*Updated for 2016*
We all recognize personal branding when we see it, but it’s also a nebulous term that very few understand. Many of us recognize its value, but very few know how to get there. And, a lasting personal brand is not something that is build overnight.
Examples of People Who Built Personal Brands
Many people whom I respect have spent years building their personal brand. There is not anyone that I respect, that I can think of, who has just sprang onto the scene for the sake of being famous (aka no one has pulled a Snooki in SEO that I respect).
People like Rand Fishkin, who of course didn’t spring onto the scene last year. He’s been building a personal brand (and company) for years. In fact, when he started out in business he sucked at it (and he’ll freely admit that). But over the years he has gotten better at it, to the tune of probably $20 million in revenue this year, and has positioned himself as a sought-after speaker (he’s even taken speaking classes) and reknowned expert in the search marketing and startup fields.
Seth Godin has built many companies, but he’s been marketing himself as an outside-the-box thinker and writer for years as well. Seth started his career in software in 1983, but founded his first company Yoyodyne in the late 1980’s. Yoyodyne became one of the first online marketing companies, and through that and other ventures and his books, 11 in total, he has invented concepts like permission marketing, which is kind of the precursor to inbound marketing. Now his personal daily blog is quite well-trafficked and shared, and Seth is regarded as an expert in the field.
To use a non-search example (some of you are saying “Finally!”) Alex Honnold, a professional climber, has built a reputation for climbing the biggest walls in the world without a rope, but he has been climbing since he was a child, and he did not really become a big name until a 60 Minutes story about him in 2011. He recently completed the Triple Crown of big-wall climbing (about 2 weeks after I met him in Colorado) and is now being heralded as a “rising legend” in the sport.
What is “Personal Branding”?
Now that we have a few examples of people branding themselves, let’s explore what it is. Personal branding is, in my words, sentiments and actions people attach to you when your name is mentioned – “Generous.” “Smart.” “Troll.” All of these are potential descriptors, and as you see they can be positive or negative. A personal brand can also be positive or negative, and the choice to have a positive or negative brand is solely up to you.
Personal brands are built in multiple ways, but here are a few:
- By being an expert, or becoming one;
- By writing what you know;
- By what others say about you;
- By being a strong voice in a noisy world;
- Using consistency in voice, production, and quality;
- Using consistency across many platforms.
An intriguing part of personal branding is that it touches all parts of your life. Your personal brand influences your career choices, your location, opportunities that both present themselves and those you decide to take, the content you produce, and many other “intangibles” such as peace of mind.
Let’s look at tangible ways to build a personal brand.
Consistency and Focus
Every example mentioned above is consistent in the face portrayed to the world, and from what I can tell this is the same face as they display in private.
Consistency involves being the same across social media, your content (look at Seth’s books and his blog posts), the way that you treat people (Rand tries to respond to everyone who emails him), and even more importantly consistency in what you believe in.
When it comes to what you become an expert in, one thing that has been impressed upon me for the past year by my boss is the importance of focusing on one thing and doing that well before branching out. This is focus. Though, focus doesn’t come overnight; focus comes through experimenting, finding what works and what you are passionate about, and then pursuing that.
If you are a content creator for example, find your voice by publishing many different types, find what works, and do more of that. If you are a content curator, become the person that people go to in order to find the best content about that niche/industry. Glen Allsopp of ViperChill has done a great job of this by writing epic posts that are the go-to posts for many of the topics he has written about.
Adherence to values is another way to establish a personal brand. I love this tweet that Will, one of the founders of the company I work for, sent the other day, which perfectly encapsulates his values, which I have seen working for him:
Establishing consistency across your brand does not mean that you cannot step outside of that from time to time either. If you produce longform content, do that most of the time but also test content that might be outside your comfort zone. I love Coke’s 70-20-10 principle – spend 70% of your time on content that you know will work. Spend 20% on content that might give high return, and spend 10% on very risky content.
“Presence” can be a nebulous term, so I’ve chosen to break it into content and personal presence.
Content presence includes both consistency and reach, which I talk about above and below, but it does not stop there. First, you must understand that when I say content presence, I do not just mean online or written content, but also content you produce for clients, speeches you give, and other things you produce such as software.
Your content presence, whatever this content is, should have the following attributes:
- Strong and authoritative voice
- High Quality
Michael King has done this well in the past year. His content presence is consistent across different presentations he does, as you can see by his presentations on Slideshare:
Online, you should also worry about your social media presence. Your social media presence, as you can guess, is simply how others perceive you when they come across your profile. Do you come across as approachable, or are you a hater? Do you just promote your own content, or do you share other worthwhile content and attempt to add to the online conversation?
