Is Personal Branding Everyone’s Problem? Spoiler: Yes!

In October I went to the SDA Bocconi School of Management to speak to the Young Women Network about personal branding. I did a presentation with Paola Bonomo, one of the more interesting women in technology & angel investing in Italy, whom I've known for years. We agreed on some questions to discuss beforehand, and some great questions came from the audience, too. I translated the questions as best I could remember, and I'm including some of my answers below about personal branding, and using a personal website (WordPress of course!) and other tools like LinkedIn to communicate your personal brand.  Here are the questions:   What does personal branding mean to you? Does everyone need a personal brand? Why or why not? How can one start to create their own personal brand? What are the downsides / risks of being too visible online? What's your opinion on LinkedIn? Are LinkedIn endorsements important / useful? More and more people are registering domains with their first and last name. Is it useful to create a site with your actual name? Which message(s) should it communicate? I'm (a student / new to the workforce / young). Is it too early to think about my personal brand? Isn't personal branding a little aggressive? What does personal branding mean to you?  Paola remarked that a personal brand is what other people say of you, and while I definitely agree, personal branding has the added component of giving you the opportunity to also shape what others say about you. In banal terms, personal branding is the branding of an individual through the recounting of experience, goals, and skills, with a goal of increasing visibility, obtaining professional opportunities, or just helping to contribute to the narrative about themselves.  A personal brand is not a result of one's profession, rather the profession is a part of the personal brand.  Does everyone need a personal brand? Why or why not?  I think everyone needs one, and as I mentioned previously, you probably already have a personal brand anyway. I think the better question is asking yourself if you want to be able to, or are you prepared to cultivate your personal brand directly and take advantage of it and shape it if necessary? Obviously I think you should.  It's the difference between being reactive and proactive. If you don't have some tools, content, and some goals in place, it's very hard to 'turn the Titanic' later when you really need to.  One of the stories I often tell about personal branding is several years ago when I was organizing the Girl Geek Dinners in Milan, an Italian journalist wrote an article about the organizers and the description of who I was, was roughly translated to "a housewife passionate about recipes and photography." I don't have anything against housewives, but at the time I was working full-time in a technical role with two degrees under my belt, so to say it wasn't an accurate description of me was an understatement. At the time my most prominent presence online was my food & travel site — this site didn't yet exist & I was forwarding my firstnamelastname domain to that food site, so LinkedIn profile aside, the journalist made an incorrect assumption. That was one of the impetus in fact to create this website — I wanted to increase the visibility of my technical and business side, which I was working hard on all-day every day in the workplace (and at night by helping friends with their own tech & biz problems).  How can one start to create their own personal brand?  You need to start online. We joke but it's the first place someone goes if they are curious about you. You Google that person. You Google yourself even, ala vanity Googling. Even if you get a personal recommendation about someone, you're most likely going to follow that up with your own search about that person — does the recommendation match what other people are saying about this person? And about what they say about themselves?  Not only that, but having an online presence which is clear and includes your personal brand is a way to help your friends help you. They can help you better if you provide them a reference point online, especially if you make it clear what kinds of things you're looking for, and your accomplishments. It's like a "you" crib sheet or cliffs notes.  Another reason to go online is to make sure you're providing the story of your brand in first person. Look online — do you like what's being written about you? About how you're portrayed, or how you're being recognized for your accomplishments? What's the first link that comes up with your name? Above all, if you're going to be looking at places, companies, and interest points beyond your normal sphere of acquaintances and networking, online is the first place you can go to develop your personal brand to reach those audiences.  I think you should start with a personal website (which I talk about below), and also a LinkedIn profile.  What are the downsides / risks of being too visible online?  Paola mentioned having a stalker, and while I agree personal safety is definitely one of the things you'll want to be careful with, I think one of the things to pay attention to is the "border" between you and your job. For many people this line doesn't really exist, both from an external observation (how people see you separate from your job) and internal (how separate you see your job from you) points of view.  The obvious things that involve confidentiality, client or user data, upcoming projects, and strategy are easy to understand why you should avoid talking those things online, but what about the softer side? Can you complain about a visit with a bad client on Twitter? Can you express your opinion (about anything) as long as it's not offensive? Even if it's the opposite of your company's stance on the same issue? Do you celebrate successes and take responsibility for the company's failures?  