Have you ever wondered why certain individuals in your field rise out of nowhere to national prominence? These experts get all the media attention, deliver keynotes at top conferences and attract the best clients. Are these men and women just smarter than the rest of us? Or are they privy to some magical personal branding strategy that the rest of us don’t know about?
A few years ago, Hinge embarked on a research project to learn all we could about these industry stars (we call them Visible Experts®) and their personal branding strategies. Our researchers interviewed over 1,000 Visible Experts and buyers of their services to figure out what was going on and exactly what they did to develop and market their personal brands. We published our findings in a groundbreaking book, The Visible Expert.
Today, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: most of these Visible Experts aren’t much different from the rest of us. In fact, many of them admit that they aren’t the smartest or most knowledgeable people in their fields. They weren’t born writers. They weren’t born orators. And most weren’t born with exceptional charisma.
Instead, they developed their personal branding strategies the hard way, through trial and error. That means each one of them followed a different path, trying and discarding a host of tools and techniques along the way.
By the end of this article, you will have a powerful advantage that these experts didn’t: Hinge’s research has identified what really works and what’s a waste of time and money. So you won’t have to experiment. Even better, I’m going to give you a detailed roadmap that you can follow, step-by-step, to greater visibility and reputation.
Before we jump in, however, I want you to know there is one vital characteristic you will need to take your personal brand and career to the next level — the determination to see it through. Take it from me, there will be bumps and obstacles along the way, and you may need to make occasional course corrections to get back on track. But that’s okay. A little adversity comes with the territory, and you need to be prepared to push through the inevitable head winds.
Now, the last thing I want to do is discourage you. Building a successful personal brand — one that propels you to prominence in your field — is actually easier than it looks.
Remember, from the bottom of the mountain the summit always looks unattainable. But if you focus on the process of getting there — taking one small step at a time — you’ll find yourself looking down with amazement at the world you left behind. It’s a journey well worth taking!
Who This Is For
I’ve developed this roadmap for any service professional, expert or executive who wants to build a personal brand but doesn’t know where to start. It’s also for marketing directors at professional services firms who are tasked with making their organization and people more visible.
Whether you are a solopreneur or work at a Fortune 100 firm, the process I lay out is the same. I have one caveat, however. Whatever your role, there is one fundamental I can’t teach you — you have to have bona fide expertise in your field. There’s no faking expert knowledge.
What Is a Personal Branding Strategy?
Let’s start with the basics. A personal branding strategy is a plan to take your reputation and career from relative obscurity to high visibility. It describes where you stand today and what level of visibility you want to achieve in the future. Then it lays out in detail the tactics, tools and skills you will need to attain your goal, including the daily content calendar that will guide your daily journey. A carefully planned strategy takes the uncertainty out of your quest for Visible Expertise so that you can concentrate on carrying it out.
A modern personal branding strategy is strongly rooted in content marketing. In fact, most of the skills and tools described in this roadmap are components of content marketing — but as they apply to building your personal brand. If you are new to content marketing, or if you just want a refresher, I suggest you read over our free Content Marketing Guide for Professional Services.
The Five Levels of Visibility
In our book, The Visible Expert, we identify five progressively more visible levels of expertise:
Level 1: Resident Experts. These experts are well respected within their firms and by their clients, but they have little visibility outside of those audiences. Most Visible Experts start their journey here.
Level 2: Local Heroes. These individuals are beginning to become known outside of their firms. They are more active in their local business communities, often speaking at business functions and blogging. They may even bring a little new business to their firm.
Level 3: Rising Stars. These experts have developed a regional reputation. They are fairly well known among peers in their area, and they speak and write frequently on their area of expertise. Rising Stars tend to bring in higher-quality business and charge higher fees.
Level 4: Industry Rock Stars. These names are well known across the nation for their niche areas of expertise. They attract premium clients and fees. As a result, they become significant assets to their firms.
Level 5: Global Superstars. The world’s elite experts, Global Superstars have broken out of their niches and become recognized more broadly in their industries. They command the highest fees, and firms around the world want to be associated with them.
Your first job is to figure out which of these levels describes you today. Then you need to decide what level of expertise you would like to achieve.
Before you jump immediately to Global Superstar, keep in mind that each successive step requires more effort and time than the step below it. For instance, it’s generally easier to move from Resident Expert to Local Hero than from Industry Rock Star to Global Superstar. To become a global household name, you will probably need to invest much of your free time. Are you obsessive and dedicated enough to pull it off? Only you can answer that.
