Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like the term “personal brand.” It feels … pretentious. Manufactured. Narcissistic. That said, how we represent ourselves to the outside world matters. Allegedly, 85% of US recruiters say online reputation influences hiring decisions. Besides impacting your job prospects, a good “brand” gives you a more influential voice, and the prospect of extra income on the side. I claim very little expertise here, but with fifteen+ years of doing public stuff, I’ve learned a few things.
First, let’s define personal brand. I’ve heard it described as “the means by which people remember you“, “combination of reputation and credibility that can be wielded to amplify messages“, “the combination of what people think I am and my ‘style‘”, and “who you are, what you stand for, the values you embrace, and the way in which you express those values.” What do you think when you see or hear people like Martha Stewart, Elon Musk, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, Seth Godin, Gene Kim, Kelsey Hightower, Charity Majors, Corey Quinn, or Nicole Forsgren? You think SOMETHING. They’ve left a durable mark.
Building a reputation or brand is hard. Sustaining it over time is extremely hard. As my colleague Coté told me, you have to “show up a lot and for a long time.” It takes intentional planning, and ongoing effort. It’s hard to just stumble into a durable personal brand. You need to make conscious choices. Worth it? I think so. In no particular order, here’s what I’ve learned about building and sustaining personal brands.
10. Recognize the characteristics of effective “messengers.”
The authors of the book Messengers say “we tend to judge an idea not on its merits, but according to how we judge the person putting it forward.” They put forth eight types of messengers, four “hard”—based on superior status—and four “soft”—based on connectedness. Which one will/does represent your brand?
Hard messengers use:
- Socio-economic position. We listen to these people because they appear to be successful in life.
- Expertise/experience. These messengers are listened to because of real or perceived competence.
- Dominance. This messenger shows dominance over others and is given an advantage.
- Attractiveness. You’re more effective when you are seen as physically attractive.
Soft messengers use:
- Warmth. These people show positivity, compassion and humility.
- Vulnerability. This messenger shares vulnerabilities—past failures, current concerns and doubts—and is deemed credible.
- Trustworthiness. Trust is foundational to human interaction, and we believe that these messengers are giving it to us straight.
- Charisma. This messenger demonstrates self-confidence, energy, creativity, and eloquence.
Any of these look familiar to you? Resemble someone you know? Neither category is “right” or “wrong” but certain messenger types are more effective in a given situation. Know what type you are, or want to be.
9. Be good at something.
What do you want to be known for? Audit yourself and review any feedback others have given you. What are the skills, passion areas, and values that surface? These could be specific hard skills—Java programming, AWS databases, identity management, cloud architecture—or “soft” skills—ability to learn, curiosity, quick wit.
It probably goes without saying, but also don’t forget to keep investing in that skill area. Even remarkable talent can become stale to observers. I just finished a great Harry Houdini biography, and it was fascinating to see how peopled tired of his amazing act, and he was driven to keep improving it.
8. Have a focus area.
Some of the best personal brands are specific. They don’t cover a giant spectrum. They focus primarily on one thing. Charity Majors owns observability. You know that she’ll go deep on that topic and make you smarter. Corey Quinn primarily covers AWS. Nicole Forsgren is a go-to person for insight about DevOps and business performance. Same with Gene Kim who you can count on for everything DevOps. And a Kelsey Hightower covers a fairly wide range of technology, but mostly around cloud and app runtimes.
Your “focus” could be how you approach things, versus a technology domain. Maybe you record video interviews. Or do introductory exploration into a host of different things. It could be that you do deep investigative research. Regardless, ensure that you say something. Have opinions. Within your focus area, have a point of view and openly share it.
7.Define your target audience.
You won’t be everything to everyone. Ideally, you build up a brand that attracts the audience you care about. Your choice of audience impacts your choice of channel and topic. A group of followers on Instagram probably expect something different from those on LinkedIn or Twitch. Twitter might bring a different crowd that the conferences you speak at. Where should you be to meet and woo the people you’re after?
Some of this audience definition also includes analysis. Is your audience primarily in the UK? Consider that timezone and culture when you tweet or publish blog posts. Are you chasing the after work, do-it-yourself crowd? Consider talking to those folks in the evenings. Also look at what material performs, versus falls flat. Maybe your focus area or channel isn’t resonating with your target audience. Observe, orient, decide, act. Don’t just throw stuff out there randomly hoping to grab people. Be intentional and constantly test and adjust.
