Your personal brand is one of your biggest assets in your career, but it’s a pretty nebulous concept. Everyone has a different take on what it constitutes and most of those opinions oversimplify it.
It isn’t just about attitude, being true to yourself, or virtue-signaling on LinkedIn. There’s more strategy to it than that. That’s why I’ve created this guide to show you how to start your personal branding process, step by step.
Pro tip: you can check out these personal branding examples before making your own!
Why building a personal brand is important (with data)
If you’re a recent graduate then you’ll know exactly how frustrating it is to apply for jobs only to be ghosted or passed over for your age or lack of experience. You need a competitive edge over every other job-seeker in your age group.
Second, a study from CareerBuilder shows that 47% of employers simply won’t hire someone that they can’t find online. In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of disqualification from the application process.
That’s just a hair short of 50% of all employers, meaning that employers will likely pass on your application if you don’t have an online presence. Hiding your profiles isn’t the answer.
That is why personal branding is important.
So how do you build your personal brand without experience or recognition?
You start with strategy. Knowing your desired industries, their culture, their trends, and their needs will be like a compass as you figure out how to start your personal brand.
How to build a personal brand
Knowing how to create a personal brand is something you learn by doing over time, so don’t fret about making it perfect right away. The best ones come with time and reflection, but for now we’re going to focus on the basics so that you understand how to pick a direction for yourself.
Make no mistake, though: following these steps to building a personal brand will put you a head above the competition, so long as you acquire the experience to back it up. In fact, the insights you gain from that work experience will fuel your professional opinions and your style of work.
Keep that in mind. We’re going to be talking about creating a personal brand with a focus on just a few industries and key messaging points, but remember that deep and diverse experiences will often become the key differentiators that set you apart from everyone else.
Pick an industry and find a niche
Figuring out how to establish a personal brand usually starts with the industry you want to join—or narrowing it down to a short list of industries, at least.
For example, these are the industries that interest me:
Companies that fall under that umbrella could include robo advisors, insurance brokers, educational consultants, education technology companies, marketing agencies, and marketing tech companies (of which there are many).
It’s handy to narrow your potential job prospects with a list like that but it’s also a compass to keep your work, experiences, and ultimately your reputation geared toward the industries that truly interest you.
Why? First, recruiters want to see verification of your experience, a professional persona, and a positive reputation online. Just take a look at these survey results from a CareerBuilder study.
The second reason is that people can tell when you’re interested in something. You’ll read up on things that interest you because you want to, not because you have to. Your eyes will light up with enthusiasm at networking events whenever you talk about those interests. You’ll just gravitate toward them naturally, so write them down.
This is also an exercise in “knowing your audience,” and it’s crucial in understanding how to develop your personal brand. While people can absolutely move laterally from one field to the next, most employers and recruiters don’t really believe that’s possible. They like to see a linear path that they can understand—a career progression that’s believable, stable, and trustworthy.
Picking one to three industries will let you play to employers’ expectations of a focused career path.
Create a strategic messaging plan
The next step in your personal brand-building strategy is to create your strategic messaging. It’s just basic information architecture that lets you direct the right message to the right people. Marketing teams do this all the time, figuring out who wants or needs their business and then deciding on the best messages to convince those people.
Let’s start with the employer personas. Developing a personal brand starts with understanding who your potential employers are. You can research all of these points:
- In which industries do they work?
- What are their roles and titles?
- What do they do and what are their pain points?
- Where do they fit in the company hierarchy?
Being a digital marketer, I’d likely be targeting marketing executives—namely chief marketing officers or vice presidents of marketing (depending on the company’s size and structure). Here’s a quick snapshot of that employer persona:
- Has his or her own opinions from 7-15 years of marketing experience.
- Often comes up from a copywriting or advertising background.
- Has a big-picture focus on increasing leads, sales, and revenue.
- Pain point: doesn’t have all technical skills needed but hires people who do.
- Pain point: needs someone to track marketing metrics at the ground-level.
- Pain point: wants someone who will just take projects and run with them.
Now that I know to whom I’m talking, I can choose my talking points more carefully—which is the second part. It also helps me to identify useful personal brand words for my profile.
Here’s what I’d highlight with that kind of employer:
- Our (likely) shared background in writing and messaging.
- My technical proficiency in digital marketing.
- Wisdom that technical stuff can’t replace the heart and soul of good marketing.
- Strong participation in strategy to make everyone’s efforts more successful.
- Perhaps a strong opinion that today’s marketers rely too much on technology instead of creativity and being helpful, showing authenticity.
All of that is true, by the way. You don’t want to lie about your personal brand because it will become apparent to everyone you meet pretty quickly.
You can repeat this process with most industries and hiring managers. Framing yourself as someone with strong opinions (suggesting experience) is an excellent way to start your personal brand-building strategy.
Write a personal branding statement
This part seems easy because it’s just one or two sentences, but it’s a moderate challenge if this is your first time writing a personal branding statement (or if you aren’t a practiced writer).
Learning how to write a personal branding statement is well, well worth your time, though.
The trick is to condense several points into 1-2 sentences—and to make it convincing. You can’t skip this step if you want to learn how to create your own personal brand.
Pro tip: Check out these personal branding quotes to make this easier.
Here’s what you should include:
- What you do or accomplish.
- The value that generates.
- Why you do what you do.
- Who you are (optional and sometimes implied already).
It’s all about the economy of words. If you’re unsure where to start then use this formula:
“I do/improve _________ so that [companies in this industry] can achieve/focus on _________.”
