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The Business of Ghostblogging

Some of the best ghostbloggers come out of the shadows to talk about how they work, what they charge and who their clients are.

The Ghost Speaks

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.

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This article was originally published in the February 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Ghost Speaks.

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