What is Most Important to Your Personal Brand? Fans or Financial Stability?

When OutSpokenMedia blogger, Lisa Barone wrote, Personal Brands in SEO: Stop Obeying False Idols, I enjoyed her thoughtful questions and her gentle personal rant.

However, with 89 comments (at the time of this post) of feedback, she hit a nerve. Interestingly, she was inspired by yet another post, The Self-Branding Of Search Marketers by Todd Mintz. Todd writes,

Search marketing branding is almost exclusively personal branding. Corporate / agency branding means very little in our industry.

Lisa’s version is a plucky injection,

It’s not about the company you work for, it’s about you. It’s your name, your personality, your skill set — it’s your image.

It’s powerful. The A-listers in the SEO community make good money off their branding. It gets them speaking gigs, comp’d trips, instant readers, bigger clients, etc. It’s like a drug.

Indeed, there are some individuals who set out early on to create personal or company brand awareness by aiming straight for speaking gigs right away. Before conferences were the norm and plentiful, we relied on email dialog via newsgroups, online communities and forums to make our “big impression”. It was difficult that way. For starters, you had to prove from the start you knew your stuff and were committed. You don’t have to do either of those things to be a conference speaker.

Growth and Lessons Learned

When Rand Fishkin first came on the scene, I barely knew who he was. At a conference, in which I was not a speaker, but rather a volunteer “live blogger” for SearchEngineRoundtable, I first met “the man with the yellow shoes and nice suit.” He gushed over meeting me, which in hindsight, is pretty funny since he is now far more famous in the industry. His warmth and humor were the connecting points for me, not what he did. So I paid attention to him. I watched him grow SEOMoz, hire his first talented “sponge” employee, Rebecca Kelley, who herself went on to help create their company brand and develop her own personal brand, within the company. We all watched as Rand sent her for internships and she went from being the student to teacher at light speed. He invested in her to help build his company.

This is a common technique with companies who understand the art of personal branding.  If you can’t create the pizazz yourself, add someone to your team who can.  The down side is that they may become so awesome that they don’t stick around.  Unless you keep the package attractive for them, they can leave and work the same magic for your competitors.

Make no mistake that for SEOMoz to grow and be at the venture capital stage it’s now achieved, with its new offices and much larger staff, initially took Rand, personally, millions of hours and sleepless nights. Did he make mistakes? My god, yes!

In his case, he was one of the most driven SEO’s I’d ever met. Still a newbie himself, he plunged head first into the limelight. Nobody knew this guy and this was his first hint of branding growth pain. He hadn’t yet proven his knowledge and skills. He was the charismatic marketer who went up to anyone and everyone and talked the biz with you. He had that car sales ability to make you feel as though you would buy the sports car from him, even if you couldn’t afford it, just because he was so handsome, friendly and felt genuine.

Like any fast rising star, he crashed and burned countless times. His ego was attacked. His work was questioned. A wave of detractors stormed the SEOMoz castle and to this day, there are those who will never take him seriously again. There are complaints that he is no longer available to his admiring fans and he stuck his main attraction, Rebecca, in a cage somewhere. Folks are angry about this. They want the guy and company they helped build up with love and support to come out from behind the curtain once in awhile.

I wonder at how feasible that is for him to do, or even Rebecca and his other talented staff, many of whom I’ve met and spent time with. You can’t have dinner with the SEOMoz teamand not feel inspired by their boundless energy and ideas. Or I can’t. I find them all to be a fun loving, work harder than hell type of group. They’re all young (or young at heart). For SEOMoz to rise, Rand was the lead pack dog. Sooner or later, the lead dog gets to rest and let other team member’s move to the front of the line. It doesn’t mean Rand isn’t working a million hours. More likely, it’s a million more because he has Board of Directors and seed money to answer to.

He is also a newly married man to one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. So he has loyalties to her, his company, his own personal brand, his employees and his giant SEOMoz Community. As a business owner myself, married with kids, husband I adore, a forums and staff of volunteer moderators, pets, a house, gardens and by golly, I even do my own accounting, I can understand the pressure to “be that famous person in SEO”. It’s exhausting. Draining. And one minute you’re everyone’s baby and the next, an overdone wrinkled hot dog.

Different Brands and Public Images

Some of us are known because we’re still in the game and haven’t left the party yet. There are some people from the early days who took a backseat for a few years and have returned with a vengeance in places like Twitter. They may be building back up to a new target client. They may have gone underground to deepen their skills, learn more tools and make their services more attractive. Once this is done, the marketing blitz goes full throttle. We all would like a chance to re-invent ourselves to fit in with the changing Internet environment, and especially, the online marketplace. The risk of pulling back is that by the next day, nobody cares about you anymore.

