The Nature of Following (A Reflection on Social Media for Personal Brands)
With the sun over my shoulder, I pause. My eyes drop down and fixate on the red clay in front of me.
I follow the edges. They burst with contrast. Light and dark. Changing on a razor’s edge.
Over pebbles, into cracks, everything directly in front of me is blanketed.
The breeze dances across my cheeks and then it’s gone again. But the silhouette on the ground remains frozen. Unmoved. Until I raise my arms.
In perfect unison, light and dark obey. As if they are in a dance with one another. They stretch outward.
I lower my arms again, relaxed at my side. The silhouette returns and snaps into place. It is irrefutably mine—a perfect trace.
This is the nature of sun and shadow.
My shadow belongs to me. It goes where I go. It traces my shape, my movements, and often goes without notice. I alone own it. I cannot borrow another’s. And no one can borrow mine.
I think my shadow and yours are a good metaphor for social media marketing and personal brands.
Weird, I know.
But let me explain…
The Shadow of Social Following and Personal Branding
A Brief Timeline of How I Got Here (My Stops Along the Social Media Railway)
The longer I’ve been a personal brand, the more opportunity there’s been to be social. I’m referring to social media, of course. I’ve always been mildly social. Hovering around a C+ to B-.
MySpace, ca. 2004
When I started as a personal brand, the only viable option was MySpace. (I wouldn’t have described myself as a ‘personal brand.’ Not because I wasn’t one. More because I’d never come across the nomenclature, which first appeared 4 years prior in 1997.1)
I’m curious by nature. So I created a MySpace account in early 2004. Beyond that, my MySpace memories are as fuzzy as my 10th Grade Science Fair project.
LinkedIn, ca. 2006
I hopped on LinkedIn in February of 2006. But I didn’t do much with it beyond a sprinkling of a few profile details.
Facebook, ca. 2007
A year passed, and then I heard rumblings of something called Facebook. I was disappointed when I discovered it was only available for students. (Remember that?!)
I snagged an account in 2007, but didn’t use it until 2008. Here’s an early post. It’s a pic from a family vacation.
Fast forward a handful of years. I returned to full-time paid ministry. My personal brand was a side-hustle during this period.
I recall sitting in my church office when I signed up for Twitter in 2008. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. But I signed my other co-workers up. I thought we could use it as an easy way to share whether we were in the office or not.
Want to see my first tweets? This is hilarious.
Instagram, ca. 2010
The next social domino to fall was Instagram. Like the others, I was an early adopter compelled by curiosity. (Still master of none, at this point.) Instagram launched on October 6, 2010. I joined four days later.
My first Instagram post featured speedbumps (called ‘topes’ in Spanish). It was from a trip to Mexico that summer and garnished one like, thank you very much! Although the like came two years after the post.
In the end, it’s a collection of the usual social suspects.
So from MySpace through today, here are six lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Note, what follows is NOT a list of growth hacks or tips and tricks. File this under Wisdom instead. For what it’s worth, when it comes to social media, wisdom is much harder to find than followers.
6 Lessons I’ve Learned using Social Media as a Personal Brand
Lesson 1: Be prepared to move.
Like I said before, social media and ‘personal branding’ did not exist in the world or in my world when I started. But they do now.
With the rise of social media marketing and the growing number of personal brands, I’ve had to move. At times, it feels like my personal brand is the son or daughter of a military family or college football coach.
Constant moving. Moving when someone else or some other circumstance says move.
Honestly, here are three moves I’ve noticed.
First, I moved from curiosity to commitment. I was curious about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn when they started. That’s how I began my relationship with each.
I did not start a single social media account with the aim of ‘marketing and promoting my personal brand’. That wasn’t a ‘thing’.
But I’ve since moved on—not by choice, but out of necessity. Now I have to commit to each of these social platforms. I have to commit time, energy, and resources to leverage the platform for my personal brand.
Second, I’ve moved from pleasure to pressure. I started on each social media platform because they were new and fun. Fun to experiment with. Fun to learn. Fun to recruit a few friends and hang out together on a new social platform.
