Those who have been riding alongside me for a while know that one of my core brand pillars is to help CEOs avoid waste and risk when it comes to marketing investment.
So, why am I talking about personal branding today—something that elicits considerable fear and risk for many CEOs and C-level execs?
Because even though it’s downright scary to put yourself out there—in front of people who are part of your business circles and those you’ve never met—it’s also a must-do.
I understand that fear. I’ve been on LinkedIn—which is now the personal branding epicenter of social media—for my entire career, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I got serious about putting myself and my content out on the platform in a more intentional way.
I’m not someone who gets easily ruffled. I’ve been in the marketing trenches of some of the top global agencies and consultancies in the world. I’ve presented multi-million dollar marketing strategies to boardrooms full of high-powered people. But, nothing—NOTHING—compared to the terror I felt when I pressed the “post” button on LinkedIn for the first time.
Part of it was the judgment I was already passing on myself. All of my friends and colleagues at Young & Rubicam, or SAP, knew me in a particular context. Would they wonder what I was yammering on about? Would they agree? Worse—would they disagree?
Even more frightening than putting yourself out there? Putting yourself out there and talking about yourself—not just about your brand’s products, features, and tech. We’re at the point in the social media zeitgeist where anything and everything you say is immediately available for scrutiny by the entire universe, even if they had no idea you existed the day before. If you’re concerned, it’s for good reason.
However, there’s always a yin to the yang. Your personal brand also has the potential to be your company’s competitive advantage. Over the past decade, we’ve seen founders and company CEOs often hold more clout than the businesses they own and lead. When you thoughtfully promote yourself to your target audience by speaking honestly and earnestly about your experience, skills, values, beliefs, and purpose, you earn trust and authority as a human being and a leader. With time, that can make a difference in your company’s bottom line.
With that, here are a few considerations to keep in mind as you’re weighing the pros and cons of stepping out behind the scenes and developing your personal brand…
Focus More on the “Personal” than “Brand”
First, a caveat: I don’t write much about “personal branding” because personal branding as it’s long been defined has never sat well with me. It’s always felt a little manufactured. A little, well, impersonal. I use it here because frankly, I haven’t found a better term. Believe me, I’m trying.
I agree with brand designer Debbie Millman when she says that the idea of a personal brand is self-contradictory. As a marketer, I agree with her assessment. Brands are all around us: they’re an inescapable part of life. But the goal of a brand, no matter how authentic, is to create manufactured meaning around products, practices, beliefs, and concepts.
If you’re concerned, it’s for good reason.
When you apply branding to humans, Millman admits it doesn’t quite work as planned. “To be a brand takes all of this sort of glorious humanity out of being a human,” she says. “You become this manufactured thing. And all the things that are so wonderful about being a human: changing our minds, being messy, being inconsistent—all of those things are the things brands try to avoid being.”
My point in bringing up Millman’s words is this: Don’t feel like you have to take the “branding” part of the phrase to the extreme. Talking about your values, skills, professional journey, and the lessons you’ve learned through it all—and communicating those pieces of your story with honest passion, enthusiasm, and openness—is the most important aspect of who you are and the one that will endear your network AND your brand’s customers to your message. It will also help define your business in a context that can be meaningful to others who get to know you and want to know more about your business.
Consider Your Positioning
Just as your brand occupies a place in the mind of your customers and prospects, you’re looking to do much the same with your own target audience—especially if you’re planning to create content to support your brand through LinkedIn or other platforms.
Figuring out this positioning requires a bit of digging deep and asking yourself some questions to understand the kind of stories you want to tell and the wisdom you want to impart. These are a few good ones to get you started:
- What do you want to be known for?
- What is your personal expertise?
- What are your purpose and values?
- What makes you different from other leaders in your field?
- What about your career trajectory is interesting or different?
- What does your target audience look like? Who might they work with, and what matters most to them?
The first five questions can help you narrow in on what to focus on, while the last one connects back to your brand: helping to identify the best prospects and customers for you by setting up trust parameters for businesses that might want to partner with you.
What do you want to be known for?
I’m happy to use myself as an example here. I talk about money and marketing spending. The reason I talk about money is that the dirty little secret about marketing is you can’t do it well unless you have money. There are many marketing leaders who won’t talk about that part.
