The Business of Ghostblogging
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Every so often, after a long workday, Kinsey Schofield goes home feeling a little dazed and confused. "It's exhausting," she says. "I pretend to be seven different people, then I don't remember who I am."
Schofield, 24, is a business world ghostwriter--and the online voice of some high-profile names, including Nick Cannon, Robert T. Kiyosaki and Chris Moneymaker. She is part of a growing army of outside contractors who blog and tweet unseen in the name of ego and entrepreneurship. Writing as her clients, she posts on Facebook and MySpace, or tweets pithy thoughts straight from her iPhone.
As the Internet levels the playing field for sales and services, business ghostwriters like Schofield are becoming an essential part of marketing strategy. Stephen Turcotte, president of Backbone Media Inc. , a Boston-area Internet marketing company, estimates that 20 percent of American businesses now have some kind of blog, with about one in four outsourcing the writing--although few will admit to that particular kind of outsourcing. Nevertheless, on Elance.com , a website for business freelancers, demand for ghostwriters surged last year: Its category jumped to the 25th-most popular from 74th over the first nine months of last year.
"The idea is to position yourself so that people come to you to buy rather than you selling them," says Nathan Egan, a social media consultant in Wilmington, Del. "It's a paradigm shift. You create the right pool with the right fish, and the fish come to you."
Kiyosaki--the investor and best-selling author (Rich Dad, Poor Dad) and motivational speaker--has a legion of fans hungry for his pearls of wisdom. Trouble is, he's often too busy to keep his followers up-to-date on his latest brainstorms. That's where Schofield comes in. He gives her random bullet points, which she repackages and sends into cyberspace. For one of his recent seminars, which cost attendees $5,000 each, she tweeted his comments--here's one: "Socialism is for losers"--for people who couldn't afford the admission price. For Cannon, the actor, rapper and TV personality, she blogs and tweets. As Moneymaker, a world poker champion, Schofield tweets his tournaments, hand by hand.
Kiyosaki, 62, says digital communication is vital to his empire, built on the sales of board games, books and seminars. "We believe that social media, like any other media channel, can connect with consumers and engage them with the Rich Dad Brand--even more so than other mediums," he writes in a response to questions about his use of social networking. He would not directly comment on Schofield's work.
Blogging as a business phenomenon began about five years ago. First embraced by giants such as GM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems to humanize their executives, blogging is now largely the domain of mom-and-pop operations. These direct communications with customers can boost revenue, image and name recognition by broadening a company's appeal and visibility across the digital universe. Along the way, executives and business owners who lack time, interest or writing skills turned to ghostbloggers, creating a don't ask/don't tell industry for laid-off journalists, marketing professionals and PR types.
And it's quite a range of clients now hiring. Nancy McCord of Waldorf, Md., writes for a New Jersey pest exterminator whose specialties include rats and bedbugs. Tony Reynolds of Columbus, Ohio, blogs and tweets for James "Buster" Douglas, the former heavyweight boxing champ who wants to sell his books. Miriam Cohen, a New York City ghostblogger, writes for a pedorthist. That's a guy who makes custom shoes to fit problem feet.
"It used to be that bloggers were just angry people in basements," says Erik Deckers, an Indiana-based ghostblogger whose clients include a clothing maker and a company that supplies parts and equipment for printers. "Now, you're seeing more and more companies accept us. What would take them an hour or two, we can do in 20 to 30 minutes."
Or maybe even less, considering this blog from Reynolds as Douglas: "I had a great time at the 2009 New Albany Classic Grand Prix Invitational. The way some of the riders had those horses jumping you would think they had Air Jordan's on! It was cool."
As a young industry, ghostblogging has no best practices or trade organization. Some practitioners write blogs of a paragraph or two, others 250 to 300 words, but rarely longer. This is the Internet, don't forget. Attn spans r short. Writers charge by the blog or tweet and juggle half-a-dozen clients or more. Some ghostbloggers prefer the loftier title "social media consultant." The best are careful to plant key search-engine words into their posts, which will raise a company's web-search ranking.
Rhoda Israelov, an Indianapolis ghostblogger, says one of the first things she asks a client is to provide a list of eight to 10 words that best describe what the company does.
"I want to know where the world is going to find you when they go with their search terms," she says. "Who's going to come up first, you or your competition?"
