We are all in advertising

Are you on social media? Then yes, we are all in advertising.

Here’s the FAQ to explain the context.


1. What? No! I’m just sharing your views/thoughts on social media. I’m definitely not advertising!

When you share your views with people you don’t know (the difference between social networking and social media is the presence of strangers in the audience in the latter), you are in advertising.

2. Seriously? Tell me, what am I advertising?

Yourself.

3. That’s preposterous! Who told you I wanted to advertise myself?

Is it really preposterous?

When you share a cat picture, you are advertising your interest in cats.
When you opine that you don’t like soan papdi, you are advertising your disinterest in a particular food item.
When you share your view on something the Government did, you are advertising your interest in governance, Government(s), or politics.
When you write about the TV show you loved, you are advertising your potential interest in a specific genre.

People reading them would form perceptions about you, just like how brands build your profile using the same signals.

When people who know you offline/personally see what you share online, they have a prior context of your background.

But when strangers—who have no context of who you are and what your world view is or how it was formed—read your content on social media, they form perceptions based just on what they see.

So, whether you like it or not, whether you believe it or not, and whether you want it or not, you are advertising yourself every time you utter something on social media, on any platform.

4. But advertising is done by brands and agencies professionally! I’m simply sharing what comes to my mind. How can that be equated with advertising?

Sure. But what you share (that comes to your mind) has another angle – on who is seeing/reading/consuming it and what they think about you. Taken together, your communication colors the way people think about you. There is a perception change, and that is the basis of advertising.

5. Oh! But I also shout at strangers when I write on social media. I abuse people sometimes. I just say anything and everything. That can’t be advertising, no?

When you notice brands advertising, do you see them abusing someone? No, they do not.

Why? Because the fundamentals of advertising are about making the product/service being advertised likeable and remembered in a positive frame of reference.

Yet, advertising does talk about uncomfortable subjects that make people afraid (insurance – death, public service announcements that cover a whole gamut of dangerous, illegal, and unethical activities, among others).

Take a cue from brand advertising for your own advertising. Brands and agencies adhere to industry-wide codes and ethics to do the right thing in advertising; you only have your own personal code. A simple thumb-rule code could be: “Would your spouse, parents or children be ashamed of you when they see what you share online?”.

6. But don’t brands exaggerate everything in the name of advertising? I don’t exaggerate anything… I share only what I see around me!

Brands and agencies do exaggerate claims and the narrative while they advertise. But this is less to do with misrepresenting the product/service claims (this is governed by the rules they need to adhere to) and more about getting noticed in a crowded media ecosystem.

The primary objective of good advertising is to be noticed – everything else follows being noticed. The worst thing that could happen to advertising is not that people may dislike what is being advertised; it is that people could be indifferent to it!

Does that mean you can exaggerate your life too when you are advertising yourself on social media? No.

Why? Because people, when they end up buying the product or service that exaggerate product claims, find out the disparity between the claim and the experience, and advertise that discrepancy to everyone they know.

Your personal advertising is no different. When you share something on social media, besides strangers, it is also seen by people who know you, work with you, live with you, have studied with you, and so on. Reality has a way of surfacing when you least expect it.

7. I get that, but brands always present a rosy picture about themselves. They never talk about the problems they go through… I do that on social media. So this cannot be advertising, right?

Yes, brands present themselves in the best possible way when they advertise. They never showcase their bad-hair days in their advertising.

Does this mean you share only your good side and never anything bad about you? The answer lies in how you view social media. Posting on social media is not akin to you sharing something with your friend(s) or family – it is akin to shouting from your rooftop. Would you shout something bad about yourself from your rooftop? Or would you rather share those with people you know, personally?

On the contrary, when you know that you are addressing a large crowd, how do you behave? Do you behave just like you are sitting with a friend and chatting? No.

When you know that the limelight (real, or figurative) is on you, you aim to impress the audience. You throw your voice. Your posture is better, conscious of being watched by many eyes. You choose your words carefully, to communicate in the best possible manner, and to avoid being misunderstood. You spend time preparing what to say, and how to say it.

Does such preparation, and conscious efforts to impress an audience amount to exaggeration? No. That’s simply you, but it is your limelight-self, which is different from private-self. But it is still you.

8. But brands have an objective to advertise, no? They gain from it in many ways. What do I gain from all this innocuous social media sharing?

Brands do gain various things when they advertise – visibility, awareness of the product/service claims, brand recognition, sales, perception change, among others.

But what do you gain when you advertise yourself on social media? That’s for you to clearly identify and articulate before you indulge in advertising yourself. Brands identify their end goals before they advertise, after all.

The worst thing a brand can do is advertise without a specific purpose/set of objectives. It is a waste of time, effort, and money. You waste the most valuable resource at your disposal when you advertise yourself on social media without identifying what you aim to gain from it – your time, which is more valuable than money.

9. Yeah, but then, for brands, advertising is an ongoing process, isn’t it? They are at it, for a long time. I only share what comes to my mind randomly.

Advertising is not a one-time exercise – it is a sustained activity that is done over a period of time to produce specific objectives over that period. The key to effective advertising is consistency.

Your own advertising on social media too need not be a one-tweet or one-LinkedIn-share or one-Instagram-pic. Being consistent builds your appeal to an audience. The choice is yours – you can be random and occasional, or you can take it seriously given that your time is involved, and make it count more than it being ‘random things shared impulsively’.

10. I also share about so many things. Anything that catches my fancy and there’s no pattern or process, really! Brands don’t do that, no?

Do brands offer many USPs about a product or a service? No. They focus on a few USPs and be consistent in communicating those relentlessly.

You could talk about a hundred things that interest you on social media too. But your audience may not be able to remember you for any one/few thing(s). If you stick to a few things that you want to be best known for, your audience would see you talk about those few things more often and update their perception of you.


These are actual questions I get in my corporate workshops on personal branding, not just from young participants, but also from very senior executives in the CXO levels. The answers here form the introductory context to my workshops since most people don’t think on these lines and I need to prime them before I go deeper into the mechanics of how to handle personal branding well using social media, including the intricate aspects of personal brand definition, content identification, articulation, and sharing, evaluating the efforts and making the whole thing an integral part of daily life.

Related reading:
1. Do you need to be ‘authentic’ on social media?
2. “I want to keep a low profile” vs. Personal branding
3. Strangers in the…

Cover pic courtesy: Crello.

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