I woke up thinking about labels this morning. I thought about how strange they are, how limiting. And I realized yet again that despite some people’s disdain for the concept of personal branding, we need to be mindful of what others label us.
The early days and what sparked me
When I got into the online world way back in the 80s, it was for a simple reason: the people around me were into talking about the Red Sox and cars, and I was into Batman and Star Wars. Folks on those first bulletin board services and later on platforms like AOL and Prodigy could align by interest instead of geography, and that was cool to me. Before that point, we were mostly forced into geography-centric, work-centric, or family-centric social groups.
Years later, when I got into blogging in 1998, it was because the tools let me express my interests and gave me an audience (pitifully small for a long while) for my writing. I didn’t need permission to publish. I just put my work out there for people to see. Eventually, I got the hang of it, and connected with others who wrote work that I found personally interesting. Instead of having to stay slave to whatever the tastes of mainstream publishers were at the time, I could find someone writing something of interest via the web.
Listening to podcasts brought about a huge realization that knowledge was power. I often tell the story about hearing information from then-CTO of Sun Microsystems Jonathan Schwartz that led to a significant savings on a purchase my company was making. Getting immersed in that world the first time led me to cofound PodCamp, and it’s what led me back to podcasting most recently with my new show.
Six years ago, when I joined Twitter, it felt like a super fast personal news service. I remember the moment that I knew it was valuable. I was at the CES event in Las Vegas, and Apple was having a big event (Macworld, I think) in California. I was roaming the floor with Jeff Pulver and he asked if maybe we should hop a plane to see what Apple was doing. I said, “We don’t have to: I’ve got all the news right here in real time.”
I wasn’t all that fussy on Instagram when it game out. I used to tease people who used it, saying that it’s a tool to turn people’s lame life experiences into a bunch of fake album covers (for those of you under a certain age, albums are these weird square cardboard covers and vinyl discs that transferred music to our homes in the age before Spotify). I now think that if Facebook hadn’t bought it, Instagram would have proven a huge threat to Zuckerberg and company. Why? Because it allows people to share personal experiences in a very simple way. There’s not a lot to the product, and that’s why it’s exciting. Oh, and I use it all the time now.
I’m not a social media guy
Having a lot of domain knowledge about these social media tools has labeled me a social media guy. I understand that. I’ve been a cheerleader for this or that tool for quite a long time. But the truth is, the tools are just that. They’re interesting insofar as how they can deliver value or not. In and of themselves, I’m not all that interested in them.
When I am thinking about business, I’m rarely thinking, “How can I help a company better use Pinterest?” Instead, my thoughts are more tuned to, “This business wants more buyers. How do I facilitate that?” Quite often, I use the social tools to bring some kind of benefit to a company (or an individual), but they’re not a default.
My favorite social media right now? Email. I am in love with my newsletter experience, and how the interactions with people can be so personal and intimate and customized. Email’s been around for decades. See?
I’m a business designer
In reworking what Human Business Works does for the world, we decided to focus on publishing and educating around a set of core concepts that we feel will help professionals do the work they want, only better. Business design is holistic. I don’t help people with marketing. I help them with improving their business. Should marketing be the missing piece, I’ll work on that. Should people need more exposure, we talk about how to get it. Should they need sales (usually a “yes”), we walk through ways to improve that process. Customer service? My favorite.
But labels are used whether or not you want them
But the labels are for other people any how. One realization I had early in business is that if you don’t have clear and obvious interface points, people don’t know how to interact with you. If I say I help with marketing, sales, and service, then people understand where to slot me. But there’s always a slotting. It’s why I get to keynote the annual PRSA conference for PR professionals *and* an annual Coldwell Banker conference for real estate professionals *and* events for the marketers of the world. Because what I have to share relates to humans in all aspects of business, and not just one.
A Recipe for Labeling Yourself
Realize this before I give you the ingredients: no matter what you call yourself, what others perceive will be different. Just the same, you should do what you can. If you don’t help people understand what you represent, others will fill in their own blanks.
- Simple words (fewer syllables)
- Customer-facing explanation
- Ties back to “the real world”
- A body of work
In working out what HBW and I do for people, I settled on the term “business design.” The words are easy enough, and people can grasp what I mean when I put them together. Choose simple words to explain what you do, even if it’s tricky. My former CTO, Bill Wessman, used to introduce himself at client meetings like this: “I’m Bill. Tech” He’d say almost nothing else. Those who needed to know who he was knew what he did, and those who just needed him in a bucket knew he wasn’t the finance guy, the CEO, or the sales guy.
Sometimes, people have incredibly flowery labels for what they do, but not such that people understand how they can interact with you. I’ve talked to “chief dreamers” and many “divas” and it’s hard to understand what they intended to do for me. “Professional declutterer” is understandable. “Interpreter” would be a swell name for a pastor, right? (Though they do a bit more than that.) Make the way you talk about yourself define the value others would get from working with you.
If you go too far afield, people won’t know how to engage your services. Tie your description back to a real world interface. Business design focuses on sales, marketing, and service elements of a business. I won’t be as helpful for the CIO (though I’ve worked with a few). Make sure this is clear in how you talk about yourself and how your website talks about you.
They say repetition is reputation. True that. And the phrase means “what you do is what people will know you for.” I agree. But I also mean to say that the more times I say “business designer,” the less people will call me social media guy.
At the end of it all, if you’re not doing what you say you do, no one cares. I called myself an author for decades before I had published a proper book, and years before I even wrote regularly. I loved the label more than I loved the work. Thankfully, that has changed. But what you do is what you are. I meet lots of people who are the “Dream Lifestyle” guy, and who live in a one-bedroom in Scranton. No matter what you say you are, you are what you do most.
Identity Matters More to Us Than to Them
At the end of it all, it doesn’t matter who you are to the person you serve. What matters is that they derive a benefit from their experience with you. That’s what they want. What attracts them to you in the beginning isn’t what will land the deal to keep you coming back. Results are what bring people back.
But don’t shrug off the work of being clear about who you are and what you stand for, because it matters. Those labels can limit others’ perspective of you, and that limits your opportunities. Be vigilant, and you’ll find your place.