Friday, August 24, 2012

Social Media as Branding: Effective or Slightly Flawed?

 (Photo by Evan Barnes - Taken from 2012 NABJ Convention Program)
Is Brand Identity More Important than the Person Behind It?

I thought about this when I attended the recent meeting for the Black Journalists Association of Southern California and our speaker’s topic was on using social media to better market you as a journalist. It built off a panel I attended at NABJ that discussed the same thing.

I’ve heard people talk about branding for the last few years. Whether it be on Twitter, at conferences or wherever, that seems to be the new buzz word. I’ve always resisted it and a friend made it clear when he said brands are products but people are people.

Sure I promote myself as a former journalist/current writer who has ethics and a nose for being right before fast, cutting the BS and talking straight about what I’m passionate about. But I figure that’s just something I do naturally, not in an attempt to market myself.

Even when I worked at the LA Sentinel, my boss would often talk about branding myself as a HS sports guy and writing columns because that would give me an identity.

Yet I realized all the great writers I studied had one. Dickens was the London scribe who knew its elite, the slums and all in between. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote on New England with Gothic leanings. James Baldwin wrote on race and redefining Americanism. Every writer has to have an identity or voice; otherwise they have no reason to pick up a pen.

Despite the fear of being pigeonholed in a category, you do have an identity. Something that people know about you. When I heard Bomani Jones speak on that at NABJ, it was easier to digest. It’s about knowing who you are and being comfortable pushing that to people.

So if we’ve all been groomed somewhat to find an identity, why the hyper emphasis on branding? And why is social media’s initial goal being sacrificed or compromised for it? Is it all for the money/exposure that you forget how to be an interactive person first? (To be clear, chasing the money isn't a bad thing --- it's losing who you are to chase it that matters.)

So much social media, so little time to navigate. And I was there when it exploded.

If anyone can be a social media “expert”, it’s me (or anybody in college in 2004). That’s the year I not only heard about this new site called Facebook, but I got exposed to MySpace, Friendster, Xanga and other networks. I’ve watched Facebook grow from two competing sites where you prayed your school would have access to it to the open, society-changing giant it is now.

I’m part of the first generation of Facebook users who have perhaps 7-8 years of pictures, memories, status updates on there. We’ve either embraced all the challenges or despised them (or both) and we know how to use it with perspective. We know how to reach our friends and we can probably tell companies to better utilize it – as some of my peers are probably social media managers.

Most of all, we’ve seen MySpace fail and fall spectacularly. We’ve seen Twitter rise and grow in popularity. We know what it takes for a network to succeed.

In my mind, social media is about forming and/or developing relationships. It’s not about pushing a product shamelessly; rather, it’s about knowing your customers and using their feedback to help your company get better. Nobody likes to be spammed so social media helps you eliminate that by promoting your product, interaction and understanding courtesy or else you tune folks out.

So should that be forsaken for branding? A careful calculation of who you are and what you’re about instead letting that flow naturally. A generation of adults are hearing this and perhaps eating up while younger folks are either in brand mode way too early. Some people tune it out completely. But what do I think?

I think you never should lose sight of you. You have to know who you are. You need to be yourself. When you meet people, just be you. If people like you, they’ll dig what you’re selling. A personal touch is better than a professional one. People can recognize something that’s organic more than forced or detached.

Above is a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect who believed in being one with nature and creating from what was there. Below is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's famous plantation that was modeled off European architecture. Most social networking/media/branding strategies are like Monticello - created off a formula - instead of organic and natural like Wright's house created among the trees and waterfalls.

I’m friends with several folks on Twitter who I have no trouble promoting. They are fellow sportswriters, musicians, and business folks. The best thing about them? They tweet normal things most of the time. It’s not business 24/7. They show you their personality and in turn, you want to support them because you feel like supporting someone you know.

The worst way to promote is to spam something and make people feel like they’re seeing a commercial. If your social media profile has a bunch of links, then why would I want to engage you? I want to see some life, some opinion, some personality, especially if you aren’t established (And if you are, just posting links makes you an information source, not a living/breathing distributor).

As a former journalist, the best way to get information wasn’t just to be a detached professional or have no personality. You build sources through vibing with a person and showing them who you are. At first, you come at them professional but once you get to know them, the wall breaks down and eventually it becomes relaxed. 

Eventually you want to end up doing stories on them/for them or they tend to seek you out because of that. You end up supporting each other because of a relationship and without that connection, chances are you wouldn’t connect. The reason I made most of my connections wasn’t just because I wrote well about them, but because we actually connected as people.

By the way, it’s taken me a few years to figure that out. I’m naturally a people pleaser and I’m worried about people see me. But once I realized that being me was better than being what people wanted, I figured I’d just be myself. What I represent will be evident soon enough and if it’s not, I’ll show you where it is.

For me, the best way to use social media is to engage people and be who you are. Once you do that, you can promote yourself or your product much easier with folks who you build a connection with than just throwing it all at strangers.

As social media becomes more and more refined and geared toward marketing/promotion, I just don’t hope we don’t forget the social part of it. Be social 1st, then media second. You can establish your brand along with your personality but remember that while the brand may pay your way, your personality will help grow/endear it. Know who you are and what you're selling.

I know I can’t lose who I am to market myself. As I try to understand branding and what it means for me (and this blog), I’ll just keep doing what I know and slowly tweak it as it comes along.

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