The Benefits of a Strong Personal Brand
Apart from pumping up your ego, what tangible benefits can a powerful personal brand deliver? For starters, Visible Experts make more money. Often, a lot more. The chart below shows the relative billing rates for each Visible Expert level.
As you can see, buyers are willing to pay over 13 times more for a Global Superstar than an average professional. But even Level 1 experts hold a significant advantage over their undistinguished brethren.
The reason stars can charge more is that many buyers are willing to pay a premium for experts they believe in. They are willing to shell out extra for the confidence that a Visible Expert will bring more knowledge and experience to their problem, solving it more quickly, and with greater precision. Higher billing rates aren’t the only benefit. Here are a few others:
- Highly visible experts attract more media attention. When a reporter needs an authoritative quote, they reach out to the experts most closely associated with the issue at hand.
- Well-branded experts also are able to secure valuable partnerships more easily, and with more desirable organizations.
- And as I mentioned earlier, they attract better quality clients, too. In many cases, clients will seek out an expert — cutting out the competitive proposal process entirely. That’s when you know it’s working!
- Experts with strong personal brands also benefit their firms. As a result of the halo effect, an expert’s reputation often spills over to the organization he or she works for. This relationship can have very real effects on a firm’s brand and business development prospects. According to our research, about two-thirds of Visible Experts on average have this remarkable effect on their firms.
What about buyers? What types of experts do they seek out most? The following chart shows that Level 4 experts are most in demand.
You may notice that demand grows at a steady rate through Level 4, then drops off sharply. Why aren’t Level 5 experts getting the love? The answer almost certainly has to do with their sky-high fees, which dampen demand. Of course, when you can charge thirteen times more, you don’t need as many clients.
The 7 Critical Tools for Personal Branding
One of the most important things we learned from our research was which marketing tools have the greatest impact on an individual’s personal brand. Without this data, we’d have to select our tools based on unreliable anecdotal evidence, trial and error and intuition. But you’ve got a better option: hard data from scores of real-world professionals.
Here are the top tools from our study, rated on a 1 (least impactful) to 10 (most impactful) scale:
- Clearly, writing a book is an effective way to demonstrate your expertise and build visibility. And if you look around at the highest profile experts in your field, chances are most of them have written one or more books.
- The next two items are forms of public speaking engagements. The best-known experts speak frequently to large groups, including prospective clients and industry peers.
- Websites — both firm sites and personal ones — appear on the list. Not all Visible Experts have personal websites, though Level 4 and 5 experts often do.
- These individuals tend to write frequently, including blog posts, articles and monthly columns.
- And they use two somewhat wonkish (at least to a non-marketer) marketing tools: email marketing and SEO. These may sound like a lot of bother, but believe me — they are critical to your success. Without these two tools, the others will be far less effective.
So let’s boil down what we’ve learned. Here are the seven critical tools you will need to include in your personal branding strategy:
1. A book. Whether you do it yourself or enlist a ghostwriter, you will need to produce a book that addresses your area of expertise. A book is a critical credibility builder. Your book can be traditionally published or self-published. Traditionally published book can deliver instant credibility, but self-published books (for which you can set the price or give away for free) offer more flexibility. Either way, you will also need to promote it, since even name-brand publishers rely on their authors to do most of the marketing. A book can be a heavy lift, so don’t feel like you have to tackle it right away. But set a firm goal to produce one in the next couple of years, if not sooner.
2. Speaking engagements. Public speaking is an important platform for building your reputation and personal brand. Audiences are predisposed to trust anyone who stands at a podium, so just getting there is half the battle.
3. A website. If you are part of a larger firm, you’ll want to focus first on your bio page. It should present sufficient credentials to convince people that you really know your stuff. Here are a few things it might include:
- Detailed personal bio
- Academic degrees
- Important projects
- Speaking videos
Once you begin cultivating a regional or national reputation, you may want to consider developing a personal website, too. You can use this site as a platform to promote your books and public speaking.
4. A blog platform. Every expert should be blogging. It’s the most accessible way to demonstrate your expertise. It’s also one of the easiest ways to start building a loyal following. And when you apply search engine optimization (SEO) principles to your posts, you open up a whole new world of prospective clients who, for the first time, will find you through online search (see number 6 below). A blog is an essential tool if you want to spread your wisdom quickly and widely. Your blog can either reside on your firm’s website (this is preferable, since it can boost your SEO performance), or you can create a separate blog.
