How to Start (or Start-over) Building Your Personal Brand

Written by skelliewag

Personal branding
Photo by paintMonkey.

A ‘personal brand’ is in many ways synonymous with your reputation. It refers to the way other people see you. Are you a genius? An expert? Are you trustworthy? What do you represent? What do you stand for? What ideas and notions pop up as soon as someone hears your name?

If you’ve been around for a while you’ve probably already developed a personal brand. People recognize your name, what you’re working on, what you offer and what you’re about. That being said, your personal brand might be a little weak and disjointed. If you’d like to make it stronger, I’m going to help give you the tools by outlining what I believe to be the components of a strong personal brand.

If you don’t feel like you have a personal brand yet, this post will show you how to go about building one. But first, it might be worth talking a little about the value of your personal brand and why we might want to create one in the first place.

A smart investment

Your personal brand has the potential to last longer than your own lifespan. While the projects you’re working on might get sold onwards or shut down, your personal brand will persist and (hopefully) add value to each new project you create. If you consider yourself to be in this particular game for the long-haul, whether it’s online business or just online creativity, a good personal brand is the single most valuable investment you can make. People will follow your brand from project to project if they feel connected to it.

One example from my own experience that highlights the long-term importance of a personal brand occurred when I launched my second blog. I announced it on this one, hoping to give it a little head start but expecting to build up an audience mainly from scratch. Instead I found the second blog had accumulated over 1,100 subscribers in under five days.

When launching new projects, your personal brand has the potential to guarantee you never have to start from scratch again.

Your personal brand is not just you

Because your personal brand is built from the thoughts and words and reactions of other people, it’s shaped by how you present yourself publicly. This is something that you have control over. You can decide how you would like people to see you and then work on publicly being that image.

You should plan your personal brand based on your aims. If you want to sell an expensive course in watercolor painting you’ll need to be seen as someone with the authority to teach others on the topic. If you want to get work for high-end design clients you’ll need to be seen as a runaway talent with a professional attitude. Two useful springboard questions are:

  • How would you like potential customers/clients to think of you?
  • How can you publicly ‘be’ that brand?

The second question is an important one, but a tricky one. Your personal brand is composed of your public actions and output in three main areas:

1. What you’re ‘about’. Seth Godin is about telling stories, being remarkable. Leo Babauta is about simplicity and habit forming. Jonathan Fields is about finding ways to build a career out of what you love doing. Think about the key ideas you would want people to associate with you.

2. Expertise. Every good brand involves the notion of expertise. Nike brand themselves as experts in creating quality and fashionable sportswear. Jeremy Clarkson (host of Top Gear) is an expert on cars. Even if you’re not interested in marketing your advice you need to create the perception that you are very good at what you do.

3. Your style. This is not so much what you communicate about yourself, but rather, how you do it. Are you kind and unusually enthusiastic, like Collis Taeed? Are you witty and raw, like Naomi Dunford? Are you confident and crusading, like Michael Arrington? Hopefully you’re none of these, or at least, not in the same way. Your style of delivery should be as unique as any other aspect of your personal brand. This doesn’t mean you need to sit down and brainstorm how to be different. If you don’t actively imitate anyone else, it will happen naturally.

Starting construction

Even without a large following or audience you can build a strong personal brand. A few people talking about you a lot is better than lots of people not talking about you at all. Here are the steps I’d recommend for creating your brand:

You should be running a blog or website that is all you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your first priority, or even your second priority, but it gives people a place to develop a stronger connection with you. (You might already be doing this!) A good example is Gina Trapani’s new blog Smarterware. Gina is most well known for editing one of the world’s most famous blogs, Lifehacker, but is an author now and probably would like to build a stronger brand in her own right.

Help people learn about the person behind the projects they enjoy. Include a mini-bio at the end of each post, put time and effort into your About page and use it to paint a picture of your ideal personal brand. One About page that does this very confidently but very well is Chris Pirillo’s ‘About’ page.

Don’t just agree with other people you admire. In doing so, you’re building their personal brand, not yours. Focus on topics where you have something new to say or some more value to add.

Think about the most important thing you have to say and become known for that (it needs to be something new, or an old thing in a new way). Truth be told, most people do the latter. What Tim Ferris is ‘about’ is not new (the idea of working less) but it’s communicated in a new way via The Four-Hour Work Week idea. Gary Vaynerchuk’s ‘hard work trumps all’ message is thousands of years old, but the ‘Hustle 2.0? message makes it seem new and relevant to the web.

