Book review

The new influencers: A marketer's guide to the new social media, by Paul Gillin

Barna William Donovan

St. Peter's College, Jersey City, New Jersey, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Blog; Internet; Marketing; Opinion leaders; Public relations

Donovan, Barna William. 2008. The new influencers: A marketer's guide to the new social media, by Paul Gillin [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/35.

doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0035

Paul Gillin. The new influencers: A marketer's guide to the new social media. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007. $25.00 (236p) ISBN 978-1-88495-665-2.

[1] There is unprecedented power in blogging, Paul Gillin argues in his book, The New Influencers: A Marketer's Guide to the New Social Media. Articulate and passionate bloggers can not only build cohesive communities with their words, but also influence policies, have an impact on companies and products, and even turn a tidy profit themselves if they're lucky. Although written with a focus on business and marketing in the world of social media, Gillin's book has fascinating implications for fan communities and media scholars as well.

[2] Today, the power of influence is in the hands of the audience, Gillin writes, especially in communities of opinion leaders termed the "new influencers." These new influencers, particularly bloggers—on whom most of the book is focused, aside from several brief chapters on podcasting—have created a world of headaches for advertisers, marketers, and public relations practitioners. Quoting a great deal of recent research—both polls and interviews conducted by Gillin himself and industry surveys of online consumer behavior and attitudes—Gillin paints a picture of a vast consumer-information-oriented cyberlandscape where enthusiasts of everything from computers and cars to baking, traveling, gardening, pets, child care, and entertainment would rather turn to online bloggers and self-professed consumer advocates than to advertising, marketing campaigns, or any traditional forms of business communication that might hint at professional hucksterism. The time when audiences and customers could be influenced, manipulated, and swayed by expensive advertising and PR is gone, Gillin claims. The mainstream media are no longer the chief sources of information for the most committed enthusiasts and fans today. The Internet, online communities, blogs, and actively blogging new influencers hold much more sway than the traditional media.

[3] The new influencers, in Gillin's analysis, are experts in some niche who set up their blogs to expound their opinions about their field. They become influencers when an online community sprouts up around their words, when enough of their peers recognize them as valuable opinion leaders. The new influencers can become so powerful, Gillin writes, that they can make or break innovative new technologies. Bloggers can help or seriously hurt new businesses by a simple review. The new influencers, in Gillin's reckoning, are akin to powerful restaurant or theater critics; they can either make stars with their reviews or utterly demolish a new product, an ad campaign, or an entire company. For smart marketers, the goal should no longer be the placement of big-budget advertising and PR campaigns in the traditional media, but getting on the good side of the new influencers. A positive mention and endorsement by a highly respected blogger may carry much more weight in many industries than the glitziest ads in magazines and television.

[4] Gillin's book is aimed at two main audiences. The aspiring blogger is one. The would-be new influencer is given pointers on how to set up and maintain a blog to build the biggest possible online following. The marketer attempting to sell across the new social media is the other. Gillin, overall, meets the needs of both kinds of reader fairly well.

[5] Skilled and influential bloggers not only can help others' businesses and products thrive, but also can earn quite a sizable income by simply keeping up a detailed daily blog. Entrepreneurs who have set up blogs have seen sizable increases in profits. Gillin illustrates this with the cases of a Savile Row tailor, a South African winemaker, a painter, and a toiletries maker who all saw their companies' profits shoot to six or seven figures after their blogs garnered an avid following.

[6] Clearly, these stories can light up dollar signs in the eyes of most readers. The book, in this sense, can be quite an enjoyable read for those who have considered blogging, yet might not have taken the first steps to enter cyberspace themselves. The overnight success stories are certain to make most readers go to their computers and start looking into establishing their own blog.

[7] It is good to see, however, that Gillin does qualify his success stories with several important disclaimers. For one, blockbuster overnight profits are hardly the rule in the blogosphere. But, most importantly, he also stresses over and over that blatant self-promotion and profiteering are usually frowned upon by the blog culture. In fact, it is amusing to see the book hinting that the entrepreneurial spirit of the blogosphere is something similar to a high-toned "gentlemen's business": if you're online, you're not supposed to act like you're trying to get rich. Most of the people he describes as turning windfall profits from their blogs and podcasts seem to be folksy computer enthusiasts who were stunned by, almost embarrassed by, the staggering amounts of money they stumbled upon so shockingly quickly and without even really trying.

[8] Because there is money to be made online, Gillin also addresses the established businesses, the corporations, and the traditional marketing and advertising firms and discusses how they need to approach the world of the populist new influencers. In fact, this is where the book's implications become truly fascinating. Especially for those readers coming from the perspective of transformational culture, the conclusions to be drawn help illuminate the power of audiences and the ways the Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity to counter, challenge, and even influence large corporations, large ad agencies, marketing firms, and big media. The reason for this, actually, lies in the fact that the book is not written for the academic. Because the field of transformative works is founded on the acknowledgment of the power of the audience and its abilities to shape the content of the media, a book like The New Influencers carries a great deal of weight precisely because it is aimed at a lay audience. Gillin's book, in effect, moves beyond the theory building of the scholar and gives advice to the would-be blogger and the marketer. By speaking to these audiences, and especially in the advice it gives to the marketer, Gillin's work demonstrates that media professionals themselves have come to accept the powerful audience model of media-audience interaction. The audience's power to shape the content of the media is a given, as far as professional marketers are concerned. To make money, to thrive, to compete, the media professionals, the advertisers, and companies of any sort must no longer look at their customers as malleable, vulnerable targets. Audiences are not captive minds that can be manipulated, shaped, and brainwashed by the proper advertising slogan or the most potent visual images. Such keys to instant persuasion and audience manipulation, according to The New Influencers, do not exist. The media are at the mercy of their customers.