I also know CEOs are worried about how to spend marketing dollars in a way that doesn’t waste money and gets a return on investment. So, I talk about what I know. I know teams waste a lot of money on marketing. In fact, as I’ve built my own business, I’ve also wasted money on marketing. I’ve taken several risks that haven’t worked out 100%, so I position my value by sharing what I know.
As you start to think about how your own personal positioning can be turned into content, you’ll want to consider whether there’s a specific channel that’s best for you. Where your content is seen depends on your objective and the type of relationship you’d like to have with your audience. For example:
- LinkedIn. Posting on your personal LinkedIn page is a 1:1 experience, where individual people can interact with and comment on your posts.
Note: LinkedIn personal and Company Pages serve very different purposes, and I’ve seen many organizations try to forge the same kind of authentic connection that typically happens through personal posts on their Company Pages. Company Pages certainly have their place in your organization’s marketing efforts, but for engagement and awareness, you’ll find posting on your personal page makes much more sense.
It’s 100% okay to call in reinforcements.
- Email. Weekly emails to an opted-in mailing list, or through LinkedIn also fall into the 1:1 category. The old days of an email “newsletter” with a corporate look have lost their charm—unless it provides real value that means something personally to your customers. So, a suggestion here might be to turn the tables a bit and send something out to your network that shows more of your personality and the things you truly care about. Some may be specifically related to your line of work; others may not.
- Earned Media. Submitted articles expressing your personal brand of thought leadership pieces are great opportunities as they’re often bolstered by a media group’s own robust digital marketing and advertising strategy. Backlinking through your SEO partners can help you show up where the content is suitable and appropriate for your brand.
- Paid Media. There are some channels that require a pay-to-play entrance card, such as the Forbes Councils, affiliates, conferences or other sponsored events. The merit of these opportunities lies in their expansive reach and publicity possibilities. If they reach the right ones for you, they may be worth the investment.
- Industry Opportunities. There are plenty of industry environments—verticals or expertise—or sector environments (i.e. scientists, female leaders, CISOs, you name it) that offer bylined articles or speaking opportunities as part of association or networking groups.
You Don’t Have to Go It Alone—But You Do Have to Be Consistent
Developing a personal brand—and being active on your channel of choice—will take some time. And I’m aware that it’s time you might not have. Here’s my unpopular-yet-true opinion about personal branding and content creation: It’s 100% okay to call in reinforcements.
There are plenty of talented personal branding strategists and ghostwriters out there whose entire business model revolves around mastering a CEOs tone and voice, working with them to determine their differentiators and the stories they want to tell, and turning it into digestible, engaging content to share with their target audiences. I promise you that no one will be able to tell the difference. You’ll have much-needed help in developing and managing a brand that is 100% your own ideas and perspectives without having to do all the heavy lifting.
The reinforcements will prove to be important because one of the hardest things to do is continue to show up on a digital platform and continue to support that platform with your own voice. Here’s the truth: Repetition is the most underutilized tool in marketing. When you have your position and your platform, my advice is to use it, say it, use it, and say it. Over and over and over again. Self-determination is your friend.
Can a Personal Brand = Company Revenue? Yes.
So, what does a personal brand mean for your organization’s lead generation or revenue goals? Quite a bit, actually:
- Saying something universally important, relevant, or interesting broadens reach—and you never know where your next referral will come from.
- The more you can answer, “Why is this important in (enter your industry)” in your personal brand message, the more you can show how you serve your clients, develop products, and support your team—and people will take notice.
- People refer people for business. I personally have referred a PR firm I’ve never hired because I’ve gotten to understand their leadership through the individual voices and values I’ve seen from their team on LinkedIn.
Our Own Brands Truly Are the “Real Estate We Own”In marketing, we talk a lot about building our brand houses on the real estate we own. And yet, there isn’t much we fully own outright. Social media platforms own the algorithm, and how often we show up in the feeds of our network and our customers. The search engines, website platforms, and digital advertising venues we use as part of our marketing efforts—someone else owns those, too.
What we can own is our voice. We can own our own brands. We can own that small, differentiating, audacious, perspective-shifting thing that we can say—and someone can hear.
That’s reason enough to take a risk.