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Why Chris Brogan’s Kmart Moment Matters: Personal Reputation vs. Corporate Brand

The #1 Thing You Need to Know from this Post:
Personal reputations are more important than corporate brands.

The More Detailed Explanation:
Most of the world went about its normal affairs this weekend unaware of Chris Brogan, a blog post he wrote on December 2, and a swarm that formed around it yesterday and today. For a networked group of people (including me), this was THE topic of this weekend, with people assailing Chris Brogan, defending his actions, following the conversation, and/or trying to put the uproar in context. 

So why the uproar?
Chris has built up a strong personal reputation teaching others how to use the Internet and social media to grow their businesses. For those in the trenches of social media, there is great premium placed on authenticity, transparency, and the celebration of the individual’s voice being more important than the controlled messaging of corporate brands.

Earlier this month, Chris accepted a $500 gift card from Kmart in exchange for a blog post about the experience of spending the money. Chris did so in full disclosure of the fact in the post with most of the goods bought going to charity, facts he has emphasized. Yesterday, a comment on Twitter from Jeremiah Owyang called this decision into question. That meant something, because Jeremiah is a social media analyst for Forrester Research and has also built a strong personal reputation using social media. 

Both are highly connected to those on Twitter and other social media. Jeremiah has over 18,000 people who follow his Twitter comments and Chris has over 26,000, so a lot of people were automatically part of the conversation. Helping brighten the spotlight was the fact that it was Saturday, a day when more people have the breathing room to track the conversation as it unfolds and add their voices to the mix.

[If you missed the various strands of the uproar, see below for a Condensed History of Chris Brogan's Kmart Moment.]

The Underlying Issue
History has shown that uproars stem from a deeper issue, not just the surface event. That is true here, as well. We are in the midst of a fundamental shift in how we communicate, connect, and collaborate. 

With over 1 billion people on the Internet and over 3.3 billion owning mobile phones, we have entered the Interconnected Age. Ideas spread instantaneously, self-organized swarms mobilize out of nowhere, and transformational events happen faster than before. These components of the Interconnected Age are redefining all aspects of our lives and businesses. 

During the broadcast era, businesses had to invest large amounts of resources into artificial constructs called corporate brands to gain enough trust to sell their products to people who they had never met in person. Today, you can use the Internet to have authentic conversations with people all over the world from your home or office. You have an amazingly robust platform to tell your story, understand your customers’ needs, and conduct business at a fraction of the cost of broadcast media.

Here’s what you can learn from Chris Brogan’s Kmart moment:

  1. Personal reputations are more important than corporate brands - If you have any doubt, just try to find how many people are up in arms about Kmart’s role in this matter. The vast majority of the conversation is about Chris Brogan, how his post affects his reputation, and how Chris Brogan has handled the situation. It seems we all expect corporate brands to buy influence, but lament when people sell theirs.  
  2. Trust is the most important currency in any economy - Trust is something made on the unconscious level based on emotion, not logic. Neuroscience research shows that humans are wired to judge how much to trust others this way. We are more inclined to trust our judgments of individuals than an intangible brand. Heck, we base our judgments on corporate brands by the interactions we have with the people who represent them. It’s the mosaic of these individual experiences that determine our trust of individuals and corporations alike.
  3. Most still haven’t fully figured out how to make money with social media - The sanitary term is “monetize”, but let’s use more meaningful terms. How can you use blogs, social networks, Twitter, and other social media to put food on your table and meet all your needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? That’s worthy of a separate series of blog posts.
  4. Your character defines your reputation – Abraham Lincoln said “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Chris Brogan stayed on top of the dialogue (probably to chagrin of his wife and kids since it was a weekend) commenting on blogs, replying to Tweets, and even writing a response on his own blog. He used the light of social media to show us his true character, thereby shaping our perception of his personal reputation.

The Broader Revolution
It’s not easy to know when you’ve just witnessed a seminal moment in history. Just ask those who supped at the table next to John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Boston. Who could have known whether they were just blowhards whining about the Crown or men really capable of fostering a broader revolution?

