Posted on January 11, 2012 by Dan Blank
If you are someone who hopes to make their mark on the world, hopes to engage and build an audience, and create a legacy for your work – how do you differentiate yourself from the millions of other websites, books, and social media profiles out there? How do you effectively communicate what you are about and engage those you want to connect with most? Because you just have a split second to communicate that.
This is a question I chose to address for myself recently, and in a series of blog posts, I want to take you through the process. I just went through a redesign of “my brand” in order to ensure I best communicate what I am about, and that there is differentiation between me and the thousands of others out there who work in the same space I do.
The elements of my “brand” that I focused on:
- My key message: the statement I will repeat hundreds of times online and offline about what I do here at We Grow Media, and what I am about as a person.
- My photo: with social media, my headshot is shared thousands of times per day online with those I know and those I don’t yet have a connection to.
- My website: This is my home on the web, the place that should embody everything that I hope to create.
The focus of the process were to ensure I was clear as to what my goals were, who I wanted to connect with, and how to best communicate that.
What is Differentiation?
Differentiation is about not being a commodity – something that is so common, that you are forgettable. How can you have an impact on the world and create a legacy if others see you as “just another person” doing the same old thing. The process of differentiation has two sides:
- Inward: we all want to do so many things, but often fail to prioritize. You see this all the time in products and services that try to prove they can do everything. But the challenge is in focusing: in choosing just a handful of things to do well. When you differentiate, it is often not about adding more, but taking things away so that you are left with only that which matters most.
- Outward: that you need to understand the goals and desires of those who inspire you, who you hope to engage with. Too often, people gloss over who their intended audience is, and what truly engages them. Doing the research needed to understand their motivation is critical in differentiating yourself, and again, focusing only on what matters most to those you serve.
Sometimes we do what is popular – we design a website that looks like what everyone else is doing, we wear the same clothes as others too. We want to fit in. The downside of this is that what is popular becomes vanilla – it is the wallpaper of our world, and you no longer stand out. When you believe what everyone else believes, you have to begin questioning if you believe anything at all.
“Best practices” sometimes mean that strategies and tactics are so proven that everyone is now trying the same thing. And when that happens, the value of the “best practice” can diminish.
Is This Process Merely Self-Indulgence?
Every detail matters. Below, I will talk about my goals and some ways I changed how I communicate “my brand” to better connect with others. At times, the process may seem self-indulgent, that none of this should matter. That buying new clothes is missing the point – it is about who you are as a person that matters. That no tagline will really change how others view you. Insert the whole rant on “authenticity” and how one should leverage it for marketing.
I don’t think this is a self-indulgent process. I think this is about focusing on the details to ensure that every element of what you do is centered on one goal. That you are honing how you communicate to the world. That you are cutting away what is unnecessary, and improving that which is left.
Before and After
So let’s take a look at the before and after of this process for me. How did I do in evolving how I communicate what I am about, via three areas: my key message, my photo, and my website. Let’s dig in:
In the Fall, I began working with a small group of “advisors” – friends who are great at communication and marketing. For weeks, I had calls and meals with them, working through different exercises meant to ferret out what I hope to achieve with We Grow Media, and how to best communicate that. The process was akin to what I imagine therapy to be like – it takes you deep inside – and for awhile, you end up with more questions than answers.
Previously, my brand message was muddled. It was described slightly differently on every social media profile. When I met someone at a conference, I would adjust how I describe We Grow Media based on who they were – and how I felt We Grow Media would connect with them. The issue with this is that I was always dancing around the key message, but never really nailing it.
What I came up with working with my advisors is that my work with We Grow Media is about: Helping Writers & Publishers Make an Impact and Build Their Legacies.
Here’s the long version:
“We Grow Media provides writers and publishers the strategy and tactics they need to impact their communities and build their legacies, by focusing their branding, content, and marketing. For writers, we offer education via workshops and personal instruction. For publishers, we offer consulting services that go beyond “best practices” to create meaningful strategies that will provide measurable, long-term results.”
Is it perfect? Likely not. But it is MUCH more focused, and it speaks to what I believe passionately in, and how I help those who I enjoy spending time with. You will see the words “impact” and “legacy” mentioned throughout this blog post, and much of my writing. These are words that derive a lot of meaning for me, and helps share what I hope my work will achieve for others.
Like everything, these key messages are a good starting point. They will probably evolve over time, getting more focused, and even better at making connections.
Photo of me:
For the photos, I asked around to find a local photographer whose work I liked. Through a friend I found Meredith Bailin Hull. We spent two hours together wandering around the town I live in, and she took literally hundreds of photos.
I had shown her images of others that I liked, told her about what I do, who I work with, and the ways I like working with them. This helped set a tone, and allowed her to understand what the photo needed to convey. My old headshot was fine, but it was snapped quickly on my iPhone, with some Photoshop work done by me on the background. Let’s compare the old photo (left) with the new one that Meredith shot (right):
I know – part of you may be thinking that this doesn’t matter. Just “be authentic” don’t put some kind of sheen on top of who you are. But the goal here is not to become glossy and fake, but to ensure I can most clearly represent who I am, what I am about, and who I want to connect with. Something like a new headshot is a small detail, but these details matter. Would you walk into a job interview in sweatpants? Of course not.
It’s a subjective opinion as to which image is “better,” but I really like Meredith’s work. The final image we chose will be used across my social media presence:
And even extend to things such as business cards:
I think that photos do matter, and the process of creating one that works helps me differentiate who I am in a variety of settings.
My old website was created with a free WordPress theme that I downloaded from the web. I customized it a little bit, and overall, felt proud at being able to create this all by myself, pretty much for free. But here is a problem, because it’s a free WordPress theme, that means anyone can use it as well. Here is a friend of mine who liked it and used it for her site, my old site is on the left, hers on the right:
I have ZERO problem with her using the same WordPress theme – it’s a nice looking website. If you want your website to look like this, grab the free theme here. But We Grow Media is not just some hobby, it embodies my purpose both professionally and personally – this is something I take very seriously. How well do I communicate that if it is clear to others that I only take it seriously enough to create a free website that can be built by someone with limited web development skills (me!), during a single weekend.
So to differentiate and to better communicate what I am about, I hired a web development firm: Spruce Solutions. I worked directly with two people at Spruce: Ben who is a very experienced web developer, and KJ who is a very experienced designer. I will detail our process in a blog post tomorrow, but just compare the new homepage with the old:
The difference is night and day because it more clearly communicates what I am about. This is a custom design that cannot easily be copied, and was built from the ground up with a team of experts who had my personal goals in mind from start to finish. That is a critical step in differentiation – not just doing what is easy, but doing what is right.
The web and digital media have provided each of us so many ways to create our own platforms and connect with others, all largely for free. If you are serious about growing your career, consider how your online presence is differentiated from others around you. Look at the details and really challenge yourself to focus not just on design or aesthetics, but how EVERY aspect of your presence communicates who you are, what you are about, and how you want to connect with others.
Have a great day!