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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? (Pt. 2)

John Rennie

Previously, I slightly differed with David Crotty’s good post about why open blogging networks might be incompatible with the business models of established publishing brands, particularly for scientific brands, for which credibility is king. David had diagnosed correctly the very real sources of conflict, I thought, but those problems should only become unmanageable with networks whose pure, principled openness went beyond anything publishers seemed interested in embracing anyway. The more important consideration, in the eyes of the bloggers and the increasingly digital-savvy audience, will be how the brand handles the problems that will inevitably arise—in the same way that how publications manage corrections and mistakes already becomes part of their reputation. Or to put it another way: the openness of a blogging network doesn’t imperil a brand’s editorial value so much as it helps to define it. (Would that I had thought to phrase it so pithily before!)

Nevertheless, I do think blogging networks potentially pose at least two other types of problems that could be more seriously at odds with commercial brands plans. But neither is exclusive to blogging networks. Rather, they are business problems common to many digital publishing models—the presence of a blogging network just amplifies them.

1) Problems with lack of exclusivity. Nearly all commercial publishers’ digital business models are wobbly in the knees, part of which means that the writers and other creators of digital content typically don’t get paid well, if at all. In the wake of the Scienceblogs/PepsiCo mess, when many Sciblings were pouring out their hearts, even some of the well-known bloggers acknowledged that their earnings were meager—maybe enough to pay for a nice dinner every month.

Nonexistent wages don’t seem to discourage science bloggers, who do it mostly for passion, not pay. Certainly it isn’t holding up the formation of new blogging networks like Scientopia, which seemingly have no sources of revenue and where everyone works for free.

But as Bora Z. has discussed more than once in his recent (and amazing) dissections of the science blogging world, precisely because these networks can’t pay their bloggers, they don’t ask for exclusivity. The bloggers are free to write for other sites, and bloggers may even cross-post the same or similar content on multiple sites. It’s only fair, after all: they’re working for free. [Update: To clarify, the prolific Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science informs me that both Scienceblogs and Discover do ask for some degree of exclusivity, which only makes sense. My point isn't that exclusivity isn't totally absent from the world of science blogging, only that for the blogging networks that can't reward contributors with cash, little or no exclusivity seems to be asked in return at this point. Perhaps that may change.]

You have to love the communitarian rising-web-raises-all-boats spirit of this, and it can be good for the bloggers themselves, but most branding managers, I think, would find that a miserable arrangement. If I publish SuperCoolScience.com and realize that not only do all my bloggers appear elsewhere but so does their best content, what is my blog network doing for me? What unique value proposition does my network have that justifies my taking on whatever overhead keeps it running? And if I don’t have any control over what the bloggers are writing or linking to, I can’t even use them to steer additional traffic my way. It would be easier to put up a blog roll or RSS feeds of the same bloggers on other sites and let the Internet be my network.

This, to my mind, is a real unsolved problem for all the blogging networks: how do the desired synergies of pulling together these individual talents materialize? Blog carnivals, shared memes and the like are all great for a certain kind of community building, but they don’t seem to be enough to build a business proposition around.

All of us online throw around the word community to the point that it’s debased. Too often, what we call communities are really just big open parties: people arrive, hang out with their friends, gossip about those jerks in the corner and split before the drinks run out and somebody asks for help cleaning up. People in genuine communities have more of a shared destiny—they don’t just hang out together, they build something unique.

And that uniqueness is part of what business managers, investors, advertisers and the like are counting on seeing. None of this needs to be a problem for publishers whose models don’t require a measurable financial return on their networks. A good stable of bloggers, even nonexclusive ones, may bring a useful cachet, and the expenses may be so insignificant that it can be run as a loss leader. But for it to make sense to discuss “blogging networks” and serious “business models” in the same sentence, these nascent communities need to periodically put up a barn or something.

2) The corrupting influence of advertising. What brought this to mind was the part of David’s critique of the Scienceblogs/PepsiCo fiasco where he observed that “the bloggers were not the customers, the bloggers were the product.”

He’s right, the bloggers are the product. Or rather, a product. A mistake that many online enthusiasts make is thinking that the real customers are the universe of eyeballs reading blog posts. They’re not; at least not for commercial websites driven primarily by ad revenues. Those advertisers are the true customers because they are paying for access to that audience. In those terms, the site’s visitors are its major product. The bloggers and their posts are intermediary products—bait raised to chum the waters.

That’s not a flattering view of commercial publishing, particularly for any of us involved in creating editorial content. Yet it’s worth considering, especially in light of the old maxim, “Who pays the piper calls the tune.” If your business model depends on drawing advertisers, you can only stay in business by offering content that serves those advertisers’ interests. The editorial needn’t parrot whatever the advertisers want said, because doing so ultimately may not serve their interests, either. But if the advertisers see the content as contrary or irrelevant to their interests, they may see little reason to support it.

Nothing should be surprising about that, and the longtime survival of commercial media proves that this system can work (with occasional ugly lapses). But to the extent that open blog networks or even individual blogs are unpredictable, inconsistent or intermittently antagonistic to chunks of their audience, advertisers will be leery of them. Some advertisers may have the stomach for placing their ads in such environments, but most don’t.

For commercial publishers looking to pull together their own networks of blogs and knowing they don’t have the resources (or the inclination) to police their offerings ahead of time, the trick will be to assemble responsible, autonomous bloggers who collectively deliver a product compatible with the larger brand. They need to avoid the problem that Kent Anderson of The Scholarly Kitchen calls “filter failure.” [Update: Bora points out to me that the term "filter failure" originated with Clay Shirky.]

I imagine it’s not unlike the situation for parents whose teenage kids want to borrow the car. If the foundation for trust is there, granting that liberty can make life better all around. If it’s not, expect some sleepless nights.