Social News Is Dead

Weblogs Inc. founder and AOL exec Jason Calacanis kicked up a firestorm recently when he declared he was going to start paying the top posters on social networking and news sites $12,000 per year to seed stories on the new Netscape. “It is a disastrous community decision!” declared bloggers. Social news is dead!

Or is it? I don’t think it is, and the reasons go a lot further than digg, del.icio.us, and YouTube. They go to the heart of the challenges we marketers face in the new media landscape and the very nature of brands themselves. There’s a lot to be learned by looking at what’s going on.

The current crop of social news and video-sharing sites are dominated by a relatively small number of posters anyway. A recent analysis of digg’s top posters reveals most of the stories that make it to the home page are put there by the same 60 people. Of course, no story that makes it to the home page gets there on its own. It has to be voted on by the other site users. Though there have been some pretty well researched allegations of shenanigans in how this works, in general it’s a meritocracy driven entirely by posters’ reputation and credibility and the content’s value to site readers.

Blogs have worked the same way. Popular blogs are so because people want to read them. In the ultimate democracy of the Web, popularity comes because someone wants to read what you’re writing… at the individual blogger level, at least. Sure, advertising your blog, networking to get links from other blogs, and promoting your blog can help it get noticed and gain popularity. But unless the content continues to draw people, all the promotion in the world isn’t going to work. There are just too many choices.

Blogs and social news sites have become so popular because they offer an alternative to the increasingly discredited commercial media. Bloggers’ authentic voice and most blogs’ perceived non-commercial nature allowed them to become dominant new media sources in a very short time.

Credibility and reputation are the coins of the blogosphere and social news realms. When bloggers are found to be on the take or promoting a hidden agenda, the reaction can be fierce. Even if a blog isn’t trying to hide its commercial backing, reactions can be less than positive if it’s perceived to be just a source of press releases.

But again, the power of the crowd is what makes for success. Either your blog is read because it has the characteristics that make it a good blog (credibility, information, insight, and entertainment), or it’s not. Either the stories you post to Digg or Netscape are “dugg” because they provide value, or they’re not. The people make the decision, regardless of who’s paying.

For us marketers, the lesson is this: we’re not in control of our messages anymore. Sure, we can pay bloggers, bankroll folks to post to social news sites, pay people to post to forums, or try other tactics, but these can only serve to influence, not control, the message. If you’re lame, you’re lame. If your brand stinks, people will tell you, as Sony found out with its PSP graffiti campaign and Wal-Mart is about to find out with its sanitized MySpace clone, The HUB: School Your Way.

For marketers and brand managers used to controlling their brands and messaging in the marketplace, this new reality can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s the world we’re in. Dealing with it means being everything that makes good blogs and social news posters successful: credible, valuable, authentic, high quality, entertaining, and in touch with your audiences. It means messages aren’t enough anymore. You actually have to walk the walk, provide quality products and services, respect your customers, and be honest. And you can’t stink. Period. The days of control are over.

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