How to develop a personal brand online

I was having a chat with my daughter yesterday about how a dress code says so much about you, and that it is even more important when you are an entrepreneur. When you work for a well-established brand such as Hansa Pilsener, people can make the separation between the two brands. However, it is hard to separate a budding entrepreneur from a brand they are trying to build, market and sell all at the same time. As a result, how a personal brand is developed and managed is just as important for the success of the commercial brand.

ZA's Gr8est Entrepreneurs

Brian Joffe, founder of the Bidvest Group, relates in South Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs that what got his foot through the door of banks and other investors was his personal brand equity when he started his business back in 1988.

It is now an accepted reality that online media form an important communication toolkit for all aspiring self-made men and women. In this post I look at how they should go about developing a personal brand online. Let me hasten to say that most of the thoughts shared about online media here apply equally to offline media as well.

Before you get your personal brand on to any media…

Start with your personal brand’s desired end state

Expressed differently, think about what you want people to say about you when you are dead. I know a lot of youngsters will say they are still too young to worry about that right now, as they are living “in the present”. Or some of the older guys would ask, rather misguidedly, who will care when they are dead, right? Well, good for you.

As the famous saying goes: if we do not know where we are going, any road will get us there.

The rest of us are on a personal journey somewhere. The sooner we think about our desired individual destinations, the better we start ensuring that we are following the right course, and deliberately adopt the empowering habits along the way.

This is called brand vision in marketing terms.

Be clear about what your personal brand stands for

The popular marketing term for this is positioning, which all successful personal brands bed down right at the beginning. It is critical to building rules of the game that will apply to everything you do – both on- and off-line.

Remember that this is for the long haul. The phrase “wena khethile khethile”, a South African lingo that can be loosely translated as a saying “you made your bed, now lie in it” – is most appropriate when your personal brand positioning has been chosen. While you can change your positioning down the line, there are many cases to show us that this is almost destined to fail. I am waiting with abated breath to see if Kelly Khumalo‘s new  gospel artist positioning is going to stick, and those who know the South African music scene and this controversial musician will know what I am talking about.

When the two steps above are complete, then…

Choose you personal brand’s online cues carefully

Things that portray your brand must support what it stands for. There are many such cues, but I have chosen the 4 I deem to be most important.

The username you choose is one such brand cue. What do you call yourself online? I have seen many interesting usernames, and I have also seen many not-so funny names such as TheDevilWithoutHorns. What the hell is that?

Are you trying to be an online Mzekezeke, Bleksem or Evita Bezuidenhout? Notice that I chose these names deliberately, because most South Africans know who the people behind the characters were/are. Just as an aside, to my knowledge DJ Sbu has never admitted that he is in fact Mzekezeke, despite this being an open secrete.

Get out of your mind the fact the online space gives you license to operate anonymously. This space is incorrectly used to assume alter-egos to help us live our fantasy dreams, or be able to speak openly and transparently (or even with blasphemy) about anything or anyone; hoping that we will not be found out. Is this in line with your brand’s desired end state? If it is not, rather find a username that will enhance your brand’s online presence.

My simple advise is that your username MUST be your name, which is the most well-known identity that is also like your fingerprint.

And what about a your profile image? For G’s sake, do not create online accounts with blank profile images. As a matter of principle, I do not friend, fan, follow or connect with faceless netizens. If you do not intend to reveal your face, do not register online!

I see a lot of people using famous characters’ images such as Mandela, Sisulu and such likes. In my mind, this gives an impression you are riding on other people’s brands. Are you feeling that unimportant that you do not believe your own profile image is worth any value? Then you better get started right away with building your own brand online.

If you are serious about building a sustainable brand online, make sure that you choose a profile picture that helps you put your best foot forward.

Your bio is the online window to your world. It is the view you want us to have of you. Give it the attention it deserves. I have checked what people say about themselves online, and I shudder at times. A space where you are asked to “tell us about yourself” offers you an opportunity to gloat, or let us know where you are heading. Don’t pass this up. However, do not embellish your achievements or engage in the pie-in-the-sky stuff. This is as bad as selling yourself short.

Your online network is part of your personal brand cues. Learn from the following Sotho saying – “mokgotsi wa leshodu ke leshodu”. Loosely translated, choose friends carefully, because they say a lot about you, and influence your thinking more than you realize. This applies to online networks as well, many of which are great at matching like-minded netizens. What is interesting is that this is based on your bio and the topics you tend to share most often on the relevant social networks. The psychology behind match-making algorithms supports the Sotho saying above.

Communicate what your personal brand stands for consistently

Some of us splashed our personal profiles everywhere on the net, without keeping a log of all these sites. In addition, we registered with different usernames and profile images; and we have not since gone back to activate and/or update such accounts. Are you thinking – “S@#!t. I hate to admit it but you are talking about me”. Don’t worry, you are not alone. Luckily, most sites are now integrated with the main social networks – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. So, if it is unavoidable to register on many online sites (like myself), preferably choose those that allow you to download your profiles from the main social networks, where you are probably most active and where your profile is most updated. This way, your profile will be consistent across the online board. However, if you do not intend to return to these many sites, rather avoid registering.

The greatest thing about Web 2.0 is that netizens can create their own content. This is what gave true birth to web-based social networking as we know it today. Now you are at liberty to tell us your story. But remember, language is an important vehicle for gauging consistency of your brand positioning.

Choose your words wisely, almost akin to choosing your battles well. You cannot be a jerk of all topics (I have to learn this myself sometimes). Now, this is the most difficult part about us mere mortals when it comes to social networks. We want to say and comment about  anything and everything. We feel this incessant urge to post something as often as we can in this free space that is polluted by loads of meaninglessness, and run the risk of sounding ridiculous. Can you relate to this?

Some of us know that Irvin Khoza, a.k.a. The Iron Duke, knows a lot about the ANC and politics of the day, but I have never heard or read about him commenting about anything but soccer (not on online anyway). Neither has he drawn any parallels between the two (politics and soccer), despite well-known vested interest in this sport by the government of the day. I am certain that the Iron Duke sticks to his knitting by design. Does this teach you anything about personal brand communication consistency? Point made, comrade.

Knowledge sharing is a powerful tool to developing a personal brand online

Carving a niche as a specific subject matter expert is a key part of developing a brand online. Like I am doing with this post, one of the best ways to achieve this is through sharing of knowledge. Find a topic directly associated with your personal brand positioning and write about it. But, you cannot write if you are an empty vessel. This means you have to learn first. This will help you formulate your own thoughts and then “put them down on paper”. In return, the more you write the more you become confident and want to do more, which generates even more need to acquire knowledge, and so it goes.

Word of caution: watch the syntax and spelling mistakes (hope I did). These two can kill an otherwise great post.

Time to end it here

I feel like sharing some more of my thoughts. But, I have learned from my learned bloggers that this leads to people being discouraged to read it due to short-term attention span that the online media communities suffer from. I shall head their advise and “bopha”, i.e. “stop”.

  • Nuffdotty – where thoughts on the subject of education, mostly relating to South Africa, are shared
  • Diski4Life – a blog about development of South African soccer post World Cup 2010


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