Business blogging has become so commonplace that the Federal Trade Commission in December expanded the rules on product endorsements and testimonials for advertising to include blogs. Now, any blog that endorses a product, no matter who wrote it, must reveal financial connections between the endorser and the product company.
Ghostbloggers say their output generally depends on the availability and interest of the executive. The objectives range from explaining corporate policy to showing an executive's personal side. The theory goes: warm-and-fuzzy breeds familiarity, familiarity develops trust, and trust wins business. Funny helps.
The website for Stern Environmental Group, McCord's exterminator client, includes "Stern's Chatter Blog," where McCord and her staff of writers pose as the owner, Douglas Stern, as well as contributors "Sqrlgirl" and "Pestpro" to aid customers with infestations issues. In one recent entry, Sqrlgirl recounted a trip by Stern into New York City "to observe the rats in their comfort zones." Referring to a picture of garbage bags within the blog, she told readers that "this rat will tear through these bags and enjoy a feast that I am sure he will tell all of his rat friends about.''
Stern says McCord's work "has been fabulous," raising the visibility--and revenue--of his company. "And," he says, "she's relatively inexpensive."
Ghost rates vary, but generally, it costs far less to create a ghosted blog or Twitter account than to launch a traditional PR campaign. McCord charges $18 to $32 per blog post, and $150 to $500 a month for multiple daily tweets. Lindsay Manfredi, a social media strategist in Indianapolis, charges $75 to $100 for a blog post, a fee that includes research, writing and editing.
"I'm probably on the higher end," she says. "But I'm full service."
For many ghostbloggers, the work starts with an interview or conversation with the client to gather information, agree on topics and lock in the client's speaking style, a key element for audience engagement. Final drafts generally go back for client review before publishing, which is critical for a blog's authenticity.
"If you're a CEO and you're hands off, not really editing, not really making sure it's written in your voice, then it's not credible," says Dallas Lawrence, head of the digital media team at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, D.C. "People will see through that, and at the end of the day, it'll have a negative impact on the brand."
Credibility has become a huge issue in business ghostwriting. As more companies use ghosts, critics argue that blogging in the name of someone else violates an implicit and fundamental social contract of the Internet: "What you read is what I wrote."
"Ghostblogging is a horrible thing--I'm vehemently opposed," says Shel Holtz of Concord, Calif., a former corporate communications specialist who now blogs about the intersection of communication and technology at blog.holtz.com . "I'm a huge fan of transparency. My advice to executives is: If you don't take the time to write yourself, find another channel of communication."
Jason Falls, a social media consultant in Louisville, Ky., agrees: "If a CEO's name is on something written by someone else and he didn't have anything to do with it, essentially, that's lying."
Ghostbloggers defend the practice by pointing out that President Obama doesn't write his own speeches, the CEO of Ford doesn't make commercials and celebrities hire ghostwriters to pen their autobiographies.
"Ghostwriting can have a seedy appearance: Somebody you've hired is pretending to be you," says Katie Gutierrez Painter, a writer in Austin, Texas. "Before I started, I saw it the same way. But you need to look at it from the business, branding and marketing standpoint. It's just outsourcing an employee to work under the name of the company."
The best ghostbloggers make it almost impossible to tell that someone other than the client wrote it. Bill Marriott, chairman and CEO of the hotel chain that bears his name, has not missed a month of blogging since he started in 2007. Judging by the travelogues that many of his blogs are, he wouldn't seem to have a lot of spare time. Yet he has also taken on subjects as varied as Proposition 8 in California, which outlaws gay marriage, and Gen. Custer's impatience at Little Big Horn.
Does he actually write the blogs? Well, sort of. Blake Little, a Marriott spokeswoman, says Marriott, who is 77, doesn't know how to use a computer. "He's afraid of them," she says. So he dictates his thoughts into a recorder and she turns them into the blog. Occasionally he also writes out some notes with reminders of things he wants to mention.
Anyway, it's the rare executive who will admit to using an outsider and rarer still that a ghostblogger will out a client. Holtz, the critic, warns that knowledge of an executive's outsourcing the blog might set off a Claude Rains-type consumer backlash-- "I'm shocked, shocked to find that blogging is going on in here"--that would undermine the company's credibility.
"I don't think it's worth the risk," he says.
