In business and personal branding, it pays to be yourself

In the right-now world of social media marketing, video is the tool of choice for creating a personal connection with your audience, but authenticity reigns supreme.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Social media, almost unbelievably, is all grown up now. Albeit, in the just-finishing-college-and-embarking-on-the-first-real-stages-of-adulthood phase of life.

Twenty-two years ago, social networking as we know it today was born when the website launched. While SixDegrees would only enjoy a short lifespan, shutting down in 2000, it was followed in quick succession by a number of other sites and apps, each growing more sophisticated and interactive: LiveJournal in 1999; Friendster in 2002; MySpace and LinkedIn in 2003; Facebook in 2004; Twitter in 2006; Instagram and Pinterest in 2010; Snapchat and Google+ in 2011; and a slew of others, some still active, many more not.

Online marketing has also grown up a lot over the past two decades, evolving from crude (by today’s standards) pop-up ads on AOL into a mélange of sponsored posts, organic video, brand ambassadors, and much, much more.

Still, in all that time, there seem to be more companies, organizations, and brands still fumbling in the dark for a successful social media strategy than those that know what they’re doing and have the active following to prove it.

“One challenge that often arises is that since everyone uses social media, everyone feels like an expert to a certain degree,” explains Ben Hirby, partner/digital creative director for Planet Propaganda, a Madison-based design and advertising agency. “An important first step is education about the realities of social media marketing, and how that’s different from what they might experience as a user.”

For instance, says Hirby, brand posts on social media are almost totally pay-to-play at this point; organic reach is incredibly low. “We need to set the expectation that it’s very different from posting a picture of your cute dog on Instagram,” Hirby notes. “Even the people who follow your business account aren’t likely to see your posts without investing advertising dollars to boost them, so it’s important to manage expectations. This isn’t the Wild West anymore, and very few brands are going to strike gold with organic content.”

Of course, because this is social media, every user’s experience is different across platforms, and that goes for individuals doing personal branding as well as companies trying to reach a targeted audience to market their product or service.

Small brands, big impact

Planet Propaganda works with clients both big and small, national and local. The philosophy behind online marketing for both types of clients is generally the same; it’s the approach that’s different and often where brands make mistakes.

Caffeinated water brand Water Joe, a client of The Digital Ring, benefits on social media from an irreverent combination of product placement and timely posts that appeal to consumers in the moment. Image courtesy: The Digital Ring

Big national brands that capture an authentic tone and voice, and prioritize engagement over direct sales, are having the most success, says Hirby. “When we’ve worked with national brands like Gatorade Endurance and Pernod Ricard’s Smithworks Vodka, our goal was to help humanize the brands so customers could connect with them on a personal level. For Smithworks, for instance, we captured behind-the-scenes photos on their Fort Smith, Arkansas, factory floor, bringing a human face of the heartland to the brand on social.”

However, authenticity can be really hard for big brands, states Hirby, and a lot of them miss the mark. That’s a place where local companies have an advantage.

“Since owners and founders — or someone close to them — are often running the social accounts, they can let their true selves shine through,” counsels Hirby. “Building a small business is a product of building one-to-one relationships, and much of that is happening online now.”

Hirby advises clients to not just post on social media, but listen on social media, too. “That’s where some of the most useful customer feedback can happen. You should also look for feedback beyond your own channels — spend time searching for your company name on the major social channels to see what people are saying out of earshot, too.”

“Social media will always be about connection,” notes Matt Kemp, partner at The Digital Ring, a Madison digital marketing agency. “It gives brands the unique opportunity to build meaningful relationships with their customers that go beyond a product/service transaction.”

“Our industry is shifting away from the traditional marketing funnel, which focuses on attracting and converting customers, but essentially ‘drops’ them post sale,” continues Mason Kemp, Matt’s brother and another partner at The Digital Ring. “The new model is much more concerned with customer retention — building those meaningful connections and enriching customers’ lives so that they can’t help but become brand loyal. Social media is a great tool to nurture this type of relationship.”

“We developed this philosophy — one that focuses on connection and relationships — by listening to our audiences and evaluating the types of content they engage with, adds Nick Ring, the third Digital Ring partner.

