Advertising Yourself: Building a Personal Brand through Social Networks

In 2007, Jim MacMillan was at the top of his profession — a photojournalist who had just shared a Pulitzer Prize for pictures from Iraq’s deadliest combat zones — but he also started to wonder what kind of future that profession had in store for him. His newsroom in Philadelphia was making steep job cuts in the face of plummeting revenues. Then MacMillan attended a BlogWorld conference and returned with a determination to re-invent himself though social networking.

MacMillan has since become highly skilled at using social networking to gain new fans of his photography, and he is hardly alone. Over the last few years, creative professionals — including musicians, writers and artists — have found they can reach an engaged audience by making songs available on a MySpace page or building a national readership by blogging. Now, with the economy mired in a recession, many individuals are wondering how to build a buzz about themselves and find new employment opportunities by adapting the same kind of branding techniques used by businesses.

“I saw that the real value of a new media profile, or a social media profile, is distribution [to an online audience],” MacMillan says. While still employed as a staff photographer at the Philadelphia Daily News, he had launched his own web site — jimmacmillan.net — for posting his photos and linking to related stories in the news. Like many professionals, he also created a profile on Facebook, Twitter and every social network he could learn about, roughly 40 in all.

Eventually, he took a severance package from the newspaper and threw everything into social networking. Today, he has close to 14,000 followers reading his posts on Twitter — a number on a par with some celebrities — and keeps in touch with about 475 friends on Facebook. He believes he reaches a larger and more engaged audience than when he was at the Daily News, but he also concedes his activity is only bringing in “lunch money,” mainly through ads on his blog (which receives traffic referrals from his Twitter postings). But by expanding his network, Macmillan says he also has promising leads on better-paying job opportunities at companies, including some that want advice on social networking.

According to Jonah Berger, Wharton marketing professor, using social networking sites or a new media endeavor such as blogging can be especially useful for workers looking to reshape their career into a new kind of profile. “People will begin to see you in that role,” Berger says. “By creating these links outside of your organization, you can change your meaning to [others].”

Clearly the recession — which has cost the American economy more than five million jobs, including an estimated 1.5 million in the white collar sector — has placed a new premium on the art of networking among workers who see their jobs threatened. As The New York Times recently reported, interest in traditional face-to-face networking groups among executives — even those still collecting a paycheck — has soared in recent months.

Indeed, social networking is that rare sector of the economy that seems to be booming in the midst of the recession. MediaPost reported that businesses spent $2.2 billion on social-networking in 2008, nearly twice as much as they did in 2007, primarily through advertising on popular sites like MySpace and Facebook.

Game-changers

While not dismissing the value of more traditional networking, many experts in the art of self-marketing agree that the rapid rise over the last five years of Internet-based social networking sites is a game-changer. Such sites allow like-minded people to forge connections, not just at lunch, but across the country or even overseas, leading to unprecedented opportunities for ambitious people to expand their list of contacts, generate business leads or even develop a new career.

Initially, it was largely the creative classes who saw that an online following could eventually grow into paying customers. For example, rock musicians who once spent years trying to land a record deal with a major label created pages on the popular MySpace social networking site, forged bonds with online fans through free downloads or other audience-participation efforts and eventually sold compact discs or song downloads to a loyal following.

Author Scott Kirsner, who writes a weekly column for The Boston Globe, recently studied this emerging business model for a book titled, Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age. Musicians or authors who build an audience through social connections and an ongoing dialogue over the Internet develop devoted fans who are even more likely to buy a product because they feel a personal connection to that artist, he says.

“There is a major shift [among] consumers, whose entertainment used to be watching TV or buying movie tickets,” Kirsner notes. “That shift is a desire to connect with the artist and to support [him or her] directly.” In addition, these followers often become online evangelists, spreading buzz through their own large social networks.

According to Kirsner, one of the best examples of self-marketing is Jonathan Coulton, a self-described “geek rock” musician who once worked as a computer programmer but has built a large online following through music. Coulton frequently offers songs over the web for free, allows fans to legally create music videos or other forms of artwork around his music, and once famously allowed his followers to come up with the instrumental solo for a track he had posted on his site. Coulton “created this whole community where he would write the songs and others would spread the word to promote it and make products, or add their own creativity,” Kirsner says.

Today, however, social networking is no longer merely the province of the creative classes. Millions of business professionals have joined sites like Facebook — the platform that allows people to share photos, links or information with a network of friends and that has more than 200 million active users worldwide — and LinkedIn, a networking site that is more business oriented and has 35 million users. Gaining fast in popularity is Twitter, with about five million users who exchange information with their network of friends in short bursts of no more than 140 characters.

Wharton marketing professor Eric Bradlow, co-director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, has spent several years studying self-marketing for financial services professionals — one of the hardest-hit sectors in the current slowdown. He says developing a personal “brand” can be as important for a financial advisor as for a rock musician. Bradlow is co-author of a book to be published this summer titled, Marketing For Financial Advisors: Build Your Business by Establishing Your Brand, Knowing Your Clients and Creating a Marketing Plan.