Schofield, the Los Angeles ghostblogger, says that to the contrary, identifying clients makes them sound like digital pioneers, eager to pursue the most effective ways to stay engaged with fans and customers. She encourages clients to use the tools of social networking and pays particular attention to the habits of the under-30s and their preference for concise messages.
"A lot of people don't even focus on the blogs anymore," she says. "People want fast, quick, instant, short messages. Even with the blogs and Facebook, I do them short, two paragraphs, then I'm done-zo."
And nobody, apparently, is the wiser.
How to Get Your Ghost
Almost no one who hires a ghostblogger will admit to it, and few bloggers advertise who their clients are. But as the business grows, networks are beginning to form, and entrepreneurs are learning how to get the most out of their ghosts.
Several websites are serving as connection points for ghostwriters looking for work and companies that need their services. One, elance.com, based in Mountain View, Calif., has a separate category for ghostwriters called Writing & Translation. It lists thousands of people who write anything from tweets to books. Brad Porteus, chief marketing officer for elance, says ghostwriting was one of the fastest-growing categories of 2009.
"The numbers surprised me," he says, citing a 66 percent increase in the listings over the first nine months of the year. "The difference between good and great writing can make a tremendous impact on someone's business."
Another site to check is online-writing-jobs.com, which aggregates opportunities on craigslist.com and shows how many hits the listing has generated.
You can also simply do an Internet search--use the terms ghostblogger, ghostblog, business, corporate, executive--and you'll have more choices than you can imagine.
Before you begin interviewing ghosts, have a clear vision for the blog or Twitter account, and what you expect it to accomplish. The first fundamental question: Will it be written in the name of the chief executive, other senior management or a company team?
Then consider how much time you or your employees spend with the cyber-doppelgänger. The best ghostbloggers are the most interactive with the company. They prefer steady access to understand what the company does, who the target audience is and what the marketing goals are. The best also have the ability to write in the voice and style of whoever's name is on the blog, and those writers might request more time to nail that down. The same issues apply to tweets.
Next, establish the rules of engagement. Some companies provide all the information to include in blog posts or tweets and merely ask the ghost to reshuffle it into cyber-form. Others want the ghostblogger to research the product and industry and add a wider context for the message. And some want to do as little as possible, relying on the ghost for just about everything.
The last consideration, and the one ghostbloggers across the country agree is most important, is: No matter what the arrangement, ghosted blogs and tweets should not go out without final approval, especially if they're written under a specific person's name. The ghost might make the mistake, but the company will bear the responsibility.
Deconstructing a Post
The headline: "Bed Bugs Get a Man Banned From the Library."
The post: One of Stern's Chatter Blogs, the website for Stern Environmental Group, an exterminator in Secaucus, N.J.
The blogger: "Sqrlgirl."
Sqrlgirl, in fact, does not know her way around a can of DDT, nor does she work for Douglas Stern, the owner of the company. She is actually a ghostblogger with McCord Web Services, an internet marketing firm in Waldorf, Md., who was hired to humanize the company and generate trust, confidence and sales.
Did she succeed? Mostly. Here's what works about this post:
- It uses a widely reported story about a retired minister whose bedbug-infested apartment infected 31 rare library books--and got him fined $18,000.
- The headline grabs attention.
- A breezy style and clear images--an old minister, 200-year-old books, creepy crawlers--help humanize pest extermination. It also conveys an idea anyone can relate to: No good deed goes unpunished.
- Embedded links lead readers to the real intent of the post: Hiring Stern Environmental Group to solve bedbug problems. For example, the "bed bugs" link leads to a page on Stern's website that serves as a primer and identifies Stern as "The Best Bed Bug Exterminator" in the region.
- The post also pitches Stern's products, providing links to the PackTite Portable Bed Bug Killing Heat Chamber ($330) and The Bug Oven ($4,100) "for bed bugs in industrial proportions."
- The blog preys on the weak. By recounting how an infestation threatened the financial viability of a poor, old clergyman, it scares readers into action.
Here's what doesn't work:
- The post doesn't include enough key search engine words that would help Stern climb higher in a Google ranking.
- At 309 words, it's too long for an Internet reader.
- Although the story is engrossing, it does not serve Stern's true mission-- sell, sell, sell--until the final paragraph, especially if the reader doesn't click on the links.