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Digital guru’s gospel: Keep it human

Chris Brogan’s “office’’ is wherever he goes. Chris Brogan’s “office’’ is wherever he goes. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2010

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AMESBURY — Chris Brogan is a quote machine. As a social-media marketing adviser — an enthusiastic advocate for the myriad ways that online connections can boost business — he has built a devoted following by offering gentle guidance and bon mots.

It’s mostly just common sense, as the blogger and author, who lives here, is happy to admit. Among his huge following — more than 100,000 and growing on Twitter — one popular line is Brogan’s take on the difference between having an audience and building a community. It’s the way you arrange the chairs, he says.

That nugget was just a fleeting thought, but it has since become one of Brogan’s signature bits of advice. “It’s an easy, easy concept,’’ says the Internet marketing guru, who co-wrote the New York Times bestseller “Trust Agents’’ and recently published a second book, “Social Media 101.’’ “But every time I say it, it gets, like, a bazillion tweets.’’

Brogan, a Pied Piper for the digital age, has built his growing empire on little more than practicality and a gregarious approach to business that encourages openness and personality as effective marketing tools.

“We don’t all have to be robots, sitting in cubicles,’’ he says over a lunchtime burger at a neighborhood pub near his family’s loft apartment. “We can tap these deep feel ings we have as well as make money and do business.’’

Originally from Maine, Brogan attended seven colleges without graduating and has “done the mill-town tour’’ — Lowell, Everett, Revere — with his wife and now their two children. In 2006 he co-founded a venture called PodCamp, a new-media “UnConference’’ designed to bring Internet users together for mutual gain.

Now Brogan has become a respected commentator and an Internet celebrity who appears regularly on television and in print. Leading by example, he has made much of his life accessible to his followers. When he went on a fitness kick, he started a podcast called Fat Guy Gets Fit. As a new father, he launched a blog called Dad-O-Matic.

“He’s someone in the social-media world who definitely walks the walk and talks the talk,’’ says Leslie Poston, a Portsmouth-based new media expert and co-author of “Twitter for Dummies.’’ “He’s very accessible and genuine. He stays true to himself, and that’s perhaps the secret to his success.’’

Brogan, who points to his backpack when he talks about his office and often works from a nearby ice cream shop, says almost everything in his life is fair game for self-branding.

“It’s like using all parts of the buffalo,’’ he says.

With his success has come a rash of criticism. Most of it revolves around the idea that Brogan is selling an idea that isn’t new: Shrewd use of social media builds connections, which in turn can spur business. All true, says Brogan, who suggests that those who charge him with repetition could often benefit from the reminders. Dale Carnegie faced the same criticism, he says.

The networker, who turned 40 in April, first caught onto the community-oriented nature of computer networks way back in the 1980s, when he found that he could engage likeminded comic-book and science-fiction fans in conversation on the old bulletin board systems (BBSs).

“The guys who lived around me only wanted to talk about Aerosmith and the Red Sox and the Bruins,’’ says Brogan, a husky guy with a shock of blond hair and a trademark goatee. “I liked those things fine. I just wasn’t enamored with them.’’

The bulletin boards meant he could foster online relationships with people who shared his interests, wherever they lived.

“We have so many opportunities in life to feel alone,’’ he says.

With his mother working for the phone company (the old Ma Bell), Brogan took a job there in the late ’80s in customer service. Later he moved into product support, helped build data centers, and worked on business acquisitions — all of which laid critical groundwork for his new career as a marketing expert.

Passion and personality, Brogan says, come across on the Web in ways that older models, such as traditional advertising and public relations, tend to lack. For his main website (www.chrisbrogan.com), he recently reviewed a new carry-on suitcase made by Eagle Creek. While he was shooting footage of himself at home talking about the product, his daughter wandered into the picture. The gaffe, he says, created an intimate connection with viewers. The company sold a ton of those bags, he says.

Rather than relying on the traditional “Hello!’’ nametags of business and social gatherings, Brogan begins his talks with a Zulu greeting, “Sawubona’’ — “I see you.’’ “It means ‘I recognize you as a person and that you are there,’ ’’ he says. That’s one key to his advice: Offer helpful information, whether or not the transaction involves a closing sale. Such good will, Brogan preaches, pays off in the long run.

By now, several of his enterprises have taken on lives of their own. Dad-O-Matic, for instance, has about a hundred contributors, of which Brogan is just one.

He’s becoming like R&B impresario P. Diddy, he jokes, stepping out of the limelight to give other acts some time onstage.

But with so many projects underway, he acknowledges it can be tough to unplug himself from Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and the rest. The Brogans took a family vacation last year, and he still posted to his blog each day.

“I had to share pictures of my daughter fishing,’’ he says.

James Sullivan can be reached at james@jamessullivanauthor.com.

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