While the title of a TEDx talk I gave a few years ago — "If You Can’t Be Googled, Do You Exist?" — may seem philosophical or even paradoxical, it is something I strongly believe is vital to consider today. Namely, we all rely on the web to prove things to us. To tell us what is true and real. In essence, to offer a believable if not factual statement to us. Most of us (75 percent, according to some estimates) rely on the results we find on the first page of a Google search. Good luck to the restaurant or business on Page 2. The same is true for people … including those of you in the professoriate.
Professors are brands, and it isn’t only sites like Rate My Professors that matter. It’s the whole ecosystem of the web and your place in it that can make or break your day. Or at least provide openings and opportunities for you that otherwise may not come to be.
The original notion of a person as brand isn’t new. Tom Peters wrote about it in a seminal essay titled "The Brand Called You" in the late '90s. But as the web grew and matured, along with the birth and rise of social media, it has become paramount for professionals, students, and, yes, professors to push forth their brand value lest they get lost. In a way, it is a version of the old academic mantra of "publish or perish," but instead of the narrow readership of academic journals, the audience is wide and often unknowable. Basically, it’s the world that is online and on the web.
Several years ago, I created and led a class on personal branding aimed at undergraduates called "Brand You." I recently went back to look at the syllabus, and the opening statement is as relevant now for professors as it was for my students. Here is what I wrote: "More and more of our lives and careers are connected to the digital world. Thus, managing your online brand is now a 24/7 challenge. This class is not just about what not to do (don’t post stupid photos, make offensive comments for no reason, etc.), but more pro-actively, about what you should do in order to create and maintain a positive and professional brand presence online."
Even if you object to the notion of being a brand, you still are one. Your colleagues, fellow staff members, and students have views of you that they share with others both online and in real life. Are you the tough professor who rarely gives A’s? The fun one whom everyone seems to like? The absent-minded professor with mismatched socks? You get my point.
I asked the personal-branding expert Talaya Waller what she recommends and finds of value for personal (i.e. professional) branding. Here is what she said: "As a newly published researcher, I’ve encouraged my colleagues to make sure they create an account and complete a profile on Google Scholar. You can connect with other researchers and see where your work has been cited. You can network with other scholars as well. In addition, every professor should think about having a professional landing page online outside of their university. They can use their site to publish their unpublished and published work, solicit other thought leaders in their field, and have a method of contact for researchers to ask them about their work."
So, what should you be thinking about in terms of enhancing and improving your brand? First, learn how others think of you. Ask them and listen. Email them earnestly. Second, ask yourself what emotional connection you are making with others. And third, think through what value you offer and how this makes you stand out.
After doing some field research in learning how your brand is viewed, take the following steps: First, define your hard and soft assets. Hard assets are tangible things like your typing speed, knowledge of Excel, and ability to speak a foreign language. Soft assets are things like your ability to work with others and manage your time. Second, confirm what your aspirations and goals are. Third, get real and compare the results of Steps 1 and 2 to market realities.
Next you should write down your brand statement, which can be as brief as a word or a sentence but shouldn’t be much more than a short paragraph. This is your brand — what you stand for and what you promise. Then fold all these insights into what you produce, share, and promote online.
Now you need to execute your actions so they fulfill your brand and promote yourself and your brand accordingly. This is in the classroom, with talks, social-media posts, conferences, papers, etc.
One thing to keep in mind: A brand is the promise of an experience. What are you promising to others, and can you deliver it with élan and excellence? You should be comforted in knowing all brands change and need to refresh over time. This is true for professors too.
Here is an easy example to underscore what you can do. Let’s say you gave a presentation based on a paper or item you’ve written. Did you or anyone take photos of your talk? Or, better yet, a video? If so, share that where you live (and are comfortable) on the web.
The "six degrees of separation" theory will also let others help you with their networks of friends and colleagues. You never know who knows who and, thus, who will then find you.
Obvious places to post the presentation or paper aren’t just Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You also have your university website, specifically your bio page, which would be a wonderful spot to share and show off your work. Also, having a blog (on WordPress or the many easy-to-use newish, and free, personal webpages such as About Me) can make you more findable too.
What does all this get you? Visibility and possibility. Also, more influence and control over your presence on the web. Your brand online. This way, others will know you "exist," and that’s worth a lot (online) these days.
Scott Talan is an assistant professor of communication at American University.