Free to create your own brand!

A few days ago I had the pleasure to sit in front of Stephen O’Donnell (@stephenodonnell), the main guest and speaker at a dinner organised by Shalini Khemka (@ShaliniKhemka), the CEO of E2Exchange.

Stephen, who built up a twitter following of 90K+, spoke about the power of social media.

He started off describing his outlook and approach to life in general as “that of an engineer”. By this he meant that, whenever he came across a repetitive process or task, he sought a way to understand how it worked with a view to automating it as much as possible. He then proceeded to explain how he applied this principle to the way he went about understanding and using social media.

Stephen categorised the actors in this universe as “information creators” (thought leaders), “amplifiers” (retweeters) and “readers”.  He sought to establish relationships with the first two categories by politely following and retweeting anyone who followed and retweeted.  He endeavoured to take it further with the most successful thought leaders, seeking contact via email, LinkedIn, phone.  The readers – he thought – would follow.  And so it was.

All it took, he said, was a systematic approach.  Tools also helped in the process: Tweet Spinner, BufferApp, HootSuite.

I found all of the above interesting, not in the least because of the speaker’s ability to convey the key message simply and eloquently.  But what struck me the most had been left unsaid at that stage: while Stephen was talking, it was apparent that he was talking about his own, very personal brand… and I was trying to understand how that would reconcile with the firm he represented.

Actually, in Stephen’s case it would be quite tricky to pin him down to any particular firm, as he chairs or advises a number of ventures and has worked at many different companies during his long and successful career in Technology.  This is in stark contrast to my own professional experience: I only changed jobs once, after ten years in IT at an investment bank, to set up a Software-as-a-Service company.

The more Stephen talked about the value of building brand through social media, the more alarm bells started ringing in my head: “how would we go about presenting a corporate image if employees were busy blogging on their own?!?”… “isn’t it ‘dangerous’ to encourage work-relevant blogging outside of the company’s website?”…”what about control?”… “where would we draw the boundary between personal life and work?”…

Over the course of the last twelve month, you see, I had dedicated quite a bit of effort in creating a company blog.  For this to sound genuine and interesting, I felt that the best approach was to encourage all employees to contribute: if most of us posted once or twice a quarter, we’d be able to create rich and varied content.

However, it had not been a smooth ride: for anyone to write on the company’s website involves a degree of depersonalisation.  This that does not come easy and we all seemed to be experiencing “writer’s block”.  In a company blog, even if you put your name to the post, the urge to showcase the company tends to prevail over just being yourself. In social media, personality is interesting; showcasing…?  Not that interesting!

For me, Stephen’s talk was an epiphany of the obvious.  Ashamed as I was that I had missed the wood for the trees, I left the dinner with a clear resolve to fix this.

The next step was easy: I urged my team of technologists to set up their own blogs and start building their own brand.  Everyone agreed that they would feel more motivated and eager to write as themselves and for themselves.  They would also seek to actively promote their posts through their own channels, starting from colleagues “liking” and retweeting them.  They’d be requesting for the company website to make reference to them to amplify them.

What of the risks? That someone could turn out to be a prolific and successful blogger and, as a result, being poached into another job?  I’d be proud to have nurtured such talent and she’d be keen, in time, to promote us and perhaps even send business our way.  That another may write unprofessional comments? We have specific rules of conduct that must be contractually adhered to; he knows that the post is public and he will seek others to read and review it.  Are we blurring the boundary between personal life and work? No.  In the first instance, this is a voluntary activity.  Secondly, it is very easy for an individual to create multiple blogs and keep the two aspects as separate as they like.

Does that mean that the company blog is dead? No.  It is perfectly fine for a company blog to contain announcements that, indeed, showcase work-in-progress, special events or initiatives.  It is also ok to provide links to interesting articles written within individual employees’ blogs, highlighting how that is relevant more in general for the company.

Freedom to create your own brand is the way to go.  I know it will make a real difference to me and I am confident it will be the same for my employees.  Thank you Stephen!

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