We won’t know for a while how important this weekend’s uproar was, if at all. I think history will judge it as a part of a much broader conversation among a circle of revolutionaries. This broader conversation is what is laying the foundation for the Interconnected Age. It will help us move away the artificial world of corporate brands and back into a more authentic world of personal reputations.

What do you think ?
Reply with your own comment below or catch me on Twitter (@scottyhendo). I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

 

Condensed History of Chris Brogan’s Kmart Moment
This is not a comprehensive history, just the strands of conversation. Feel free to add your links in the comment section below. Twitter handles of each are listed, too.

Chris Brogan’s initial post from December 2, 2008 – @chrisbrogan
Jeremiah Owyang’s December 13, 2008 comment on Twitter that sparked the conversation – @jowyang
Twitter stream for “chrisbrogan” (especially comments starting on 12/13)
Barb Gibson’s December 13, 2008 blog post “What is your integrity with worth” with a robust discussion in the comment section – @Barb_G
Ben Kunz’s December 13, 2008 blog post outlining the problems he sees with Brogan’s post -@benkunz
Chris Brogan’s December 13, 2008 response to the uproar – @chrisbrogan
Jeremiah Owyang’s December 14, 2008 blog post (ADDED 12/15) detailing the uproar and his thoughts on sponsored posts – @jowyang
Mack Collier’s December 14, 2008 blog post pointing the discussion towards the broader topic of monetizing social media – @mackcollier
Amber Naslund’s December 14, 2008 blog post entitled “Sanctity of Social Media?” that explores risk Kmart took in buying the spotlight, not an opinion – @ambercadabra
Gennefer Snowfield’s December 14, 2008 comments on Amber Naslund’s blog post – @acclimedia
Geoff Livinston’s December 14, 2008 blog post comparing the uproar to a French Revolution mob – @GeoffLiving
Lawrence Liu’s December 14, 2008 Twitter comments on the subject, Brogan’s replies, and others talking about Liu and Brogan – @LLiu
Karl Long’s December 14, 2008 blog post (ADDED 12/15) stating that personal networks are the future of advertising – @karllong
Karl Long’s December 14, 2008 reply to Chris Brogan’s December 13, 2008 response encouraging everyone to focus on the greater revolution – @karllong
Shannon Paul’s December 14, 2008 blog post recapping the events and sharing her thoughts on taking a more holistic view of experiences – @shannonpaul

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19 Responses to “Why Chris Brogan’s Kmart Moment Matters: Personal Reputation vs. Corporate Brand”

  1. Jeremiah Owyang Says:

    You bring up some excellent points. I agree with you things certainly got out of hand in the twittersphere. While I certainly kicked off the discussion, I can’t be responsible for what others did after me.

    I backed up my tweet with this post, please take the time to read it.

    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2008/12/14/understanding-izeas-sponsored-blogging-service/

  2. mack collier Says:

    “How can you use blogs, social networks, Twitter, and other social media to put food on your table and meet all your needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? That’s worthy of a separate series of blog posts.”

    To me, this is the pertinent discussion that should be had. One thing I’ve noticed from these ‘Twitter-storms’ is that they are usually long on name-calling and accusations, and short on solutions. If ‘you’ think that what Chris did is horrible, fine. Tell us what the better solution is. Almost every time there is a case of a major blogger accepting any form of compensation, there is a backlash.

    We have to get past this ‘bloggers cannot be compensated’ mentality. Instead, we need to be working together to find a BETTER way.

    I think that’s what Chris was trying to do. Opinions may vary, and that’s just fine.

  3. Scott Henderson Says:

    Jeremiah – Thanks for adding the link to your blog post about it. As usual, you’re very thorough in your analysis. Kinda ironic, how you’re causing the news and analyzing it.

  4. Chuck Says:

    This is one of the more interesting problems I’ve been thinking about lately. How can we maintain the openness of free software, content, music, and video (for example) while finding a way to reward the creators for making something useful.