5. Email marketing service. If your blog is for introducing gobs of new people to you, email marketing is how you turn many of those readers into loyal followers — even raving fans. Using offers to download valuable educational content such as executive guides and whitepapers, you can entice a certain percentage of your blog readers to opt into your mailing list. You can then feed these followers a steady diet of free educational goodies, as well as additional offers that deepen their engagement. I’ll explain the mechanics of all this in the Roadmap section below.
6. Search engine optimization (SEO). If you think SEO plays no role in your line of work, you are almost certainly wrong. Every year, more and more organizations use online search to find and vet their service providers. But even more relevant to your journey up Mount Expert, business people today instinctively fire up Google whenever they encounter a thorny business problem. In many cases, they research the problem and possible solutions themselves — before they seek out professional help. In other situations, professionals use search to find thought leaders in their field. SEO is the tool that connects you to the people who are intensely interested in the problems you solve. And you would never meet 99% of them without it.
There’s one additional tool that you will need, one that will save you a lot of time and headaches:
7. A media kit. Experts get requests for bios, speaking samples and photos all the time. So it makes sense to have those things ready to go at a moment’s notice. Even better, put them up on your website bio page where interested parties can find them without asking. Every time a last-minute request comes in, you’ll be glad you have it at your fingertips. Wondering what one looks like? Here’s the media kit of Hinge’s Managing Partner, Lee Frederiksen.
This list, of course, just scratches the surface. There are dozens of tools that you can use to engage your audience. Think webinars (which are just a different take on public speaking), advertising, public relations, SlideShare, video and web analytics, to name just a few. As your personal branding strategy begins to reap dividends, you may want to introduce and test a handful of new tools and techniques.
There is great deal to say about each of these tools. Unfortunately, I don’t have space here to address them in detail. So I recommend that you download our free book, Online Marketing for Professional Services, which describes many of these tools and how they fit into an overall marketing framework. Don’t worry that the book is written for companies — there’s plenty in there that applies to individuals. It lays out a content-based strategy to grow your brand, very much like the one I describe in this roadmap. Also, be sure to check out the Additional Resources at the end of this piece.
Skills You’ll Need for Your Journey
Now that I’ve introduced the seven critical tools, let’s explore the fundamental skills you will need to learn along the way. You may have at least a rudimentary understanding of some of them already. If so, that’s great — you’ve got a head start!
Before I get into the specific skills, however, I have to pause and discuss a larger issue, a “master skill” that will encompass your entire Visible Expert journey. You may be good at it already, or you may have to acquire it like the rest of us — the hard way, making incremental improvements over time. I’m talking about your role as a teacher.
You see, your reputation as an industry leader will be built to a great extent on your ability to translate complicated material into easy-to-understand language. While not all experts are teachers, all Visible Experts and thought leaders are excellent teachers.
What I mean by this is that you will be dedicated to educating your audience. Your driving impulse is to be helpful. You will be a teacher first and sales person a distant second.
But if you follow the roadmap below, you won’t have to sell your services at all. A steady flow of business will emerge naturally from your relentless pursuit of helping your audience.
Okay, let’s talk skills. You can tackle the list below on your own, or look for help from outside professionals or members of your team. Either way, here’s what you will need to get started:
Writing. You may be a good writer or an indifferent one. But if you want to be an effective teacher and build a compelling personal brand around your expertise, you must be able to produce clear, nontechnical prose that’s a pleasure to read. If you aren’t an excellent writer already, you have two options:
- Learn to write clear, plain English. There are many readable books and online courses that will get you up to speed relatively quickly. (One of my favorite books is The Plain English Approach to Business Writing by Edward P. Bailey, Jr. — it’s a quick read and very practical.) Learning to write in plain English can be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.
- Work with an experienced writer or editor. If you don’t have the time or inclination to work on your writing, that’s okay! You can always hire a writer or editor to turn your subject matter expertise into sparkling prose. Experts work this way far more often than you might think — in fact, at Hinge, we provide this service to many of our own clients. Just think of all the successful ghostwritten books out there. It works for blog posts and anything else you need to write, too.
Public Speaking. Most experts are comfortable speaking to their target audience and fellow professionals. If you have a fear of public speaking, you should at least try to conquer it. Like all skills, mastery comes from doing, and in most cases the fear will fade quickly. (That said, it’s perfectly normal for even an experienced speaker to feel nervous before delivering a speech.) If you are new to public speaking, start by addressing small groups — at the local chapter of your professional association or chamber of commerce. Or try a peer support group, like Toastmasters. You’ll need to build up a speaking resume before most national conferences and trade shows will consider you.
