Personal branding vs. Influencers

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally a potential client does pop in the question: “How many followers do you think I (or the concerned business leaders for whom the personal branding workshop is being discussed) would get after this workshop, and in what time frame?”.

I do workshops for corporate leaders/employees on personal branding. It is sometimes confused with being an ‘Influencer’, in the narrow way ‘influencer’ is understood these days.

How is it understood? The Google (or dictionary) definition is, “a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media”.

This is very, very different from personal branding and I take great effort to explain this in detail to misunderstood potential clients to avoid getting into a business relationship on the wrong assumption.

So, how is personal branding different from the influencer model considering both adopt very similar methods (use content as the lever to change perception) and very similar vehicles (digital platforms, social media)?

Here are the 3 main differences as I see them.

1. Intent

The intent of personal branding is to define yourself to strangers (an audience).
The intent of the influencer model is to make money.

Why would you want to define yourself to strangers? Look at it from the perspective of the 3 layers of people we interact with:
Layer 1 – the people we live with + extended family + close friends
Layer 2 – the people we work with + extended professional acquaintances
Layer 3 – the people we do not know (but we could make them think they know us)

The effort in personal branding is primarily towards reaching half of layer 2, that is, extended professional acquaintances, with whom we do not communicate as often as those in layer 1 and the people we work with, and all of layer 3. These are the people we could communicate with passively to let them know who we are, what kind of knowledge we hold, and how interesting we are as individuals.

Before social media, there was no way to do this except by buying time or space in mainstream media.

Why should we do this passive communication with people we don’t know? Because that opens up potential opportunities. Any kind.

Let me give you a simple example. Some organization is looking for someone to conduct a workshop. They ask around. Someone they know refers me because (a) they have heard that I do such workshops, or (b) they have seen me talk about workshops online in my posts. This is just good old word of mouth. By doing personal branding right, you generate good word of mouth for yourself.

Before social media, there was no way to do this except by doing such work and expecting people who gained from such doing to talk about it to others. Now, you can do and talk about it online so that you power the word of mouth yourself.

In fact, one of the more unlikely examples of this word-of-mouth working for me happened with a fairly significant corporate client I worked with a couple of years ago. After I finished the work, the CEO asked me to guess how she reached out to me (through HR, but she was instrumental in getting me in). I said it could be because someone in their HR (or herself) perhaps follows me on LinkedIn or Twitter and may have resonated with something I wrote. But she surprised me by saying that her (then) 16-year-old daughter follows me on Instagram and noticed my occasional talking about personal branding as a topic, and told her about it during dinner one night! That, quite literally, led to my signing that client (of course, they did their diligence and reference check, but this was about the first finger being pointed at me)!

But as I explained in a recent post, it need not be geared towards doing or the opportunity need not be about paying work alone. It can simply be your interest in being associated with a topic, whether you want to monetize it or not.

For example, you could be perfectly content with your career as a banker but you may want to be known as a banker with a keen interest in fitness. If you wanted to be a ‘banker with an interest in fitness’, you would simply do your banking work and run/engage in a fitness activity of choice. But if you wanted to be known as a ‘banker with interest in fitness’, you do your banking work, run/engage in a fitness activity of choice, and talk about your experience.

You could still ask: With my banking work, I make money… but, what do I gain from being known for my interest in fitness? It presents you as an individual beyond your professional credentials to people who you do not know, but they think they know you… to the extent you are willing to reveal yourself. It could be fitness, photography, your keen interest in politics, gardening, or parenting, or whatever avenues you choose based on your interest. This also means you get to not talk about other things you are interested in. For example, you may be interested in travel, but you may not want to reveal that part of your personality.

There are tangible gains to people thinking they know you. The difference is they simply hold your business card (or LinkedIn bio) which only depicts your income-earning capability in a clinical manner vs. they know your income-earning capability and think of you as an individual with interests that they can relate to. Meaning: they see you as a relatable human being. You are more likely to be pointed a finger at when they see an opportunity relevant to you than a mere business card person who they may not be able to relate at a human level.

The intent in the influencer model is vastly different. In that model, you use content to build an audience. The bigger the audience, the better the chances of your working with brands to help promote them for a fee. In essence, you become an alternative media channel alongside mainstream media vehicles.

2. Content

Both personal branding and the influencer model use content as the lever to influence perception, but while the former does it for creating your own perception, the latter does it to earn the attention of a broad audience.

Oh yes, you can use content on one topic, become a subject matter expert in that topic, and then work with brands in that space as an influencer. So while you start using content to create your own perception as a topic expert, you eventually move towards using it to garner attention from an audience interested in that topic.

With personal branding, you do not pander to an audience. You primarily pander to your own definition of how you want people to perceive you, based on your own competencies and interests.

So, in essence, in personal branding, you create content to deepen your interests and competencies, and audience-building is an incidental benefit, while in the influencer model, you create content that can be monetized directly since audience-building is the primary goal.

3. Monetization

In personal branding, you do not monetize content. You monetize your individual perception created by your content.
In the influencer model, you directly monetize your content.

How does the former work?

Imagine you share a lot of online videos on cooking various things.

If, as a result, you get a call from an FMCG brand or a kitchen appliances maker to promote them, that’s the influencer model because you’d end up putting in a good word about them in your subsequent videos.

If, as a result, you get an offer to write a book, teach culinary skills somewhere, or be a chef at some place, that’s the result of the personal branding effort.

Or, consider a very corporate scenario: you frequently share your views on the subject your professional work falls under. This could be banking, marketing, finance, people management, etc.

If, as a result, you get an invite to share your views as a keynote speaker at an event, get to collaborate as the co-author of a book with someone, or be considered for promotion at work, that’s the result of the personal branding effort.

Personally, I have no need for monetizing my content. Instead, I monetize the perception I build around myself and this has real-life implications in the sense that I better fit the perception people carry about me as a result of my personal branding efforts and deliver something of value as a result in the real world.

And hence, I do not know how to work the influencer model (of accumulating followers or monetizing the content directly) nor do I profess to teach it to anyone.

But, personal branding works for me and I have gained immensely from it across more than a decade, and hence, I distill the lessons I have learned from my own process, believe them to be scalable for anyone with determination, patience, and persistence, and impart my learnings in the form of corporate/professional workshops for others to gain from it as I did.

Because of this, I have a blanket policy of not collaborating with any brand for paid content. I don’t have anything against the influencer model; just that I do not believe I need it.

Being active online does not need to make you a content creator or an influencer. It could be something far more simpler and innocuous as defining your personality within a narrow spectrum (as against overexposing yourself in multiple ways) so that people are able to connect you strongly within a few specific parameters of competence or interest.

Even though both personal branding and the influencer model use content, the former doesn’t involve you becoming a content creator for content’s sake. Instead, you create content only within the framework of enhancing your perception. In the influencer model, you are literally a full-time content creator because this is content for content’s sake and enhancing your perception as a prolific content creator (some circular logic, this!).

Related reading material:

1. Do you need to be ‘authentic’ on social media?

2. Don’t drink your own kool-aid in the name of personal branding

3. Personal branding vs. Professional networking

4. Personal branding and personal health are surprisingly similar

5. The currency that helps shape a personal brand

6. Strangers in the…

7. “I want to keep a low profile” vs. Personal branding

8. The power of invisible, silent audience

9. Using perspectives to nurture your personal brand

10. Write to express

11. Do your duty and engineer a…