High On The Blog

On the morning I began to write this feature about blogs, it happened again. A political blogger—the left-leaning Markos Moul-itsas Zuniga of the more or less eponymous Dailykos.com—had influenced the news, by pointing out a day earlier that a Bush campaign commercial had digitally inserted additional soldiers into a scene where the president is addressing a rally. The Bush campaign responded by altering the commercial.

Oh, you ask, what’s a blog?

No need to be embarrassed. Short for “Web log,” it’s a self-published online diary—often centered on a particular topic—usually including lots of links to other online sources. While publishing online has been possible practically since the dawn of the Internet, recent technological innovation has made it easier. There are a number of free blog publishing sites, such as Google’s Blogger.com, that can have someone up and blogging in a matter of minutes. And automated search advertising tools, such as Google’s Ad-Sense, make it possible for blogs to make a little money.

But despite the mystifying name, blogs aren’t all that different from the millions of mom-and-pop sites that have populated the Web through the years. “The vast majority of people who read these don’t think of them as blogs,” says Todd Copilevitz, director of digital initiatives at Omnicom Group’s TracyLocke. “They think of them as Web sites.”

Well, there is one difference: the growing influence of some of them. The story about the Bush ad was actually a minor anecdote in the growing pantheon of “we the people” blogger stories. It’s bloggers (i.e., those who write blogs) who have been credited with spreading the video of Jon Stewart’s October appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, keeping the so-called Rathergate affair alive and dethroning Trent Lott as Senate majority leader in December 2002.

In short, the contentious political season—in fact, the political climate of the last few years—would have been an entirely different beast had it not been for bloggers. But this isn’t a story about political blogs. It’s about the larger phenomenon of blogging itself, be it about gossip (jossip.com), gadgets (engadget.com), fashion (Honeyno.com) or even a passion for one particular company (hackingnetflix.com). None of these blogs will make heads roll in Washington, D.C., nor do any of them reach the traffic, viewing or circulation levels of the major media—though one day that could change. The beta version of the new My Yahoo! will allow people to add blogs to their individualized page, meaning that sites like Slashdot.com (technology) may reside right next to that of The Wall Street Journal.

But even now they’re worth watching, as the most complete example there is of consumers’ growing control of media and brands. TiVo certainly has its 21st-century ramifications, to be sure, but blogs, unlike TiVo, talk back. “All of us are no longer consumers of media,” says Rishad Tobaccowala, executive vp of Starcom MediaVest Group. “We also happen to be creators of media.” We are just starting to see what media looks like when anyone with an online connection and a keyboard can push their thoughts out there, when even the most inflammatory blogs are courted by advertisers because of their influence, and when a single disgruntled user of a product can incite an online resurrection. The results are radical.

The back story of how some bloggers got into blogging is fascinating. Jen Chung, executive editor and cofounder of New York-centric Gothamist.com, says the blog essentially started as an ongoing stream of instant messages and e-mails between her and a friend, Jake Dobkin, who serves as the blog’s publisher. But they began to wonder if their musings were enough to support an ongoing site, so they launched Gothamist, which comments on the New York scene, as an experiment about two years ago. Chung says she knew the site was beginning to make an impact “when we would start to get e-mail from New York Times reporters.”

Currently averaging 30,000 daily visitors, with traffic for the last six months growing at 20 percent a month, the site recently caught the eye of American Express, which inquired, through its online shop Digitas, about advertising on Gothamist to promote its new IN:NYC card. To Chung and Dobkin’s surprise, Amex was willing to pay $10,000 and put up with the possibility of a few curse words in order to reach the blog’s in-the-know audience. (The company appears to have overpaid; the rate card for buying the top of the Gothamist homepage is $425 per week.)

