Time Magazine: The Human Billboard

For those of you who were unable to access the Time Magazine article I posted some thoughts about last week, my apologies! If you’re interested in checking it out, the full text is after the jump.

Jordan Reid seems to be having a morning much like any other young mother’s in suburban New York. “I’m really sorry, but I’m covered in spilled milk,” she says as she steps out of her blue Subaru Outback after having tended to her 18-month-old son. Yet her catalog-ready appearance–Reid is wearing a leather bomber jacket, polka-dot ankle-rolled jeans and pink patent-leather flats under that spilled milk–is a tip that she isn’t quite like her fellow moms. On any given day, after dressing and feeding her son, Reid spends an intensely regimented half hour cleansing herĀ face with Moisturizing Facial Wash by Simple, washing her hair with Dove Color Care shampoo and riffling through a wardrobe chock-full of TJ Maxx clothing to compose a boho-chic outfit. She grabs one of her four Timex watches and one of three pairs of Ann Taylor sunglasses and scrambles down the stairs in her sunny three-bedroom home to eat breakfast on her new Noritake china collection (an eclectic mix of the Rochelle Gold, Hertford and Yoshino patterns).

Those brand choices aren’t random. Reid blogs about fashion, food and home decor as well as life with her husband Kendrick and her son, and a growing number of companies are paying her to photograph, tweet and write about how she uses their products and what she thinks of them and to present them on her blog, in her style. Dove and Simple pay her to use their cleansers. TJ Maxx, Ann Taylor and Bloomingdale’s have paid her to wear their clothes. Timex has paid her to sport its watches. Noritake has paid her to use its china. Reid has scrubbed stains off her wall for Better TV using Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser and painted her living-room walls canary yellow for Valspar paint. Even date nights have had a sponsor, Sorel boots. “Just in case a long walk home through the fall leaves is in order, let’s go ahead and make sure those boots are as cozy as they are gorgeous,” Reid wrote on her blog, under photos of her lounging on her porch in a faux-fur coat and Sorel’s Joan of Arctic boots.

Of all the changes wrought by social media, few underscore the growing reach of the individual–and the continuing fragmentation of culture–like the rise of Reid and others like her. They are the microcelebrities, the spiritual successors of flash-in-the-pan reality-TV stars but with followings that often number in the thousands rather than the millions, and some marketers, looking for cost-effective ways to reach specific audiences, are desperate to tap into their power. It’s now a given that upstart bloggers can wield outsize influence. What’s new is how quickly companies have moved to pay for the privilege of enlisting relatively unknown personalities in the blogosphere. There’s Kelley Framel, the 29-year-old fashionista who writes the Glamourai and has made deals with American Express, Sony and Lincoln cars. Jane Aldridge writes about jewelry and vintage fashion on her website Sea of Shoes, cashing checks from Urban Outfitters, Mattel and Magnum ice cream. And then there’s Brit + Co. blogger Brit Morin, a former Google and YouTube employee who hawks on behalf of Nikon, Uniqlo and Velcro.

For enterprising bloggers, the lure is simple: income that can range from $100,000 a year to hundreds of thousands more. For marketers, the calculus is more complicated. Yes, they can target audiences, and the price is relatively low compared with already cheap online advertisements. And bloggers can offer a more authentic connection to brands for consumers who are weary of varnished sales pitches from Madison Avenue. But companies are also putting their brands in the hands of untested spokespeople and, in some cases, running into controversy about the blogger-sponsor relationship. Leery consumers prefer that bloggers’ opinions be independent. Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission introduced tighter regulations for social-media advertising. Though there are clear successes, it’s far too early to tell if the approach drives more sales than traditional marketing.

Regardless, the concept is already fueling the growth of a virtual ecosystem of digital microcelebrities. There are talent scouts, like Karen Robinovitz of Digital Brand Architects and Andy McNicol of William Morris Entertainment, who help bloggers connect with marketers. There are p.r. agencies with staffers dedicated to scouring the depths of social media to find bloggers with profiles that fit the demographics and sensibilities of the brands that hire them. “It’s amazing when you can tell a brand’s story organically through the eyes of somebody who believes passionately in it and has a trusted following,” says Robinovitz, who calls this “the future of marketing.”

Olivia Howell is exactly the kind of consumer that microcelebrities–and the marketers who pay them–want to reach. The 28-year-old middle-school teacher from Huntington, N.Y., is an avid reader of lifestyle blogs like Reid’s Ramshackle Glam, What I Wore by Jessica Quirk, and Mary Rambin’s fashion and fitness blog More than Mary. Powell discovered Reid five years ago through another lifestyle site. She latched onto Reid’s posts because they were “so friendly and real” and personal, she says. After following the launch of Ramshackle Glam, Powell was heartened when she started tweeting to Reid and she “actually tweeted back,” Powell says.

Reid’s posts keep Powell up to speed on niche designers and the trials of married life. Powell says she learned about the dress-rental site Rent the Runway from Reid and has used it religiously ever since. When Reid posted last fall about an Old Navy contest to win the brand’s Rockstar Denim jeans, Powell recruited her eighth-grade students to enter the contest and ran out to buy a pair herself.

Brands navigate the microcelebrity ecosystem in a number of ways. Many go to traditional public-relations agencies and talent managers who recruit social-media directors, former bloggers and lifestyle journalists to mine their Twitter accounts, Facebook connections and Instagram feeds to find the next wave of microtalent. Some brands go to agents who have carved out a niche in managing digital talent. Others go directly to known bloggers who have networks of less established peers that can be sorted and filtered by the demographic characteristics and level of influence with people the brand is looking to work with–be it age, regional following, Twitter fans or unique visitors per month.

Then there is the sea of national, regional and local conferences that marketers attend to keep pace with the millions of bloggers who are desperate to make money from promotional work. Confabs like New Media Live and TwtrCon attract thousands of bloggers with varied interests from around the country. Others go niche: the Savvy Blogging Summit is geared toward frugal deal bloggers; BlogHer Food teaches digital foodies how to style their cooking for the camera and get their recipes featured in cookbooks and on popular websites.

And yet for all the hype social media attract in the marketing world, it’s unclear whether recruiting armies of citizen product placers is worth all the micromanaging. Some brands swear by the idea. “Throwing a load of cash and a product at someone doesn’t work anymore,” says Andy Griffiths, sen