When Personal Brands Become More Important than Media Brands

One definition of a personal brand in the intellectual realm is someone for whom you read everything they write no matter the topic or outlet.

The web makes it infinitely easier to both establish a personal brand and follow one. Consider my list of icons / heroes. It's easier to have such a list of personal icons because individuals can now publish their ideas all the time, in organized chronological form — and I can follow them.

For people in the business of spreading ideas, it's critical to establish a brand and develop a following independent of an overarching media brand.

Patricio Navia is one of the most influential columnists in Chile. He writes a column in a top newspaper, he maintains a large Twitter following, he appears on TV, he has a mailing list. To me (and most people) it's irrelevant that Navia is at La Tercerca.

Vivek Wadha is a research professor at UC-Berkeley, but he publishes all over the place: on TechCrunch, on BusinessWeek, on his email mailing list, on Twitter. He is known more for being Vivek than for being at UC-Berkeley.

Another example: I read Jonah Lehrer in Wired, the New Yorker, Nature, on his blog, on Twitter, etc. To me the medium, topic, or media outlet is irrelevant: I have a "relationship" with Jonah individually and want to read everything he writes.

Even though big media companies — and the one-size-fits-all information bundle they deliver — are dying, I'm not sad. I see a future that's increasingly made up of customized information blends which in turn will be made up of content and reporting and analysis delivered by individuals I respect and follow.

In other words: think about information bundles driven by people not topic. A magazine not about "sports" or "business" but rather one featuring commentary by five individuals of my choosing (and I can rotate the five individuals as I wish).

Bottom Line Brainstorm: Perhaps the journalists of tomorrow will remain agnostic to formal institutions and eschew exclusive content distribution deals (e.g. Friedman only appearing in the NYT as he does now). They will be able to do this because their ability to connect direct to customer will be so great. This will allow distribution-only media entities to create lots of different bundles of personal brand driven content. I would pay money for print delivery of a bundle a week's worth of content from, say, Tom Friedman, Richard Posner, Catlin Flanagan, Peter Beinart, and Lee Siegel.


God Bless the Economist, but I predict a decline as I expect someday soon they will no longer able to attract journalists who will refuse to work at a place where they cannot develop their personal brand, due to the magazine's lack of bylines.

15 comments on “When Personal Brands Become More Important than Media Brands
  • I’ve often wished for an RSS feed containing everything someone writes. Not just their blog, or their regular column in some newspaper, but all of their output. Like Google Alerts, but based on authorship, and preferably capable of disambiguating between different authors with the same name.

  • Actually, Cal and I had a conversation about a similar phenomenon.

    At least in blogging it seems that people are converging on blogs not by their author’s topic, but by it’s philosophical slant. The Art of Nonconformity isn’t a travel-blog, business-blog, internet marketing-blog or anything specific, it’s just a worldview people associate around.

    So, in the future, I think mainstream media will trend towards this model. One can already see this happening with the rise of Fox News which is more ideological than topic-oriented, and has amassed a large viewership.


  • If you are inclined to live in an echo chamber, the web makes it easier. If
    you're inclined to get various sources, including some which disagree with
    you, the web makes this easier as well.

  • Ben,

    I certainly appreciate the thought direction that you’ve set forth, but I’m not so sanguine about your conclusion.

    I think there’s a typical chicken-egg/catch-22 (choose your metaphor) circumstance here. In order to achieve enough name recognition a journalist will need a media outlet (or decide to build a following from the ground up)…not to mention a source of regular income if they don’t start out with an enrepreneurial mindset.

    I think that the future you’ve envisioned will require some form of platform changeup before we get there…

  • I usually follow the thoughts/opinions of thinkers I am into a lot closer than I do follow that of brands/organizations/publications, with the exception of NYT and a couple of blogs.

    The personal brand, in my experience, tends to be less filtered and more personal.

    You do make a good case for having one main hub online (most likely a blog) where you can syndicate content and gather your audience.

    ps. I like Nielsen’s idea.

  • It occurs to me that an alternate “bottom up” approach would also work: a super-simple tool that would make it very easy for people to construct feeds for all they publish.

    It’s pretty easy to do already, say, by using delicious tagging and the RSS for an URL like (say) http://delicious.com/nielsen/mypubs
    But something even more lightweight and with a more obvious brand – more like mybloglog, say – would be better.

  • You are absolutely right, I think the tools we have like social networks, blogs, twitter are much more useful for personal brands, so there is a power shift from companies to persons. Most people who connect on Linkedin will take all their business contacts with them to next job. Partly they alredy did that, but now it’s not a decision it is automatic.

    I just (today) wrote a blog post on the question how to aggregate everything you publish, my personal solution for the moment is to tag everything with personal tag that i can easily find via google.



  • I agree, but I don’t necessarily think this is anything new – especially on the broader level. Specific programs might focus on specific products, but radio and television stations – and a large proportion of magazines – have focused on worldviews and demographic types for a long, long type.

    PS Great post, Ben. This is very much where I’m at in my thinking as well.

  • Ben – as it happens, the Economist’s “Free Exchange” blog just announced they’ll be displaying contributors’ initials from now on (previously they wrote anonymously), to “facilitate the discussion”. Good call.

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