Author: Kimberley R. Barker, MLIS, Digital Initiatives Librarian
University of Virginia’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
While the term “personal branding”—and the practice—makes some people uncomfortable because it conjures up thoughts of arrogance and braggadocio, I have a somewhat different perspective: For me, personal branding is a way to connect you with the people who most need your skills and expertise.
“Personal branding” is an overarching term for the process of consistently communicating one’s professional talents and values to the larger world. By clearly and consistently communicating what you have to offer, it makes it easier for those who need you to find you.
Life Is a Party; Don’t Forget the Invitations
When discussing personal branding and self-promotion, I often invoke a party metaphor. Imagine that you decide to give a party. You spend time planning the details of what food you’ll serve, what music you’ll play, etc. The day of the party arrives and you await guests with anticipation… and you wait… and you wait some more… but no one shows up. You wonder what on earth happened—only to realize that you never sent out invitations!
Our professional lives are much the same way: We spend years getting degrees, gaining experience, publishing, practicing, and getting really good at what we do, but for some reason we’re reluctant to share the benefits with people who really want to know.
Are we afraid that we don’t really know our stuff? Are we afraid that we’ll be perceived as arrogant? Those questions sound really strange in the context of the party metaphor: “Can you believe that she had the nerve to invite us to a party??”
If your career or business is the party, personal branding is the invitation. Just as you clearly communicate details about the party on an invitation, you must clearly communicate details about your experience, qualifications, and philosophy. And, before you can communicate this to potential clients or employers, you must clarify it for yourself by creating an infrastructure for your brand.
There are a few exercises that I recommend for this purpose, and they include:
• Choosing three cornerstone words,
• Writing a two-to-three sentence mission statement, and
• Creating a board of directors for yourself.
Define Your Cornerstone Words
The three words exercise consists of identifying the three words that best illustrate what you have to offer the world. Keep in mind that, done correctly, branding is holistic, meaning that it covers not just Professional You, but also Personal You. Your brand should be compatible with your beliefs and values; those two sides of yourself must be able to exist harmoniously.
For instance, if you’re a vegetarian for ethical reasons, working for a meat-processing company might be a line that you won’t cross and this should be communicated clearly. Though you run the risk of not getting work from some areas of the market, there will be work from others who respect your principles and see that as an additional reason to work with you.
Craft Your Personal Mission Statement
A well-written mission statement is proof you’ve done the deeply introspective work necessary to distill your purpose and beliefs into two or three sentences. A person who doesn’t know you should be able to read the mission statement and know exactly what to expect from you.
That’s only possible if you know exactly what to expect from yourself.
Recruit Directors to Advise and Mentor You
Creating your own “board of directors” is useful because it helps you stay accountable. If you’ve put together a group of people whom you respect and admire, it’s not likely you’d want to disappoint them by failing to meet deadlines and achieve goals.
Your directors should be a mix of people you know well, and people who are very familiar with your skills and your field. Most importantly, they should be people who will always be honest with you: Your brand can’t grow if people are too afraid of hurting your feelings to tell you the truth.
The Building Blocks of Your Personal Brand
In addition to your infrastructure, there are several elements that are key to establishing yourself as a brand:
• An up-to-date, high-quality photo of yourself,
• A strong presence on social media, and
• A website or blog which allows you to showcase your work and expand on ideas in ways that social media doesn’t.
Remember: Your Profile Photo Is Part of Your Brand
I can’t stress enough the importance of having a good-quality photo of yourself. Your level of attractiveness isn’t the point here, but rather that humans are visual creatures: We are more likely to engage with information that has a graphic attached to it.
Making a photo of yourself available not only implies openness, but it’s also another opportunity to promote your brand. If your brand is about formality and professionalism, you might choose to wear a suit and be photographed in a formal setting such as an office. If you take a more relaxed (though still professional) approach to your brand, you might choose to be photographed in casual clothes in your favorite cafe. Just remember to be as intentional about this piece of your brand as you are about other elements, such as your mission statement.
Establishing yourself on social media is crucial to your brand’s success because that’s where so many professional conversations are held, and where professional relationships are established. I advise choosing no more than three social media platforms (selected based on the demographics of the clients with whom you’re trying to connect), and dedicating time in your schedule each week to updating them.
Build Your Home Online
Creating a website or blog doesn’t just allow you to increase your visibility, it also provides an opportunity for you to showcase completed projects, highlight customer testimonials, expand on issues important to you and your field, and give potential clients a more fully-rounded view of you.
Whether this “home” is a free blog or a website you’ve paid for is up to you. My rule of thumb for making this decision is: If you’re only sharing ideas, a free blog is sufficient; if you are in any way monetizing your services, invest in a website. The cost for domain names and hosting services is usually quite reasonable, especially when you consider the professional gravitas they lend you.
Avoid These Common Personal Branding Mistakes
There are several common mistakes that people often make when establishing their new brand. These include:
Establishing yourself on too many social media platforms. Again, I advise taking on no more than three platforms. I actually believe that two is ideal—enough to gain exposure, but not too much to maintain.
Violating the 80/20 rule. This rule states that 80 percent of what you post on social media should be content of interest to your followers, and 20 percent should be self-promotion (e.g. a link to an article you’ve published or an award you’ve won). People will generally be happy about your successes, but no one wants to follow a person who mostly talks about him or herself.
Inconsistently updating social media. One of the worst things that can happen to your brand is that someone Googles you only to be taken to a social media account that hasn’t been updated in months! If you try out a platform and it isn’t a good fit for you, delete your account. Otherwise, you run the risk of seeming negligent.
Being vague. I have seen many, many attempts to be mysterious in online bios and they rarely work out well. Please don’t make people guess about the nature of your work, state it clearly and concisely. Most potential clients don’t have the patience to puzzle out whether something like “Just another adventurer on a dark, mysterious ocean” means you have a poetic soul or if it’s code for “I really have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going.” For your sake, and theirs, be clear about yourself and your work!
Want to learn more about personal branding? Check out the personal branding MOOC (massive open online course) that I’m teaching on Coursera. In it, I expand on the ideas I’ve touched on in this article, and there’s a huge community on the forums to whom you can turn for advice. Also, it’s free! Best of luck!
This story was submitted by Kimberley R. Barker, MLIS, and does not constitute the views or opinions of Upwork.