One of The Digital Ring’s larger clients is long-time partner Milio’s Sandwiches. Despite its size, it’s still been able to tap into Madison pride and leverage a “homegrown” feel by using social media to engage with the local community. On social, Milio’s uses localized hashtags, hosts sandwich giveaways, and shares stories from its involvement with Madison-area nonprofits, notes Matt Kemp.

“We see smaller, local brands have a lot of success when they build customer trust via authentic, genuine, and timely communication,” echoes Mason Kemp. “Developing a consistent, unique voice and responding quickly to customer concerns on social media can win you a lot of fans.”

When it comes to smaller brands — and all brands, really — there’s also power in not taking yourself too seriously, says Ring. “A little bit of humor and levity can go along way, and can make your brand feel more ‘human.’ When people log on to Facebook or Instagram, it’s probably to take a break from reality. Don’t be afraid to meet them halfway with some lighthearted, entertaining content.”

A willingness to give up some control and take a few punches when something misses the mark can be easier said than done, however.

“It can be hard for clients to face criticism on social, especially if they founded or own the brand themselves,” says Hirby. “By marketing and advertising on social, you’re essentially inviting feedback in a public forum. No brand is so airtight that there won’t be folks who want to post their grievances online. If you’re going to take the leap into social, make sure you have a plan — and time, bandwidth, and diplomatic skills — to monitor and respond to feedback, good or bad.”

“Personal branding on social media channels is the ability to differentiate people based on their personalities and their ‘why,’ which is the ultimate foundation.” — Chantel Soumis

Hirby notes the speed of change with social media is another challenge some brands face. If they take a few months away from the social media marketing world, they could come back to a very different environment.

“Features change rapidly, and the importance of old and new networks ebbs and flows,” Hirby says. “Plus, the social media landscape is user-driven, and users control the trends — from photography style, to the ‘insider’ tone of voice, to the hottest memes. Brands that don’t keep up and fail to ride the cultural wave end up looking out of touch.”

According to Hirby, social media has been driving a lot of the collaborations and partnerships that can give a boost to smaller companies in their local market. In order to make this work, it’s important that companies find the right match, and by using analytics or just old-fashioned lurking — or asking customers straight out — they can see the types of brands and activities that seem to connect with their fans before pursing a partnership.

“When done right, those collaborations can expand the audience and benefit both brands by building more of a lifestyle experience that goes beyond a single brand or product,” explains Hirby.

Whether it’s a brand like Ale Asylum partnering with the comedian behind the popular Manitowoc Minute online comedy news show for a limited edition beer, or Madison cocktail lounge Robin Room hosting pop-up food events with the nearby Sujeo noodle bar, smart collaborations — with lots of social co-promotion — are on trend.

“At our agency, we’ve done similar collaborations,” Hirby says. “The past few holiday seasons, we’ve partnered with local food companies like Nutkrack and Underground Food Collective on limited-edition holiday products that benefit an east side charity, with lots of social promotion by all partners leading to sold-out product.”

“Lately, we’ve been incorporating more video into our own social channels and those of our clients,” says Ring. “We still believe in the power of a strong image, but we’re excited about video’s ability to grab and hold viewers’ attention.”

“And not only grab and hold their attention,” adds Matt Kemp, “but also build a deeper connection. Video has the power to communicate a message more thoroughly — and in a more nuanced way — than a static image can.”



On-brand personal branding

What companies, organizations, and brands do to market their products and services and interact with their audience is only half of the equation. People — and in this case that refers to employees and end-users — are often the best voices to spread awareness of a brand. Best, but underutilized.

“Personal branding isn’t just for coaches and financial planners,” says Chantel Soumis, founder and creative director of Stardust Creative LLC, marketing director at Valicom, and a top LinkedIn Creator with a network of over 30,000 organic followers built in one year. “Everyone who has a personality has a personal brand on social media, and opportunities are endless. The reason personal branding has been emphasized over the past year and continues to grow is that it attracts, converts, and delights. Personal branding on social media channels is the ability to differentiate people based on their personalities and their ‘why,’ which is the ultimate foundation.”

