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The Brand Called Who?

In the blogging world, weekends are for housecleaning and inside baseball. This past weekend, a conversation sprang up around Robert Scoble’s views on the (un-)likelihood that the micro-blogging application FriendFeed would reach critical mass with “mainstream” users. (A moment for definitional clarity here — in a country where [one out of every five] people has never sent or received an email, Robert does not really mean mainstream — he means adoption by bloggers and the kind of SMS-loving professionals and kids who live to share every moment of their lives online.) One of the reasons for resistance, he suggested, was that bloggers wouldn’t like seeing conversations generated by their work migrated to a foreign platform. This led Duncan Riley to [confess] a change of heart on just this subject, declaring that Blogging 2.0 is “all about the user” — and users want to take the conversation in any direction, via any platform, they choose. His use of the word “user” was interesting, if oblique. What he might have said was “customer” — but that would take this particular conversation into an area that is radioactive in the Web 2.0 world: who benefits most from [commoditized] content?

Brand Called You
But who owns “You”?

Way back in 1997, during the heyday of New Economy 1.0 (you remember, the beta version that lost its funding..?), the bible of the time, Fast Company magazine, generated a lot of buzz with a cover story called, [“The Brand Called You.”] It was a pitch-perfect manifesto that boldly declared the importance to every Tom, Dick and Harriet of self-branding in a world where 1) traditional means of professional advancement were fracturing and 2) technology provided everyone the ability to burnish their personal “brand” and stand out from the undifferentiated masses. Underneath the glossy hoopla, of course, was a not very pretty implication: branding is most important when you are trying to differentiate a commodity product from others just like it. This is something I know about — at exactly the time that article appeared in Fast Company I was a foot-soldier for one of the big three phone companies in the telecom wars of the late 90’s. The commodity we had to brand was long-distance minutes and how did we do it? Largely through owning Share of Voice (SOV). Share of voice refers to the proportion of available media space that your branding is exposed to the target audience. The brand with the greatest SOV will (usually) carry the day. That implies that, in an established market, the incumbents have a huge advantage over new brands that hope to challenge them.

To bring it back to the debate over bloggers vs. the “social aggregator” sites like FriendFeed — the knock on traditional blogging (“Blogging 1.0”) was that the very small cadre of “A-list” bloggers owned all the SOV and basically sucked the air out of the market. One didn’t stand a chance of collecting an audience unless one of the elite [deigned] to bestow a link upon the less-fortunate. Social sites like FriendFeed promise to flatten that hierarchy — which is all to the good — but what is really being debated is the value of individual brands in an online economy where brands can be “absorbed” by other brands. It is not surprising to me at all that FriendFeed was started by two veterans of Google — the brand that consumes all brands and that has generated enormous profit by repackaging and indexing the output of others. That is not to say that there is no value left over for those who become commoditized in such a scheme — many companies thrive within the Google ecosystem — but we need to be clear about exactly what is of value to bloggers. It’s not money — very few will ever see a dime from their dedicated investment. It’s attention. And the currency of attention is commentary. A conversation about their work going on somewhere they are not provides no direct value. What they need to see, however, is that there are peripheral benefits in increased SOV that help to build their online brand. Whether that is a fair trade is the 64 million dollar Web 2.0 question, isn’t it?

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