While some people jump into the public arena right away, others such as me, were content to stay home and work. It took me almost 10 years to get up the nerve to meet anyone and another few to feel worthy of speaking anywhere. I much prefer to be a quiet supporter. My best friends in the business have complained to me for years that I don’t market myself and undercharge for my services. I always felt that whoever hires me, gets me, my passion, my loyalty to their success and if they appreciated my help, say a kind word or refer someone to me. No trumpets for me!  I can’t be their “usability person” and be sitting in airports.  It’s just not my way.

My personal brand is hard for me to define because I don’t like to look. I don’t like how people twist what I say, so sometimes it’s better not to say anything. I’m judged on who I work with and talk to, which really bothers me. I am not them. I respect my peers. Who cares if I agree with them on every possible little thing they do or say? I don’t work well with people who don’t communicate well or respond quickly on projects. This is tied to my software development QA training, in which every possible detail is documented and evaluated and in many cases, nothing moves until stakeholders sign off on it. When one car in the train has its brakes on while the other cars are warmed up and ready, the engine won’t move.

That kind of personal branding takes longer to develop. It comes from working directly with people, rather than entertaining audiences at conferences with pretty Power Point presentations. Observers for me have said I do better with impromptu Q&A sessions where people can pick my brain. I have answers. I would rather work with smaller groups and get to their needs, rather than lecture on a broader scale and not meet specific concerns. These personal preferences hurt my chances for fame and fortune because the expectation is that to be prestigious, one must be doing lots of face time with their industry. Or write a book.

You Take it With You

When Lisa Barone left her last two places of employment, she took an ocean of blog readers along with her each time. Her old employers feel this pain. She’s not easy to replace, but she has displayed public support for her past employers and the Bloggers that have needed to step into her old shoes. For me, this speaks well of her as a person. It’s not my place to question her choices. All I have to do is honor her right to make them.

And this where I feel I can best support my peers and those wanting to make a name for themselves. You’re under a microscope. Some people are cruel and pass along expectations that you may not meet for them, so they prey on you. Building brands and reputation management can be a process that stinks.

In the end, whoever is still working is the winner.

9 thoughts on “What is Most Important to Your Personal Brand? Fans or Financial Stability?”

  1. I like these personal stories a lot. Interesting to see how much of a struggle it was, also, branding yourself before the credibility afforded by conferences!

  2. Gab, I was wondering if the trend may actually go backwards, due to the economy. Less face to face and more back to the coal mines, teaching and supporting in blogs, forums, SM, etc.

    I do enjoy watching how it plays out :)

  3. Right on, Kim. The search marketing community seems to be made up of two groups with very little gray area – those that want to help you learn and succeed, and those who wait for you to trip up and then jump on you like a bunch of rabid dogs.

    I think it’s important for anyone venturing into search marketing to know that, but also that building a personal brand isn’t without a certain amount of risk. It’s not like just building a business. You can’t detach yourself from yourself…and as you said in your post, some people to this day still won’t take Rand seriously. Rand chose to make himself synonymous his company. Had he chosen just to build a company and SEOmoz hadn’t been successful, he could have scrapped it and started over with a fresh new approach, new company name, new logo, etc. with a clean slate.

    Those who take the approach of building a personal brand and then using that brand to build a business need to understand there is no wiping the slate clean. Lisa built a personal brand and personal brand loyalty – which is why when she leaves, the company she leaves behind feels the impact. She doesn’t. Her audience follows her wherever she goes.

  4. Being a winner isn’t really important at all. It’s where you’re actually enjoying your work and at the same time, can sustain the needs and wants of your family and yourself. That’s what matters most, right?

  5. Maybe I have an advantage because I’ve met so many of the so-called A-Listers and I really like them, as people. I love people and I don’t have to agree with everything they do to like them. If they do good quality work and I would refer companies to them, I do it because I believe in them. That often comes from having dinner, traveling, and sight seeing with folks I meet at conferences. Their “Brand” decreases in importance to me and I just like them as individuals.

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  7. This was very helpful for me to read. I struggle with finding the balance between preferring to work behind the scenes and with small groups (as you do), and feeling as though I should be putting myself out there more. I currently work in-house so personal branding is not a cashflow issue, but I do want people to know I have a clue. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone.

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