The End of The Trust Agent?

It’s uncommon to see much written about individual personalities on the social web — in fact it’s taboo.  However, it’s important to occasionally look at Chris Brogan as a living social media business case study for two reasons:

1) It’s hard to comment on the state of the nation without mentioning the president.

2) Chris Brogan is a pioneer. The issues and opportunities he faces are instructive to all churning in his wake. As Lisa Foote once wrote, Chris is the canary in the social media coal mine.

Chris has created a tremendous amount of value and popularity through his tireless engagement but has also stirred up more controversy than any social media personality, whether through his aggressive use of “sponsored” posts or his apparent sponsorship “flip” at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show.  As I said, he is plowing new ground.  Sometimes you hit a rock.

But last week might have been his biggest buzz-killer when he revealed he charges $22,000 for a day of his services and then subsequently posted (and dropped) an appeal for un-paid interns for his company.

Just to be clear, I’m not in the whiney camp that thinks everything Chris does should be free.  I’m probably the most capitalist, business-driven blogger out here. I like it when people make money. I like it when Chris makes money. I think he should take advantage of his white-hot celebrity, celebrate it, leverage it, and roll in the dough. I hope he can double his consulting fees.

So making money is good.  But from an academic view, it would be useful to look at the “how” — the dramatic shift (or perhaps evolution) in strategy that is enabling Chris to become a money-making machine.

For years, Chris has built his core brand promise on:

  • Passionate audience-building through authentic helpfulness
  • Relentless nurturing of that audience through tireless engagement
  • Putting the audience above personal business needs
  • Never, ever “selling”

In one video from last summer, he literally screamed at an audience “This is NOT about YOU and your STUPID COMPANY!”  That effectively sums up his mantra, and the “brand” Chris built around himself.

Around the time of his book release last year, Chris flipped this philosophy upside down and took steps to aggressively monetize his audience.  He explained this change by saying that he had been giving stuff away for a long time and that it was time to make money.  Selling of his products, services, companies, book, affiliate links, and paid sponsors became a common theme. He transformed into the social web’s most visible and highly-paid pitch-man, the Billy Mays of blogging.

Chris also increasingly put himself at the forefront of his topics, including video documentation of a day in the life of himself, photos of himself with near-celebrities, announcements of his new business ventures, and detailed explanations of how hard he works to achieve his success.  As you would expect, some readers expressed disappointment with these changes, and they were sometimes categorized as “haters” instead of “creators” and implored to “get over it.”

In other words, Chris has disassociated himself from that core brand promise to his audience.

In the business world, this would be tantamount to Disney opening a Tia Tequila-themed ride, or Nike doing a fitness cross-promotion with McDonald’s.  When a brand becomes incongruent by building a reputation communicating one thing and then executing another, it can be a recipe for disaster.

In the near-term, Chris and his ubiquity seem to have a limitless ability to capitalize on the goodwill of his audience (heck, loyal customers even bought Toyota cars after the first recall).  From a traditional business perspective, one might predict that if Chris doesn’t practice what he preaches and take steps to return to his core competencies, his brand and his ability to monetize will be increasingly vulnerable.

The furor over the posts last week were not the first signs that people have noticed the new Capitalist Chris.  If it persists, negative outbursts from loyal fans might eventually call attention to the problem with his sponsors and erode his brand and his value.

Or will it?  Another possibility is that Chris is going to be just fine losing some — or even most — of his core followers because he is developing a new audience of corporate folks who don’t care what his brand promise WAS as long as he can deliver results to their bottom line NOW.

In any event, the Trust Agent as we knew him is probably coming to an end as he transitions from social media folk hero to mainstream business consultant.  It will be fascinating to watch the results.

What do you think about this strategy shift?

What are the risks of jeopardizing his core audience for launching a new stage in his career?

With the new demands of the business and publishing worlds, is it possible for Chris to be successful at holding on to both constituencies? If so, how?


