Professional Branding in the Digital Age: How to Stay Relevant

There has never been a more exciting or challenging time to be in marketing.  Marketers have a lot to take on: shifting consumer habits, proliferation of media formats, rapidly changing technology, grappling with big data, different growth techniques and a relentless focus on ROI have made the job bigger and more complex than ever.

But keeping up with changes in the field are only half the battle. Today’s modern day marketers must be prepared to reinvent themselves through the very same mediums in which they’re pitching their products.

I asked Dorie Clark, brand expert and author of Reinventing You for some practical guidance marketers can use to help get prepared.

Q: What is personal branding?

Dorie: Personal branding is the process of taking stock of how you’re perceived by others, determining how you’d like to be seen, and then taking strategic action to make that a reality.

Q: What’s the difference between personal branding and professional reputation?

A: The term “personal brand” gained prominence after Tom Peters’s seminal 1997 Fast Company cover story, “The Brand Called You.” Some people dislike the term, and think that it implies fakery or manipulation – trying to be something you’re not. But on the contrary, it’s about something very basic and longstanding in professional life – the importance of understanding one’s reputation and ensuring that others grasp the real value you can bring.

Q: You work with some of the most successful brands in the country – Google, World Bank and Microsoft, to name a few. What is the biggest mistake you see professionals make in the area of personal branding?

A: Too often, we assume that other people will intuitively understand our career path – where we’re going, and what our past experiences have helped teach us. But others usually aren’t paying that close attention, which is why it’s necessary to proactively create a narrative that describes your professional arc. If you don’t do it, others will guess or make their own (often incorrect) assumptions – and you risk being misunderstood or overlooked.

Q: What’s your reaction when you see a LinkedIn profile of a senior exec who only has 128 connections? Does that convey “busy” or “technologically out-of-touch”?

A: It doesn’t send the right message when a senior executive has a barely-attended-to LinkedIn profile. If you’re a billionaire or celebrity, it’s fine not to have a LinkedIn profile; we assume that you’re too busy to fend off the fawning masses. But for almost everyone else, you need to have a profile, and if you’re going to bother having one, you should do it right – and that means at least 500 connections (after that point it becomes less important, as it’s labeled “500+”).

OneOfThesePlusLinkedInQ:  Okay. That makes sense.  Clearly social media is important. But how many social networks does a marketer really need to participate in?

A: These days, your personal brand is shaped on two parallel tracks—your “real world” activities, and your digital presence.  You have to engage, at least somewhat, in social media, or you risk looking like a Luddite or someone with something to hide. Every professional (except billionaires and celebrities, as noted above) needs a LinkedIn profile. Beyond that, take your pick of either having a blog, podcast, videocast, or using Twitter or Google+. (Facebook is not really useful for professional purposes, though every culturally literate person should know how to use it.)

Q: I think sometimes digital marketers feel like the cobbler with the worn out shoes.  For example, everyone knows they should be blogging but how important is it really? What are some tips to get started, but more important, stay with it?

A: Blogging is pretty critical, because if you want to be known for your ideas (and most high-level professionals do), it’s the most powerful way to demonstrate your insight. How do I know if you’re a good marketer? Unless I know you personally or talk to your references, I have no idea. But if you blog thoughtfully about the industry and share your perspective, I’m going to have a good sense of where you’re coming from and what you can contribute. A lot of people hesitate to blog because they don’t like writing or aren’t sure what to say. I encourage them to follow the lead of Gary Vaynerchuk, the well-known social media consultant who monologues into his smartphone and has it transcribed using a service like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. If the thought of writing is stressful, just talk and let the ideas flow.

Q: I think most senior marketers would agree with many of the things you are talking about. However, most marketers don’t have enough time. What are some simple, easy, actionable things executives can do to get started?

A: Here are three things you can do right away. 1) When you go to a networking event or conference, link up with a “wingman” (a trusted colleague) beforehand and make a pledge to talk each other up. It’s a lot easier to brag about someone else, and you know they have your back, as well. 2) Get involved on Twitter. It’s not as broad-based as Facebook, but Twitter users are disproportionately influential – it’s real life opinion leaders. You can maintain a decent Twitter presence in five minutes a day, while you’re waiting in line at the store. 3) Ask five friends or trusted colleagues, “If you only had three words to be able to describe me, what would they be?” Odds are, after a few people you’ll start to see patterns and probably learn something illuminating about how you’re coming across to others.

