Now for My Next Trick, I'll Turn Brand into Cash
Back in May 2008, I was on top of the world. Viewers were soaring for my newly launched Yahoo show, TechTicker, my book was about to come out and was boasting a beautifully low three-digit Amazon rank, several of my BusinessWeek columns had been among the most read stories on the site, and traffic on this blog was doubling month-over-month. (Sure it had only been open two months, but details like that don't matter when you're on top of the world.)
I was also in New York doing a slew of press interviews for the launch of my book. Not even a torrent of rain and a wind storm that eviscerated my umbrella could dampen my spirits as I Mary Tyler Moore'd all over Manhattan in a DVF dress feeling like I'd turned the world on with my ability to tell a great story and enviable access to people whose stories actually mattered. And let's be clear: No one had handed me all this. I had worked evenings, sleepless nights, sacrificed relationships and any kind of work/life balance for nearly a decade to get here. And, I thought, all the hard work had finally paid off.
But more than that, the synergy was paying off. The idea was that I'd become a "brand"-- and there was no paucity of data to back that up. There was also no shortage of media outlets willing to pay me to be that brand. As late in 2007 I carefully picked between them, I thought a lot about synergy. I didn't want just one platform, and I didn't want competing platforms. Rather, I picked platforms that would cross promote and jobs that would play to different strengths I had as a reporter, and alternatively challenge me more. As a journalist who has watched synergy rarely pay off when promised, the fact that I believed it would be so easy in boosting the next phase of my own career should have been a red flag.
That take-on-the-world morning, I was having coffee with Steven Levy, then of Newsweek, now of Wired, who challenged this whole idea of whether this "Sarah Lacy" brand was actually translating into things that mattered, like book sales, money, something real and tangible, or whether it was a just smokescreen of hype. And I granted his point. I've long been dubious of Internet celebrity's staying power. It seems the Internet famous hit that moment where they're on the Today Show, and just about to close a deal with ABC or HBO or pick the big money, you've-made-it acronym, but it never really materializes.
I've written before that one of the advantages of the Internet-- the relatively low barrier to click on something-- is an advantage for building brands and gaining distribution online, but it's also a disadvantage. People flock to you as a side-show, but don't actually want to invest real dollars to support whatever you are doing. Honestly, how many of Tila Tequila's million MySpace friends buy her CDs? There's a currency in mild watching-a-train-wreck-fascination and even hate online, that doesn't exist in the offline world in the same way. And, to date, it hasn't translated.
It's now a year after I started my synergy gambit, and in many ways,
Levy is wrong. By any measure, I'm more successful working for myself
than I was on staff for just one publication: income, name recognition,
opportunities, amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And, while I'm not immune, I'm safer heading into this downturn than in the past because all my income doesn't hinge on one gig. In terms of journalism, it's way more successful. I have the challenge only to find great stories and tell them. And generally any story I love, I've got a platform for it. Sometimes it's a visual story; sometimes it's a big idea story that's financially complex but perfect for a column. Frequently, stories aren't right for TechTicker or BusinessWeek, but might work for this blog or a freelance project or maybe even (hint?) a new book. I can't tell you how freeing that is after years of laboriously pitching stories, writing stories I didn't care about and having to play the newsroom game. You can't put a price on autonomy.
But when it comes to stats, the synergy and the cross promotion hasn't been as easy as it would seem on paper. I've been pretty aggressive about linking between things, and if you follow me here or on Twitter, you get a pretty clear day-to-day account of my life. Yet, I'm stunned by how many people read this blog, but never go to TechTicker. Or how many people watch TechTicker, but have no idea I write a BusinessWeek column. Or how many people follow me on Twitter, but still think I'm on staff for BusinessWeek full-time. Or-- I swear to God-- the number of people who know me from any of those platforms and say, "You wrote a book?" If my life were a reality show, you could insert a montage of all the times I've said "my book" in the last year and it would be a mini-series in length. Whenever I get recognized and someone asks if I'm Sarah Lacy, I smile and say yes, but then coyly ask how they know me. Because I've learned it's different every time, and it's never all-of-the-above.
