How to Build a Personal Brand & Why You Should with Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel joins the show for episode #28!

Dan is the author of Me 2.0 and is a personal branding expert.

In this episode, we chat about:

  • All about personal branding
  • Why a personal brand is important
  • How personal branding has evolved
  • How to build your brand online
  • Personal branding myths and mistakes to avoid
  • How Dan got to the point where he essentially owns the first page of Google results for “personal branding”

David:             Hey, everybody. Welcome to Inbound Now. I’m your host, David Wells. We’re joined here with a very special guest, Mr. Dan Schawbel.

Welcome to the show, Dan.

Dan:                Thanks for having me, David, and you actually said my name right, so I’m very impressed.

David:             I had to research it beforehand. It’s one of those names you’re not really sure. Dan is the author of “Me 2.0.” He’s what Fast Company has called the personal branding force of nature. He’s been quoted in Business Week, Inc. Magazine, The New York Times, a bunch of places. He’s in the Inc. 30 Under 30. It’s like, Dan, what haven’t you done?

Dan:                Well, a lot of things. I’m only 27, so I’m always learning and I’m always meeting new people and seeing how far I can take this personal branding movement.

David:             Right. He’s also runs his own agency, Millennial Branding, and he’s a professional speaker, travels all around talking on the topic of what we’re going to be talking about today and that is personal branding.

So, are you ready to jump into it?

Dan:                Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.

David:             Let’s do it. So for those new to the idea of personal branding, what exactly is personal branding, in your mind?

Dan:                So personal branding is about unearthing what makes you special and unique in the marketplace and then communicating that through various mediums to the specific people you want to go after. Not everyone, don’t try and mass market yourself, don’t try and appease everyone. You want to be very niche, at least in the beginning. So, the way I started was I was personal branding spokesperson for Gen Y, and then I became personal branding expert when my expertise was more proven. Then I just switched to personal branding expert instead of having the Gen Y because older people were using the advice in my book even more so than younger people, so I figured that I had to reposition myself to appease the larger group of people.

David:             Right.

Dan:                I started small so I could get visibility. I think that a lot of people are just trying to bite off too much. When if you think really smart and go niche, then you can spread your wings, you can take a larger portion of the market share at a later point.

David:             Gotcha. So it’s really about defining down something very specific. Instead of going for something really broad where there are already tons and tons of people that are known for that, it’s really building up from there, right?

Dan:                Yeah, don’t be a social media guru, don’t be just another finance expert. Narrow it down as much as you can, because if you do that, you’ll probably be able to rank higher in search engines, which will give you more visibility. You can become the expert at that topic for that group of people, which means the media will call on you more and you’ll be able to really communicate more with your audience, because if you think about it, if there are two different people and they’re both personal finance experts, but one person is a personal finance expert, but really capitalizes on Gen Y or baby boomers, then when that person lands on their website or their Twitter account, they’re going to see that and they’re going to be, ‘Oh, wow, they really understand Gen Y.’ Or, ‘They really understand baby boomers. I’d rather go with them than the generalist.’ People want to deal with specialists. What all the research states is that companies are looking to hire specialists, but job seekers are positioning themselves as generalists and that’s really a huge issue right now.

David:             Right. So in your mind, why is it so important that people build up their own personal brand?

Dan:                Well, there are many different reasons. One is that it’s really empowering to just put your foot down and saying, ‘This is who I am,’ to the world. The Internet is very interesting because it is kind of like the law of attraction. If you really put the true you out there and define who you are, who you serve, and what makes you special and unique, then those types of opportunities are going to come directly to you. But if you position yourself based on the job you have and you hate that job, then you’re going to keep getting those types of opportunities and really you’re not going to get anywhere, and you’re not going to be able to build a career that you’re really happy about.

Also building personal rating is important, because when you’re talking to anyone, when you go to networking event, or whatever you do, you’ll be able to feel comfortable being who are and you’ll communicate the same message, so people will be able to follow that. You’ll be top of mind, especially if you contribute online to online discussions. That’s going to do wonders for your career.

David:             Gotcha. So we talked a little bit before the interview. We were talking about how personal branding has kind of changed over the years. So where was it and how has it evolved in today’s life?

