Managing the personal brand

Managing the personal brand

Writers have understood the power of the personal ‘brand’ for a long time. Publishing houses know that it is the name of the author that sells the book, not the logo on the spine. Therefore, publishers encourage writers to market themselves and cultivate their public guise. But in other industries, the personal brand was less common. Employees were the faceless minions in the company empire, separating work from their personal lives or outside activities. That is, until the internet.

Suddenly, it has become possible for anyone to develop celebrity status online with their blogging, twittering and other activities. It isn’t surprising that businesses unused to employees having such influence are having a hard time adjusting.

The recent hoo-ha over the fake Stephen Conroy Twitter account being outed as Leslie Nassar – a Telstra employee – Telstra’s reaction and the ensuing social media meltdown have been documented extensively elsewhere.

But the incident does prompt questions about whether businesses will become more hesitant to employ staff with a strong online presence and an independant opinion — fake or otherwise — while alternatively, illustrating how powerful the internet can be for writers, marketers and others as a career tool.

I asked Sydney writer and blogger Aaron Darc and US online marketer Lisa Barone about their different experiences of finding employment and balancing careers with their personal brands.

Job issues

Aaron Darc hit the blogging big time with his Eye on Big Brother blog and now runs Pop Psychology. His online writings eventually brought him a book deal for his first novel, due out this year through Allen and Unwin, as well as exposure in the mainstream press. But Darc has found employers are not so
receptive to his personal promotions. “I had countless problems with job recruitment agencies while looking for work as an online writer. In the beginning, I put my blog and online work in my resume. They’d always come back to it and tell me to take it out, but that would often take out my best experience for the role.”

This may seem counter-intuitive, but Darc has a theory. “The reason they gave me was that it would make me come across as too headstrong, too outspoken, and a lot of bosses take outspoken people as not being very good team players. It was a dilemma because half of my career — my online writing where I have to be reasonably outspoken – was jeopardising the other half.”

Not everyone has such trouble. Lisa Barone is a search marketer who has built a very prominent personal brand through her blogging, tweeting and strong presence in social networks like Sphinn. A popular face at the various search marketing events, Barone has a strong and loyal following that recognises her, her views and her work. Becoming well known as the mind behind the blog of Bruce Clay, a leading search marketing company, Barone has successfully carried her audience and style with her to two subsequent jobs, including her new company Outspoken Media. “I’ve been incredibly lucky in that the people who knew me as the blogger at Bruce Clay, Inc. have been great about following me to my new locations. It’s an unbelievable support system and I’ve benefited from it a lot. That said, I’m sure I’ve lost a number of readers which each job hop, as well. It’s a bit like a 301 redirect. Most of the juice follows you to the new location, but you lose a bit with each daisy chain.”

Giving power back to the employee

Many businesses are learning how to use their staff as spokespeople in blogs, forums and social media, but there can be conflict when the employee becomes the voice of authority rather than the brand. “People are there because they’re interested in you and what you bring to the table,” says Barone. Traditional thinking would suggest the employee is less important than the corporate brand – that staff are cogs in the wheels of industry merely regurgitating the approved marketing mantra. But the power given to employees by social media changes all that.

“Employees that are also bloggers come with a bit of leverage,” says Darc. “Any manager would prefer their employees not to have too much leverage. You’ve got a lot to bargain with so you’re potentially more problematic for them.” Barone agrees. “The branded employee doesn’t need you the same way a regular employee does. They can find other work. They’re more likely to jump ship for new  opportunities or when they feel like working for you isn’t helping them to achieve what they’re after.”

An empowered employee comes with other risks as well, as Barone points out. “The biggest ‘risk’ is that the person you hire is going to be loyal to their brand before your company. I don’t think it’s a risk (assuming you hire correctly) more than just something to be aware of.” Darc confirms the corporate fear.”They’re worried about their own image. If they employ someone with a large online audience and then piss them off, they might get a situation where that employee could damage them.” Neither Barone or Darc feels that this is a genuine threat. An employee that used their online presence to criticise a former or even current employer would risk damaging their own employability and their personal brand as a result. Leslie Nassar’s very public social media spat with Telstra has been interpreted by many as a particularly bad career move.