It’s focused and clear. That’s the point. It also makes you appear more legitimate to hiring managers in those industries, which is part of the point. It’s a small but highly visible part of your online presence.
Pro tip: you can use your personal branding statement as a LinkedIn headline (even if you’re unemployed).
Make your LinkedIn profile shine
Achieving an all-star score on your LinkedIn profile is a big part of building a personal brand online. It will become the most visible asset, even more so than your portfolio website.
There’s also the fact that nearly half of employers simply won’t hire you if they can’t find you online. Just as important is the fact that professional networks are the second-largest source of high-quality hires.
Staying in the loop when companies are hiring is much more effective with a LinkedIn profile.
Luckily there’s a simple process to creating an awesome profile. Here are the steps:
- Set a professional headshot. You can get these for $50!
- Use your killer personal brand statement as the headline.
- Quantify your work experience, just like your resume after college.
- Add multimedia to your work experience sections, too!
- Get written recommendations and plenty of skill endorsements.
- Highlight scholarships, awards, and activities in your education section if possible.
- Highlight certifications, licenses, and even industry courses if they’re relevant.
- Don’t forget your interests and volunteer efforts.
Creating your own personal brand happens on LinkedIn more than anywhere else, especially as time goes on. It’s where you interact with connections, announce new career milestones, and meet new people.
Create a portfolio website
Building your brand online starts with LinkedIn but it levels up when you create your very own portfolio website. It’s your very own piece of digital real estate where you get to present yourself just the way you want.
That’s handy because employers want to see a few things from your personal brand that a LinkedIn profile can’t always convey.
Those things include:
- Positive references from people that might not have LinkedIn profiles.
- Creative projects and pursuits that don’t fit into a “work experience” box.
- Your interests outside of work, including your hobbies and causes close to your heart.
- A clearly defined personality, which can’t always shine in social posts.
- Communication skills, which can come alive on a personal blog which might not be fit for your professional network.
All of these things matter to employers to some degree. Take advantage of that by creating a portfolio website for yourself. It costs about $12 per year for your domain name (e.g. www.yourname.com), and about $5 per month ($60 per year) for website hosting. You can build your own website pretty easily these days using WordPress and its new visual builder.
Pro tip: After 9 months of unemployment I was picked out of 200 applicants for my second role in large part because I had a portfolio website, according to my boss at the time. It really does help.
Prune your social media profiles
I used to hide all of my social media profiles because I didn’t want to get passed over for a job opportunity if an employer found something silly on my Facebook profile from when I was 14. Everyone has created posts like that don’t age well, and people are right to be concerned about it.
It’s wise to hedge against employers finding negative things about you, but research shows that hiding from them entirely could cause just as much damage to your job search. At least 70% of employers check candidates’ social media profiles, but 47% won’t hire you if they can’t fire you.
Even more interesting is that 34% of employers have disciplined or fired someone due to content the employee posted online.
Then how do you develop your personal brand when everyone can see everything about you?
Go through your social profiles with a fine-tooth comb to remove anything like this that’s publicly viewable:
- References to drugs or alcohol.
- Strong political stances or opinions (you can do this later when you’re more established).
- References to criminal or unethical behavior.
- Anything that contradicts your resume or cover letter.
- Unprofessional screen names.
- Any instances of bad mouthing coworkers or employers (past or present).
- Sharing any confidential secrets of past or present employers.
This is how to make a personal brand that’s available but not detrimental to your search. You still need a digital presence, so take care to erase anything you don’t want found. Hiding in the shadows isn’t an option anymore.
Become a high-value networker
Networking seems like an extravert’s game, but in truth anyone can become an effective networker because it comes down to providing value to the people you meet. You can add value in many ways and earn good will with all of them.
A wise man (and CEO of two law firms) once told me this: “In every interaction you’re either adding to or taking away from your personal brand. I always think about that before acting.”
At a basic level it means you want people to like and trust you a little bit more after each interaction they have with you. That can be as simple as a friendly conversation at a networking event, but you can achieve the same effect through other actions, including:
- Sharing interesting industry news.
- Recommending helpful software.
- Connecting people with others in your network.
- Conducting free audits and working sessions.
There’s a fair amount that you can do to boost your personal brand while networking. Start now and remember that it’s a long-term game of months and years. It’s all worth it when job opportunities come to you from company insiders!
Earn testimonials and references
Positive references are one of the big things that recruiters and employers look for when they search for you online. It’s not just about hiring, though—it’s a facet of human psychology, and marketers have known this for a long time.
According to Nielsen Research, 92% of people trust reviews over any other kind of advertising or branding. A study from BrightLocal found that 88% of people trust legitimate online reviews as much as from people they know personally.
It’s no different in human resources. Singing your own praises doesn’t mean nearly as much as other professionals doing it for you. Start by asking for written recommendations from these people in your life:
- Shift supervisors
- Teammates from extracurricular activities
That’s a start. Then you’ll need to pursue some work experience projects on your own and ask for recommendations once they’re finished.
Pro tip: consider a personal brand logo, too. Creating your personal brand isn’t going to come down to an image on your resume or portfolio website, but it’s a nice touch that people will remember. Even the act of creating a logo for yourself speaks to the effort you’re putting into your career.
That’s the long and short of how to build a personal brand, step by step. Remember: knowing how to manage your personal brand comes down to patience and a willingness to be of service to others—always try that before searching for a personal branding consultant. It’s something you build one brick at a time. Keep working on it and you’ll have a professional brand in a matter of months.
Happy hunting out there!