Busting through the Twitter noise to find a signal

This is a very scientific-looking chart to make this blog look serious and data-driven. In reality, it is completely meaningless. We'll keep that our little secret though. Nobody reads these captions any way.

Last week Frank Podlaha posted a comment on {grow} that had readers asking for more of his views on wading through the noise to find a meaningful signal on Twitter. Frank has been gracious enough to provide a guest post in response to reader requests. Here’s Frank:

Let’s say you’re at an Oscar party (it COULD happen) with hundreds of people.  Great conversations are going on, but all you hear is that dull roar of voices.  Slowly you walk around popping in on different groups only to hear individuals talk about a stunning performance.  Now imagine the same party with millions of people and conversations.  That’s Twitter!

How do you cut through all that noise to find any sense?  It’s takes a little persistence, but it is possible to bust through the constant white noise of nonsense.

Tag Clouds – Your friend.

Tag clouds are the quickest way to scan the Twitter Universe and pick out the important topics from all that noise.  Tag clouds are groupings of words from tweets where the size (and often color) represents a higher or lower occurrence of that word. Envision a tag cloud as looking at a crowd of people.  The folks screaming the loudest are the ones creating the largest words in the cloud.  Twitter tag clouds are easy to find.  Most free services have some short of generator to help quiet down that dull roar.  Twitscoop, LocalChirps, and TweetDeck all come to mind.  In TweetDeck, look for the little cloud icon button at the bottom of your tweet columns.

The tag cloud generators also let you drill down even further. Reduce the noise to focus on your interests by slicing and dicing the cloud down to specific dates, cities, and list of followers.

List it, then listen

While tag clouds can provide a macro view of the world, they can’t account for the spammers and automated tweets of repetitive marketing links that “hijack” trending topics to spread their corruption. This can skew the results of the clouds. So if you need more precision, we need to dig a little deeper.

Twitter Lists are a great way to cut through this clutter. You have the power here to decide who is worthy to put in special topics and categories.  Building searches and tag clouds on lists can get you past all the nonsensical tweets.  One downside, Twitter lists are limited to 500 names.

TweetDeck will let you create user “favorites” and put them into its tag cloud generator.  LocalChirps Pro goes further with Blacklisting spammers by geographical regions.  Once this white noise is cleaned out, a much clearer picture emerges of what our neighbors are thinking.

Let’s get fuzzy

Now for the big guns. If the center stage of you Social Media strategy means following and searching for product names, events, political causes, whatever; it’s time for true data mining software.  Think about a keyword search of tweets; the results only show when that exact phrase is mentioned.  We don’t speak the topic of our conversations in every sentence, and neither does a Twitter conversation mention its subject in every tweet. We need to find the entire conversation.  We do that with Fuzzy Logic queries.

Fuzzy Logic is a term that analytical geeks use to scare off commoners.  It’s nothing more than applying statistics to our results to find the second, third, fourth most common keyword or term.  These terms are then included in additional filters to our original results.  What we achieve is finding the back and forth conversation about the initial topic.  It’s all about statistics and probability, and it’s still never 100 percent accurate.  That’s why we call it “fuzzy.”  Specialized software such as LocalChirps Pro and ProductChirps can perform fuzzy logic searches.

Many more paid services exist.  To be on top of your brand reputation, monitor all possible avenues of social media, not just Twitter, with Radian6 and RepuTrack.  Or dig deep into specialized analysis with software tailored for specific industries as with ListenLogic.

Where is the Wisdom?

We have drilled down into the masses of Twitter, filtered out the nonsense, and whittled our way to a concise, relevant conversation.  It is truly like finding out little secrets about your customers and markets every day. What you do with the secret … ah, there’s the wisdom!

Frank Podlaha is a brilliant technologist, an inspirational entrepreneur and creator of

Do websites even matter any more?

