Remember “Shingy”? For awhile last year, everyone in tech seemed to be talking about David Shing, AOL’s self-proclaimed “digital prophet” — but for all the wrong reasons. As The Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien put it in an article aptly titled “AOL’s ‘digital prophet’ is everything wrong with Corporate America today”:
AOL is desperately trying to divine a future where it’s something more than obsolete. And that’s why they have David Shing… [who has] big hair, glammed-out fingernails, and repeats the word “brands” like he’s a verbally incontinent MBA.
To be fair, Shingy has done some interesting work for AOL, like this interview with Kevin Spacey. But overall, the backlash he garnered illustrates how a personal brand can hurt a company brand — and how a company can hurt itself by not strategizing and managing its brand carefully.
In any case, it’s well-past time to change the way people and companies build their brands. With Twitter and Facebook around 10 years old, brands can no longer grow awareness simply with an active online presence. Now that everyone is constantly promoting themselves on the major social networks, a new approach is desperately needed — one that puts as much emphasis on accessibility and unmediated authenticity, as hashtags. Here’s some starting points we typically recommend, enforced by insights from two close colleagues who’ve mastered the challenge of building their own personal brands:
Refresh Your Brand by Diversifying Your Expertise and Interests
To stay at the forefront of the market, it’s crucial to show yourself knowledgeable beyond your particular expertise. This helps you dodge the danger of pigeon-holing yourself, while also growing audience awareness beyond your existing base. In the pop music world, Taylor Swift is a very good role model: Not simply satisfied with promoting her music and her concert appearances, she also talks a lot about feminism and protecting artists. This kind of engagement not only helps her connect even more deeply with her most dedicated fans, but grows her audience while establishing herself as a thought leader. (Notice how Swift’s opinions on music streaming monetization were widely quoted last year, even by tech sites.)
Amber Case, a colleague who made a name for herself through an influential TED talk about cyborg anthropology, later expanded her focus to talk about ambient location at SXSW, and has expanded yet again to focus on “calm technology” and connected devices. It’s important, as she puts it to me, “to step back a little and see where things are going. If you get too close to everything that goes on, you can lose sight of what really matters over time.”
Diversification shouldn’t just be expressed by social media updates, of course; strive to connect with leaders and influencers adjacent or complementary to your industry and brand category, and make a point to attend conferences and social events outside your usual comfort zone. Which takes me to my next point:
Emphasize In-Person Accessibility Whenever Possible
Ironically, the success of social media has only increased the value of in-person contact.
We’ve long since learned that there’s a certain wall in front of social media, and that public figures and brands create a personae through social media. Consequently, interactions with them feel mediated and filtered. So now authenticity becomes even more about face-to-face accessibility, and fostering one-to-one relationships.
“Social media isn’t enough because it alone can’t demonstrate you’re a person,” as Ben Parr, author of Captivology, puts it. “Even Beyoncé goes shopping at Walmart once in a while. Events and in-person appearances matter. Mostly it’s just about caring about your audience and being a human being, not necessarily 1-on-1 interaction.”
Tech evangelist and social media god Robert Scoble is an excellent case study here: He’s very accessible, very open about how he can be reached, open to meeting new people and hearing everyone’s point of view. And notably, he’s recently added another way to engage his followers beyond Twitter and Facebook: Through direct e-mailed newsletters.
This tip might not seem as relevant to company brands, but that can’t be more wrong. “A company is not one entity,” as Amber notes, “it is a collection of different people. Show those people! The brands that know themselves well enough to have character are the ones that are memorable.”
Always Be Updating – Judiciously
Or as Ben calls it, “CCC”: Create Content Consistently. That content can come in many forms, including personal appearances (as discussed), or be as brief as a Tweeted photo, but the key is to do so on a regular, reliable basis. “When you break schedule your awareness shrinks,” says Ben. “You have to always be doing something new, unique or better than what you did before. Nothing is sadder than a stagnant brand.“
At the same time, there’s nothing more annoying that a robotic one.
“I see a lot of consumer/tech brands talk down to their audience or tweet out press releases,” Amber observes. “People don’t read press releases anymore, bots do. Include pictures and interact with people, don’t just post information.” Or an aggressive one: “Think about it like the people in your life. Do you want twenty messages a day from someone you barely know?”
And both those final points suggest a good way of summarizing all this advice:
Be as strategic about your personal brand as you would be about a product — and be as genuine about your company brand as you are as a person.
But that’s just the start to avoiding Shingy/AOL-level branding disasters. More to come in upcoming posts.