Gone are the days when only corporations developed a brand and their representatives just used those nice slogans, shiny brochures and glossy business cards. Today all customer facing employees need to show their personal connection with the value they provide as an individual and as part of the organisation. A unique personal branding is a must to disrupt the information overflow in the age of the well-informed buyer.
How to differentiate a company brand from a personal brand? According to the Entrepreneur Small Business Encyclopedia, a company brand “creates a symbol that personifies and distinguishes a company's offerings”. That covers advertising via multi-channel marketing up to customer service. The brand needs to resonate with decision makers at potential clients. Beyond pure transactional order taking, people still do business with people in companies, not with the company. Therefore, business professionals must be visible and perceived as faces of the company.
With the advent of social media, many professionals break out of the company brand and show what they can offer to the market. That often leads to a misunderstanding: Los Ellis defined Personal Branding as “the process of establishing a prescribed image or impression in the mind of others”. It is therefore less about the individual, rather what they can do for prospects and customers in their perception.
Distilling the term further, “personal” stands for art and story of the professional while “brands” shows the packaging. As Nicolas Cole mentioned:
“A long-lasting personal brand cannot exist without both parts: art and marketing, expression and distribution.”
Creating a personal brand for service professionals in smaller companies requires more detailed work and regular adjustments to cut through the noise compared to corporate employees with their internal marketing departments. Well perceived differentiation becomes the ultimate goal.
The following model of three continuity circles in adjustable speeds takes the components of personal branding further into Social Selling.
The personal branding starts with an analysis of the own competency to define your image. Not just what are you doing for whom, rather how is your work perceived by your clients. Which problems do you solve so that your customers move from solved pain points to a state of comfort and are willing to refer you further. It is critical to know your unique selling point based on the own strengths and passion. The challenge will be how to tell the own story with a limited set of characters on the right platform to the right audience at the right time.
From answering the “what” into the “how”: With a good portion of creativity and storytelling, a personal brand helps to stand out within the crowd. The visual side of the brand covers the website, collaterals and the LinkedIn profile with rich media and creative case studies. Adding videos in the LinkedIn summary and in regular posts is a huge trend to show the real person behind the message. As most videos are watched on mobile devices without sound, adding subtitles and recording with a tripod is mandatory to remain professional. Creativity helps to differentiate the value proposition compared to others as long the core message remains visible and prospects are not distracted by surrounding content.
As the competency is created around target audience groups, it is necessary to apply genuine curiosity to get to know the audience and find out how to reach them now and in the future. Many professionals rely on successful methods of the past such as word of mouth or use referrals which works well today. On top of that, it is necessary to be visible where current and future prospects hang out at the earliest possible timing in their buying journeys. Constant learning about the changing drivers of target audience groups in vertical segments avoiding general markets is mandatory to be successful.
Once the brand elements are created, they need to be executed with consistency in mind to maintain a similar voice. To cultivate a consistent online presence, reserve possible names on all social platforms and setup a Google Alert for the own name to see search performances accordingly. Blogging on the own website helps to position yourself as long there is no break after a few good posts for the start. Setting goals and milestones in the constant brand development helps to compare the brand expectation with the perceived reality and to adjust where possible.
Many professionals still create their website offering and LinkedIn profile just about them and their activities. Only a client-centric presentation can reach the chosen target audience because it is all about their perception! That starts with the LinkedIn headline and summary which both should demonstrate which problems you solve for whom. Quoting book author Tony J. Hughes:
“Everyone needs a strong and authentic personal brand and your LinkedIn profile must attract and engage those aligned with your professional purpose and values.”
Ideal clients can be reached via more channels than any TV station provides. Those who are found by prospects in the same way are missing out when potential customers prefer different ways of finding and engaging. The website should obviously include proper contact pages and an immediately visible “work with me” section, otherwise the future client will click away. A company page on LinkedIn is critical to differentiate between the company brand and the personal brand, but also to link them together. Depending the type of business, a Twitter or Instagram presence helps to spread the word and to find out what the relevant industry is actually talking about. Many businesses prefer using Facebook or YouTube. Important is the right channel mix depending the target audience.
The chosen communication styles attract the target audience accordingly within those channels. Publisher Charles Fairlie suggests validating the personal brand by listening how others introduce yourself, on networking events or in a referral message on LinkedIn. A useful element online and offline remains the elevator pitch which should demonstrate the provided value in the eyes of the target audience. Different pitches can accommodate various introductions at events or in a 1:1 situation with a client.
