For entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs, there's no buzzier buzz word than "personal branding." You're starting a company, you don't have much in the way of a conventional advertising or marketing budget, and there's the social media you grew up on just waiting to be leveraged, for free, to get the word out about your new product or service.
But a lot of the excitement about Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and all the rest misses the point. What I've learned launching two companies is that personal branding works best when it's about something other than sales, and sometimes even when it goes beyond the personal.
After comparing notes with other entrepreneurs, here's my personal branding list of do's and don'ts.
1. Find your lane.
Branding expert Jen Dalton says the key is to recognize what's unique about your experience, make sure it doesn't replicate what's already out there in digital universe, and make sure it's information that's of value to your chosen audience. "When you're building a brand," she says, "you want to cut through the noise, not add to it."
In my case, when I was starting out in the global development industry, I noticed most of my peers were posting these glossy success stories. Instead, I wrote more candidly about the challenges in my field, the successes and the not-such-successes, and my posts got noticed. Odds are, if you post in a way that's true to your own experience, that's not glorified P.R., you won't sound like everybody else and your readers can pick up valuable tips to use when they run into similar work situations.
2. Use your own story as an anchor.
In the beginning, your personal brand may be your company's brand, you're all it's got. When Elizabeth Bintliff took over the reins of CEO at Junior Achievement Africa, her organization was practically invisible. But that changed on Facebook when people found her story irresistible, a Yale-educated woman from Cameroon determined to put Africa on the map. "I learned that passion is a very attractive product to sell," she says. Now, three years and a million or so Facebook hits later, she's stepping back to direct more of the social media attention to the organization itself. But hardly anyone would have cared about JA Africa if she hadn't hooked them with an affecting personal story first.
In my case, when I was starting out. I wrote posts in the first person to make a personal connection with my audience like Elizabeth did. But because I was then only a one-person company, I made sure to frame it that the company was doing this or that thing, projecting scale even before I had it. I learned that you could be authentic and still cover up some vulnerable spots.
3. Share the wealth.
In my case, when I ran my global development company, I made a conscious effort to promote key staffers' personal brands, on social media and everywhere else. Sharing the spotlight turned out to be the smart play.
In the beginning, I worried that giving my colleagues more exposure might increase the chance they'd be poached by the competition. Instead, the opposite happened. My senior staff appreciated the opportunity to build their own brands and felt more loyal to the company. The fact that staffers had their own platform served to attract new talent.
4. Sometimes the most effective personal branding happens when you're not thinking about money.
Executive coach Molly Tschang could see what big surveys had picked up, that employees felt "disengaged" from their work. She thought she understood one big reason why. Many employees simply didn't have the tools, specifically, the words, to deal with common challenging work situations: a "bad" boss, an an edgy colleague. So, she produced a handful of 90-second videos to provide her LinkedIn followers with those skillful words. In about half a year's time, some 700,000 people have watched her videos. "When you provide something of service," she says, "opportunity gets created."