Five questions you should ask about your online brand

Following Robert Hernandez’s piece from Monday, I’d like to talk a bit more about branding yourself online.

Whether you like it or not, and whether you intend to or not, you build a brand online with your first public post. Given the ubiquity of information available about people from a very young age today, I’d even argue that *not* posting anything about yourself suggests characteristics for your personal brand (i.e. you’re a technophobe or maybe just highly protective of your privacy).

Don’t allow inaction to define your brand. If you want to maximize your audience, your social impact and your economic value online, you should build your brand actively, and with intent.

So here’s your first question:

What is my brand name online?

What’s the name that you use (or will use) online, the one by which the most people are most likely to know you? (See Robert’s piece, linked above, for some great backstories on how a few online journalists came to their online brands.)

Your given name is an obvious choice, but it’s likely not unique. (I remain thankful to this day that I registered my daughter’s name as a dot-com domain before a bikini model of the same name could get to it.) Nor are given names always short and easy-to-recall. Which are you more likely to remember? “Markos Moulitsas”… or “Kos“?

Don’t worry too much about this question, though. If Internet users can come to regard “Amazon” as an online store instead of a river in South America, almost any word can be branded to almost any purpose.

For what does your brand stand?

Here’s where we get to the important stuff. What do you want people to think of when they think of your brand?

For writers, the answer might be your area of expertise – the beat you cover. Or it might be a specific tone, an attitude, if your subject matter tends toward the eclectic. When I worked at Disney, trainers drilled into my head that our brand stood for consistently high-quality family entertainment. Choose whatever you want. Just choose something. Don’t let inaction or a lack of thought define your brand.

Your brand name provides an initial opportunity to define the meaning of your brand, but what you do under that brand name will have far greaterin influence on your audience. But before you think about how you’ll do that, envision what it is that you want people to think or feel when they encounter your brand.

To do that, ask yourself:

What reward does a consumer get for using (reading, engaging with) your brand?

These are the specific take-aways that your audience will get from its engagement with you: such as increased knowledge about a specific issue, a tip to help them through the day, a joke or fresh perspective, a fun link they’ll want to share. You can offer a variety of take-aways to your audience, but unless you have the resources of a Disney or other multi-national corporation, the more focused you are about what you offer, the more sharply focused (and thus, memorable) your brand will be to the audience.

If you are to have a powerful brand, people must know what to expect from it.

Where are you defining and promoting your brand?

Now that you’ve defined what you are, what you stand for, and what you deliver, you can work backward to where you’ll be delivering these take-aways to your audience.

Remember, every place that you contact your audience counts here – not just on your website, on Facebook, and on Twitter, but also at industry conferences, in e-mails, on voice-mail messages and even out in public within the community you cover. Every contact with the audience is a brand-building opportunity.

You don’t have to take all those opportunities, but you should think about them. When I walk into a theme park, for example, I have an opportunity to build my brand by reaching out to current and potential website readers who also are visiting that park that day, as well as to park employees who might become sources for my website. But I have to weigh those opportunities against my desire to experience the park as a “regular” visitor, so I can report on my experience, as a consumer advocate.

Sometimes I use a visit to build my brand. Sometimes I choose only to report. Whichever I choose, though, I want to be doing something with each theme park visit that builds value for my website, either in building audience or collecting material for use on the site. At the very least, I don’t want to damage it.

Which brings me to my final question:

What are you doing online that could undercut or dilute your brand value?

If everything you do online provides a brand-building opportunity, those moments provide brand-destroying ones, as well.

Think of all the places you post online. Think of the language you use, the links you forward, the topics you cover. Are they all building your brand? Or do you sometimes post items that aren’t on topic for your brand, or that use language or point to links which are inconsistent with the tone and voice that you want to deliver?

If so, you should consider either changing how you behave online, or restricting the audience you reach with that behavior.

For example, I’ve decided to use my Facebook account for communicating only with personal friends and a few folks within my professional sphere with whom I feel comfortable sharing personal details. I’ve de-friended many journalism colleagues on Facebook who don’t fit that description. (So if any of you have noticed that I’m not your FB “friend” anymore, that’s why. I hope you won’t take it personally, and I’m still happy to connect professionally in other forums, such as LinkedIn.)

I’ve followed through by nailing down my Facebook privacy settings, so that what I post there shows up only to friends, and when friends tag me in photos and posts, that shows only to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in transparency and don’t believe in the old-school journalism ethics which dictate that good reporting requires writers to bury all personal information about themselves. Outside of Facebook, when I publish online I want to reveal enough about myself to provide accurate context and build credibility, but I don’t want to reveal so much as to bore (or offend) readers with stuff that’s off-topic to their interests.

Often, it’s not the embarrassing or offensive stuff that does the most damage to your brand, it’s the off-topic drivel that bores your audience and gets them into the habit of ignoring you. Jay Rosen’s done an outstanding job of focusing his Twitter feed on what he calls mindcasting about news media. You won’t find the “lifecasting” details of what he did this weekend or what show he’s watching on TV. That focus sharpens his brand message and makes his brand that much more powerful to his audience.

As a publisher online, your work isn’t about you, or for you. It’s for your audience, and for meeting their needs. If you need a place to write selfishly, create a private space, such as a locked-down Facebook account or restricted-access blog. But even then, don’t assume that something truly embarrassing won’t find its way out to a larger audience.

What’s your brand? What does it stand for? How are you delivering that value? Where are you delivering it? What are you doing that could undercut of dilute that value? If you can’t answer these questions effectively, you’re not doing everything you can to create value for your personal brand online.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at