    The talk about trust being the issue is right on. No matter how pure the motivations of a person have been proven to be over time, once money is involved, we often become turned off. Especially in case of paid endorsements.

    I plan on thinking about and blogging on some ideas around how to get around these problems–it’s unfortunate that a post like Chris’s (which was very well done) causes us to bristle, even if slightly, but it does. It’s a gut reaction.

  5. Chris Brogan... Says:

    Well said. And yes, it’s interesting that this is about me and not the companies. I’m along for the ride. Great post, Scott.

  6. Lucretia Pruitt Says:

    “Personal reputations are more important than corporate brands”

    I’m not so sure I agree with your assessment on this. Chris was not the only blogger in the K-mart project… but he was the one that the controversy swirled around.

    Why weren’t the other blogger’s reputations called into question?

    I’d say it centers around the desire to take down the biggest target. Many who were tilting at Mr. Brogan said *absolutely nothing* about any of the other bloggers in the Izea/K-Mart project.

    I’d posit that it’s because if you ‘take on Chris Brogan and “win”‘ in some peoples’ minds, you will make your reputation. But also, he was the one least likely to either a) ignore the critics or b) fire right back at them.
    Chris is a decent guy. His reputation as such precedes him. He answered the critics with reasonable answers. He maintained his composure and did not attack anyone back.

    This brouhaha wasn’t about personal brand or Corporate brand. It was about people lobbing grenades at what they perceived to be an easier target.

  7. Scott Henderson Says:

    Lucretia:

    It’s good to have one of the 11 WalMart Moms in the conversation. You’re probably getting a little of this heat, too. I imagine there was a bit of smug self-satisfaction some had motivating them, but I think that’s a surface issue.

    I think the ire was focused on Chris, because he was the only one mentioned by Jeremiah. Plus, Chris has such a strong reputation. Any time someone of great standing and values is seen in an unsavory light, the human mind leaps to point out the incongruency.

    In any event, your comment argues against itself. If they were driven by the “desire to take down the biggest target”, then why were the attacking “what they perceived to be an easier target”? How can Chris be both?

  8. Gennefer Snowfield Says:

    Very comprehensive recap of the situation, and you raise some good points, the most important of which is the [dreaded] conversation about monetizing the space.

    With the advent of social media came a whole new playing field — a vast, expanse of open terrain begging to be walked on. And that’s what we’ve done. We’ve walked and run and stomped all over it with reckless abandon, making our respective marks on it in the process.

    And those have been valuable imprints, filled with thought-provoking content and conversations that have turned people into living, breathing brand[-promoting] vessels.

    So, why not harness the power, reach and influence of those vessels for marketing purposes?

    That is the question.

    From a business perspective (as in the corporate entity), it’s definitely a worthwhile commodity in which to invest dollars.

    From a personal perspective (as in the individual blogger), it has appeal but veers toward the inauthentic (under the rubric of a biased, bought review).

    I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

    It doesn’t make sense for a corporate brand to solely utilize social media (via sponsored posts or other tactics) any more than it does for a person to solely generate content or derive revenue from corporate-aided sponsorships.

    But I think the two CAN happily co-exist provided that the product/service is relevant to the blogger’s [existing] content/stance, and hence, to the audience.

    e.g. If a blogger writes regularly on the topic of organic food and local produce, it makes sense that a company like Whole Foods might approach him, and that review would be aligned with the blogger AND relevant to his readership.

    Other elements like full disclosure and frequency of sponsored posts also come into consideration, notwithstanding the readers’ tolerance, threshold and ongoing trust in the objectivity, authenticity and credibility of the blogger.

    It all boils down to value. Value for those being compensated and value for the readers in the content that compensation provides, coupled with the perceived worth of the offering overall (which will likely need to be even more closely managed/maintained as a result).

    But how do you measure and scale it to put a sustainable revenue framework in place?