Dan:                Yeah, that’s a really good question. I’ve been following it since October of 2006, and now we’re in 2011, it’s pretty unbelievable. What I’ve noticed is it’s being embraced to a much higher level, and it’s really driven be social media technologies, which obviously you’re familiar with, HubSpot’s familiar with, because when you say personal branding to an audience now they immediately associate that with social media.

What’s very interesting is personal branding is not a fad. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s going to go away.’ It was first written about in 1997, and if you really dive into the concept, it always existed through celebrities, through whoever else, but really the social networking has tangibilized it. That’s the big difference, when not just Lady Gaga can have her own platform, but everyone can at a very, very micro level. It’s the whole rise of the micro celebrities, and everyone’s famous for 15 minutes. It’s everyone can have their own platform and build their brand on top of that platform based on what they enjoy doing.

Now, it’s been so popularized, like all the mainstream media from “The Today Show” to Wired Magazine, anywhere, they all mention it. It’s been embraced heavily by the technology bloggers, like the TechCrunches, the Mashables. There are thousands of results. There are classes in school across the world that just teach person branding. There are personal branding classes. I’ve even heard of a personal branding certification in Japan and China. So it’s really, really, really interesting.

I remember when some of the publishers I was talking to, I think, a year ago, I was trying to do another personal branding type book and they’re like, ‘Oh, no, it’s a fad. It’s going to die out,’ when it’s not, obviously. It’s just constant growth every year because it’s growing with more and more social technologies that are being brought out, like Quora.com, and now Google Plus, which I think is really fascinating, and there’s definitely a lot more to come. So I see there are going to be new ways and new mediums to communicate your brand in the future, mobile applications.

David:             So would you say that it’s kind of like, there used to be classes taught on resume building, right? But now it’s more about personal branding, building up you as an individual to make yourself a really valuable asset that a lot people want to work with, right?

Dan:                I think, based on all the research and studies that I’ve looked at, obviously companies are using social networks and search engines, 80% of them for background checks in the recruitment process, and 60% have got rid of a candidate because of what they’ve seen online, probably on Facebook.

Another thing, it just got approved by the Federal Trade Commission, is that companies can now scour through social networks, build reports on individual candidates and sell it to employers. That’s legal now. So it’s going to be like the drug test in the recruitment process. If you work for any big company, you have to go through a drug test. It’s going to be standard that they’ll go through your social networks, and that’s why you have to manage your brand. You have to be found online, because if you’re not found, you don’t exist, and you have to manage your brand because as you grow and develop, everything has to be updated to reflect that.

David:             Gotcha. So what steps can people take to start building their brand online?

Dan:                The real basic is you need your own website. You really need what a lot of people call a home base. So for me DanSchwabel.com. For you, DavidWells.com, even though it’s probably taken. Everyone needs their own site.

David:             It was taken in 1996, man.

Dan:                And you’ve got to claim it before someone else does. If you don’t have it, then maybe use your middle initial or your full middle name or just brand yourself according to a topic. There are certain ways around it. You just need something. In my opinion, I think we’re at a point where, unless you’re a designer, I think it’s time to really invest money or time in developing a higher level or a nicer website than just a templated website that you copy from somewhere else, because there are 160 million blogs and there’s an infinite amount of websites. So if you want to stand out, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to put the investment in. If you really care about your career, you’ll do it.

David:             Right.

Dan:                A lot of young people are like, ‘Oh, I don’t really know what I want to do.’ So my advice to younger people is start with a little bit larger of a topic until you figure out what you want to do and then quickly narrow yourself, because it’s pretty easy to switch domain names. It’s pretty easy to evolve your website and everything you’re doing. But if you start too niche and it’s not really what you want to do, it might close you off a little bit. So when you’re younger, it’s better to do that.

David:             So what are some of the common misconceptions that people have about personal branding? You wrote a post a while back, “The Top Five Personal Branding Myths.” So let’s dive into those.

