When Michael Arrington wrote a post on his TechCrunch blog a year ago dissing Marc Andreessen's new startup, Ning, the company's execs promptly sprang into action to change his mind. The founders of the do-it-yourself social networking service dove into the comments on his blog, invited Arrington to their offices, and provided him with progress updates. The result: When Ning launched publicly in February, Arrington offered a full mea culpa that rippled across the Internet and showed up in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It's no secret that bloggers are becoming increasingly influential. But Arrington is part of an emerging crowd of writers who use their narrowly focused blogs, such as hyperlocal real estate reports, green guides, or Web 2.0 startup reviews, to establish themselves as thought leaders. These new influencers are taking a page from the blog networks Gawker and Weblogs Inc. and turning rapid-fire, around-the-clock blog patter that makes and shapes the news into a hot new online media model.
Companies are directing more efforts toward buttering up these New Media players, often feeding them exclusives that play well with their targeted audiences. And for marketers who are increasingly comfortable with spending money on blogs, advertising with these opinion leaders provides instant cachet.
Think of these as the digital version of potent, passionate trade press writers. They swarm every novelty in areas like tech, creating problems and buzz for companies and innovations. They report news and publish it alongside analysis of newspaper stories and company releases. These posts are salted with strong doses of personality, sparking discussions across the Web. By melding their own insights and opinions with the aggregated views of others, they're starting to gain leverage. "In a time-starved world, people—especially decision-makers—have very little time, but do not want to miss being in the know," says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer at advertising firm Publicis Groupe Media.
The growing influence of a few über bloggers comes as the overall creation of new blogs is slowing down. A total of 70 million blogs have been set up, but March data from blog search service Technorati show that only 15.5 million bloggers updated their sites during the last three months, up slightly from 15.3 million in October. Meanwhile, the most successful blogs are approaching the heft that mainstream sites enjoy. They're raising venture capital and expanding into larger networks of narrowly focused blogs, conferences, and online TV shows. For instance, at TreeHugger, a service that follows green consumer products, a team of bloggers posts dozens of original and aggregated items each day. During the past year, TreeHugger added video and reference guides about everything from green weddings to eco-friendly furniture. That helped double its audience to 1.6 million monthly visitors.
It was in tech, though, that early blog adopters first cottoned to this hyper-niched, hyperlinked model. Among the most closely followed blogs are Arrington's TechCrunch, Rafat Ali's paidContent, and Om Malik's GigaOM.
These bloggers are still dwarfed by traditional media sites. Sites like paidContent provide a way for established companies and advertisers to reach engaged, plugged-in consumers. PaidContent began as a place for Ali to dump his notes as a tech reporter; last year, he raised venture funding from Alan Patricof's Greycroft Partners. Now he employs eight writers who cover niches such as digital media and wireless media, and the blog is profitable. "I appreciate their focus on the business of New Media, as opposed to the buzz or cool factor," says Larry Shapiro, an executive vice-president at Walt Disney Internet Group (DIS ), who checks the site several times each day.
By Heather Green