First things first.
I’m not a huge fan of “personal branding” as a concept.
Why dress a human being up as a company?
That said, we live in a world where people are more likely to encounter you online before they do in real life. And increasingly, where many people might only ever interact with you online.
So it makes sense to be consistent about how you portray yourself digitally.
Knowing where to start with a personal brand is tricky though.
What social media platforms should you use? What should your website look like? Is it ok to put cat photos in your presentations?
I was chatting to a friend about this recently who said his main concern was costs. Given that he’s a successful entrepreneur, I was a bit surprised, so I dug a little deeper… and it turned out he was planning to commission someone to design a website and a logo for him. Which, of course, isn’t cheap if you want to do it properly.
But is it necessary as a first step?
I don’t think so…
My advice was that he should begin a little closer to home.
Start with the things that define you (as a person)
Who are you, and what’s your story?
This might seem obvious. But you need to think carefully about where you’ve come from, and how to tell your story in an authentic and engaging way. Hint: don’t make it (all) about you.
What do you believe in?
I’m not talking about tooth fairies or Father Christmas here! But bigger questions… What are your values? What drives you? What words would you want people to use to describe you at your funeral?
What makes you different from other people in your field?
In branding terms, this would be your differentator or USP (unique selling point). Look closely at your list of beliefs. Which of them set you apart from the rest of your peers? Which of them do you feel most strongly about? How does this manifest itself in your work?
And most importantly…
Who do you want to help?
Think about why you’re creating a personal brand in the first place.
You want to communicate with your people, right?
I’m guessing that, more than just communicating with people, you want to connect with them, at a human level.
This isn’t about finding a niche though.
Instead, it’s about something deeper: how people see the world. Who are your kind of people, and what makes them tick? What do they love? What makes them mad?
Answering these questions will help set your personal brand up to create real impact.
For example, when I started CycleLove, I knew I didn’t want to start just another cycling blog. Lots of people were writing about road cycling, and at the other end of the spectrum, lots of people were blogging about cycling safety and infrastructure. What about everyone inbetween? People who just wanted to have a nice bike and ride it to work or at the weekend? Eventually I hit on the strapline “People on bikes, not ‘cyclists’”, which became mantra I could use to sense-check everything I did.
Write a personal mission statement for yourself
When you’ve chewed over the questions above, try distilling your answers down into a single short paragraph. (But avoiding anything that sounds like corporate mumbojumbo, you know the stuff I mean). Be as precise as possible about who you want to help and why, and don’t forget to define what you’re an expert at.
Fill in the blanks in this template to get started, then tweak the language and swap things around until your statement feels cohesive:
I help _______________ (audience) to _______________(reach primary benefit(s) or solve primary problem) . I'm different from other _______________(category) because _______________ (differentiator).
As an example, here’s a statement I wrote for my digital design offering:
”I make websites which enable creative people show and sell their work. Unlike most designers I have hands-on experience of content creation and audience building — so I can make your website both meet your business goals and look great".
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering about the practical stuff, like setting up a website.
Here are some tips for getting your website off the ground as quickly and painlessly as possible…
Don’t start by designing your personal brand, prototype it instead!
My advice is to put any thoughts about “designing” your brand on hold for now.
Skip the logo. And skip the luxuriously-printed business cards too.
Instead, start with the questions above. Make notes. Sleep on them. Make more notes. (And keep a pinboard of visual inspiration if you must).
The better you can understand your motivations, the better you can serve your audience, and the more your personal brand will resonate.
Here’s how to get started quickly and cheaply:
Register a personal domain name
If you can, get your name as dotcom — firstnamesurname.com. This is the easiest and most future-proof option, as it allows you to change the focus of your content without needing a new domain name.
If you have a more common name, you might have to go with a variation of it, or use a different domain like .io or .cc. (Tip: you can use a tool like domainr to quickly search through all the available options).
Set up a blog using an existing service like Wordpress or Squarespace
Use a free blogging service like Wordpress.com or a paid one like Squarespace (which comes with a ton of good-looking themes). This way you’ll get your website up and running in a few hours, instead of a few weeks.
Start writing blog posts
Now for the tricky part. You need to create something for people to read on your website. If in doubt, remember your audience. What do you want to help them with? What kind of questions do people ask you the most? If you create useful content that fixes problems for people, you can build trust, and make people come back for more. Above all else, be honest, and try to write like you talk. (See my “Why you should write” guide for more tips).
Build your own platform, not someone else’s.
You might be wondering if you should use an existing platform like Medium. I’ll admit, it’s a really nice tool for writing. The problem is that you don’t have control of it. What happens if they start putting adverts everywhere? Or worse still, what happens if the service closes down? (This is why I’ve recently scaled my writing on Medium down to just a few announcement-type posts).
Don’t worry about your logo (yet)
A badly designer or medicore logo is worse than no logo at all. Instead, focus on finding a clear, legible theme for your blog. Use as few fonts and colours as possible. And if in doubt, make the text a bit bigger. Good writing will convery more about you than a logo ever can.
Finally, for bonus points…
Set up a mailing list and add a signup form to (every page of) your blog
You might have noticed that I haven’t talked about social media yet in this guide. That’s because I believe that building an email should take priority over everything else. If you have someone’s email address, you have a direct route to their minds. It’s more personal (people can reply privately to your emails) and it’s more effective (email open rates can be as much as 10x higher than socia media engagement rates).
Personally I use MailChimp because it’s free for under 2,000 subcribers, really easy to use, and… it has a cool monkey.
Yes, you will probbably want to be on one of Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn to network with your peers and influencers.
But to begin with, focus on email.
And don’t worry about about email popups or lead magnets. Simple is good to start with.
It might seem less rewarding, but I promise that in the long run, focussing on email over social media will open up many more doors for you.
Another personal example: I have over 23,000 Instagram followers from the days when I was posting as @cyclelove instead of as @jamesgreig, but it’s pretty hard to convert any of them into customers, because Instagram doesn’t let you put links in your comments. So I’d much rather have 23,000 email subscribers.
What about designing that nice website and logo for yourself?
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t carefully consider your personal brand. And I’m not saying that it’s not worth investing in design.
(Notice the very deliberate use of “investing” rather than “spending” there.)
I just think that there are other things you need to do first: define your strategy, and create a small body of honest/clear/helpful content to match. It doesn’t have to be blog posts either — it could be a series of videos or even audio recordings.
Once you have been putting your thoughts out into the world for a while, then you can worry about how your personal brand (or whatever you want to call it) is manifested visually.
Otherwise you’ll be trying to design a website before you have any content, which—as any graphic designer worth her salt will tell you—is a hellish task.
So for now, focus on what you want to say, rather than how you want to say it.
Where are you going to set your stake in the ground?
Posted to Graphic Design in 2016.