Keep adding layers, keep it fresh. The two people I mentioned in the previous point risk seeming stale and repetitive if they don’t continue adding new elements to their brand. You can’t ride one idea forever. Keep adding new layers to what you represent.

Never be hypocritical. Don’t let people know when you’ve done something that goes against what you advocate. Don’t let people know if you fail in your area of expertise. Failing in new areas is OK, because you’re not trying to be an expert in those. That’s the difference between when you should and should not talk about your failures. The exception to this rule is when your failures become public despite your best efforts. If this happens, confront the issue and explain it – don’t avoid it, or you’ll seem deceitful. You’d rather people learn about your failure from you than someone with no sympathy.

Keep learning and updating your knowledge, especially if your expertise is based around the online world. The web changes drastically from month to month. If you were an ‘expert’ two years ago but have since stopped learning and challenging yourself, you’re not an expert anymore.

Try to be personally ubiquitous without over-stretching or over-exposing yourself. If people hear your name enough they will check you out (maybe not the first, second or third time, but they will). Participate in social media but only on services you enjoy. I focus on my Twitter and StumbleUpon and try to use these both in a way that helps me reach out to more people while also being enjoyable.

Help your projects become ubiquitous by writing viral content and guest-writing. Try to make sure your voice is unique and that you’re not imitating someone else (the only way to do this is by reading widely and writing a lot). If there’s one writer you love and read all the time, you’re probably going to ape them a little bit unless you catch yourself. We all do it.

People will only remember a few things about you, so focus on telling the story that contributes most to your brand. Use your personal story as the basis for your expertise. The best example of a personal story doubling as credentials that I can think of is Darren Rowse. An expert in how everyday people can earn a living through blogging, Darren was an ordinary Aussie bloke before becoming a decidedly richer ordinary Aussie bloke through blogging. I suggest you read Darren’s ‘About’ page as an example of this method.

Which three things in your life (personally or professionally) add to your personal brand more than anything else? Use interviews as an opportunity to tell this story. As you become better known, you’ll get interviewed more often.

Get people talking

Think about your personal brand each time you interact with someone – or don’t interact with someone. What impression are you leaving them with? If you don’t want to spend time responding to tweets and emails there’s no reason why you can’t make this part of your personal brand so that people do not expect differently. If you only have the time to answer 1/4 of the emails you get, why not mention this (with apologies) on your Contact page? The greatest source of negative feeling in these situations is disappointment. If you make it clear that you intend to behave in a certain way people have little right to be disappointed when you do so.

Try to build relationships with as many people as possible. Get to know their real names and remember details about them. Not only is this fun and good karma, it leaves a strong impression on the people who interact with you. The ones who you know best and who feel most connected to you will talk about you to others – this is how your personal brand grows stronger.

Build name recognition with influencers. In this instance an influencer is any person with an audience that you want to reach. Comment on their writing, keep track of them on social media, help them when they ask for it, if they have a blog try to guest-post (it must be your best stuff!) Not only do you have plenty to learn from people like this, they are the people who can give you that killer testimonial when you launch your product, who can tweet your links to thousands of followers, who can share the best opportunities with you. That being said, don’t pester them and don’t ask for more favors than you give them. If you are useful and not overbearing these influencers will remember you. View this as a long-term process. You can’t expect to become friends with influencers in a week. It takes months. Tip: try to use non-intrusive forms of communication. Don’t write things that require a response in blog comments, that’s what email/Twitter is for.

You don’t need to be big, to be big

There are a number of so-called ‘A-list’ bloggers and web personalities who I consider to have quite weak personal brands (relative to the size of their audience) based on the way they behave and interact with people outside their blog content (arrogantly) and how clearly they communicate what they represent (mainly just ‘making money off people like you’). There are also some people who do not have a huge audience for their projects but have managed to create a personal brand that is ‘bigger’ than what they have built. This is an excellent platform for them to grow their projects into something bigger and better.

How do they do it? By making connections with a lot of people, including influencers. It should be noted, though, that a strong personal brand is not going to provide much benefit unless you have valuable output to pair it with – a great service, a great blog, a great app, great public speaking skills, or something else. You need to spend as much time creating your ‘stuff’ (whether that’s blog posts, videos or artwork) as you do building relationships.

6 thoughts on “How to Start (or Start-over) Building Your Personal Brand

  1. gerard

    I agree – that’s probably the best article of the day! The example of Chris Pirillo’s “About Me” page made me sick though. There simply can’t be a more egotistical brat than Chris Pirrilo.

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