Personal branding vs. Professional networking

If you look up ‘professional networking’ online, it is defined as ‘sharing information, interacting, and engaging with people for mutual benefit’.

Professional networking conjures images of a group of people in a room, all talking in smaller circles in hushed tones.

For the longest time, we were told to build our networks while in college or at work. Why? So that we may gain from each other, in terms of new work opportunities, paid projects (if you are a freelancer), and so on.

So why aren’t the same college students and employees never told to build their personal brands as much as professional networking is advocated?

The reason is two-fold:
– personal branding was usually, mistakenly, equated to ‘bragging’ and ‘talking about self’
– there were no avenues to find audiences to build one’s own ‘brand’

And then social media happened!

Here are 6 dimensions to think about personal branding and/vs. professional networking, and why the former is a lot more essential than the latter though both are necessary, overall, for professional reasons, particularly for freelancers.

1. Social media vs. Social networking

Consider how some of the most popular social media platforms are addressed – ‘social networking platforms’!

That should naturally lead you to question the difference between social media and social networking.

The difference is often overlooked and/or ignored.

The easiest way to understand the difference:

Social networking: You enter a room full of people and start talking to them one by one, or in small groups and navigate your way to most of them.

Social media: You enter a room full of people, move towards the room’s end, clap very loudly to get everyone’s attention, and start talking to the group in a loud voice.

A good example is LinkedIn – you send a ‘connection request’. When the other person agrees, both of you are mutually connected to each other.

That’s not the default behavior on Twitter, for instance: you simply follow a person. That person gets a notification that you have followed them, but there is no call-to-action to follow back, unlike LinkedIn where a connection request has a specific call-to-action – ‘ignore’ or ‘connect (back)’.

Ditto with Facebook – you send a connection request.

But most of these platforms have seen the default Twitter behavior to be useful too and have added ‘follow’ as a default action.

So when someone sends you a LinkedIn connection request, LinkedIn now makes them follow you using the underlying assumption that if you wanted to connect with someone, you’d like to continue hearing from them (whether they would like to hear from you or not is dependent on them accepting your invite).

Personal branding uses social media, while professional networking utilizes social networking.

This has implications for the kind of people we address with social media vs. social networking:

An online platform can offer both, however – Twitter direct messages, Facebook messages, or LinkedIn messages are examples of social networking, while your posts on the main timeline with the default setting as ‘public’ are examples of social media.

2. Broadcast vs. Conversations

Personal branding makes use of broadcast, while professional networking uses conversations.

Before social media happened, in the second half of the 2000s, particularly with the launch of Twitter, and the expansion of Facebook, in 2006, people had to depend on mainstream media for broadcasting their views, opinions, or thoughts. The word audience was reserved for media outlets and not individuals.

Social media turned every single person into a potential media channel.

This is why, just months into the launch of Twitter in 2006, and expanding the ambit of Facebook beyond US universities, TIME Magazine announced ‘You’ as the ‘person of the year’ in December 2006/January 2007. The magazine knew that when you give the power to individuals to address (potentially) the entire world, the world would not be the same again – for good or bad.

Conversations are something we know; we know how they work because we understand the context of who we are conversing with and talk accordingly. But broadcasts confound most people, moreso on social media.

Who am I talking to?
Or, who am I addressing?
Is the set of people I’m broadcasting to identifiable using specific interests or characteristics?

At least on LinkedIn, I can assume that the audience is ‘professional’, but on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, who is my audience? Even on LinkedIn, ‘professional’ is a widely misunderstood term – most people imagine a white-collar employee of a company when they hear ‘professional’. But a radio jockey is a professional too. So is a grade school teacher. Or a football coach. And students (school/college) are on LinkedIn too. So, assuming your audience on LinkedIn too is a fallacy.

And then the larger question – why do I need to broadcast at all, particularly when I don’t even know who may be listening/reading or why? The general fear goes, “Why talk to the world at large? What if I say something that offends someone? Why unnecessarily get into all this?”.

This fear of broadcasting becomes one of the reasons why personal branding is ignored. In comparison, professional networking, via social networking, becomes the safer option.

(Related read: “Will I get in trouble if I share this online?”)

So why do you still need to make use of broadcasting, for personal branding?

Next point!

3. Weak ties vs. Strong (relatively) ties

Broadcasting helps you build weak ties, and expand them exponentially. This is an essential outcome of personal branding efforts.

Conversations help you make strong(er) ties.

Why bother about weak ties, assuming it is the strong ties that get you what you want – a potential job opportunity or a paid gig/project?

Simple. While strong ties would most definitely more purposeful in getting you what you seek, weak ties are useful in getting you closer to what you seek.

A simple illustration: One of my workshops back in 2020 with an MNC came to me from the most unexpected quarter. The CEO told me after the workshop that her 16-year-old daughter follows me on Instagram and was instrumental in telling her about my focus on personal branding through my posts! And to think I joined Instagram very, very late, almost kicking and screaming because I do not see myself as a visual-first person but a text-first person.

The CEO’s daughter was a weak tie for me. The CEO too, incidentally. They both have only heard about me. But one person pointed a finger at me in the context of something specific that I offer/am purportedly good at and that led to an opportunity. I still need to close the deal myself and need to prove that I was worth engaging for the task they are considering, but without the initial finger-pointing, this wouldn’t have materialized at all.

And that seamlessly segues into the next point…

4. People who know you vs. People you know

Personal branding is about expanding the number of people who know you (and you don’t know them at all).

Professional networking is expanding the people you know (and they, in turn, know you).