[9] This point is illustrated to the greatest effect in examples of companies that have run afoul of the values and expectations of bloggers. There is nothing that engenders more hostility in the blogosphere, Gillin writes, than the unalloyed shilling of products, PR spin, and the brazen manipulation of one's audience. In fact, he makes the case that companies will not succeed in pulling this off in today's world of outspoken, opinionated bloggers. What companies need to understand, Gillin advises, is that through the Internet, they are reaching a very skeptical and active audience. Marketers today are communicating with a highly media-savvy, often highly cynical generation that has learned to spot media manipulation. On the one hand, the book explains, it is true that the inhabitants of the cybercommunities of the blogosphere are generally an attractive demographic for sellers—affluent, young, well educated. But on the other, this tech- and media-savvy group must also be handled very carefully by marketers. The blogosphere does not suffer opportunists and PR hacks. A key feature of these cybercommunities, Gillin explains, is their commitment to and uncompromising expectation of constant two-way communication, especially with people attempting to influence them. The blogosphere is an environment of constant feedback, discussion, and spirited debate. In turn, this expectation of open communication, Gillin advises, creates an expectation of transparency. Bloggers demand absolute self-effacing candor from organizations trying to persuade them or sell to them.

[10] In fact, the book's most fascinating anecdote is a detailed examination of Microsoft's move into the blogosphere. By the early 2000s, the company had a very serious PR problem. The government was prosecuting it for antitrust violations, and it had an image as a ruthless predator determined to drive all of its competitors out of business. The company appeared to be an example of Machiavellian corporate greed run amok. Microsoft was roundly despised by many customers and independent vendors, and especially by the open-source software community. Whereas corporations pursued by the government for their anticompetitive business practices have shut down communication with the public in the past (Gillin cites the cases of IBM and AT&T in the 1970s), Microsoft took a different—and ultimately very successful—tack.

[11] Microsoft set up a blog run by one of its employees, Robert Scoble. The blog not only presented the company's position in all the controversy, but also took feedback and criticism from the public at large. For months, in fact, Microsoft opened itself up to the vitriol of its critics. Moreover, Scoble, followed by scores of other employees over the years, was free to post critiques of Microsoft, its various products, and its business practices. Ultimately, the openness of the company was what allowed it to rehabilitate its public image. Scoble eventually become the most recognizable Microsoft employee outside of Bill Gates.

[12] Furthermore, Gillin illustrates his thesis on the power of the blog not only through his stories of successful small entrepreneurs and the large corporations that have learned to bend to the will of Internet culture, but through anecdotes of what can go wrong when the standards, rules, and sensibilities of the blogosphere are ignored. There are few things more dangerous to businesses, even the biggest of corporations, than the ire of an enraged, vengeful blogger.

[13] The book opens with the 2006 case of Vincent Ferrari and AOL. Having heard of AOL's high-pressure tactics in keeping customers from canceling accounts, Ferrari, an active blogger, recorded his attempt at closing his own account. When he posted the audio file of a relentless, obnoxious sales rant attempting everything possible to keep him as a customer, AOL suffered a public humiliation of epic proportions. Ferrari's Internet server crashed several times under the load of hundreds of thousands of attempts at downloading the file. The popularity of Ferrari's blog, in fact, made him a feature story on other consumer-oriented blogs and Web pages. Eventually, to help drag AOL's reputation further through the mud, both the New York Post and the New York Times ran stories about the incident. CNBC and NBC both called Ferrari for phone interviews. He was also a guest on the Today show and Nightline. Eventually, AOL announced a complete overhaul of its business model as a result of the Ferrari incident.

[14] The blogosphere, as this case further illustrates, has become the main source of story ideas and leads for the traditional news media. Today, ever more reporters, Gillin argues, citing yet more survey data, try and catch wind of the latest currents of opinion, issues, concerns, rants, and complaints in the blogosphere for their stories. They are less likely to read press releases than to troll the blogs for the most discussed issues of the day.

[15] The implications this has for traditional theories of media behavior, agenda setting, and gatekeeping are significant. The very idea of an elite system of media agenda setters is passé. The traditional critical model of hegemonic media, controlled by a small group of insular gatekeepers who manipulate media messages for their own ends, is unrealistic. When news editors look to bloggers to decide what the day's agenda should be, how the day's headlines will read, the old-fashioned, one-way, quasi-conspiratorial view of the media that critical scholarship has always presented has become obsolete.

[16] Ultimately, even for those not interested in making their living off the Internet or managing the reputation of their own megacorporation, The New Influencers is a fascinating and useful book. It provides a very clear, concise, and accessible description of how the new social media are letting grassroots movements of enthusiasts and advocates exercise unprecedented control over both businesses and the traditional media. For fan communities, the implications should also be clear. If fans are knowledgeable enough about their favorite entertainment, if they can write passionately and articulately on what they care about, then they can find other like-minded enthusiasts through the blogosphere and build powerful communities. Moreover, the blogs are exerting even more influence over the mainstream media and policy makers than the Internet has ever done before. To fans of all types, especially those who want to reach the producers of their favorite programs, music, or bands or who want to influence the decisions made by cable or broadcast networks, Gillin's book will be of great interest and possibly quite inspirational.





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