Studies show that web page  views have been dropping precipitously as folks park themselves on the social web. There have even been a flurry of blog posts from Jason Falls, Jay Baer and Debbie Weil debating whether your blog is now the true “hub” of your marketing communication effort.

But honestly, it seems strange to me that these superb bloggers are even wasting space with this debate. Your good old website (Ahhhh … remember that?) is still your hub.  Here’s why.

What are you really trying to do?

Step away from your Tweetdeck, take a deep breath, and think about what behavior you are trying to drive with your communication effort. In most cases it is making some type of connection, right? Let’s just be honest and put the purist stuff aside. Ultimately you want your readers to take an ACTION like register for something, make a call, or buy something from you.

Is that going to happen on your blog?

Probably not, unless you are doing out-right selling there and that’s (usually) a no-no.  The actual “connection event” is going to happen on your website. So all roads should lead to your homepage, right?  Wouldn’t that make it the very epicenter of your marketing universe?

Even though websites seem to be out of fashion, they still play a critical role in actually driving behaviors. A website should explain what you do, why you’re special, and what a reader should do next.  This is where you sell. And that’s a big deal.

Creating the spokes

You need to use the social web to support this effort by creating an “information eco-system” to lead prospective stakeholders back to the Mother Ship and eventually DO SOMETHING. You can think of these outposts on Twitter, your blog, Facebook, YouTube or wherever as spokes or outposts leading your visitors home.  Likewise, your website should also be leading people back to the outposts, if that is where they need to be to get the information they need.

Whether you work for a non-profit, a university, or a business, you’re in this to drive some type of behavior. That behavior is consummated on the website (usually a contact page) and all social properties should point to your site and your opportunity. Your website still matters … a lot!

What am I missing here?

{grow} community update: Dave Fleet posted an article which serves as a nice reference if you’re interested in reading more on this topic.

How to use Twitter to crowd-source creativity

I have a “virtual” company. Well, it’s a real company, but I don’t have a building and employees and all that traditional stuff. I work with a posse of freelancers who might be spread out all over the country. So I have the best of both worlds. Great company, great people, but no worries about payroll and HR issues.

Everything works great about this model except for one thing. You can’t brainstorm by yourself.

This was the problem I was facing recently when I needed to come up with creative ideas to help a client company mark its 30th anniversary. I had some ideas, but I’ve been around long enough to know they weren’t the BEST ideas. For that, I needed to put some minds together. But how? I was on a deadline and needed to write a proposal quickly.

It dawned on me that this is what the social web is all about — networking, sharing, helping, creating. So with literally no planning, I wrote up an invitation on my blog to join a web meeting at 4 p.m. that very day and sent out one tweet asking if anyone would be interested in spending 30 minutes with me to think out loud. I was fortunate that seven people joined me, including one from Brazil and one from Spain. Some I didn’t know at all, some like Gregg Morris and Carla Bobka had become my friends over months of interaction on Twitter.

I used Citrix for the online meeting interface and conference call.  I wrote out ideas on my shared computer screen so all participants could build on what was being said.  On the notification on my blog I had given dial-in instructions as well as a little background on the problem.

In 30 minutes, I had two pages of great ideas.  I massaged the ideas into a proposal, presented it to company management and <ta da> they loved it!  But there were side benefits, too:

  • I explained to my client how I came up with the ideas, which further strengthened their interest and commitment to the social web.
  • The people who connected on the call enjoyed the exercise and have reached out to stay connected between themselves. I think that’s cool.
  • I had an idea that worked, will be repeated and it was something I could share with you.

What I could have done better:

  • Planned it ahead of time and allowed more time for people to learn about it.
  • 30 minutes was probably too short. Another 15 minutes would have made a big difference.
  • Two participants had technical problems which limited their ability to participate. A few additional people bopped in for a few seconds and left. I’m guessing they had tech problems too.

All in all, it was a  simple, cost-effective, successful people-technology mash-up.  Are you doing these kinds of things to support your business?

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