These are good questions to think about and something each company will embrace differently and enforce differently, and your role online will have to adjust accordingly. A company which completely forbids the use of social media for its employees is alienating some of its potentially strongest brand advocates & supporters, but there is risk for employees to be too vocal and too visible without restraint.  What's your opinion on LinkedIn? Are LinkedIn endorsements important / useful?  For now LinkedIn is definitely the most widespread professional network online. It doesn't take a long time to set up your profile, and it costs you nothing (today). You should definitely have a presence there, keeping in mind that LinkedIn is still in control of how your profiles will appear, what kind of information you can or should include, and they definitely control who has access to your profile. So while it's a good place to be, and you should keep it updated (reminds self to update profile which is a bit out of date), you shouldn't rely on it as your only presence online. You need a website, which I talk about below.  As for LinkedIn endorsements, I'm still pretty skeptical these are of any value. It's still very one-click opt-in by people visiting your profile, and LinkedIn is presenting skills that they decide they want to promote, i.e., so for a rash of time I might have 10-15 endorsements on a single skill that I never really wanted to highlight. I think it's worth reading others' endorsements with a grain of salt, and making sure you prune your own to make sure what's rising to the top is really what you'd like associated with your personal brand and experience.  More and more people are registering domains with their first and last name. Is it useful to create a site with your actual name? Which message(s) should it communicate?  Absolutely yes! I've had SaraRosso.com since 2002, and it's had its own incarnations over time, but it's been my home on the web and my digital hub where I can bring all of my activities & interests under one roof and emphasize and de-emphasize them as needed. Having a domain that's your first and last name will make it easier for people to find you later, but if you don't want to go that route, I suggest choosing a domain which is easy to spell and remember, and isn't tied to any specific profession or job title so you can leave room for growth or change in your personal brand.  For anyone who's not sure what to put on their site, you don't need to have a mega-site with tons of content to have your own website. Over the years I've helped various people set up sites and to start you need to cover these three things at a minimum:  Who you are (your bio and relevant experience.) What you're looking for (are you looking for work? consulting? not looking for work? That's ok to state, too.) How to get in contact with you (even if you're not looking for work, make sure people can get a hold of you. You never know what opportunities might arrive.)  They can be all on one page, or on separate pages, etc. It's your opportunity to show whoever lands on your site who you are and more importantly, what you're doing / looking to do to save both of you a bit of time.  I truly believe that WordPress.com is a perfect place to create your own digital hub site — you can sign up for free, register a domain name & map it to the WordPress.com address (so you can send visitors to your personalized domain) and you're only investing about $20/year to have a place to grow your personal brand. We take care of everything else for you — support, upgrades, backup, so you can focus on your message.  I'm (a student / new to the workforce / young). Is it too early to think about my personal brand?  I think college-aged is a perfect time to start sowing the seeds of your personal brand. You want to be ready to receive and respond to opportunities when they happen. One could seriously arise tomorrow. Many opportunities which have come my way have come via people finding & contacting me directly through my website. Isn't preparing for that worth a little bit of time invested in your site? While you're at it, get some business cards printed up with your name & domain name, so you can give them out if needed. Moo.com makes classy affordable ones.  Isn't personal branding a little aggressive?  Sure. 'Selling yourself' can be considered aggressive. It can make you uncomfortable. At least, in the beginning. Listing your accomplishments and your skills shouldn't be seen as selling yourself, however. And if you make it that much easier for a person who's looking for someone exactly like you to find you and understand what you're about, how can that be a bad thing?  If you need more convincing, don't let it be just me who convinces you — check out these articles from Harvard Business Review about why you shouldn't be afraid to talk about yourself and your accomplishments:  Four Ways Women Stunt Their Careers Unintentionally The Toot-Your-Own-Horn Gender Bias Are there any questions about personal branding we didn't answer? Drop them in the comments below.In October I went to the SDA Bocconi School of Management to speak to the Young Women Network about personal branding. I presented with Paola Bonomo, one of the more interesting women in technology & angel investing in Italy, whom I’ve known for years. We agreed on some questions to discuss beforehand, and some great questions came from the audience, too. I translated the questions as best I could remember, and I’m including some of my answers below about personal branding, and using a personal website (WordPress of course!) and other tools like LinkedIn to communicate your personal brand.

