Web Celebs Leverage Their Online Identities

Thanks to the Internet, it's Easier Than Ever to Cultivate 'Brand You'

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In the last two weeks, Robert Scoble, Om Malik and Thomas Hawk quit their jobs in favor of pioneering careers. Big deal. So did probably hundreds of other Americans, right? But unlike the former three, the latter hundreds didn't find their opportunities by first becoming household brand names online.

Messrs. Scoble, Malik and Hawk-respectively, a Microsoft technologist, a Business 2.0 magazine writer and an investment-adviser-turned-photographer-may be relatively unknown names in the general populace. But they are among the elite in the blog world.

Mr. Scoble leaves Microsoft as Channel 9's top blogger (official title: technical evangelist) to become VP-media development at podcast aggregator PodTech. Mr. Malik will continue to write a column for Business 2.0, but his full-time pursuit will be building out his personal website about broadband, gigaom.com. And Mr. Hawk, which is his pen name, joins start-up photo-sharing community Zooomr as its second employee, with the title chief evangelist.

For people like them, blogging and consumer-generated media such as podcasting and social networking have created a whole "new brand you," to borrow a phrase from management-consulting guru Tom Peters. Mr. Peters' assertion, made almost a decade ago in Fast Company magazine, posited that every person is a brand, and everything done, said, worn and thought contributes to the "brand you." Today's frenzy of consumer-generated media thrusts his theory into overdrive.

Regular people

Thousands flock to the internet every day to display their thoughts, actions, likes and dislikes for the world to examine. And while each is a distinct brand as outlined by Mr. Peters, the past few years have changed both the scale and playing field for personal brands.

"Anyone can do it, and there is an ability, in a way that wasn't possible before, to get very big very quickly," said Emily Riley, analyst at Jupiter Research. "I don't think the concept of branding your thoughts is anything new, but the difference is that an individual blogger can be less successful at what they do and be more popular at it. ... The slightly above-average Joe can have many opportunities."

One of blogging's original celebrities, Steve Rubel, (who writes a column for Advertising Age's digital page) agreed. "People as brands have been throughout history, back to Adam and Eve," he said. "The difference is the bar is a lot lower than it used to be." Mr. Rubel, through his website, Micro Persuasion, has grown his own brand as a public-relations and new-media thought leader and translated it into hundreds of speaking engagements, as well as a created-for-him job as senior VP of Edelman's Me2 Revolution.

"I think the power of blogging and podcasting to create individual brands is a game-changer for companies," Mr. Rubel said, noting that the CEO is no longer the only outward face of a company.

These individual brands "provide a personal voice and face to the customer that is very important," said analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group. "There are a lot of superstar executives out there that wouldn't connect. These people are just 'one of the guys.' "

This democratization of personal branding is not likely to slow anytime soon. In fact, more and more "regular" people are joining the content-creation party. In 2002, when the Pew Internet & American Life Project began asking about user-generated content, the majority of it was posted by a "broadband elite" group of mostly male technophiles. By the end of 2005, 48 million people, or about 35% of all internet users, had posted content, according to Pew.

Still, those in search of building "brand you" to an online celebrity level should note one thing, Mr. Rubel said. "I always tell people: Stars online do not translate offline. You don't get recognized on the street. You don't get a better table at Nobu." He laughed. "People might talk about the 67th-ranked blogger, but no one would recognize them."
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