Wingman-GooseQ: If I am one of the most senior people at my firm, or am not at an organization, how do I find a “wingman”?

A: It’s important for every professional to seek out like-minded peers. If you’re an independent consultant or freelancer, perhaps it’s fellow chamber of commerce members, or fellow authors, or fellow graduates of your university. And if you’re a very senior executive or entrepreneur, it might be friends from your mastermind group or EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) or YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization). Find peers you trust, and they can become your “wingmen.”

Q: If I am perfectly happy in my job, why do I need to worry about personal branding?

A: A strong personal brand provides a form of “career insurance.” It means you’ll be viewed as indispensable by your company and coveted by other companies, raising your bargaining power – and your ability to make an impact.

Q: A generation ago, the career path was a fairly steady climb up the corporate ladder.  Job security seems less likely. What changes have you seen in today’s workplace?

A: Entire professions that even a decade ago seemed secure have virtually evaporated.Entire professions that even a decade ago seemed secure have virtually evaporated. More than 40% of college professors are adjunct part-timers; 30-40% of all newsroom journalists lost their jobs over the past decade; even classic “safe” jobs like the law are at risk because you can hire contract attorneys to do basic work, and computers to scan documents for discovery. It’s become very clear that the ladder is broken; big companies lay off workers regularly, including Macy’s, which just announced that despite strong holiday sales, it’s laying off 2500 workers. So job security, whether at your company or within your profession, is now a dubious prospect. The only answer is recognizing that we have to regard ourselves as free agents and make ourselves as attractive as possible to a variety of potential employers.

Q: If I want to make a career change in a different field, how do I do it?

A: If you’re interested in changing careers, it’s important first to research carefully what you’d like your new field to be, as you don’t want to jump into something only to discover you hate it. The best way is literally to try it out via job shadowing someone for a day, doing a longer internship, or perhaps a hybrid experience like those offered by Pivot Planet, a company that allows you to pay to follow someone in a given professional (baker, photographer, rancher) for several days so you can really see what it’s like. Next, think through how your existing skills apply in the new realm, as it might not always be obvious.

One woman I profile in my book, Reinventing You, was able to use the foreign language skills she picked up in studying to be a legal scholar for her subsequent career as a wine expert. Then, close any gaps with extra training. You won’t necessarily need to go back to school for another degree, but you may benefit from taking a few targeted classes. Finally, as you settle into your new profession, you want to get new contacts – and old friends and colleagues – on your side right away by demonstrating your expertise. You don’t want to give them any reason to doubt you. So start blogging and taking leadership roles in professional organizations so they can see how committed you are, and experience the quality of your work and your insights.

Q: In your book you talk a lot about war stories and why they are so important to personal branding?

A: It can be very hard for individuals to identify their own personal brand. We know too much about ourselves; how can we possibly distill it down to a few core elements? That’s why “war stories” – the stories we repeat; the ones that have the most meaning for us – are so important. They allow us a window into what moves us, and what makes us tick. Through those stores, we can begin to get a “ground up” picture of who we are, what we stand for, and what we’d like our brand to be.

Punch line? Perhaps it’s like pornography. You’ll know it…

Whether you call it “personal branding” or “professional reputation,” Dorie’s comments are clear: it’s your responsibility to define and cultivate your image.  Still confused? I have to wonder if this ethereal stuff is like pornography: it is hard to describe, but you absolutely know it when you see it. To that end, next time you are waiting in a line and have minutes to spare, take a look at:

These marketers have picked a medium and carefully cultivated their brands in a highly relevant way. The reality is this: while professional networking and always learning are keys to success, it takes only seconds and keystrokes for curious would-be employers or partners to mine your background for information.  We live in a world that is, in so many ways, out of our control.  How comforting to know that when it comes to our professional careers, we are empowered to take ownership of our brands!

Read the other articles in the series:
FOBO Fear of Becoming Obsolete: Staying professionally relavant in a fast moving marketing world

About the Author

Anita Newton

Anita Newton is the VP of corporate marketing at Adknowledge. She led marketing at P&G, Sprint and AMC Theatres, as well startups including Zave Networks (acquired by Google). Anita continues her entrepreneurial work by advising startups like Trellie and Mighty Green Solutions. She is based at Adknowledge's Kansas City headquarters.