Other things people may notice include your engagement with others, your tone (snarky or helpful), your biography (who do you work for? What do you do? Are you really a bot?)
Consistency across your profiles helps newcomers to the industry or new readers understand who you are. Use the same photo for your Gravatar, your Twitter account, your FB account (if it is public), and other profiles. Use a similar biography so others know what to expect. Also, by doing this you control the conversation and their perception of you as opposed to them being required to come up with their own perceptions.
Here is Seth Godin’s online presence, which is helped out greatly by Google’s highlighting on the right of the screen (through their new Knowledge Graph). He has his author photo, professional photo on the right, and all of his books showing when you search his name:
For further reading on social media presence, I highly recommend Ross’s post on YOUmoz from last year about using static force multipliers.
A personal brand is heavily influenced by its reach. You must recognize that your personal brand is partially built by what others are saying about you, and especially who is saying it. Your reach is not simply those directly in your social circles (though they definitely matter), but also those in the social circles of those sharing your content, the readers of sites where your content exists and is cited, and even offline conversations (though this is hard to quantify). Here is one way to visualize your reach (this post was shared by Rand and some other influencers):
A few quick words about your direct reach are needed too. These are your biggest advocates (you could even call them your personal brand advocates). These are the friends you make that you know will share your content if it is good enough (and will tell you when it sucks), will edit content for you before it goes live, will link to it and spread your message. These are the most important relationships you have online and they should be cultivated and nurtured, just like any close friendship or relationship.
- Your Twitter followers;
- The fans of your Facebook page;
- Your mom;
- Your coworkers;
- Your business partners or business friends.
We would be remiss to think about building a personal brand without expertise. In short, beware branding without expertise. A strong personal brand and recognition as a thought leader should come because of the quality of your work, not because you followed a few key steps to branding yourself online.
If you want to become known as a great blogger, then blog a lot and get better at blogging. If you want to be seen as a great speaker, pitch and give talks and let others see your work (Slideshare is great for increasing your reach in this area). Matt Cutts did a great job of this with his TED talk about 30 day challenges:
Remember that expertise takes a long time to build. Michael Hyatt has been blogging for over seven years on his site and has only really gained a big audience in the past two years. Before that he was the CEO of a huge publishing company. Rand has been writing on Moz for almost 8 years and has written around 1500 posts. Before Moz was successful, Rand was grinding it out, blogging every day. Tom Shadyac, the director of films like Liar, Liar and Ace Ventura has been producing movies for many many years before he hit Hollywood gold.
A word of caution:
If you brand yourself as an expert and are not truly an expert, you will eventually be exposed. I believe that one of most people’s fears is being exposed as a fraud. If you brand yourself as an expert and are not, then expect to have more stress in your life trying to maintain a certain perception of yourself!
Let’s try to bring all of the above thoughts together. A personal brand:
- Takes time to build;
- Involves consistency and focus;
- Requires presence (both content and social);
- Requires reach;
- Requires expertise.
You won’t like to hear this, but personal branding takes time and is a lot of hard work. You must consistently be putting yourself out where your audience is, and consistently pushing out stellar content (whether this is speaking at conferences, blogging, or playing a sport) for them to see. Great content that doesn’t get put in front of anyone is worthless, in my opinion. And if the audience you have is not resonating with it, guess what?
Then it’s not great content.
One of the most sound pieces of advice I think I can give here, since I have seen it in my own life, is to find great mentors and seek to copy them (and do better than them). In my own work, I look up to great writers and speakers like Tom Critchlow, Rand Fishkin, Justin Briggs, and Ross Hudgens. They make me think differently every day and I respect them for the new creative thoughts they put in my mind.
You might need to think about how to position yourself as an expert as well. This may involve a job change or making friends with new influencers who can share your stuff. I’ll be honest – I wouldn’t be where I am today without my job at Distilled. Is your current situation getting you where you want to be?
It’s never too late to start building a personal brand or building a platform. A book that I have seen out, that I have not yet read though I have read the ebook about it, is Platform written by Michael Hyatt, someone I respect. The tagline is “Getting Noticed in a Noisy World”, and I am sure he says everything way better than I have.
Good luck on this journey. It’s a fun one. And remember…as long as you are doing what you love, success doesn’t mean a huge social media following or a world record. Success can be as small as influencing change in your home.