Here are the questions: 

  • What does personal branding mean to you?
  • Does everyone need a personal brand? Why or why not?
  • How can one start to create their own personal brand?
  • What’s your opinion on LinkedIn? Are LinkedIn endorsements important / useful?
  • More and more people are registering domains with their first and last name. Is it useful to create a site with your actual name? Which message(s) should it communicate?
  • I’m (a student / new to the workforce / young). Is it too early to think about my personal brand?
  • What are the downsides / risks of being too visible online?
  • Isn’t personal branding a little aggressive?

What does personal branding mean to you?

Paola remarked that a personal brand is what other people say of you, and while I definitely agree, personal branding has the added component of giving you the opportunity to also shape what others say about you, by adding to that story in 1st person. In banal terms, personal branding is the branding of an individual through the recounting of experience, goals, and skills, with a goal of increasing visibility, obtaining professional opportunities, or just helping to shape & contribute to the narrative about themselves.

Does everyone need a personal brand? Why or why not?

I think everyone needs one, and as I mentioned previously, you probably already have a personal brand anyway. I think the better question is asking yourself if you want to be able to, or are you prepared to cultivate your personal brand directly and take advantage of it and shape it if necessary? Obviously I think you should.

It’s the difference between being reactive and proactive. If you don’t have some tools, content, and some goals in place, it’s very hard to ‘turn the Titanic’ later when you really need to.

One of the stories I often tell about personal branding is several years ago when I was organizing the Girl Geek Dinners in Milan, an Italian journalist wrote an article about the organizers and the description of who I was, was roughly translated to “a housewife passionate about recipes and photography.” I don’t have anything against housewives, but at the time I was working full-time in a technical role with two degrees under my belt, so to say it wasn’t an accurate description of me was an understatement. At the time my most prominent presence online was my food & travel site — this site didn’t yet exist & I was forwarding my firstnamelastname domain to that food site, so LinkedIn profile aside, the journalist made an incorrect assumption. That was one of the impetus in fact to create this website — I wanted to increase the visibility of my technical and business side, which I was working hard on all-day every day in the workplace (and at night by helping friends with their own tech & biz problems).

How can one start to create their own personal brand?

You need to start online. We joke but it’s the first place someone goes if they are curious about you. You Google that person. You Google yourself even, ala vanity Googling. Even if you get a personal recommendation about someone, you’re most likely going to follow that up with your own search about that person — does the recommendation match what other people are saying about this person? And about what they say about themselves?

Not only that, but having an online presence which is clear and includes your personal brand is a way to help your friends help you. They can help you better if you provide them a reference point online, especially if you make it clear what kinds of things you’re looking for, and your accomplishments. It’s like a “you” crib sheet or cliffs notes.

Another reason to go online is to make sure you’re providing the story of your brand in first person. Look online — do you like what’s being written about you? About how you’re portrayed, or how you’re being recognized for your accomplishments? What’s the first link that comes up with your name? Above all, if you’re going to be looking at places, companies, and interest points beyond your normal sphere of acquaintances and networking, online is the first place you can go to develop your personal brand to reach those audiences.

I think you should start with a personal website (which I talk about below), and also a LinkedIn profile (below).

What’s your opinion on LinkedIn? Are LinkedIn endorsements important / useful?

For now LinkedIn is definitely the most widespread professional network online. It doesn’t take a long time to set up your profile, and it costs you nothing (today). You should definitely have a presence there, keeping in mind that LinkedIn is still in control of how your profiles will appear, what kind of information you can or should include, and they definitely control who has access to your profile. So while it’s a good place to be, and you should keep it updated (reminds self to update profile which is a bit out of date), you shouldn’t rely on it as your only presence online. You need a website, which I talk about below.

As for LinkedIn endorsements, I’m still pretty skeptical these are of any value. It’s still very one-click opt-in by people visiting your profile, and LinkedIn is presenting skills that they decide they want to promote, i.e., so for a rash of time I might have 10-15 endorsements on a single skill that I never really wanted to highlight. I think it’s worth reading others’ endorsements with a grain of salt, and making sure you prune your own to make sure what’s rising to the top is really what you’d like associated with your personal brand and experience.

