As an innovation, the Web can either be sustaining or disruptive. It can either help advance you, your reputation and your brand — or it can utterly destroy the very foundation on which you or your business rests. This issue is perhaps the most misunderstood (or misapplied) facing anyone wishing to do business in the network and especially for media.
Newspapers and TV stations badly want and need the Internet to be a sustaining innovation, but the Web is actually much more disruptive for media than it is sustaining. It will advance your brand to a certain extent, but it can and will gut the thing more often than not.
When I worked for AR&D, our research revealed that up to 90% of a local TV station’s visitors to its website, for example, were already that station’s fans — meaning its online advertisers were reaching the same people as its broadcast advertisers. Meanwhile, outside Internet pureplay companies were taking half of any community’s online ad dollars and distributing them elsewhere. Where media companies see themselves as unique, the Web sees, well, sameness. The pureplay companies have found ways to exploit that, while local companies — especially media — dismiss all that effort as irrelevant.
One of my large-market television station clients made an interesting discovery a while back, while developing a unique hyperlocal news and information portal covering the community it served. The station employed people to probe each community and make contacts to establish themselves in these (often small) suburbs. Along the way, they found many unique hyperlocal online publications and discovered ads on one of them purchased by automobile salespeople. That’s right; not the dealership, but individual salespeople.
Think about that for a minute. People who do business with auto dealers often relate to their point-of-contact instead of the dealership as a whole, and good salespeople will usually “take” customers with them. This is true in many service businesses where customers enjoy a personal relationship with an individual representing the company. And so, in this little suburb, car salespeople are running their own advertisements, seeking to recruit new customers for, one presumes, their database of clients.
They are, in fact, practicing the art of branding themselves in the community, and this is a bigger deal than it may at first appear. In the network, anybody and everybody who has a personal web page or web site is a form of a media company, reaching out to others, whether tribal or the public as a whole. This is changing the dynamics of identity, because a networked person’s identity is vastly more tied to what they do than it ever was during the modern era. The ability to shape one’s identity is a big part of action-oriented branding, and this will be a part of every human being’s life in the future.
But marketing guru Seth Godin warns that brands are always in the minds of the people who interact with them, and it’s that interaction, not what you say about you, that matters. “What’s a brand?” Godin asked me in an email. “It’s not a logo, or an ad campaign. It’s a shorthand for the memories and expectations we have about our interactions with a product, service, organization or person.”
He added that today, people interact with a thousand times as many brands as they did twenty years ago. “So before,” he continued, “you could get by with vanilla or invisible. Today, no reputation, no trust, no sale.” So reputation is a big part of your personal brand, and as Stephen Covey wrote in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into.”
Godin agreed. “Brands are souvenirs of what happened,” he told me. “So, if what happens with you is that you tell the truth, show up on time, exceed expectations, surprise me, delight me, trust me, inspire me and give good value, what sort of brand is that?” (Hint: a damned good one)
Godin believes that a person’s brand is already a part of the hiring process, “At least it is among employers you’d be willing to work for!” But one primary source of an individual’s brand — social networking memberships — can lead to employment problems, for the indiscretions of youth can have long legs on the World Wide Web.
The new age of connectivity has just begun, and everybody has their own view of where it’s all headed. Nobody really has a clue, but I can tell you with great certainty that in the network, you are you. Up to a point, you might be your business or your position within your industry, but the time to begin investing in your personal brand is today.
I’ve also written recently of why it’s so important for even big businesses to present themselves as an individual online (see “How Brands Can Behave as People (And Why They Should).” To be a brand in the network is to behave unlike a brand and instead like a person. This is the secret to a strategic move into a world of connected human beings.
It’s why I believe that, in the end, your personal brand is everything. Learn what that means, and then practice it, relentlessly.
Terry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.