This blog post is co-written with the super-smart Pete Radloff, recruiter, talent leader and all-around nice guy.
The internet. For all its beauty and brawn, it’s like candy to a kid. There’s always room for more. Unless you’re managing a personal brand, meaning, you’re calling yourself an expert and purport to be the “industry’s leading…” or the “foremost expert on….” The field in which we work, human resources, has it’s share of experts—from recruiting to Gen Y to organizational design. But for every expert, there’s an online personal brand and many of them are painfully obvious.
It may be a lost cause for those floating in the ego clouds but if you’re looking to make a career as a subject matter expert (or if you are one and you’re willing to listen for a wee second), here are ten tips to brand yourself as an expert while keeping it real. And bearable.
1) Let your experience speak for itself.
As an expert, you don’t need to continually remind everyone with every post, promotion and page on your Web site, that you’re the expert. Headlines and promotional materials may be a necessary evil, but let the work speak for itself. Share a client list. Blog regularly. Provide feedback and testimonials from clients that matter. Your experience and expertise isn’t about what you say it is. It’s what your reputation says it is. Self-promotion has a tipping point and humility can be a beautiful thing.
2) Show that you’ve worked in the corporate trenches.
Expertise is earned best through experience. And while consultants get great, often long-term, experience from client relationships, there’s no substitute for having been a client yourself at one time. To be an expert is to say “I’ve been in your shoes.” There’s credibility and understanding to having managed a Fortune 500’s budget or gone through an RFP or vendor selection from the inside. Relationships are built on common understanding and the "I've been there before" is a great place to start.
3) Don’t spam - have a target audience have concise useful content.
It’s not to say don’t market. But a surefire way to make sure that your audience tunes you out quickly is to focus only the “Look at ME” factor. We’re in a society constantly inundated with this offer or that new shiny toy. Break from the herd and offer clear content that is rich, focused, and stirs debate among the readers or followers that you are targeting. Aside from promoting yourself, and marketing your brand and services, you also have to provide a value-add to the audience. Always ask yourself “what can they take away from the content I’m delivering right now?”
4) Speak on topics you have real experience with, not just pure opining.
Looking at the profiles of “gurus” on LinkedIn, and their bios on their websites, there are repeated patterns in many of the profiles – little to no experience in the field that they are allegedly “experts” in. There are pedigreed educational experiences, and then once off into entrepreneur-hood – an expert is born. While there’s almost always a segment of the experts that have tenure in the field that they opine about, the law of averages doesn’t allow for them all to be experts. Your credibility is, in the long run, ultimately based on the wisdom you can share from deep, genuine experience and research into your topic.
5) Don’t assume you know everything about said, expert topic.
Even if you’re the go-to guy (or gal) in a particular niche, you have a perspective based on your experiences, your education and your age. Not only do you not know everything, but you’re not in a place to predict every trend either. Pay attention to up and comers in your field or industry and publicly highlight what you learn from them. It shows that you respect the full range of thought and debate any area of expertise needs to stay vibrant and energized.
6) Stop with the “thought leader” crap.
“Thought leader” – say it aloud. These two words are pure marketing gold. Gold plated that is. It’s an incredibly overused term, and usually misappropriated in its use. The definition of thought leader is a “person who is recognized for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights”. This is a fine definition, but it explicitly says "innovative ideas." And much of what is out there is far from innovative, but rather recycled and repackaged as new. Only truly innovative, unique ideas can make you a thought leader. (And we have to be able to come up with a better catchphrase or label for it, right?)
7) Don’t let your life become your brand.
Social media has allowed experts to become more personable, sharing more insight into their personal lives and interests. But your life can’t become or overtake your expertise. If it does, you’re not an expert in your area of expertise. You’re an expert in your personal life. And we're not in the market for that. If you decide to open up all of your thought streams to your public, do so carefully. Then take a count. We want to know who you are at your core, but when your wisdom starts being outweighed by Tweets about your pet peeves and Facebook posts about your unhygienic neighbor, your credibility sinks. Fast. There’s no doubt that social media means a professional and personal profile is often merged. But you’re managing a brand here and authenticity isn't digestible when you're sharing everything that comes to mind.
8) Don't throw others under the bus that you "compete" with and don’t attack others that disagree with you - your side is only 1 half.
The internet means the world is much smaller now. With that comes responsibility for the brand owner. You’ll always have supporters and detractors. Not everyone will see your ideas as right, some will be flat out competitors, and others may even call you out publicly. You must be willing to engage all parties professionally and with mutual respect. It’s evident to an audience when you are in attack mode, as opposed to when you are in competitive, but substantive debate. Part of being a leader is respecting the ideas of others, even if not always agreeing with them.
9) Don’t be untouchable.
Now that you're big and branded, find new talent to mentor. When you start getting dozens of calls for informational interviews, you've hit the big-time. Just remember you too were once unknown and someone helped you. Pay it forward and offer a talented up and comer a chance to guest blog on your site or join you as a guest at a big conference. Share something you learned from someone much greener and younger than you and answer as many emails and tweets as you can to stay connected.
10) Age often equals wisdom.
You may be rich and a expert in your own right in your 20s, but respect that some learning only comes with time (and gray hair). There are certainly outliers, those who are wildly successful and experienced early. However, the vast majority of people need to have an array of experiences both good and bad over a long period of time and have navigated many different situations to truly be considered an expert. Take time and be patient. Immerse yourself in as much of your industry as you can. Have an open-minded approach. Know what you don’t know. You've got plenty of time to learn it and plenty of time to be the expert.
So, are we experts with perfect personal brands?
We’re not professing to be perfect. But from where we sit, we see hundreds of experts' brands just by reading, blogging, working and traveling. And all we want you to do is help you take a fresh look in at your own. The foundation for your brand is your credibility. Credibility built through the efforts that you have made to immerse yourself in your field, industry, the experience you have gained, and the continual ability to listen.
Keep your brand lean and let it lead itself. If you find yourself having to constantly work at your brand, then you’re not doing enough of the real work that gets you to be an expert.