    I think that exploration has begun with ‘The Kmart Experiment,’ and as the results begin to materialize, ongoing discussion needs to happen to evaluate and define best practices for making this a valuable endeavor for all involved.

    As you aptly pointed out, we are in the ‘Interconnected Age,’ and that interconnectivity also makes us reliant on one another to sustain, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to create a healthy, thriving ecosystem that benefits everyone in some meaningful way, monetarily or otherwise.

  9. Karl Long Says:

    great contribution to the conversation, thanks. You are right that this is part of a communication revolution, a good idea is a social object in this space. The fundamental issue for me is how do we create value, if you create value of course you can monitize that. The idea that we should not seek rewards for the work and effort we put out in the world just does not make sense.
    http://experiencecurve.com/archives/brands-in-social-media-and-selling-influence

  10. Snow Vandemore Says:

    If Chris Brogan decided to utilize his blog to review or promote a particular brand, good for him. It’s his blog and he can do with it as he wishes. I have the same choices — well, in theory. T

    he root of all of this controversy seems to be whether any of his future posts will be “funded” by some type of mysterious payola.

    He was transparent in the current transaction and I have no reason to believe any further reviews won’t carry the same disclosure.

    There is always a price to pay when you hold hands with Corporate America — Chris is a big boy and I trust he weighed his options carefully. To each his own, I say. Seems like a tempest in a teapot from where I stand.

  11. Blogger for sale? « Social Glue Says:

    [...] Hnderson charts the timeline related to the storm of negative comments and gives some good insights into what were the driving factors behind it. However my opinion is [...]

  12. Jamie Burke Says:

    I think this is ultimately a complaint by social media folk not the actual blog’s community itself (they seemed pretty happy about it all).

    I wrote a post on why did the social media folk get pissed off

    http://socialglue.wordpress.com/2008/12/15/blogger-for-sale/

    but have summarized it below:

    -a whole load of people who weren’t interested in the competition or Kmart’s gift card got spammed about it through Twitter

    -they got spammed by their friends

    -their friends were instructed to do so by a guardian of social media

    -they got interrupted in a very personal channel (following friends updates)

    As for the actual act of paid-for-blogging I go back to the blog community itself who like I said found it relevant.

  13. Michael Buechele Says:

    Nice recap of the whole thing. As long as there is disclosure and the product or service is a good fit for the community that the blogger represents, I don’t see a problem with it. I think it’s very much like a celebrity endorsement but with much more credibility since it’s disclosed. I think he’s still credible since he’s not pulling the wool over his community’s eyes. Banner advertising had led to banner blindness and publisher inventory is losing value every day. An alternative needs to be found and I think the marked disclosed paid post is good alternative.

  14. Sonny Gill Says:

    Great points here Scotty.

    People fail to realize that this social media ‘thing’ is business and in order to survive or even become a viable business strategy, we need to venture out into new avenues to try to monetize, put food on the table, whatever it may be.

    People may feel like their toes are being stepped on but they need to look at the broader picture before shooting from the hip and throwing a leader in this industry under the bus.

  15. I was Paid To Say That But I Would Have Said It Anyway — crowdSPRING Blog Says:

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  16. Marc Meyer Says:

    If this is what it takes to have a thorough discussion on how to make money in social media, then so be it. These were unchartered waters so naturally there was going to be uproar. Jeremiah, if anything was penalized for thinking out loud. Chris was penalized for trying something. Using engines instead of horses to power vehicles was considered crazy. Television was going to be our great undoing. On the left we have 2 people that dare to challenge things and on the right we have everyone else who want it to be business as usual.

  17. Kristen Raves Says:

    I wrote a similar post on this last month as well and I think you hit the nail on the head here. People fail to realize the importance of emerging ways to market their businesses, especially when it comes to social media. Since it is so new, most organizations are beginning to see the importance of it. However, if your company (meaning a general business) can get ahead of the curve they will have built an entirely new web presence before any of their competitors have.

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