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Lessons from 5 digital marketing celebrities

Lessons from 5 digital marketing celebrities Susan Kuchinskas

It's the duty of marketers to glorify their companies. But in doing so, some marketers become celebrities in their own right. In fact, this new culture of corporate all-stars was one of the biggest trends of 2009, according to Edelman Digital: "Workers flock to social media to build their personal brands, yet offer employers an effective and credible way to market in the downturn."

From notorious characters to full-on idols, the digital marketing arena is rife with its own celebrity personalities -- people who, although perhaps unknown among the general public, have become household names among interactive marketers.

Most of us will never crack the Technorati 100, but there's plenty we can learn from these five digital celebs.

Ask Guy Kawasaki where he lives, and he doesn't name the town. "I live in Silicon Valley," he says. In fact, he helped brand the valley as the place where high-tech dreams -- and fortunes -- are born.

In 1984, Kawasaki joined Apple, where he became chief marketer for the Apple Macintosh, and he's credited for creating the concept of the marketing evangelist. Even in that heady but pre-internet era, he believed in word of mouth and direct communication between company and customer. He left Apple in 1987, but returned in 1995 with the express mission of reviving the Macintosh cult. Mac mania is the highest expression of his theory of marketing: It's not about features, and it's not about benefits. It's about love.

Today, he's managing director of Garage Technology Ventures and founder of Alltop, an "online magazine rack" designed to make RSS feeds more readable by arranging them according to topic. He's revered for his wisdom about succeeding in business, although he defines Guy's Golden Touch as, "Whatever is gold, Guy touches."

"I think his experience with Apple has shaped how he has viewed products ever since," says Kathryn Mayall Henkens, a co-founder of Alltop. "He's not technology-driven. He approaches products as a user, and I think that's why he's a good marketer."

Kawasaki is all business and all marketer. For example, from the beginning, he saw Twitter as a marketing platform. He's been criticized for using "ghost Twitterers" to increase the amount of good content he can provide, with the aim of constantly expanding his followers -- which number some 178,840 to date. The ghost Twitterers also search for users who might be interested in hearing about Alltop. He happily admits that he pisses off about 10 people a day this way, but lands many more new followers.

Guy's Golden Rule: Authenticity is everything. Love your product, or you won't be able to market it successfully.

It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that Jane Metcalfe invented internet advertising. She had help, of course, from the uber-talented team at Wired Ventures, including her partner Louis Rossetto. In 1991, Metcalfe and Rossetto hurried back from Amsterdam to found a new kind of computer magazine, one that focused not on the hardware but on the ways it could change society and our daily lives.

The first eye-popping issue of Wired premiered in 1993, and Hotwired followed in 1994. Hotwired was the first professionally produced website with original content -- in the world! AOL, Compuserve, and the like were walled gardens, but Hotwired was accessed through a direct connection to the internet. It pushed the digital medium beyond text, serving up multimedia in ways that are expected now but were groundbreaking 15 years ago -- and sometimes computer-crashing.

And it had ads. As president of Wired Ventures, Metcalfe signed what was likely the first internet ad deal, landing AT&T as a launch advertiser for Hotwired. Not only did Hotwired serve the first banner ad, it racked up a number of digital innovations: It displayed the first Java-enabled ad units, handled the first geo-targeted banner campaign, and served the first mobile ad (on a Palm Pilot in 1998). Wired was also one of the first to use electronic media to get feedback, via The WELL, an early bulletin board system now owned by Salon.

"Both Jane and Louis had a real perspective on the future. It was clear to them what the wired future was all about. It was a lot less clear to everybody else," says Rick Boyce, SVP of business development for Rooftop Media, who, as head of sales for Wired Digital, helped sell out the site prior to its launch.

Wired portrayed an elite society of digerati where intelligence was sexy, with Metcalfe and Rossetto as their royalty. And early internet adopters were a highly desirable audience, Boyce points out -- as they remain today.

Unfortunately, Wired Ventures floundered after two failed IPO attempts, and Metcalfe and Rossetto sold the magazine to Conde Nast in 1998. As an illustration of how far behind the duo the mainstream media were, consider this: The publishing house initially didn't want Wired Digital. That property was sold to Lycos until Conde Nast got with it and bought it back in 2006. Rossetto now runs a boutique chocolate company, and Metcalfe eschews celebrity altogether. But, she'd been there and done that a long time ago.

Jane's Dictum: Don't sell the tech, sell the so-what.

Robert Scoble's voicemail says, "Don't leave me a message. I'm probably doing an interview or in a meeting or something." He's such a celebrity that marketers hope some Scoble dust will rub off on them. The Paris Hilton of marketing recently signed on with Rackspace, a buzz-seeking hosting company that offers "managed private clouds."

Scoble provided the company with entrée to an exclusive tech event, for example, according to Rob La Gesse, director of customer development. "Scoble gives us the ability to enter a conversation stream we had been excluded from," he says.

Scoble was a geek before geeky was cool, working on Macs in high school, and then starting his career at Fawcette Technical Publications.

He signed on with Microsoft in 2003, becoming the de facto evangelist for the Vista operating system during its long development. "I knew they needed a human voice," he says. Scoble gave Microsoft that voice with Channel 9, an online community for Microsoft developers. Launched in April 2004, in the pre-YouTube era (when corporate videos were as sterile as a Waggener-Edstrom press release), Scoble shot quick-and-dirty videos with no lighting or special sets, bearding technical folks in their cubicles, then posted them on Channel9.com.

"It was an experiment they allowed to flourish," Scoble recalls. "We were very careful -- I took some risks, but they were calculated risks. It kept getting bigger and bigger. People realized this was a new way to talk to customers."