More and more people are registering domains with their first and last name. Is it useful to create a site with your actual name? Which message(s) should it communicate?

Absolutely yes! I’ve had SaraRosso.com since 2002, and it’s had its own incarnations over time, but it’s been my home on the web and my digital hub where I can bring all of my activities & interests under one roof and emphasize and de-emphasize them as needed. Having a domain that’s your first and last name will make it easier for people to find you later, but if you don’t want to go that route, I suggest choosing a domain which is easy to spell and remember, and isn’t tied to any specific profession or job title so you can leave room for growth or change in your personal brand.

For anyone who’s not sure what to put on their site, you don’t need to have a mega-site with tons of content to have your own website. Over the years I’ve helped various people set up sites and to start you need to cover these three things at a minimum:

  • Who you are (your bio and relevant experience.)
  • What you’re looking for (are you looking for work? consulting? not looking for work? That’s ok to state, too.)
  • How to get in contact with you (even if you’re not looking for work, make sure people can get a hold of you. You never know what opportunities might arrive.) 

They can be all on one page, or on separate pages, etc. It’s your opportunity to show whoever lands on your site who you are and more importantly, what you’re doing / looking to do to save both of you a bit of time.

I truly believe that WordPress.com is a perfect place to create your own digital hub site — you can sign up for free, register a domain name & map it to the WordPress.com address (so you can send visitors to your personalized domain) and you’re only investing about $20/year to have a place to grow your personal brand. We take care of everything else for you — support, upgrades, backup, so you can focus on your message.

I’m (a student / new to the workforce / young). Is it too early to think about my personal brand?

I think college-aged is a perfect time to start sowing the seeds of your personal brand. You want to be ready to receive and respond to opportunities when they happen. One could seriously arise tomorrow. Many opportunities which have come my way have come via people finding & contacting me directly through my website. Isn’t preparing for that worth a little bit of time invested in your site? While you’re at it, get some business cards printed up with your name & domain name, so you can give them out if needed. Moo.com makes classy affordable ones.

What are the downsides / risks of being too visible online?

Paola mentioned having a stalker, and while I agree personal safety is definitely one of the things you’ll want to be careful with, I think one of the things to pay attention to is the “border” between you and your job. For many people this line doesn’t really exist, both from an external observation (how people see you separate from your job) and internal (how separate you see your job from you) points of view.

The obvious things that involve confidentiality, client or user data, upcoming projects, and strategy are easy to understand why you should avoid talking those things online, but what about the softer side? Can you complain about a visit with a bad client on Twitter? Can you express your opinion (about anything) as long as it’s not offensive? Even if it’s the opposite of your company’s stance on the same issue? Do you celebrate successes and take responsibility for the company’s failures?

These are good questions to think about and something each company will embrace differently and enforce differently, and your role online will have to adjust accordingly. A company which completely forbids the use of social media for its employees is alienating some of its potentially strongest brand advocates & supporters, but there is risk for employees to be too vocal and too visible without restraint.

Isn’t personal branding a little aggressive?

Sure. ‘Selling yourself’ can be considered aggressive. It can make you uncomfortable. It may make other people uncomfortable. In my experience what other people think of your personal branding isn’t as important as how effective it is for you. If you make it that much easier for a person who’s looking for someone exactly like you to find you and understand what you’re about, how can that be a bad thing?

It’s another way of raising your hand and throwing your hat into the ring. Read my post Stop Sabotaging Your Own Success: A Manifesto for more information on why you shouldn’t stand in your own way.

If you need more convincing, don’t let it be just me who convinces you — check out these articles from Harvard Business Review about why you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about yourself and your accomplishments:

Are there any questions about personal branding we didn’t answer? Drop them in the comments below.

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3 replies »

  1. Branding is such an important part of any company/personal strategy these days. So much can be done with social media. Great post on branding.

    Thanks

  2. Personal branding has been working for me ( and later for my company ) just great. The thing is it takes time. As everything that’s meaningful.
    They say in some countries : First work for the name and then the name will work for you.
    Start giving biz cards as early as you can. They are really a powerful weapon.

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