Blogging. Either you or a colleague will need to handle the mechanics of getting your posts online. It’s not difficult to learn, but this is another skill you will need to master, nevertheless.
SEO. Search engine optimization is an entire discipline in itself, but you can learn the fundamentals in a day or two — enough to begin thinking more strategically about what you write. While there are technical aspects to SEO that may be beyond your capabilities (for instance, building your website and blog in a way that Google can easily discover your content), the basic mechanics are very straightforward. The most challenging part will be learning how to research keywords that are relevant, attract enough search volume to be worthwhile and not too difficult to rank for on the first page of Google’s search results page. It’s as much art as science. Hinge University and can be a good place to learn the basics, though there are many valuable online resources.
Outreach to blogs and publications. There’s more to SEO than keywords. To get the most from your blogging and SEO investments, you’ll need to generate outside links to your posts. A common way to do this is to write guest posts on other people’s blogs — or articles for online publications — that include one or more links back to your blog and/or website. To find these opportunities, you will need to research these online publications and reach out to their owners or editors. There are techniques you can learn that will make this process more efficient and successful.
Email marketing. Email marketing is very different from sending personal emails. First of all, you will need to subscribe to an email service provider. You may have heard of MailChimp or Constant Contact, but there is a long list of other providers offering different features and price points. More sophisticated marketing platforms such as Salesforce, HubSpot, and Infusionsoft also include email delivery services. Whatever service you choose (and, please, do not use Outlook or any other desktop email client), you will need to learn how use this tool to send out a basic email broadcast and understand its analytics. Later, you may want to try out more advanced features, such as personalization, segmentation and automated drip campaigns.
If you have the resources to enlist helpers, you may not necessarily need to master all of these skills. That said, the more you know, the more likely you are to grow. So it would be wise to at least familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of each.
Your Personal Branding Roadmap
Now it’s time to bring everything together into a coherent plan of action. If you have made it this far, I assume you are committed to a long-term program to build your personal brand. If you are serious about building your personal brand over time, turn this roadmap into a formal plan. That means writing it down, mulling over your answers and updating the plan as you think of new ideas or decide to make course corrections.
The roadmap below is a general outline. It’s up to you to color between the lines, fill in the details and make it utterly, wonderfully yours.
Phase I: Your Strategy
Step 1: Determine where you are today. Before you can begin your ascent, you need to know where you are starting. Are you a Level 1 Resident Expert or a Level 3 Rising Star? Use the descriptions in the section above titled Five Levels of Visibility to determine your baseline position, or read Chapter 3 in The Visible Expert for a more fulsome explanation of each level.
Step 2: Identify your specialized area of expertise. You are already an expert in something, but is that “something” fairly broad (“family law,” for instance), or is it very specialized (such as, “child custody law”)? The more niche your expertise, the easier your rise will be. If you aren’t already, consider narrowing your focus. But if you can’t pare down the services you offer, you can at least plan to narrow what you write and speak about. Just keep in mind that eventually you will need to follow that intended focus with action.
Step 3: Define your audience. Who will be buying your services? Who will influence your buyers? What industries do you serve? What roles in the companies buy your services? The answers to these questions will be the people for whom you craft every blog post, every speech, every book, every webinar… you get the point. When writing, always keep your target audience in mind. It will help you stay on point and attract the right kinds of prospects to your business.
Step 4: Find your angle. This step isn’t absolutely required, but it can really help your personal brand stand out. If you can become associated with an issue, or if you take a controversial or counterintuitive point of view, it’s often easier to gain notice. Having an angle also gives you an anchor — a unique perspective — that will mark each piece of content you develop as yours.
Step 5: Decide which tools you will use. Go back and review the 7 Critical Tools section above and figure out which ones you will tackle first. And don’t be afraid to consider other options, as well. If you have experience with webinars or video, go ahead and make them part of your plan.
Step 6: Assess your skills. This is perhaps the most challenging part of the program if you are doing it yourself. Not because it takes a great deal of effort. But because it is so hard to be objective about one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Go through the list in the Skills You’ll Need section above and try to honestly evaluate your proficiency in each. Are you as good a writer as you think you are? Are you a strong public speaker? Which skills do you need to work on most, and which would benefit from a refresher? Develop a prioritized list of these skills and try to figure out which you can work on alone, and which will require a qualified teacher. And this brings me to…
Step 7: Determine who is going to help you. Most of us will need at least a little help along our journey, and many will need a great deal of it. So the first thing you need to do is to decide if you really want to try to make a solo ascent, or if a little supplemental oxygen, a band of Sherpas and an experienced guide might make your climb more successful. As you think about the tools and skill you will need, are there any that you might want to outsource? Line up these resources early so that you aren’t scrambling when you need them most.