In 2005, community member Dave Oliver raved, "I now prefer the honest unmanaged rawness and feel of these videos, it's also like you get a sense of being in the room too... It does make Microsoft seem less evil and more human."

"[Scoble is] a guy who loves doing what he's doing, and it shows," says Steve Rubel, SVP and director of insights for Edelman Digital -- and a top blogger himself. "He's a bon vivant and loves to connect with people personally. The amount of connections he's able to build is amazing."

In 2003, Scoble made waves when he published the Corporate Weblog Manifesto on his blog, exhorting companies to be honest and responsive. He followed that up with the book "Naked Conversations," co-written with Shel Israel. He left Microsoft in 2006 and bounced around a bit before joining Rackspace, a San Antonio hosting company where, as customer advocate, he's helping to develop Building43, a site to help small businesses benefit from new internet tools.

"He understands trends six to 12 months in advance of most people," says Rackspace's La Gesse.

Scoble's gotten some backlash for promoting himself as an "A-list blogger," earning the epithet of "egoblogger." But fans say that he remains generous and approachable. In fact, much of his success comes from his being such a fanboy himself. For example, in a post about attending the Davos conference last year, he gushed that meeting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg there was one of the high points of his life.

The Scoble Manifesto: Tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth.

Certainly, every big ad agency seems to have its trendy, experimental arm, and Publicis' Denuo, launched in February 2006, may look like more of the same. But Rishad Tobaccowala, Denuo's grand master, staked his career on digital media when it was barely a glimmer.

Tobaccowala was a rising star at Leo Burnett Worldwide, where he'd ascended from media buyer to account manager. He persuaded Jack Klues, then head of Burnett, to create a digital marketing group, and then to buy Giant Step, one of the first digital agencies. Then, in 1999, he shocked people by jumping over to head this new beast, known as Starcom IP. Some thought he was risking his career.

Jeff Marshall, who was one of the first Starcom employees, disagrees. "He sees things earlier than other people do, and he makes moves off that. I wouldn't characterize it as risky," Marshall says. "His vision was that everything would become digital." Marshall is now senior vice president and managing director of Pixel, Starcom's digital creative agency.

As Publicis bought Burnett, Tobaccowala went through the transitions: Starcom Media Group, SMG Next, then becoming chief innovation officer of Publicis Groupe Media before taking the lead on Denuo.

Tobaccowala pioneered digital ads on AOL, Hotwired, and Broderbund CD-ROMs. He's credited with getting Procter & Gamble and other clients to stick with the web during the dotcom bust.

"We tended to start working with people before most people know who they are," Tobaccowala recalls. "We were lucky. We didn't kiss a lot of frogs before we figured out who were the princes and princesses."

Marshall says Tobaccowala has three superpowers: He's incredibly intelligent, he's fearless, and he's a voracious reader. "A lot of people think they'll pick stuff up in meetings or reading Twitter feeds," Marshall says. "He has a bigger approach to the world that seems to work for him."

At a time when jazzy digital shops insisted traditional agencies didn't get it, and traditional shops tried to ghettoize digital, Tobaccowala was able to bridge the two worlds, bringing solid marketing chops while advocating for this new medium. He calls this pragmatic enthusiasm: loving the technology without losing sight of the business.

"Rishad has an unbelievable way of taking very complex marketing approaches and distilling them down to something that everyone can get excited about, and understand what the objectives are," says Adam Heneghan, a co-founder of Giant Step who worked with Tobaccowala after Burnett acquired it.

Adds Eric Heneghan, Giant Step co-founder, "He's someone who came from the traditional advertising world but was willing to understand how we could apply traditional marketing aspects to this new space."

Tobaccowala's Mantra: Think ahead and move early.

Seth Godin is one of the original digital marketers, founding Yoyodyne in 1995 to help companies connect with consumers. Yoyodyne developed online games for brands and lured consumers with contests and sweepstakes. He sold Yoyodyne to Yahoo in 1998 and stayed on there as vice president of direct marketing until 2000, when he launched a solo consulting and writing career.

Godin began his business-book writing career in the 1990s, and became famous for "Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers" in 1999. The concept became one of the pillars of internet marketing by distinguishing it from traditional "interruptive advertising" and led to today's emphasis on connecting with consumers.

Ten more books followed regularly, with funny, surprising titles (including "Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync?" and "Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable"), wacky covers, and insights that immediately became marketing truisms.

In 2005, Godin founded Squidoo, a free service that lets experts and enthusiasts set up free "lenses" to aggregate content about particular topics. Last month, to demonstrate how companies could use them to track and respond to internet chatter, he set up 200 brand-specific lenses that collected tweets, blog posts, news stories, images, videos, and comments about the brand. The idea was to provide an easy service that let companies highlight favorable buzz and quickly respond to negative comments. All well and good. However, he promised to keep creating Brands in Public pages until there were thousands of important brands and, "If your brand wants to be in charge of developing this page, it will cost you $400 a month." After quick and vociferous outcry, he took down the pages, commenting, "Part of the magic of the web is that you can adjust as you go, particularly if you're willing to listen."

The flap -- and Godin's quick response -- illustrates his philosophy on how brands need to behave in order to win consumers' attention and loyalty.

Godin's Guidance: I'd rather be a purple cow than see one.

Susan Kuchinskas is a freelance writer who has written for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Susan Kuchinskas has covered internet technology since the mid 1990s, when e-commerce was kind of a wacky idea. As a senior writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com, she's watched the interactive advertising grow from a tiny...

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Commenter: Tim Bottiglieri

2009, October 30

only some of the reasons why its still a great country ! success or fail, where else can you build n reveal, and create opportunity for one and for all ! delightful n honest insight on chance, wonderful article.