Dan:                Yeah. One of them is personal branding versus image management. So image management is manipulation and control of your image to fit the public criteria and what’s socially okay, and personal branding is unearthing what’s true and unique about you. It’s leveraging your strongest asset, which is your personality. No one can really copy you and who you are if you’re yourself. That’s something that I believe.

Another one is personal branding is all about job seeking. That’s not true, even though a lot of time you see in the media that people connect building a personal brand with getting a job. It’s more than that. It’s about establishing your career. It’s about being able to connect your passion with your expertise and really formulate your own platform and brand on top of that. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, whether you’re a consultant, whether you work for a company, whether you’re a student, whatever your position is, you always have to market yourself. For an example, if you a student, you should have a business card, even if you don’t work for a company.

When you start doing this and you train yourself early to have that, like when I was job seeking when I was in college, I had a business card and website. I was doing all of this ahead of time. It trains you for later in life, and it also gives you materials that you can use that will constantly market you. So building your LinkedIn profile, doing all that right now, as long as you’re committed to updating it over the long term, is going to constantly help you.

Do know what’s real interesting? If you go to sleep right now and your LinkedIn profile is still up and you might be getting emails and opportunities just by having it there, even if you’re not aggressively using the tool. But more and more of what we’re going to see is you’re going to have to start being very aggressive using the tool. The tools force us to update on a daily basis, everything is dated online. So if you’re not active, it’s going to really hurt you.

Another thing that’s been interesting to follow now is how different skill sets work. Hard skills, everyone needs hard skills. You don’t get jobs without hard skills. Soft skills, like being able to hold a conversation with someone, being well organized, writing skills, leadership skills, those are really important, especially when two people have the same hard skills. They both can computer program. What’s the difference is who can get along with everyone else at work.

Now what we’re heading into is the world of online influence. This is really the third phase of differentiation. Whether you’re a job seeker, or an entrepreneur, or whatever you are, you have to be able to build your own platform, gain followers, become influential to that group. If you think about it, if there are two job seekers and they have the same hard skills and soft skills, the one that has the largest network, the most influential network, and the biggest reach is going to be more successful and probably get that job because they’re not just bringing themselves to that job. They’re bringing a whole market to that job that the company can tap for recruiting purposes, maybe for lead generation, just for overall marketing. That’s huge and that didn’t exist ten years ago. So more and more we’re seeing what the Klout scores and different reputation scores, companies are really embracing and I think 20,000 companies have embraced.

David:             Right. I would say on that same note, the person that has their own website and is easily findable online, and it’s two candidates trying to go for the same place, the one that’s going to be easily found is more likely to get that job or whatever it is they’re going for, right?

Dan:                Yeah, companies love passive candidates. The people who are active are typically the ones who are more desperate, and the people who are passive are typically the ones that have really strong skill sets and that companies really going to want to go after. So the best time to network is when you have a job, and most people only network when they’re looking for a job and that’s the issue. It shouldn’t be called job searching. It should be called opportunity searching. I think job searching has a bad rap. So if you think about it more of building your brand in order to get new opportunities through inbound marketing and maybe sometimes outbound marketing, that’s what’s really going to pay off over the long term. You have to train yourself to be able to attract opportunities and then to be aggressive and go after opportunities. The more you do it, it’s just going to be easier.

David:             Right. So with personal branding, it’s not just if you’re looking for another job outside of another company. It’s also for internal visibility and what have you, right?

Dan:                It’s everything, yeah. It’s not just about moving up in a company anymore. It’s about moving left to right. It’s about taking special projects out on the side after work, like you did with Inbound Now, like what I do even aside from my consulting company. I do writing for like the Forbes. I write for all these outlets and I do more. I do speaking. I do all that because everything is going to support you in the long haul. As long as you can build it into your overall story, it’s going to be more and more compelling each time you do that. Starting small, writing for smaller sources, speaking for maybe your college that you graduated with and then leveraging that to get your next opportunity and just building and building and building on that, eventually you’re going to get to where you want to be.

David:             Gotcha. So a lot of people out there would argue with the idea of personal branding and say, “There’s a really fine line between personal branding and tooting your own horn.” Right?

Dan:                Sure.

David:             So where do you make that distinction?