Pancheros’ social content often pays homage to their passionate and obsessive fan base. In this Instagram post, Pancheros used the photo caption, “Pro tip: Use the seat warmer,” which generated a lot of customer interaction. Image courtesy: Planet Propaganda

Soumis says when companies have employee advocates actively participating in the community, they continue building their “tribe” of like-minded professionals who are sure to boost the organization’s bottom line. “It’s like binge watching your favorite TV show on Netflix. By episode eight, you feel like you know the characters within the story, although they aren’t real, and you’ve never even met them. A digital footprint is extremely similar. Everyone is an influencer on social media, whether they have five followers or 5 million.”

That influence pays dividends for employers. “My personal example is that when I launched my personal brand activity on LinkedIn along with my side hustle, my main employer started to reap the benefits, as well, with a 10 percent increase in web visits,” notes Soumis.

The idea of a company benefiting from the personal branding of its employees on their own time is also one that appeals to Spencer X Smith, an IB blogger, founder of Madison-based AmpliPhi Social Media Strategies, and an instructor at the University of Wisconsin and Rutgers University.

“As employers, I think we need to embrace the cultivation and growth of our staff’s personal brands,” Smith continues. “If they leave to go elsewhere, you were the direct beneficiary during their growth phase. To do a better job as employers, those in management and executive positions need to highlight the accomplishments of their staff. There’s an old adage — we love our parents because they loved us first. If you show the love to your employees, they’ll be much, much more apt to become brand ambassadors for you. Instead of asking them to do something you’re not, ask them to do what you’ve already modeled.”

Those who shine the spotlight on other people will win long term on social media, advises Smith. “Whether within their own organization, a business partner or client, or nonprofit they support, social media can be used by any of us to share great news about other people. What I dislike is the exact opposite of this approach. Those who use social media to simply pitch their wares, or worse yet, use it as a way to say ‘everyone look at me and how great I am’ will wear down their audience and their usefulness.”

Finding that authenticity is everything, says Chelsey Dequaine, social media director for Isthmus. “Social media is oversaturated, so people are becoming more and more wise to being sold to or being delivered stock images/language. Personally, as soon as I start seeing content like that is about when I hit unfollow. When I post on my accounts, it’s me plain and simple. It’s posts about what I’m doing, seeing, eating, what inspired me, etc. I try to give advice when I can and provide my audience with content that can help them in some way. But you can bet that I keep it real.”

“I believe people want to not only make a connection with the brand, but the people behind the brand.” — Chelsey Dequaine

Dequaine says she also listens to her audience and her posts revolve around what they engage with more. That’s something she carries over to all of the accounts she manages at Isthmus. “Content does not have to be consistently produced/heavily designed in order for it to be engaging or worth posting,” comments Dequaine. “I strongly believe people get delivered produced content — edited images, videos, etc. — all damn day, so it’s refreshing to see in-the moment, raw content.”

Dequaine describes herself as a huge fan of employees being advocates of their companies on their personal accounts. “For someone like me, it goes without saying that my personal accounts are a reflection of the company I work for, and that’s intentional. I believe people want to not only make a connection with the brand, but the people behind the brand. I’ve developed my personal brand on social media in a way where people know how much I love my job, how much I love journalism and writing, and how much I love Madison. I have melded those three passions of mine together for a reason –– that’s why I have the job I have.”

She also believes that she connects with fellow Madisonians or friends on Instagram who might not yet follow Isthmus or its event accounts. For Dequaine, the days of keeping her personal social media accounts separate from work are over. “I mean, what’s the point?” she asks. “You should be working somewhere you are passionate about and believe in, and that should show on your personal accounts.

“But this isn’t something to force,” she continues. “If people aren’t active on social media, I wouldn’t ask them to start getting active.”

Like the others, Soumis is an evangelist for social video as a means to create a personal connection with an audience. “Technology has made accessibility to quality content better than ever. There are 10-year olds creating quality videos on TikTok, one of the biggest social tools for Gen Z, in just minutes,” Soumis remarks. “More and more organizations and professionals are joining the world of video content, which is creating more meaningful relationships and business opportunities.”

“The great opportunity for every business is this,” notes Smith. “You can use technology to your advantage to reach the right people at the right time. Fortune 500 brands aren’t losing market share to their peers. They’re losing market share to companies that didn’t even exist five years ago. These customer-first companies are using technology and data to find exactly what resonates with their target audience and eschewing the 99 percent they’re not trying to serve.

“Modern marketing is much more about data science than ever before,” he adds, “and those that combine that science with the art will win long term.”

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