Outside of social media/networking platforms, only public personalities (celebrities, sports stars, actors, politicians, and so on) have a large number of people who know them. Or, think they know them.

Consider how much you know about an actor like, say Ranveer Singh. Whatever we know about him is based on a few sources of information – media, his own social media utterances, and his movies, among others. But we still don’t really know Ranveer the way his family knows him, or his wife, Deepika knows him. We never will and we don’t want to know either.

In other words, we know Ranveer Singh, the actor, to the extent he makes information available. But out of the avenues available to him to expand the ‘people who know you’, we have only one available to us – social media/networking platforms.

The point is this: you don’t need to expose everything happening in your life to the world in the name of personal branding. You simply need to be selective in highlighting those elements which accentuate your brand. This does not mean you need to fake it; it only means you reveal what is relevant.

(Related reading: Do you need to be ‘authentic’ on social media? |
“I want to keep a low profile” vs. Personal branding)

So why not use the power of broadcast to expand the ‘people who know us’, to build weak ties? That, in a nutshell, is the point of personal branding.

Professional networking is like handing over your business card to people, individually, and getting their card from them in exchange. So you build on ‘people you know’ and vice versa.

Personal branding is addressing a large gathering of people on expanding on why you have a particular business card, with a specific designation, company name, and a set of skills, on an ongoing basis. You cannot humanly chat with all the people in the room, but your address would leave an imprint on their minds about who you are, what you are good at, and so on.

If you splice the people in your life into 3 layers, the 3rd layer is the primary audience for personal branding:

5. Asynchronous vs. Reciprocity

Broadcasting is essentially asynchronous. You have a point of view on some topic and you share it with the world. Anyone could consume what you have shared and they could,
– simply read it and move on
– read it, and remember you as a useful voice on that topic
– read it, remember you, and leave digital trails (Like, Comment, Share)

And this, they do it in their own time.

Professional networking, in contrast, depends on reciprocity.

Remember the basic idea of LinkedIn I mentioned earlier? Similarly, in the offline world, when you meet someone you don’t know, at a coffee shop, you exchange information about each other and hope that there may be some mutual benefit, however small or big, at some point in time.

Phone calls, emails, direct messages, physical meetings… these are reciprocal modes of interaction.

Personal branding is largely an asynchronous effort. It’s my effort in gathering relevant information, gathering and articulating my thoughts, and sharing it online.

Such effort may lead to professional networking; reciprocal efforts where I choose to meet certain people or have a call with them.

6. Collecting people vs. Connecting (with) people

That brings me to the last point: we tend to collect people with personal branding efforts and connect with people through professional networking. Both are very different activities, and both are essential in the larger scheme of things.

The bottomline is this, though: before you attempt professional networking, work on your personal branding.

This simply means:

1. Define what you would like to be associated with, how credible is your pitch to communicate that association with a wider audience, and get the basics of your brand right, like a bio/about me section on assorted platforms online.

2. Demonstrate your ongoing interest in the topics you defined for yourself. This involves sharing your perspectives on those topics frequently. The more frequent and consistent you are in this activity, the more people build mental associations with you and those topics/themes. A very simple example: You could be working in finance, but the more you share bird photography on Instagram, people may think of you as ‘that person who works in finance (based on your bio) who is passionate about bird photography’.

(Related read: Don’t drink your own kool-aid in the name of personal branding)

3. Defend your brand! In ‘demonstrate’ you share/create your own content to showcase your ongoing interest, while in ‘defend’ you comment upon or use content from others to showcase your brand. This happens often in the offline space too – imagine you are part of an offline, industry event that has a panel discussion. After the panel discussion, the audience gets to ask questions. You, from the audience, raise your hand, share a rejoiner to a quip from a particular panelist and add your counterpoint to what they said.

The only difference in the offline version is that your counterpoint goes up in the air, while the same action on LinkedIn remains forever, bolstering your personal brand.

When you do personal branding right, the next time you walk into a room (physically, or metaphorically, online!) you don’t necessarily need to start from scratch. Your brand precedes you.

As the famous quip from Jeff Bezos goes, “Your brand is what people say about your when you are not in the room“.

What really happens when you work hard on your personal brand is that you cultivate a wider circle of weak(er) ties online. The bigger these circles are, the better the chances of more strong ties when you start networking.

In short, personal branding is creating and building your reputation, while professional networking is burnishing your reputation with a select few.

Ideally, colleges should formally teach both personal branding and professional networking. The latter was the default before the advent of social media because people had very limited access to broadcast to a large group of people. With social media, every single person can potentially broadcast to the entire world, depending only on the quality of what they say, how they say it, and how consistently they say it.

So go ahead and make use of social media platforms to build and accentuate your personal brand. Personal branding precedes professional networking and makes it easier.

There is another crucial reason why you need to expand your weak ties via personal branding, and this is especially important for freelancers and consultants.

When you are on your own, you cannot depend on a smaller network of strong ties for a steady inflow of work. Networks, by default, remain smaller given the effort to cultivate and nurture them, besides the reciprocity involved – this obviously requires a lot of time. More importantly, how much can you go back to the same people inside a network and keep asking for work?

This was a hypothesis I started with before quitting my full-time job: I presumed that more work would come to me, as a freelancer, from people who know me (or heard of me) than from people I know (and they know me/mutually).

This hypothesis came true and more than 90% of my work comes from people who know me while I barely know them (I have to LinkedIn-search them to start knowing something about them). But they have heard about me, what I do, and how good I am at what I do through my personal branding efforts. They, of course, cross-check what they have heard through other sources, but without the personal branding effort, I would not even be in the consideration set!