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A Guide to Personal Branding for Executives Who Suck at Social Media

I will never forget the first time I recognized the power of social media for professional use. It was back in 2007 and I had been robotically tweeting inspirational quotes, statistics, and calls to action back to our website. One day, I was present for a conversation with our chief operating officer during which he was complaining that other organizations got more share of media on our issue than we did. What he essentially wanted to know was: Why is leader X getting more interviews than we are?

Back at my desk, I started researching. I looked up each competing organization, who their leaders were — and followed them on Twitter. I went down rabbit holes, looking at whom each one followed and following the people and organizations that were also relevant to us.

What started out as an “opposition” research ended up being a revelation in how we used social media for communications and marketing at our organization. Those “competitors” that I followed were some of the biggest names in the philanthropy space. And what I quickly noticed was that they followed back — and began sharing our content.

"Most successful CEOs on social media fluidly combine what their business goals and messages are with their own personal voice and narrative of what’s happening in their lives.
It was then that I realized the power of social media isn’t about publishing — it is about connecting and developing relationships with others."

When it comes to your personal use of social media, this is more important than ever. Anyone can publish banal links to your company’s press releases, but why is that compelling to follow? As a business leader, you have a unique opportunity to not only lead the messaging for your organization but also develop a multidimensional relationship with your audience.

Overtly developing a “personal brand” and strategic plan for your social media can often feel heavy-handed for leaders. However, doing so allows you to split the workload with your team, allowing your communications and marketing team to support you, but ensuring that every post on social media under your name is authentic to who you are, and how you would say it.

People follow and connect with leaders for a variety of reasons — product or service affinity, learning about an issue, or because you share something in common. As a human, you are more than what you do for a living, and your audience may find, follow, and enjoy your social media because of something more than just what you do for a living.

When coaching CEOs on how to operationalize their personal brand on social media, we often sketch out a weekly calendar prompt system. For instance, look at the following:

Sample weekly executive social media prompt calendar
  • Monday: Share a link to an article you read over the weekend that you thought was interesting, with your spin on why it matters.

  • Tuesday: Give one of your employees a “shout-out” on social media for the great job they are doing.

  • Wednesday: Follow someone new on social media and start a conversation with them.

  • Thursday: Share what you are most proud of your company/organization accomplishing this week.

  • Friday: Share something personal about what you did this week or what you are planning to do this weekend. (For example, cheer on your college team, post a photo from an event you attended, etc.)

The point of these calendar prompts is not that you should only post on those topics on those days. Instead, it’s about getting comfortable with thinking about what type of content is appropriate and using social media beyond the basics. Posts can include everything from sharing links, videos, and photos to questions, polls, and offers.

CEOs I have worked with report back that these prompts simplified the overwhelming nature of what to post and when, taught them more fluidly how to use the platforms, showed them what customers/members were saying about their organization, and led to new leads and relationships.

As busy executives, you also need to have a response plan for customer service, media requests, and other incoming queries that a more robust and personal social media approach may open you up to. A shared monitoring system with your communications team so that they respond to any asks of you is advised.

One CEO who takes personal branding on social media to the extreme is John Legere of T-Mobile. He is famous for goading competitors with everything from friendly ribbing to outright trolling. His style certainly isn’t for everyone or every organization, but breaking down how his personal approach garnered him nearly 6 million followers on Twitter can give us a few lessons.

"Think of social media as a cocktail party. If you read your tweet and it doesn’t sound like something you would say, tweak it to match your personal style."

Glance at John’s accounts on any given day and you’ll see a mix of T-Mobile content and calls to action, his family dog, links to amusing articles, and maybe even a livestream of him making his famous #SlowCookerSunday recipes.

Do you have to share this much or this often? No, but approaching your own threshold and balance for what types of content you are comfortable with will allow you a more fluid approach to deciding what and when to post.

Often, a personal approach can be capturing a spontaneous moment with your team and sharing it. Alison Bodor, CEO of the American Frozen Foods Institute, takes a personal approach to content, sharing everything from food safety alerts to membership updates. You may see her posting what she’s making her kids for dinner or shopping at the grocery store, but what Bodor is doing is creating an online ecosystem that reinforces her organization’s brand identity and reflects the culture.

You’ll see a theme with the most successful CEOs on social media. They fluidly combine what their business goals and messages are with their own personal voice and narrative of what’s happening in their lives. They are purposeful in what they post and ensure that it’s said in the way they would say it in person, rather than coming across robotic and “corporate.”

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins regularly shares her take on issues affecting older Americans on her Twitter account. She even coined the hashtag #DisruptAging to fight against ageist stereotypes online. And while she has a team of talented communicators who support her, Jenkins ensured early on in her tenure at the organization that she knew how to use the platforms and could post in the moment. That allows her to capture and share photos, whether she’s in a NASCAR pit with her Drive to End Hunger initiative or meeting a celebrity at an event. In addition, she has a second monitor on her desk that tracks what people are saying about AARP and the issues she is working on, in real time.

One way to find the right balance of tone, content, and cadence might be to follow the CEOs and leaders of brands and organizations you care about. Study how they blend the personal with the professional and engage with their followers.

Jen Gotch found that getting personal on social media leads to enormous growth — of her company and personally. Her very real Instagram account led her to connect with thousands of individuals and entrepreneurs who were struggling with the balance of leadership and mental health. Today, in addition to running her successful lifestyle brand, ban.do, Jen hosts a podcast called Jen Gotch Is OK…Sometimes on the GirlBoss network and is authoring a book.

“For most of my life, I have struggled with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADD,” Gotch said. “Over the last couple of years, I have intentionally used my social media platforms to openly discuss my mental health issues in an effort to remove the stigmas around them and help others feel less alone. This level of vulnerability resonated with my audience on Instagram — and they welcomed and encouraged it enthusiastically. Seeing the positive effect that just even my small influence could have on people was incredibly powerful. So I thought, ‘How can I incorporate this into my business, ban.do, as well?’ — and the Jen Gotch x Iconery collection was created as a natural extension of my efforts. This is a line of necklaces intended to remove the stigmas associated with mental illness and open up conversations. That collection was an impetus for us at ban.do to clarify for ourselves and voice for others what our true values are. We have always focused on being all about fun, but we are also so much more than just fun. We exist to help our customers and community be their best self through encouraging personal and professional betterment. We also strive to help them feel less alone in their struggles by inviting them to be open about those struggles without shame.”

We tell our executive clients to think of social media as a cocktail party. If you read your tweet or your Facebook post and it doesn’t sound like something you would say, or how you would say it, tweak it to match your personal style. And make sure you are speaking conversationally. You will know it’s working when people start talking back to you.

Personal social media, done well, amplifies who you are and what you care about. People who are interested in the things you share and care about will follow and engage with you. And, if you’ve been authentic with your audience, they are going to be more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you find yourself in a crisis.

In the end, it’s not about having a million followers. It’s about building a direct connection with the right people — the ones who care about the things you care about and who can share your message further.

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