Creating a successful brand in the online professional sphere.
by Chris Allsop
The word “branding” tends to be associated with corporations and cattle. Fortunately, since the advent of social media and the rise of “personal branding,” we’ve been charged with making our own individual marks in the world, thus influencing how others perceive us.
For job-seekers and those looking to expand their business opportunities, creating a strong professional online brand provides a cringe-free icebreaker for approaching colleagues and companies that can further one’s career. The tools at our disposal include social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), blogs, and personal websites. But before you begin online empire building, Skilset Communications’ Michele Lando, a pioneer in personal branding who’s based in Pasadena, California, recommends taking the following steps to build a personal brand.
First, consider your proposition: who are you, and what do you want to be known for? If you don’t have solid, well-thought-out answers to these questions, you’ll lose control of your message and your audience may not be sure who you are or what you have to offer.
Next, conduct a competitive analysis. Research individuals with a similar proposition to yours and ask yourself: how am I different? From there, consider how you’re going to differentiate yourself and craft your unique message. “This will help your audience to choose you,” Lando explains. A good example of this process in action was Facebook’s knockout of its main competitor, Myspace. Facebook created preference for its service by offering a cleaner interface that was favored by a broader demographic of Internet users.
And remember that the devil is in the details. For instance, use a professional-sounding email handle for work-related endeavors. “Some students send resumes from email addresses such as ‘Princess@’,” says Lando. “As a business owner, I won’t hire you: I can immediately see that you lack common sense.”
Once you’re armed with a clear idea of what you’re trying to express and why you’re preferable to the competition, you’re ready to generate brand buzz online. Christopher Williams, vice president, Strategic Communications for Cookson Strategies in Manchester, New Hampsire and interim director of Communications for Antioch University Midwest, says the first thing to remember about online engagement, whether personal or professional, is that it is there forever. “Don’t post anything that you don’t want your boss, your mother, your partner/spouse and, nowadays, the NSA, to see,” he advises.
So what are the cornerstones of a strong online brand? Be appropriate, says Lando. If you’re studying to be a writer, write a blog. If you’re studying to be a therapist, perhaps not. “Pick the right vehicle that makes sense for your story,” she says. This choice is made easy by identifying which platform is most in favor with your audience. If you have intelligent competitors, they’ll be present in these online spaces already, but don’t restrict yourself to the tried and tested – if you can find some unique avenues, all the better.
In branding, consistency is key. To support this, Williams suggests separating your professional and personal online personas and activities. Within your professional network, use the same appropriate headshot, the same user name, and leave the privacy settings wide open to eliminate hurdles that your audience has to clear to reach you. Interact consistently across platforms in a fashion dictated by your strategy. “The goal is to have your personality shine through, but in the context of things that are more relevant to your professional life,” Williams says.
CHOOSING A PLATFORM
Now, don’t panic. While the selection of platforms may appear infinite, it’s not you who has to make the choice: leave that to your audience. Determine where they hang out, and let that be where you focus your personal branding efforts.
Feel free to test the waters. Lando began with Twitter, but disengaged swiftly when she realized it wasn’t appropriate for her brand strategy. “If I get around to writing the book I keep threatening to write,” she says, “then I will return to Twitter, as it has strategic value to my overall plan.”
When you have a presence on multiple platforms, don’t duplicate content across channels. Th ere are distinct communication styles for each platform; what works for one may seem out of sync and lazy in another. Pick one platform and master it before moving on to the next.
LinkedIn is a safe bet for career-oriented networking and can also serve as a personal website. Williams describes it as “your online resume,” as well as a great place to scan the professional landscape. Seek out like-minded professionals – take tips from how they represent themselves – and use the site as a resource. Through LinkedIn, you can discover and investigate companies, including the names of key contacts, with whom you may want to do business. “If I get to a place where I’m ready to contact a company,” says Williams, “I’ll see if there’s someone I might know (personally or through another connection) and reach out to them directly.”
As you would with your resume in an interview situation, ensure your information on LinkedIn is accurate and upto- date. (It’s unnecessary to go back further than 15 to 20 years). Explore LinkedIn’s group options, through which you can access a community that may help promote your brand through word of mouth, or by sharing the links you post. Finally, be choosy about whose invitations to “connect” you accept: visibility isn’t everything, and contacts with questionable reputations might have a negative impact on your brand.
Twitter is described by Williams as the easiest yet most complicated channel to use. “Essentially, it’s an ongoing conversation that you engage in,” he says. Although it might appear that your remark has dropped unnoticed into the continuum, always assume someone’s listening. Engage by retweeting items of interest (no cats dressed as Elvis – stay professional), and if there’s a topic you want to comment on, weigh in. Choose as your contacts people who interest you professionally. And think local. Williams sometimes approaches potential clients in his community through Twitter; the simple act of following someone immediately upgrades a cold contact to a contact.
Finally, strategies for Facebook overlap with Twitter in many ways. Target friends and groups with a cold, professional eye. “And no political or religious posts,” says Williams. “You’ll alienate people.”
After creating a strong personal brand, it’s important to maintain it. Lando recommends a quarterly review; check to see if your story or the professional world around you has changed, and adapt your message as needed. And remember that silence is deadly – once you commit to maintaining an online presence, stay active. Respond to comments, post often, and try to stay topical. If a potential client or employer Googles you and encounters social media accounts with no recent activity, you’ve made a poor “first digital impression.”
Now you’re ready to make yourself stand out from the herd.
Learn about the branding and communications company that Lando co-founded at skilset.com
Learn about the strategic planning, public relations, and marketing communications firm where Williams works at cooksonstrategies.com