But now there’s a pressure. It doesn’t mean they’re devoid of fun. It’s more like the move from front-yard football in the neighborhood, to one-and-done playoff football your senior year of high school. Both are fun. One adds pressure.
Third, social media moved from something I dabble with to something demanded of me. Again, it’s easy to read that move and interpret it as all negative. But responsibility isn’t the enemy of ‘the good life’. Having demands is part of life and often builds character.
But I no longer feel the freedom to dabble. Each of the social apps feels like a demand when I scroll by them on my phone. They’ve made their way onto a to-do list for marketing my personal brand.
For personal brands who are young or just starting out, you won’t notice the moves. This is the air filling your lungs since the day you were born (with an iPhone in your crib).
But they are there. Like the move from Chicago to Dallas when you were 2. You don’t remember it. And you wouldn’t think about it, apart from an old photo.
Lesson 2: Be the real you on social. It’s far easier to maintain.
Perhaps you’ve heard this advice before. But it deserves repeating when it comes to building a personal brand.
Let me put a more positive spin on this lesson.
You’re busy, right?
Building a personal brand is taxing, right?
Did you know simply learning this lesson can cut your workload in half?
Being ONE person is hard enough. Don’t try being TWO. It’s four times as hard!
A personal brand is NOT only something you work on, it’s also something that works on YOU! It reveals…
- character flaws
- your inability to predict and control the future
Social media offers you an escape. You can pretend to be a person or personal brand of your choosing. You make the edits. You delete the bad scenes. You post the pic with the killer smile, not the half-open druggy eyes.
Resist the temptation to be two people. Be yourself as a personal brand, warts and all. Be humble. Be grateful. Learn. And grow.
Don’t gain a world of followers but lose yourself along the way.
Lesson 3: Pay attention to what you want from your social media marketing.
You should have goals for your social media marketing. Social is a great tool for building your personal brand.
But it’s a worthwhile exercise to pause and ask yourself two questions. The first question is obvious. The second one is not.
- What outcomes do I want from my social media marketing for my personal brand?
- What does my ‘want’ tell me about who I am becoming?
All young people know what all old people say.
“Time flies by,” said with an aftertaste of regrets.
Yes, predictable advice. But obvious advice doesn’t mean it’s bad advice. Blowing it off says more about us than the advice. A roll of the eyes often comes with a side of stubborn and arrogance.
When you start a personal brand, time is a precious commodity. There’s no company paycheck coming every two weeks. Time flies by.
That’s why the second question above is critical. You must not only decide what you want, but you must also consider what your want says about you. If you never stop and ask what your ‘want’ tells you about who you are becoming, here’s what happens…
You become that person! It will feel involuntary. It most certainly won’t be.
Pay attention to what you want. It speaks volumes about who you will become.
Don’t just ask what you want from your social media marketing. Ask yourself why you want it and who you think you will be if you get it. As a personal brand, you and your brand are inseparably linked. You’re like Siamese twins joined at the heart, not the hip.
Lesson 4: Take note of your mood when you’re around and away from your social media.
Here’s another tough lesson for personal brands. It’s easy to tie our mood to our social media effectiveness. Growth brings a smile. A strikeout makes us sad.
Those are normal emotional responses. And there’s nothing wrong with being human. More personal brands could benefit from being more human. And more busy humans could benefit from paying attention to their emotions (not burying them).
Using social media to build your personal brand takes time. That means time on social media. And anything we spend time with will shape us.
Wise social media marketers will warn you not to build a business centered on a single social media platform.
Why? Why not tie your personal brand to one social media platform and crush it?
They own the data. And they can change the rules or collapse without notice. One minute you’re climbing the mountain. The next minute you’re plunging off a cliff.
Heed the warning. Don’t tether your mood to your social media effectiveness. Don’t make it the center. Social media marketing can be helpful, encouraging, and entertaining. But it makes a crappy master.
Lesson 5: Remember the difference between fans, followers, and friends.
For this lesson, forget the various terminology used on each platform. Some call them ‘friends’, some have ‘followers’, and some say ‘connections’.
Instead, think about three simple buckets: fans, followers, and friends.
