Using social media to build your personal brand

Your personal brand is like your writing style: you have one even if you don’t know it. So you might as well figure out how to develop your brand to your advantage.

Personal branding was the focus of a November 17 Medill Alumni Club meeting in Chicago, where local pundits spent an evening swapping ideas on a panel. The panelists consisted of Hope Bertram, founder of Windy City Social; Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, senior editor, Ebony; Leah Jones, director of customer experience, SpotOn; Kyra Kyles, reporter, Tribune RedEye; Robert Mark, Northwestern University adjunct faculty member and editor,; and Cassandra West, social media specialist, Urban Gardener. Here are some take-aways:

  • Before you consider the tools for building your brand, have a strategy (a point stressed repeatedly by Robert Mark). When your co-workers see you in the office and you bump into colleagues at conferences, what do you want to be remembered for? A passion for music? An expert in wine? Expertise in PR? All of the above? And what is your goal? Are you looking for a job? Seeking to raise your profile to get a promotion? Then figure out how to share that brand.
  • Once you sort out your strategy, then share your brand across multiple platforms consistently — and this is where social media tools can be so useful. The content you post on Facebook, LinkedIn, SlideShare, Twitter, etc., should consistently build your brand. In particular, LinkedIn has exploded in popularity for professional networking and content sharing. Haven’t updated your LinkedIn contacts lately? Do so now. (However, Hope Bertram offered a caution on using multiple platforms. In her view, you need to cultivate different voices on different platforms — for instance, your Twitter voice should be distinct from the style of writing you use on your blog if you have one because by its nature Twitter rewards short, punchy bursts of information.)
  • Know the relationship between your professional brand and personal life. If you’ve decided to let professional colleagues have access to a Facebook page your family and friends see, then you’re going to need to post only information that supports your brand — or else divide your professional from your personal lists of friends. For the professional list, post only information that supports your brand. For your personal lists, share whatever you want to share.
  • Contrary to popular wisdom, there is a time and place for anonymity in the social world. For instance, what if you want to branch out into a category of interest that conflicts with your personal brand? The panelists agreed that it makes sense to create a separate Twitter account with an identity completely divorced from yours — akin to a pen name. Adrienne Samuels Gibbs indicated that she enjoys following @blackinformant on Twitter, an anonymous account that shares news about blacks. She speculated that whoever runs @blackinformant must have a good reason to remain anonymous. Perhaps the author or authors are not black. Perhaps the account conflicts with someone’s personal brand otherwise. But the account is useful to her just the same.
  • Don’t lock yourself into a brand that prevents you from growing, in the words of Leah Jones. And  if you do, have the courage to reinvent your brand. Leah discussed how she once killed her Twitter account (not easy to do since it had 7,500 followers) and revived her account as @ChicagoLeah because her old account was confining her brand. (More about her story here.) Two ways to avoid getting “boxed in”: define your strategy first and be discerning about what you want the professional world to know about you.
  • The personal website is far from dead. Use a tool like WordPress to build one — but only if you can do it right. As Leah Jones pointed out, the advantage to your website is that you own it. You don’t have to worry about Twitter failing or Facebook changing its privacy policies. She suggests you view your website as a hub connecting all the places where your brand lives (Facebook, SlideShare, etc.). But a word of caution from Kyra Kyles: “Don’t make a personal website that looks like a MySpace page that ran away from MySpace. Do it right or not at all.”
  • Social media tools should support your brand — not take over your life. If you spend more time maintaining your Twitter account than meeting people in the offline world, something is wrong. If you attend conferences, blog about what you hear, and have no time to network with people who are in the room with you, then something is wrong. Manage the technology, not the other way around.

I found the event to be useful for many reasons, the most important being that I met some cool people. Remembering to put social media in perspective, I took notes for my blog, but I avoided doing a real-time blog (live blogging is difficult when you want to set aside time to talk). And I did not do any live Tweeting (too distracting in this smaller, interactive setting). I stayed focused on the people around me.

