4 questions to determine the value of your brand, plus how to keep your biggest stars happy

The age of the individual brand was inevitable, a natural consequence of the way digital media has remade our reading habits. In print, columns have a home on a section front or on the opinion page, but online the basic unit of reader consumption isn’t the section or page, but an article — or a video or podcast.

When readers search for or share columns, what’s found or shared is a single article. Meanwhile, writers spotlight links to their own work on their Tumblrs, share them with their Twitter followers, and hope for comments on their Facebook fan pages — all activity that spotlights their individual brands and pushes the institutional brand deeper into the shadows.

The idea of powerful individual brands and a push and pull with institutional ones didn’t begin with digital media: The peregrinations of noted columnists and TV anchors have generated industry buzz for generations.

Diehard fans say that Starbucks sold in Barnes & Noble or Target is not the same as the coffee in its own standalone stores. Is that true of mega media brands who relocate? Is the Washington Post/Howie Kurtz combo more influential than the Daily Beast/Newsweek/Howie Kurtz combo? Who wins and loses when individual and institutional brands interact?

Nor is the delicate dance between the two kinds of brands unique to the media world. Athletes consider questions of individual and institutional brands all the time — witness LeBron James’s “Decision” that took his talents from Cleveland to Miami. It’s a factor in the business world too: Apple’s stock price is routinely roiled by chatter about Steve Jobs’s health as investors worry about what the institution would be without the individual. Yet the same wasn’t true when Jobs returned to a beaten-down Apple from NeXT.

But is the trend inevitably to individual brands, or are they and institutional brands  more interdependent than we think?

There have been a number of recent defections of well-known individuals from hoary media brands to relative startups: Think Howard Kurtz leaving the Washington Post and Andrew Sullivan leaving the Atlantic, both for the Daily Beast. Or Jonathan Alter departing Newsweek for Bloomberg View.

But did those established stars enhance their own brands (along with the numbers on their bank statements) with those moves, or diminish them? And did their former institutions use their stars’ tenure wisely, to generate broader loyalty?

Not all of us pixel-stained wretches are Kurtzes or Sullivans, but we still have an awareness of our individual brands that we lacked five or 10 years ago — and we too may find success leads us to choosing between sticking with an old name or jumping to an upstart.

But what if our suitor isn’t run by the likes of Tina Brown? To go back to sports, are you better off being the highly paid Jayson Werth of the Washington Nationals, or the less well-paid but still comfortable Jayson Werth of the Philadelphia Phillies?

For individuals, the first question is, of course, “What’s best for you?” And maybe the salary offer provides a rather succinct answer to that question. (In which case, congrats and invest wisely.) If not, though, four questions to consider that might help you fix the value of your own brand against that of your institution:

  1. Are you someone’s habit? Do you have a cadre of regular readers and commentors who compare your latest column, video or whatever against what’s come before? Or is your traffic more a function of your beat and/or the regular ebb and flow of news? What, if anything, can you discover about where your traffic is coming from? If a lot it comes from searches for your name, good. If it’s from bookmarks for some kind of home for your work, even better. If a lot of it’s path-based traffic through a section, your brand may need some more building.
  2. Where is the value of your stuff accruing? Google yourself and your work. (You need to be doing that anyway, so get over whatever residual shame you may have about it.) If people are sharing, discussing, or commenting on your work away from your new organization’s site, how are those discussions phrased? Are they referring to you, or to a column on your paper’s site, with your name an afterthought or not cited at all?
  3. Does the institutional brand mean more to you than you think? We all have issues with our employers — editors we wish would wield a scalpel instead of a cleaver, bureaucratic dopiness, frustrating technology. And most of us at least daydream about the hue and shade of grass elsewhere. But you may find your sense of worth is more bound up with that institutional brand than you think. Take a deep breath, look in the mirror and introduce yourself as working for your prospective employer. See how it feels. Weird’s OK. Disappointing isn’t.
  4. How hard are you prepared to work? One of the great benefits of the digital age is we have the tools to advance our personal brands; we can all be publishers if we wish to be, or very effective promoters and republishers if we don’t want to go that far. But such tools are so easy to use that we can forget that using them effectively is the work of every day and every hour. Well-established institutional brands allow us to free-ride on their name and marketing muscle: When we stop pedaling we coast a bit, instead of wondering why the bike fell over.

Institutions face trickier questions. The fragmentation of people’s reading and viewing habits makes it harder for institutions to build and maintain their own brands.

In the print era, there was no such thing as a reader who picked up the paper, turned instantly to C3, read one article and threw the rest in the trash. And the higher individual brands rise, the more likely someone will try and pick them off, or that individual will begin to think of himself or herself as distinct from the institution.

If you’re responsible for the well-being of your organization’s brand, here are four ways to build better bonds between your institutional brand and those valuable but potentially irksome individual brands:

  1. Identify your most valuable individual brands. Who are your star columnists, your up-and-coming community stars, your makers of videos that tend to go viral? If you can identify them, so can your competitors, so figure out who they are and look to keep them in the fold.
  2. Turn centrifugal force into centripetal force, or at least balance them. Look for ways to harness your stars’ ambitions. Don’t worry if that means enhancing their individual brands — because you’ll be doing it within the framework of your own institutional brand. Build that columnist’s archive out into a destination mini-site, or make that beat writer with a gift of gab into a YouTube star. See if you can build a partnership instead of a zero-sum game.
  3. Make your individual brands into institutional gateways. For all the care and attention lavished on home pages, more and more people are reaching your site through search and social media, and consuming your content piecemeal. That makes each column or video effectively a homepage — the potential first stop for visitors to your site. (And the rest of your site is still important; a collection of individual brands risks being just the sum of its parts.) Think about what you want fans of individual brands to do next. If people like this columnist, who else might they like? If this writer’s beat is what interests them, what other resources can you show them?
  4. Get really good at building brands. Keep your stars happy by helping them build their individual brands, but keep track of what works and what doesn’t, so you can replicate those successes as much as is possible. To risk another sports metaphor, one of Billy Beane’s insights in Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” was that it was more efficient to make pitchers into closers than to buy them on the free-agent market. Make your own closers.

Individual brands are part of the media landscape now, and talented, ambitious writers will naturally concern themselves with them and seek to enhance them. But while they have to contend with fragmented reader habits, institutional brands remain important too, and the two can be made to work together rather than in opposition.

Jason Fry is a writer, editor and digital-media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the writer of Reinventing the Newsroom and co-writer of Faith and Fear in Flushing. Follow him on Twitter at jasoncfry.

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