But that’s not the whole story. Gothamist also now runs a small network of blogs focused on Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., making it sound like an online conglomerate in the making. But it’s not. Neither Chung nor Dobkin have any plans to quit their daytime gigs (Dobkin’s in school and Chung works at New York agency Gigante Vaz). As for the influx of cash from American Express, it’ll help pay for Gothamist’s annual $6,000 bill to maintain its servers, and says Chung hopefully, “If not paychecks for our staff…gifts.”

Whatever this is, it isn’t media as we know it. “You’ve got to rethink the structure of media at its most fundamental level,” says Jeff Jarvis, whose blog, buzzmachine.com, covers politics and whatever else is on his mind. He should know because, yes, it’s the same Jeff Jarvis, who, with the deep pockets of Time Inc., spent $200 million to launch Entertainment Weekly in 1990 (and who, when he’s not blogging, serves as president and creative director at Advance Publications’ Advance.net). Jarvis is operating these days as what can only be referred to as a blogger coach. He recounts recently helping James Wolcott, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, post his first blog item. “There was this gasp,” Jarvis says, when Wolcott realized the wild immediacy of posting in a nanosecond.

While Jarvis’ blog to date doesn’t even court advertisers, he’s been on a whirlwind of speaking engagements focused on the topic of blogs and marketing—having been asked in recent months to speak to Starcom IP, DaimlerChrysler and the Association of National Advertisers. Topics range from how marketers can use blogs to engage in conversations with their customers to whether they should start their own. At the very least, Jarvis says, marketers should be monitoring what’s said about them. “Go to Google, put in your brand,” he instructs. “Or better yet, put in your brand, put in a space and the word ‘sucks.'”

Jarvis also advocates advertising on them, and that, to some advertisers, may be the near-term question about what they should do about the blogosphere. The good news is that blogs are cheap and can pollinate buzz. “They are a great place to reach independent, influential thinkers,” says Jim Taubitz, online marketing manager at Audi of America, which is the exclusive sponsor of car-enthusiast blog Jalopnik.com. The bad news? Bloggers can be more irreverent than even the most outlandish mainstream journalist. For example, on a recent Friday morning, I dropped by Gawker.com, the New York-based gossip blog and saw a post thanking advertisers, including Audi and Nike. How lovely. The headline? “Advertiser Dry Hump.”

And you thought advertising on ABC’s Desperate Housewives was edgy?

Yet, the independence of the blogger voice—so crucial to its appeal—will not change anytime soon to please advertisers. Mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, I push the buzzer at 81 Spring Street in Soho: the office and apartment of Nick Denton, who, to the extent anyone qualifies, is the godfather of blogs. The British founder of Gawker Media (which publishes Gawker, Jalopnik and nine other blogs, including a porn site, Fleshbot, as well as one of the leading political blogs, Wonkette), Denton has probably brought the blogger advertising model as far as anyone. Gawker cooked up the sole-sponsorship deal with Jalopnik and created a custom blog, Art of Speed, for Nike.

Denton, who’s worked at both The Economist and The Financial Times, appears at the door casually dressed, in a loose assemblage of grays and blacks. But as we lunch across the street at Balthazar (basically, for New Yorkers, it’s the school cafeteria of Hipster High), Denton immediately corrects me when I refer to Gawker Media as a venture whose goal is to make a profit. He’s never said that, he emphasizes.

Nor, for that matter, does Denton think advertising on blogs will ever be a mainstream phenomenon. “For a product that has to rely on buzz…I think blogs make sense for those kinds of advertisers,” he says. The goal of courting advertisers, he continues, is to pay Gawker’s writers, which, as you may have noticed, is a newfangled idea in blogland. And when I bring up the topic of a coming blog backlash, he’s quite willing to discuss it. “I’ve been expecting the backlash for two years,” he says. In other words, don’t even think about such crazy ideas as the world’s first blogger IPO.

Protestations about profit aside, Denton comes off as someone who is extremely savvy about the attractiveness of his audience and particularly about how they affect that most elusive of marketing metrics: buzz. The pitch? That some advertisers want to reach the audiences at Gawker, Jalopnik and other sites because they attract “the people who actually create the buzz.”