Also, actively consider how much topical variance your audience will tolerate, and if you care. I personally think the “follow the whole person” idea is naive. While I want to know you’re human being (see #4 below), I’m probably following you because of a topic that interests me (see #8 above). The audience gives you leeway to go “off topic” but to a point. If you spend significant time on alternative topics—be it your personal life, politics, sports—expect that your audience size will fluctuate. It’s your brand, do what you want with it.
6. Be a content creator.
This is probably the most important thing for long term success. You need to relentlessly generate content that reflects the reputation you want. Your content is how you “prove” your brand. Otherwise, it’s just talk and wishful thinking.
That said, what is “content”? Sure, blog posts, articles, and whitepapers matter. But that’s not the full scope, nor required. You might create videos or training classes. Or record podcasts. Maybe you create slides and infographics. You could be a prolific public speaker at events. Or create GitHub repos full of example projects. Even tweets count as content, and many tech influencers tweet a heck of a lot more than they write long form pieces.
I’ll even argue that content aggregation or amplification counts. That is, you might create a weekly newsletter that summarizes content created by others. Or regularly tweet or share interesting material. Your brand may be centered around digesting and filtering content for the community.
5. Invest in your digital presence.
How are you discoverable and reachable? Do you have a consistent “brand” across digital sites? Decide which channels you want to use, and ensure that people can readily find you.
Consider how you can “own” your digital brand. Pick up a personalized domain name, and use that for your email addresses as well. Don’t necessarily rely solely on other people’s properties to host your content. By that, I mean be careful if everything you’ve done only lives on Medium, Youtube, Instagram, LinkedIn, or any other number of sites that own your content. At minimum, back up your content to make sure you have options if one of those sites becomes unfriendly!
4. Be authentic and relatable.
To me, it’s hard to fake an image for a very long time. It’s possible, sure. Maybe I’m not the cheerful techie I present myself to be, and in reality, am a horrifying monster. I mean, I hope not but DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW.
No, a good personal brand feels like you’re getting to know the person. Maybe not TOO much (see #7) but enough that builds trust and connection with the audience. Don’t hide behind jargon or clichés to present yourself as someone you’re not. Be yourself, get comfortable with some level of vulnerability, and try to be consistent in how you behave.
3. Follow the example set by others.
The Farnam Street blog had a great post a couple weeks ago that highlighted that complete originality is overrated and we should “steal” from others. While I don’t encourage you to directly mimic someone else to build your brand, we should observe and take inspiration from others.
Do you admire someone’s snarky tone and think you can do something similar? Cool, do it. Like the short form blog posts that someone writes? Copy that. Does your tech hero engage directly in two-way Twitter conversations that build their credibility and trustworthiness? Do it too. Explore some of the tech people you admire, and see if you can offer your own twist on how they talk, how they present, what they write, and where they publish.
2. Brace yourself for criticism.
Building and sustaining a brand won’t be a lovefest. By putting yourself out there, you are actively inviting comment and criticism. If you don’t want that or can’t handle it, don’t put yourself out there. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, or tolerate harassing trolls. But it does come with the territory.
Recognize that we obsess over the bad, and forget the good stuff. Read The Power of Bad for a terrific deep dive into this tendency. What happens when you get thirty positive reviews for a conference talk, and one negative one? If you’re like me, you obsess over the negative one. Who was that? Why are they so awful? I memory-hole the positive and get brought down by the negative. Recognize this natural behavior, and push back against it. Rather, use criticism to fuel improvement, and your reaction to criticism may even become part of your brand!
1. Don’t fear reinvention.
Life is unpredictable. Things change over time. Don’t be held hostage by your personal brand. You’ll face new challenges, new jobs, and new perspectives. Any of those might trigger an evolution of your brand. Professional athletes do this when they retire and take on new business ventures, some actors change genres, and plenty of technologists adjust their brand as the industry changes.
Certain parts of your brand are durable, and you should capture those. You may switch your focus to a new technology or domain, but keep your publishing schedule and writing style the same. You could evolve from a DBA to a cloud architect, and shed your old video-watching audience while building a new one. If you’re facing a dramatic reinvention, it’s worth re-introducing yourself and explaining what to expect.
There are plenty of good reasons to invest in building a personal brand. It’s also a lot of work, and you might not think it’s worth it. That’s reasonable too. One could easily spend dozens of hours per week to sustain it. Others may be able to maintain a satisfactory personal brand by investing a couple of hours per month. Hopefully your biggest takeaway here is that building a personal brand is an intentional act, and requires conscious effort!