, middle-aged lineup” by inviting me to blog for them.

    I have blogged before, but only personally. I have some experience of Science and reading Science blogs, but only professionally. I won’t be paid, and as such I will be able to blog about what I do for a living but also about my personal opinions and thoughts on Science and online. For them I’m low risk as I’m keen, eager and will (hopefully!) have quite a lot to say.

    However, I’m high risk for my employer – negotiations to grant me with the permission to blog and mention brand have taken several weeks (and counting). When (if!) I am finally given the green light, my blog probably won’t attract that many readers. It probably won’t be respected by ‘real’ Science bloggers. But I will be welcomed into the science3point0 community, I’ll have a place to post my thoughts on the ins and outs of getting Science online, and I’ll keep the creative side of my brain happy. I might even be able to put some faces to names at next year’s Science Online London and have people say “Oh yeah, I know you!” in return. Those are the things that are important to me.

    I agree that “fast and competent technical support” and “give them perks , promote them, help them get their best stuff published in your magazine” would be very welcome, but by no means essential.

    As a blog reader, I am not swayed even remotely by brand or lack thereof. In fact, in the light of PepsiGate I think a brand may even put me off – marketing blogs hosted by media groups have been widely opposed. The bloggers to whom’s RSS feeds I subscribe come from a wide array of backgrounds, professions and employers. I’m of the belief that if a blog is good it will be found and read, regardless of the brand name or logo splashed across its header.

  11. I disagree that a bloggers more professional style is just so that they can “get to a place where you will get paid substantially.” Certainly payment is something that’s considered when you’re putting so many hours into your work. It’s a simple matter of remuneration for your time and effort. But I think it shouldn’t be ignored that many bloggers use the platform in order to refine their skills as a writer. Some of us hope to reach a large audience as a professional writer/author and it’s very tough to break in.

    I view it very much like acting (I spent a good part of my young adult years in the theater). You get involved in theater because you love the work and it’s your dream to one day reach the same level as those who inspired you and got you started in the first place. You want as large an audience as possible because you believe in the work you’re doing. But in order to get there requires lots of community and equity waiver theater where you get little, if any, compensation. Your hope is that if you put yourself out there enough you’ll be “discovered” and be able to advance in your career and your craft. Most people never make it. Some prefer the camaraderie of their local theater group and have no interest in the stresses of working for the professional stage or in the film industry. Others have the dream but simply don’t have what it takes (theaters throughout Los Angeles are filled with embittered actors who are still waiting for their big break after more than a decade).

    Some of us are in this for the long haul. We take our writing seriously and want to be taken seriously as writers. We’re hoping we have what it takes and we work hard to improve the quality of our work. We’d love to be able to write full time and not have to worry about how we’re going to pay the bills that month. So, yes, the money is there but it’s not the primary motivator. The work is the primary motivator. The desire to communicate and create a vision of the world that you hope will resonate with others is the primary motivator. The money is only important insofar as that allows you to spend more time doing what you love.

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