Credibility can only be earned over time when trust turns to respect and reputation. It is important to believe in yourself, in your offered solutions or products and in your company. If one of those elements is broken, a huge effort is needed to regain this triangle. True credibility is the basis for the famous sentence “People conduct business with people who they know, like and trust.” In recent trends around transactional products, the selling function will be more and more automated. Some buyers in those areas might not believe in that well quoted sentence – but their function will most probably be subject to be automated as well. Credibility should be shown on social media with endorsement, recommendations and testimonials.
The trending buzzword is a misleading term: Social Selling doesn’t mean selling online. It is rather Social Engagement or a combination of social media, digital tools and the traditional channels to advance the sales and business agenda. Expert Koka Sexton mentioned:
“When I say ‘Social Selling’, I mean ‘Providing Value’”.
Using social media and digital tools like Google Alerts helps to find prospects and like-minded professionals and connect with them. Please always include a personalised invitation with a hook so that the person will more likely respond. This gesture also shows respect to the other side. Beyond the defined target groups, it is important to welcome influencers in the network as complementing companions. Prospecting is a daily task and should not stop after a certain number of contacts or followers on any platform. Even the largest obtained email list of potential clients has still a finite number.
In real life it is time to get the developed personal brand out and connect with professionals on networking events and other occasions. Chapters of Business Networking International (BNI) exist in most metropolitan cities across the globe, added by other referral-based organisations or business chambers. Join a Toastmasters group to get used to public speaking without fear. Attend industry conferences to gather the trends in the market and to get the messaging out individually or even as an exhibitor. The established online network can lead to speaking assignments at relevant events.
Creating own unique content is one of the best ways to achieve regular attention of a living brand. Many professionals simply publish their offering which often turns readers away. It is not about selling hardware products on Amazon. Genuine material should rather focus on well perceived value within the context by 80% with only 20% dedicated to concrete offerings.
Sales author Tony J. Hughes suggests composing posts with 600 to 900 words fitting into one of these three categories: proactive objection killers with headlines that draw attention, valuable insight that hooks interest for the target audience and leveraging current events within a local or regional environment.
Not all readers hang out on the same platforms, therefore it is wise to tailor the messaging accordingly for different audiences. Blog articles on the own website can be shared as a post on LinkedIn instead of an article. The LinkedIn algorithm recently favours shot-term posts, but long-form Pulse articles will always be visible in the profile and show competence, often perceived as thought leadership.
A different version of the material can be written for the world’s largest blogging platform, Medium. And some items are an ideal base to answer questions on Quora as a further element of personal branding.
Self-created or outsourced writing efforts shall be added by the ongoing curation of content from others complementing the own expertise. While some experts treat this as a distraction to lead away from the own value proposition, most target audiences rather perceive surrounding thoughts as a positive gesture and a sign of caring. Instead of just forwarding, Using tools like Buffer or Hootsuite provides reporting capabilities and allows spreading the content to various channels. Tagging the respective content owners and related associations helps to further spread the own branding as well. Applying Robert Cialdini’s famous “Law of Reciprocity” about the principles of persuasion, they want to return the favour and curate your own material to expand their reach. Content creation and curation adds an important part into the earlier mentioned famous sentence: “People like to conduct business with people who they know, like, trust – and who inspire, educate and entertain them.”
Many believe they are Social Selling successfully when they share content and increase their LinkedIn Social Selling Index (SSI) from a lower number closer to the maximum of 100. Some statistics show that sales professionals with an SSI above 70 are more likely to overachieve their sales targets. But the target of Social Selling is not represented by the highest possible KPIs. The real call to action behind is gaining appointments for dedicated phone calls or meetings with the right person at the right time. Turning an initial conversation from an online connection into an offline relationship is the base for sales success. In that sense, Social Selling doesn’t replace the phone, it rather turns a potential cold calling activity into a more suited, “warm calling” activity based on a relationship built online or based on a referral.
When the customer relationship starts with a physical engagement like on networking events, an immediate approach to sell services as a direct consequence might not be appropriate. My own experience shows that an “offline-online-offline” approach is the better way to showcase competency and thought leadership to turn the conversation again offline at the right moment.
Creating a consistent personal brand is the first step towards success, both as a corporate employee and as an individual service professional. It is vital to look beyond the own offering and provide perceived value to the target audience on a regular base. Connecting with influencers helps to gain higher visibility. Social Selling can advance the business agenda successfully when the personal brand represents competency and creativity with curiosity into concerns of the target audience, paired with a consistent routine of respective activities. As a rewarding marathon instead of a sprint, the brand will be personal again.
Photos by Bruce Mars on Unsplash (title photo), Rawpixel, Adobe and Pexels.