Here’s what you need to remember as you build your personal brand on social media…
- Fans adore and applaud your voice
- Followers engage and enact your advice
- Friends care and challenge your character
Fans…As a personal brand, you can still thrive without reaching celebrity status. That means you can run a meaningful personal brand and never attain ‘celebrity’. You don’t have to be big enough for ‘fans’.
Just remember, fans aren’t even cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are at least on the field with you. Cheerleaders go to your same school or get paid by your same employer.
Fans sit in the stands. Sure, they applaud when you make a play or sing your anthemic hit song. But they boo when you don’t.
Maybe you reach celebrity status. Several personal brands do. Even so, fans will be fans.
Followers…As a personal brand, you want and need followers. More than fans, followers engage with you. They stick around because they are enriched by your content. You genuinely help them.
There’s no magical number of followers you need as a personal brand.
But you do need to do this…
Serve the ones you have more than the ones you’re trying to get.
One last thing on followers…
There are fake followers. They follow merely for a follow back…and then drop you once they get it. The more you experience this, the more you’ll wish there was a ‘Smack-a-Follow-Back-Bot’ game at the bowling alley arcade.
Friends…Neither fans or followers will matter if you don’t have real friends in real life. I’m talking about ones you can see, hear, touch, smell, smile, and cry with.
As a personal brand, you may be tempted to think fans and followers are decent substitutes for friends. This is alluring when you’re trying to ‘ramp up your personal brand’. Don’t give in to that temptation.
Fans and Followers can puff you up, but they can never build you up or pick you up.
When you crash and burn or screw up…
- Fans take out their phone and video it
- Followers leave over it
- Friends pick you up and walk with you through it
Lesson 6: Let you’re following follow your natural wiring.
In real life, I go deeper with a few than wider with many. I’ve always been that way. And I always will.
I’ve got good friends who are different. They know a lot of people and have big relational networks in the real world.
If both of us put in the same efforts on social media, those friends will likely have more followers than me. I’m totally cool with that. It’s true in real life. It will likely hold true online.
And for the record, I’m not talking about introverts and extroverts. It’s more complicated than that.
If I reach 5,000 followers being myself, I may have 10,000 if I had a different wiring. Even with the same ‘effort’.
Here’s a real-life story to illustrate. It comes from my full-time ministry days.
I was chatting with a fellow church leader. He was convinced we were aiming for the same target. I was convinced we weren’t.
So I presented him with a fake, albeit oversimplified scenario and asked him to choose.
I said, “Would you rather lead a church with 6,000 people at the gathering, where 600 of those were actively making disciples Monday–Saturday? Or lead a church with 600 people with all 600 actively making disciples all week?”
He chose the former. I chose the latter. And then I said, “Therefore we’d go about things very differently. And that’s ok.”
What we measured, the structures we set up, the budgets we set…they all would be different. Because we’re two different people, wired two different ways, aiming at two different things.
The same is true for social media and your personal brand. Yours will look different than someone else’s.
Know yourself and be comfortable in your own personal brand skin. Let the number of followers you have follow your natural wiring.
What‘s Hiding In Your Social Media Marketing Shadow?
If I were to boil it all down, I’d say, “Stop and reflect.”
Like the opening story of this article, check your shadow. Are you using yours or trying to cast someone else’s?
That sounds simple, but it’s challenging.
Stopping and reflecting is challenging for two reasons!
First, you want to grow your personal brand, yesterday. Social media is a great way to do it. Social media marketing feels like an easy softball waiting for you to crush it. It doesn’t cost any real money to ‘build an audience.’
Second, the nature of social media is akin to a high-speed railway. Social media is built on speed. You can connect with someone a world away with a single post. But you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to keep feeding the social feed monster.
High-speed railways are famous for their speed, not for stopping. Trains have been stopping since day one. In a similar fashion, social media is famous for filling our spaces and cracks of time, not making more time.
Stopping and reflecting takes a concerted effort. But I haven’t found any other way to shape how I want to use social media to market my personal brand. Nor how social media marketing may be shaping me.
Like your shadow, make sure your social media follows you, not the other way around.