Last fall, at the American Business Media’s Executive Forum, I joined IDG Enterprise CCO John Gallant and SourceMedia EVP/CCO David Longobardi on stage for a panel about the future of content and editorial and, much to my surprise, my introduction of the “brandividual” concept turned into a lightning rod for subsequent hallway conversation (see FOLIO:’s blog on the topic here).
When was the last time you saw a billboard for one of your local news programs? Have you ever stopped to think about how those billboards essentially subjugate the brand of the station to the brand of the news team? That’s because the most important currency that any media property can spend for audience is its credibility. And, like or not, with few exceptions, the trust relationship is really between the audience and the newscaster.
Brandividualism is nothing new. The brandividualized billboards have been around for decades. But prior to the arrival of social networks, the media brands themselves got to be the sole arbiters of brandivdualism. There were no other practical ways to keep in touch with your favorite newscaster, weatherperson or columnist other than to tune into the media brands that employed them. How else were you to follow Peter Jennings other than to watch ABC’s World News Tonight?
Then along came Twitter and Facebook: two services that have not only up-ended the media industry in well-chronicled ways, but ones that have also reinforced the principles of brandividualism.
In a double-whammy, not only are Twitter and Facebook disintermediating media brands as the sole channelers of the trust relationship between audience and brandividuals, they’ve become the platforms upon which new independent but highly trusted brandividuals have risen. The latter phenomenon and its potential to dilute audience is the more oft-discussed challenge to modern day media. But the former should be just as interesting to us students of the media.
At the time this article was written, ESPN had 3,335,412 followers on Twitter. However, Erin Andrews, one of ESPN’s most popular commentators had 1,200,905 all to herself. By the time you read this, CNN will have more than 3,980,000 followers. But more than 2,304,000 people will be following one of CNN’s biggest brandividuals – Anderson Cooper. In perhaps the closest margin, without having even tweeted one tweet, Brian Williams has 93,786 followers. Meanwhile, the show that he anchors — NBC Nightly News — has 104,786.
The good news, as can be seen from some of the follower counts to the media brands exemplified above, is that the media brand still counts for something. The challenging news if you’re a media brand is that your audience is also taking its trust relationship with your brandividuals into channels you don’t control.
Many media executives are naturally driven to perceive this brandividual independence as a threat; not just to their brand, but, as if they’re pimps, to their way of life. However, the risks of resisting or ignoring the realities of this new, brandividual-led world are greater than if you embrace them. Embracing brandividualism in a socially networked world is not only about supporting the idea, but driving it to new levels.
First, make sure you have the right brandividuals; journalists or bloggers who are domain experts, whose expertise and reputation engender trust and loyalty, and who understand the importance of immersing themselves into the social networks that matter.
Second, don’t be shy about leading your online editorial product with your brandividual(s). If you visit two of UBM TechWeb’s sites for IT professionals — DrDobbs.com and BYTE.com — you will notice how both of those sites are graphically and spiritually led by the editors in chief of those sites (Andrew Binstock and Larry Seltzer, respectively). They aren’t just front-in-center on their the websites. They’re also front-in-center in the periodic email newsletters for both sites.
Third, in addition to providing the necessary buttons and icons for connecting to your media brand over social networks (you do have that, don’t you?), be sure to offer all of the available means for your audience members to connect directly with your brandividuals .
As ludicrous as these ideas sound, the goal is to heavily promote trust in your brandividuals so that that trust will eventually lead to more readership. Or, you can try swimming against the tide and see how far that gets you.
David Berlind is the chief content editor at UBM TechWeb.