Phase II: Setting Up Your Infrastructure
Step 8: Create your media kit. Hire a pro to take a few photos of you and write a short and long version of your bio. Later you can add a video reel of public speaking clips. If you can, include a link on your bio page to download a zipped file of your kit.
Step 9: Enhance your bio/build your website. Add credibility-boosting features to your bio, such as articles you’ve written, speeches you’ve delivered and accolades you’ve won — anything that might convince a reader that you are the real deal.
Step 10. Get set to blog. If your firm has a blog, find out what you need to do to become a regular contributor. If you need to get buy-in from others in the organization, explain what you are trying to achieve. Work with the appropriate people to get the exposure you need. If you will be setting up your own blog, now’s the time to begin building and configuring it. If you need help, find and invest in the resources to make it happen.
Step 11. Set up your conversion tools. To turn web visitors and blog readers into leads, you’ll need to offer them something that’s compelling enough they will provide their name and email address in exchange for it. Usually, this is a longer piece of educational content, such as a guide, whitepaper or e-book. You will need to write this piece of content first, then place it behind a registration form on your website or blog. You will also need to design an appealing offer to entice readers to download the piece of content. To comply with Canadian anti-spam laws (US laws are a bit laxer), you should consider providing language with your form that explains that the reader will receiving additional emails in the future. If you explain that these emails will contain valuable educational materials and advice — and that you can cancel anytime — you should not deter many downloads. Now, if you plan to send emails to individuals in the European Union, you will need to comply with the stricter GDPR regulations, such as requiring people to explicitly opt-in to your mailing list (no pre-checked boxes are allowed) and completely deleting individual’s data from your system upon request.
Step 12. Set up your social media profiles. If all you do is build out your LinkedIn profile, you’ll be fine. LinkedIn is by far the most important social platform for professional services experts. Be sure to complete your profile in full. Then look around for active groups you can join that are frequented by people in your target audience. The next platform to join is Twitter, which you can use to promote your content. Facebook, YouTube and others may make sense in some cases, but I suggest that most experts spend their limited time elsewhere.
Step 13. Select and prepare your email platform. You may be using your firm’s existing email service or CRM, or you may need to set one up from scratch. Either way, make sure you’ve got a nice looking, legible email template ready to go. If you are choosing a new platform, select one that’s easy to use and has robust list management and reporting tools. Also decide whether you will require single opt-in or double opt-in for new subscribers.
Phase III: Develop Your Skills
Step 14. Set aside time each day to work on new skills. The most effective way to tackle a long-term project is to make a habit of it. That means carving out a little time each day to work on one or two pieces at a time. Never forget that this is a business commitment, not a hobby. So it’s okay — in fact, it’s important — to devote part of your workday to upgrading your personal brand. You may commit some of your personal time to it, as well, but it’s an ongoing project, one that will never end. Start building your job around it.
Phase IV: Launch Time!
Read over your plan one more time. Then start implementing it. It will be slow going at first, but it’s important to get the ropes and ladders in place before you set out. You’ve got a strategy, now put it into play!
If you are an expert with ambitions to become a leader in your industry, this roadmap can help put you on the path to a speedy ascent. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed at first, especially if you are busy already. Architect and author Sarah Susanka faced the same dilemma:
“I recognized that writing was what I felt passionate about, but I had no space in my life to do it. And I was so busy with my architecture firm that if I didn’t make some shift in my life, there would never be space for it. So I decided to pretend that I was my own client. I plugged myself into my own calendar and even gave myself a project number. I held myself to it, and that first book changed everything for me. All you have to do is take that one first, small step. It’s amazing what happens when you focus yourself on something that you really want.”
The key is to break down your personal branding strategy into manageable chunks. Don’t try to tackle too many things at once. Little by little, you will begin to see results — a new trickle of email inquiries here, a speaking opportunity there, and an incoming tide of new followers. At some point, people will begin asking for your. And eventually a few will want to hire you and your firm on the basis of your reputation alone. The thrill that comes with seeing steady progress makes all the hard work worth it.
Good luck. And happy climbing!