Dan:                You have to give more than you receive. You have to have a balance between value contribution and self promotion. People have different ratios. I don’t even think of ratios anymore. You just have to figure out what’s right based on your audience and what you’re looking to do. So for me, what I usually do is, “Here’s eight pieces of value,” and then I’m going to promote my next event, or I’ll promote my book, or I’ll promote the next issue of my magazine, or something like that. So as long as you feel that you’re giving more than you’re taking, you’re doing a great job.

David:             Okay, gotcha.

Dan:                It’s got to be a gut instinct. I mean, ratios are great, but you don’t want to have different ratios. You don’t want to tell your audience, “Hey, it’s my tenth tweet and I gave you all this, so now you have to go buy my book.” You don’t want that. It’s too transactional. You just want it to flow.

David:             You just want it to be organic there. Yeah, awesome. So you basically own page one on Google for the term “personal branding.” What steps did you take to accomplish this?

Dan:                My number one goal when I first started out was own the first page of Google. I wanted that to be my home page. I bought PersonalBbranding.com. I had 45 domain names with personal branding. So I knew instinctively when I read Tom Peter’s article, back in early 2007, that I know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I just kept making the investment. It just felt right, and I knew that the blog was definitely the best way to get to the top. I had to work really hard to boost it all the way to the top. So PersonalBrandingBlog.com, it has personal branding in it. The title has personal branding, the description has personal branding in it. If you look on the main page and you do a “Ctrl Find” or you analyze the home page, it has “personal branding,” I think, 35 times. It pretty strategic, but it’s not overly strategic. So if you look at the blog posts, you’re supposed to have a density of .04 or something like that. I don’t do any of that. I don’t have enough time to do that and it’s too much. So we do the best we can.

When I started out, I wrote 10 to 12 posts a week. I commentated on every blog that mentioned personal branding. I wrote for articles, which linked back. I networked with as many people as I could. That’s really the basics right there, and I did that for six months. I still somewhat do it, but now my role has changed in order to scale because I do so much that I have 12 to 14 writers writing every single week on PersonalBrandingBlog.com. My role is not even to write in that blog anymore because the blog is personal branding, so it’s a concept that can have multiple people underneath it, multiple co-authors. If it was DanSchwabel.com, people would expect the content to only come from me. So what I do is I write for all these other sources, I do all these other interviews, and I get them all to link back to the blog, which supports all the authors who blog for me.

David:             Right, absolutely.

Dan:                I had to scale and change my strategy in order to support everything else I wanted to do in life.

David:             Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the things that I admire about you, you write for all these different outlets, like you write for Forbes, all these big names. You’ve written articles on Mashable, really, really credible website. You’re doing guest posts and you’re getting those links back. I think that’s one of the things that’s really powerful in terms of ranking, owning page one of Google, right?

Dan:                Yeah, absolutely. It’s not like a two-month strategy. You have to really, really go for it. Again, it goes back to the beginning of our conversation. You take a niche. You know how you want to position yourself. Then it’s going to be much easier, and it’s going to take a little bit less time than if you want to be the social media, the personal finance person because there’s so much competition. So the smaller the niche, the easier it will be to rank high for those terms.

David:             Gotcha. So you just mentioned that you do a bunch of interviews. So you definitely leverage the power of outside experts. You’ve done some really great interviews with some guests, Larry King, Steve O from MTV’s “Jackass,” Seth Godin, and Sammy Hagar, just to name a few. But they’re mostly text based interviews, right?

Dan:                It’s a mix. It depends on the level of celebrity.

David:             Okay. Most of them I noticed were text. Is there a reason why you went with text? Is it just easier to just kind of go with that? What was the thought process there?

Dan:                Easier/I’m an introvert. I’m not big into video or audio. I’m not. I have to really push myself because it’s important, and you pretty much need to for some of these interviews, Larry King is not going to type out his answers. He doesn’t answer his emails. He doesn’t own any of his social network accounts. You can read in the interview too. He has people run it all for him because it’s just not his thing. He doesn’t need them to be successful. Maybe in today’s world he might need them, who knows?