Usernames and avatars

How you create your online presence is also contentious. The temptation to choose abstract usernames and pretty avatars is still common, but many online professionals prefer the brand to be more closely associated with their own personae.

For those who are serious about branding themselves online, the question of avatars and usernames is a complex one with arguments on both sides. “You can create a brand based around an avatar and fake name, but I think it’s a lot harder to do now than it was before,” suggests Barone. “People want to put your real face with your real name. It helps to establish credibility, in my opinion. Don’t be afraid to show people who you are and what you’re about. The ‘you’ is why people are going to gravitate towards you.”

Conversely, Darc often advises the opposite in his talks to university students about blogging. “I got to the point when I thought that I should have a pen name for my blogging. If you’re going to do it — do it under a pen name that allows you to separate the person from the brand. That way, every time I’m on radio or television or talking at a university I can be one brand and then at my work I can be that other person.”

I sit on the fence in this debate. I continue to use the name Kimota across most of my online activities, primarily because that is how I am most commonly known. Recently though, I changed my avatar from a stylised piece of comic art to my genuine image. This has led to people recognising me at events, taking my networking off the PC and into the real world far more easily.

Business benefits

There is an upside for businesses willing to employ those with strong online presence. “You have to make sure that their personal brand compliments your company’s and that everyone is after or believes the same things,” suggests Barone. “If that matches up, then I don’t think you have to worry. That’s the sweet spot where enhancing their brand also enhances yours.”

Darc agrees. “I’ve been hired before because I’ve shown I can get into a certain subject matter. If you’re writing about online marketing it helps an online marketing company. If you’re writing about media, it can help get you into media, or publishing or whatever. You can cross promote the two and each helps the other.”

Some marketing agencies, particularly, are realising the power of the personal brand. “Hiring someone with a strong brand helps to shine a bigger light on your entire company,” continues Barone. “People with strong personal brands earned those brands because they know how to market themselves. And if they can market themselves, then you can feel confident that they’ll be able to market you/your product/your services. You know they already have that skill set and that they know how to use it.”

Ultimately, the business that hires the employee is the winner by associating their brand with one that already has a following, particularly if the niche is appropriate. Barone has seen this first hand. “Anyone hiring someone like Michael Gray knows that he has a huge blog readership and 5K+ eyeballs on Twitter. When you bring that in-house, you’re not just getting Michael, you’re getting his promotional army — an army that will support anything he does and market it for you. That’s huge for most companies.”

Online promotion for writers

Darc has definitely found his profile to be hugely effective for his writing, even if it has caused problems elsewhere in his career. “As a first time author it is so hard to get published because you don’t come with anything, so they can’t really know who Aaron Darc is. Well, now they can find out that Aaron Darc is the blogger that writes about this and that and has been in the Sydney Morning Herald, etc, which all came about because of the blog.” Ironically, this is the same presence and outspoken attitude that can scare employers. “It gives you the same leverage but publishers like the leverage. They loved it that I had a strong online presence and it also helps in terms of PR.”

There is still a long way to go before all businesses become comfortable with employees that sometimes have a louder voice than they do. Yet, the internet has done much to shatter the barriers between company and client and the relationships are still evolving. Personal brands could rapidly become more commonplace and eventually achieve a marketable value in themselves. How much more would a savvy business pay in salary for someone who brought with them a loyal following of potential customers in a compatible niche?


  1. I think you are absolutely right about using your real face and your real name in creating profiles,it does go along way to establishing your credibility. The online world is full of people wanting to sell something you don’t want from behind a fake personae. It really puts me off. And for the record I haven’t put a real picture of myself on twitter! ha ha.. maybe one day I will.