Thursday, October 13, 2005

Robin Good in Rome: The Changing Face of User-Generated Media

"Good content is arrogant," chimed a voice at the recent WFIC event in Rome. I found it to be a good encapsulation of how people are attracted to the brash style of so many of today's leading webloggers. Yet many personalities powering user-generated media are very modest and genuine people when you get to know them up close. So when the elevator doors at my hotel in Rome opened and I met Robin Good in person for the first time it was in one sense no surprise that this online icon was a heck of a nice guy. Born under the name Luigi Canali De Rossi his online persona Robin Good has become more than a public identity for him. Robin Good is a person reborn under a personal brand that personifies his belief in the power of user-generated media to help personal content producers and consumers to control their own destiny. Certainly Robin is aware of the power of his insights and he is able to fire up his online persona when needed. Yet as we drove down to the banks of the Tiber and wandered through the intimate backstreets of Rome that are the city's true lifeblood Robin revealed himself as someone who produced his insights through a power far greater than ego or intellect. In this sense Rome itself is reflected in Robin.

Our first encounter came on the heels of Weblogs, Inc. and other user-generated media properties being gobbled up by media giants. It was natural then that the evening's conversation flowed around the future of independent user-generated media. How do ingenious independent content producers such as Robin keep their brands alive independently in the face of major media companies staking out claims to so many highly successful independent content producers?

The entertainment world as we know it provides some analogies that will work for the major media companies. Folks like Jason Calacanis are talent and media property developers who groom independents in the same way sports teams develop emerging talent in minor league systems and then unleash them in the media spotlight of major league franchises. What makes this system work? Brand advertising. Stadium billboards, endorsed products and of course TV and radio advertising allow individual talents on sports teams to dip in to the benefits of advertisers willing to do anything to associate their seductive images and messages with moments that matter to their audiences. Even with talented Web entrepreneurs like Robin tweaking the system for all it's worth the revenue from tiny text ads via contextual placement services such as AdSense are never going to compete with the revenue potential of brand advertising in major media channels. When individual media producers are content to make a reasonable living rather than an extraordinary living, maybe that's not a bad thing.

But at some point the power of major media companies backing "major league" webloggers with major investments in content, technology and brand advertising that can surround their core abilities is going to create a lure of stardom as powerful as anything offered to today's mainstream journalists. John Battelle's plan for FM Publishing holds out some promise for independents to benefit from brand advertising - if they play into his own flavor of ECNext-like publishing services aggregation. There may be a limited window of opportunity for independent webloggers to make a decent living before the ad revenues keeping them alive today migrate to more sophisticated channels that require playing within the emerging online media talent development program.

It's not a huge technical challenge to extend an ad service like AdSense and to provide sophisticated automated placement controls for brand advertising - a move that's very likely to surface sooner rather than later. The greater challenge is to figure out how to allow the independent publisher to negotiate placement and price with sophisticated brand advertisers cost-effectively. The key to success in independent publishing is to be able to maintain the integrity of your personal brand while attracting higher-grade advertising that wants the implied endorsement of being seen in a publisher's personal brand space. That comes at a cost for both parties, a cost that will require methods to negotiate the market value of that space more directly with the publisher than today's online ad auctions facilitate. We can see these types of services evolving rather rapidly. If they do, then the future of independent publishers such as Robin Good could be, well, quite good.

My thanks again to Robin for a memorable night in the "Eternal City." Both Rome and Robin met all of my expectations, leaving ample reason to return again some time soon.
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