Sometimes these interviews are very, very hard to land. The hardest one was Chelsea Handler. It took me eight months to land her in an interview. I was working with her team for eight months. So basically, the way I operate is it’s the never give up strategy. It’s the same with how I got my book deal. It’s how I got everything. It’s like you set your mind to it. You say, “You know what? I’ll do whatever it takes to interview this person, even if it takes a year or four years.” Like Donald Trump, it’s been three years. I’ve interview his daughter. I’ve interviewed his COO. I’m building the story. He likes Larry King. I’m building the story so once I get to interview him it’ll be even ten times better.

Sometimes I have to use a brand to open the door, sometimes I don’t. It really depends on the level. So if I reach out to Larry King, Chelsea Handler, or someone at that level, those are probably two of the biggest ones, I have to bring in a brand that they’re familiar with because they’re big time. So I bring in Forbes and that opens the door. If I brought in PersonalBrandingBlog.com, it wouldn’t open the door. Maybe 30 years from now, maybe with a different group, maybe with a tech entrepreneur that would open the door because they’d be familiar with blogs. But some of the more traditional individuals are not going to be as familiar with blogs, so those won’t really open the doors like the traditional brand names would.

David:             With all of the work that you’ve been doing over the years, it’s kind of building and building and building on itself.

Dan:                Yeah. When I reach out to them I’m like, “I’ve interviewed 400 people, such as A, B, C, D, E, F, G.” And because of the track record, they trust me as someone who’s interviewing them, more than someone who has no track record. So between the brand name and the track record, and then just like overall credibility, they’ll Google me and they’ll say, “Oh, he’s a credible person.” Between all of that . . .

David:             Right. But if they can’t find you . . .

Dan:                It doesn’t happen all the time. I get rejected a lot, a lot, a lot. It’s fine because it just, I guess when you get rejected so many times, it’s like an entrepreneur when you’re doing all these things, it doesn’t really bother you as much. It’s like, “Wow, you rejected me now? I’ll see you in a year.”

David:             Gotcha.

Dan:                And that actually happens.

David:             So for the people out there watching, what would be the one thing that you’d tell them to do today to start doing their personal brand? What’s the most important thing in your mind?

Dan:                Being committed to a topic as soon as you can because that’s really going to help you out. It’s going to really focus your energy. If you try and do everything, if you try and be like the dog lover and the marketing person and the operations person, people are going to get confused. You just won’t stand out. It’s going to be too tough to manage too. So really it’s like the long tail. The more specific you are, the easier it will be to stand out. I think it’s hard to really find out what your passion is, what you want to concentrate on. But if you can invest in that or you can experience so many different things that you narrow it down in your head, that’s really what’s going to be great for you.

Like my friend and someone who works me, Tim, he narrowed everything down. He’s a musician plus he’s part of my Millennial Branding company. He helps with consulting and events and everything. So now he’s the sound branding guy. We’re going to help brand him as that and take him into the market for sound branding. It’s kind of a brand new topic. I think it’s important to be creative yet mesh everything you’ve done and everything you want to do together as best you can.

David:             Gotcha. Cool. So, Dan, where can people find you?

Dan:                All right. I have to plug my big event first. It’s DigitalMedia3.EventBright.com. We have 120 something people signed up. There are only, I think, 25 spots left. It’s really exciting.

David:             It’s here I Boston, right? For everyone out there, you have to come to Boston for it.

Dan:                You should come to it, Cambridge, Massachusetts. We have Larry Weber, the co-founder or Weber Shandwick. We have the Senior Vice President of Hill Holiday. We have the head of communications at Harvard. We have a really, really good group and I’m very excited about it. If people want to find me, you just Google “personal branding” or you Google Dan Schawbel and you should be able to get more information there.

David:             Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show, Dan, I appreciate it.

Dan:                It’s been a pleasure. Long time coming.

David:             Yeah, for sure. I want to get you back sometime in the future when personal branding evolves even further.

Dan:                You got it.

David:             Awesome.

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About the Author

David is Founder of Inbound Now and a Fanatical WordPress Designer & Developer. He believes that the internet is a magical place where wonderful things can happen. Say hi to him @DavidWells

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