On the surface, this sounds great for me. I'm still leveraged across several platforms even if they aren't working together as well as I'd hoped. But doesn't it also mean that my "value" as a brand is diminished if I can't pull fans and readers across platforms? After all, it's supposed to be a two-way transaction.
So what gives? I'm still not sure. But I've got an inkling that this multi-year trend towards brand-this and brand-that in the business world may be in for a rude awakening. After all, there are far more high-profile examples. Think about Howard Stern: He used to be one of the most talked about, most hated, most beloved people in popular culture. His star power made talk radio relevant outside of a trucker cab. That fame translated to books, movies, television-- seemingly any media the self-appointed "king" touched. If anyone had real brand that could translate into cash it was Stern, and that's why Sirius radio gave him a serious ton of cash. And Stern was no lazy diva; he worked it. He was everywhere hawking those Sirius devices; calling it the new revolution in radio. He even had a cause: That the over-zealous FCC was killing freedom of speech. But as a great article in last week's Sunday New York Times showed, it just didn't translate. Worse: Stern lost his relevance in popular culture. And with it, his influence and likely his fair market value as a brand.
As the name of my book (ahem, mention 1,567,983 in the last year) belies, I think most success in business-- particularly startups-- is a hard to quantify mixture of being lucky and good. In May 2008, I think I felt I'd worked hard enough I could consider my synergy plan the result of being good. But nearly a year later, I'm starting to realize like so much else I was lucky. Lucky that I hedged entrepreneurial ventures like launching my own blog and my book (1,567,984) with two other media platforms that were bigger than I was, am or will probably ever be on my own. At the time a lot of people were asking why I still needed Yahoo or BusinessWeek, and I'm glad my ego wasn't so unchecked that I listened and bought into that smokescreen of hype. Instead, I continually told my husband, "I'm the new black for about five minutes. This isn't going to last."
I'm not saying brand doesn't matter. I'm just saying it doesn't matter the way it seems like it should on paper. In the last year, a lot of college kids or journalists young in their careers have asked my advice on becoming a brand, and I've told them there's no quick and easy hack to get there. It takes time, long hours, and consistent work of merit in your field. Brand that hits people fast, usually doesn't last. It's like building a house; it needs a good foundation. In my case, I worked for ten years as a boring, daily-grind business reporter, heads-down focused on producing good work, with nary a picture of myself on the Internet. Hype will come and go-- and I'll use it to my advantage when it's here-- but I always have that foundation. The trick is remembering I am a reporter, not a celebrity. That means any swankiness my job entails is usually the exception, not the rule. But, as a result, I am also not a flash-in-the-pan. The other thing I've told them is to know what they're getting into chasing the brand dream. No one tells you how hard it is to maintain it and to stomach all that comes with it, once you establish it.
I guess the third leg of that brand-reality-check stool is what I've learned in the last year: You don't just add water to brand for instant traffic and monetization. Just as there's no easy hack to becoming a brand, there's no easy hack to profiting from it. Put another way: You never get to coast. For another great example, check out this article about Maria Bartiromo, one of the most important pioneers and biggest brands in the cable news business who still works every bit as hard and watches over one shoulder for someone to steal her thunder. She has to. We all do.
In the last day, I've made a list of about a dozen New Years Resolutions. For me, it's a very personal process so unlike a lot of bloggers, I won't share them here. But in the wee hours of this sleepless morning, I've just added another one: To keep only a passive eye on the stats in 2009, because what matters more in taking my career to the next level is that same heads-down journalistic hard work that got me here in the first place, not how many friends, page views or links I get.
An unforgettable portrait of the emerging world's entrepreneurial dynamos Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky is the story about that top 1% of people who do more to change their worlds through greed and ambition than politicians, NGOs and nonprofits ever can. This new breed of self-starter is taking local turmoil and turning it into opportunities, making millions, creating thousands of jobs and changing the face of modern entrepreneurship at the same time. To tell this story, Lacy spent forty weeks traveling through Asia, South America and Africa hunting down the most impressive up-and-comers the developed world has never heard of....yet.
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