Other random tidbits:

  • “Email is useful as a virtual business card but not much more.” (Kyra Kyles)
  • “On your website you can control the story that you want told about you.” (Leah Jones)
  • “Personal recommendations from bosses on LinkedIn is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” (Robert Mark)
  • “LinkedIn recommendations from bosses are not credible. Get your coworkers to write recommendations on LinkedIn.” (Hope Bertram)
  • “Personal branding has its limits. I do not want to see myself defined as a product.” (Cassandra West)
  • “Please put away your personal devices when you are with other people. There’s nothing more rude than looking at your phone when you’re supposed to be making eye contact with someone. That’s bad for your brand.” (Adrienne Samuels Gibbs)
  • “You can kill your brand with social media if you mindlessly Tweet about anything that comes to mind.” (Robert Mark)

Of all the points I heard, the one that resonates the most is the anonymity of social media. Most every social media pundit I know advises against being anonymous in the social world. This is the first panel I’ve attended where anonymity was not only accepted but advocated. What do you think about anonymity in the social world– agree or disagree with the panelists?

Tornadoes are sexy beasts


My, how the tornado has become a sexy brand.

This morning, I visited to find out what kind of day May 10 was bringing to Chicago (always a giant question mark). I was hit smack in the face with the image of a shimmering, purple tornado and the headline Outbreak!, which invited me to watch a video forecasting severe weather occurring in the United States (complete with colorful graphics and enthusiastic reporting).

On the same website, I could also read an article predicting the likely outbreak of severe weather on May 10 across the central and southern plains — and as if to assure me that The Weather Channel really has its act together, the website proudly stated that The Weather Channel uses a “forecast product”  known as TOR:CON, which predicts the likelihood of a tornado occurring within 50 miles of a given location. And on top of that, the website invited me to visit Facebook to learn more about Severe Weather Expert Dr. Greg Forbes (wouldn’t you know — TOR:CON uses his expertise).

But was just a mild warm-up to the May 10 print edition of Chicago Tribune (yes, I still read print). The front page masthead was mocked up to depict a dark, stormy sky, with a bold headline announcing that that  WGN chief meteorolgist Tom Skilling would be chasing “storms in tornado alley” — all week. The Page 4 jump announced that a “team of experts will travel throughout the Midwest and Plains states in an unprecedented effort to learn more about how [tornadoes] form and how they can be better predicted.” The full-page spread used those colorful graphics again (with the requisite tornado menacing the plains) to explain geeky tornado-chasing terms like the sticknet (an instrument that collects data as a storm approaches).

Tornadoes have come a long way since providing a supporting role The Wizard of Oz. They’ve run amok on YouTube, landed at major museums, run roughshod on television, and toppled book shelves, physical and virtual. On top of all that, they’ve demolished a website, too. The tornado has captured our imagination in the same way Godzilla has: with a mixture of fear, awe, and fascination. The tornado is a brand to be reckoned with, made even more formidable with the cooperation of the overlapping news reporting and entertainment industry.

No doubt the abysmal 1996 movie Twister had something to do with the ascendance of the tornado as a brand. It’s one of those movies so bad that I love watching it for laughs. Obstensibly Twister stars Bill Paxon and Helen Hunt as two storm chasers rekindling a romance (don’t ask). But the real star of this special-effects laden storm orgy is the tornado itself, which fairly bursts through the screen replete with groaning and writhing worthy of Jenna Jameson. The movie-going public made Twister the second-highest grossing movie of 1996. Universal Studios Florida would later launch an attraction, Twister . . . Ride It Out based on the movie.

For a short time during my childhood, I live in Indianapolis, where my family spent our share of days huddled in a closet waiting out severe weather (including at least one tornado). I did not need books or movies to impress upon me their ability to terrorize and bewitch with their overwhelming power. But these days, it does not matter where you live: a tornado is coming your way. And there is some value in this multi-channel experience: if you looked closely enough at the May 10 Chicago Tribune tornado spread, you could learn about the Vortex Project an undertaking created to improve tornado forecasting. So the reporting does call attention to a public service. You just have to find it through the storm of hype.

PS: how come tornadoes don’t get names like hurricanes?