“In these times, people need to differentiate themselves,” notes Bradlow, who became interested in this topic five years ago when he learned that training for financial services professionals almost never included any education about marketing and self-promotion. Bradlow believes it is critical for a worker in the financial sector — especially those who are sole practitioners or run a small business — to develop a brand identity to convince would-be clients to choose them over a large field of rivals. He advises business people to come up with three simple words to define a personal brand — words that could describe a specialized skill set or simply community involvement.

“The most important part is being consistent, [to establish] brand consistency across the various channels,” Bradlow says. That means a business person seeking to build buzz about himself or herself should convey the same message whether meeting people at a local luncheon or building a profile and communicating with friends by way of Facebook. It is also important to understand that different types of networking — traditional or new media — bring different pluses or minuses to the table, he adds. For example, financial planners who target clients in the “at-retirement” sector will have more success making social contacts at a golf club or winning referrals through other trusted professionals, such as lawyers, than by aggressively using Facebook or Twitter, which could even be off-putting to some older clients.

LinkedIn is by far and away the most popular business-oriented social network — with more than 35 million registered users scattered across more than 170 industries — but it is just one of a growing number of sites. Others include Ning, which allows specific businesses to create their own social networks of clients, employees and interested parties; Ryze, which allows organizers to better organize contact lists and schedules; and Xing, which aims to connect business people with experts or potential customers.

It’s equally important to be aware of the potential pitfalls of the different online networking sites. In particular, some experts voice concern over business networking on Facebook, because it allows friends and acquaintances to freely post material that will also appear on a person’s profile page; the risk is that someone else might post an inappropriate comment or photo that could actually scare away potential business contacts.

“Your professional branching-out can be comingling with your personal friends’ accounts, and you are exposing all of them if somebody decides to give away your information or post something imprudent,” says Andrea M. Matwyshyn, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton. She recommends that potential job seekers focus their activities on business-oriented sites such as LinkedIn, which are unlikely to pose the same risks.

Skip the Wild Parties

In fact, Matwyshyn says the recession — and the greater risk of layoffs that comes with it — can make Facebook even riskier as managers who make decisions about layoffs or about new hiring are increasingly exposed to online profiles. “People in this down economy are deciding whether to fire one person who has a picture of a wild party the night before [on Facebook] … while [another] person who is on the chopping block has posted pictures of his family.” Still, Matwyshyn acknowledges that she herself has an active Facebook profile because she found it an effective way to make contacts or trade information with other academics in her field of expertise.

Despite the risks, many experts are advising individuals to use the web and other tools to brand themselves. They note that until recently, executives and other professionals tended to market themselves through their resume and depended heavily on the reputation and branding of the employers they have worked for — something that makes less sense in this roiled economy with so many layoffs and job changes.

Peter S. Fader, Wharton marketing professor and co-director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, says establishing a personal brand is important in an age in which consumers are more skeptical and seeking a level of comfort and trust. “Before, receivers would usually play a passive role and accept a product because it was there. Now, they want to know what your source of credibility is and why they should trust you.” He argues that this environment makes it possible for an investigative journalist, for example, to adhere to top professional standards through his relationship with his readers in what he calls “a grassroots manner. I think that’s great.”

Building an online identity also takes patience. Berger notes that at first, it is usually helpful to build a following by giving away something for free — even if it’s just nuggets of information or personal wisdom transmitted by blog postings or through commentary on Twitter. “People might enjoy that, and find that they’re willing to pay for it in another outlet.” Likewise, an attractive online personality could widen one’s list of contacts to include people able to offer job opportunities down the road.

Bradlow believes that it’s important to reach out to people who are “influencers,” who will use word-of-mouth to spread information about you and your unique expertise to their own wide networks of social contacts — a concept described by author Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point. “You need to seed the right people, to develop a word-of-mouth army,” Bradlow says. “Everyone should have a list of 20 or 30 people who will act as their ambassadors.”

For someone — a white-collar middle manager, for example — who might question whether he or she truly has enough unique abilities to create a personal brand, Bradlow notes the endeavor might not involve a skill as much as a specialized kind of training, or even something like philanthropic involvement in the community. The other thing he suggests to self-marketing newcomers, online or otherwise, is patience. “Branding is something that does not necessarily come with a short-term payoff. It’s a long-term investment. Why does Coca-Cola spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising? It’s not about increasing sales today; it’s about building brand awareness.”

Ask MacMillan, who is branding himself and his award-winning photography online and who is painfully aware of how long it takes to develop income. “I’m not trying to replace the revenue from my job through the direct revenue from my blog, because that doesn’t happen,” he says. “But the secondary revenue will be there.”

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One Comment So Far

Jim Lee

What an excellent, detailed and long article! I know it’s over 4 years old but I just ran across it while doing research on social networking.

I have been involved in marketing my own products on the internet for several years now. Social networking and social media marketing are both a part of this and take a LOT of work and time. Running my site and my social networking & social marketing campaigns is a full-time job in itself.

Like this article states, building brand-awareness is very important but so is driving traffic to my site. No traffic=No sales. No sales, no gold.