Personal branding in the age of COVID-19

Videoconferencing may have replaced face-to-face interactions, but that makes polishing your online personal brand even more important.
Feature Feature On Personal Branding With Karen Tiber Leland Panel

Perhaps no medium has advanced more during the COVID-19 pandemic than videoconferencing. Karen Tiber Leland can attest to that.

Leland is the founder and president of Sterling Marketing Group, a branding and marketing strategy firm that helps CEOs and entrepreneurs develop stronger personal brands. She has written eight best-selling business books, including The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build, and Accelerate Your Brand, which was published in 2016.

Much of the advice contained in the book still applies, but if her publisher were to ask her to update it or add another chapter on personal branding the age of COVID-19, she would offer some finer points about branding yourself on video. Those points would not necessarily pertain to the online videos found on channels such as YouTube, but your brand presentation on videoconference sessions, whether it be an interoffice meeting, conversations with a client, or a virtual business conference.

“With where we are today, with so many people conducting business on video, the bottom line is that I don’t see that trend changing,” Leland states. “We’re in a situation where even when we fully go back [to the office], you will see people continue to use video. We’ve seen now that everybody doesn’t have to meet in person all the time, so I would add a chapter on video.”

Interviewed July 9, Leland had just led a training session with a group of executives on the topic of executive branding, and she tried to drive that point home. “What I was saying to them was, ‘Look, your video, the way you look on video, the lighting, the backgrounds you use, all of that has become part of your personal brand.’ That was not the case when I was writing the book six years ago. That’s a big sea change.”

In much the same way as online videos, a videoconference should be construed as a visual medium, and cameras (even those inside of computers) have a way of making people feel more self-conscious about their appearance. Yet good personal branding on video is not about being attractive, notes Leland. It’s about factors such as lighting, background, color, the position of the camera, and whether you’re dressed professionally. During the pandemic, the growing use of telehealth has been a similar phenomenon in that it’s been around for several years, but people have been slow to adopt it — until now.

“What’s really ironic is that these are all steps that professionals on video — YouTube stars and actors — have known about for years,” Leland says. “So, none of this is new. It’s just that the vast majority of people didn’t use it, and now they are.”

When it comes to videoconferencing, some people have been known to be slaves to detail, but there is no need for a deep dive on video techniques. There are, however, some general things they need to know about presentation on a videoconference. “You can get deep and complex, believe me,” Leland states. “I know people that do go there, so you can get to that degree, but the average person doesn’t need to do that. What you need to do is think about who you’re talking to on a video and how you’re coming across. It’s really quite important.”

Social interaction

With physical distancing limitations and the increased reliance on videoconferencing tools in mind, Leland maintains that it is possible to build a powerful personal brand in the current environment. In fact, some businesspeople are actually building a stronger personal brand in the current environment, which takes on added importance with less face-to-face interaction and less need for business travel.

“A lot of people are taking off in building a personal brand, but I will say given that there are more eyeballs than ever looking at us online, you have to have your online personal brand together,” Leland explains. “If you don’t have your online personal brand together, you are really going to damage yourself. That means with your website, your LinkedIn, your other social media, and what happens when you get Googled, you had better get it together because if you don’t have that together right now, you’re in trouble.”

When it comes to making a positive, impactful impression on social media, certain fundamentals apply, and the first is consistency. According to Leland, you don’t want your Twitter presentation looking like it’s from somebody different than your LinkedIn profile. You want it all looking the same or similar to reinforce your brand.

The other fundamental is to have a good, branded background, so when you create a background on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook — this can’t be done on Instagram — you can customize the background in what Leland calls “above-the-fold real estate.” It’s the most valuable real estate on the internet because of the importance of grabbing people’s attention right away, in a matter of just a few seconds. “The idea behind that is that you’re using that space to brand yourself,” Leland states. “Maybe it’s your logo. Maybe it’s a quote. Maybe it’s information about what you do, but all of that is what we call above-the-fold stuff.

“It’s really important because it’s part of how you brand yourself,” she adds. “A lot of people don’t think about that, but if you’re not using that space well, then you’re just wasting it.”

Another fundamental, which is hardly rocket science, is a good profile picture. Leland is still surprised by how many people don’t have a good, professional profile picture for consistent use across social media. “You might be able to get away with two different ones, but there are people who have different photos that don’t even look like the same person,” she notes. “That’s a problem because you’re not coming across as credible, and right now the only currency anyone has is trust.”

Trust also is an important factor in the bio on your LinkedIn page. So many bios simply list things people have done, but that doesn’t build an effective brand narrative. Leland is an advocate of “show, don’t tell.” In other words, don’t say you’re a strong leader, illustrate it with a succinct example. “If I say, ‘Karen was vice president of X, Y, Z and she led a team of 5,000 people and won the company award for Best Teamwork,’ that shows that I’m a leader as opposed to telling you that I’m a leader.”

Some executives are reluctant to brag about themselves, but that reflects a misunderstanding about personal branding, Leland states. “Personal branding is really bringing together the story of who you are, and it’s bringing together all those assets and presenting them in a way that has power,” Leland explains. “That’s what personal branding is. It’s really about letting people know who you are, what you stand for, and what your talents are.”

Value-based networking

A local businessperson who is working with Leland is Joanna Burish, founder of the Madison-based Brauds networking group. In the age of COVID-19, Burish says it’s imperative to digitally network with people, and she’s not only used videoconferencing to expand her Brauds group and digitally network with woman all over the country, she’s been busy growing the value of her own above-the-fold real estate on social media platforms such as LinkedIn.

Mindful of research that says you basically have about three seconds to capture someone’s attention on LinkedIn, Burish is on board with Leland’s approach to personal branding.

She’s recognized that on LinkedIn, if your profile is not clear and doesn’t show how you provide value to people and organizations in your network, it’s not going to help you make worthwhile connections.

“It’s something we should have been doing pre-COVID, but because of the pandemic, everybody is home,” Burish notes. “Nobody is able to go out and network the way we used to, so you have to stand out above the average profile.”

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