That’s why the Audis and the Nikes are willing to play in blogging’s sometimes soiled sandbox. In early October, Gawker brought on a blogger named Mike Spinelli of Lasagnafarm.com (tagline: farming, lasagna and none of the above) to edit Jalopnik. Audi jumped on board as exclusive sponsor, in part to gain “buzz” (there’s that word again) around the new A6, according to Christin Prince, interactive strategist at Audi agency McKinney + Silver of Durham, N.C. Is there concern about the content? What if Spinelli, or someone he links to, slags the A6? The attitude at Havas-owned McKinney is that it’s no different than Car & Driver giving the car a negative review; the client would rather be part of the dialogue—even with its risks—than take a more protectionist media strategy. “For us, it’s about being able to connect with [the Audi] mind-set, and we’re fostering communication among peers,” says Chris Walsh, a connection planner at McKinney.

And anyway, blogs are still cheap, really cheap. McKinney, Audi and Gawker aren’t saying what the price for the sponsorship was, but a banner ad above the fold and directly beneath the logo at Gawker.com will only set the advertiser back $1,700. Even if you don’t like the $34 CPM, you’re only out $1,700.

That’s one reason why Jarvis, among others, argues that advertisers who want in should not get too hung up on the fact that the metrics can be lousy compared with more established online properties. “Let’s not get ourselves in knots about ROI at this stage,” he says.

Actually, if you want to get the best window into cheap, the place to go is Blogads.com. Run by longtime Internet executive Henry Copeland, out of Chapel Hill, N.C., Blogads is an ad network that has dozens of participating blogs. A prospective advertiser can simply go to the site, click on the desired media buys, upload the ad and voilà! “Buying blogads is as simple as blogging itself,” Copeland says.

The site also gives phenomenal insight into ad rates, which range from $9,999 per week for left- and right-hand corners of the Swing State Project (pre-election) with estimated traffic of 53,000 visitors per week, to a slew of $10 sites such as yankeessuck.com, which says its weekly traffic is just under 10,500. “It’s far more valuable to market to one wired person than ten couch potatoes,” he says.

But it’s worth reiterating that the dance between blogs and advertising can be far more intricate than a couple of well-placed banner ads or a happenin’ sponsorship.

One of the most interesting two-steps between an advertiser and blogs is Project Digital Universe, launched in October by telecom company SBC, based in San Antonio, Texas. SBC isn’t advertising on blogs, nor is it doing an exclusive sponsorship deal, but it has developed a branded RSS Reader through which users can aggregate blog content.

OK, what’s RSS? Short for Really Simple Syndication (some say it stands for Rich Site Summary), it’s a tool that allows users to automatically pull content from sites that support RSS and alerts them when new content has come to the sites they want to view. Supported by many news sites and blogs, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the so-called push technology of the mid-1990s. But it also has a viral component since users can share their reader. “Kind of the essence of the whole project is that it is so viral,” says Adrian Quintanilla, director of multicultural and vertical markets at SBC Communications. The college-age users that SBC is targeting can download the reader, and either select to view the 20-plus sites that come preloaded into it, or add their own. Those who participate can get access to SBC offers, but the main objective, according to TracyLocke’s Copilevitz, is to find an engaging way to reconnect with an audience that SBC had been losing touch with and “not just partner with Salon and The Onion.”

But many advertisers are probably asking themselves the ultimate question: to blog or not to blog? In a media world where consumers can converse openly online and profanely about any product or service, should major companies risk becoming a part of the conversation? Some, including Microsoft and General Motors, already have. The prospect can be scary, but it’s also the ultimate acknowledgement that the messages once so controlled by marketers and media no longer are. “The control is shifting whether we want it to or not,” says Copilevitz.

Get used to it.

Contributing editor Catharine P. Taylor frequently covers the internet and interactive media.