Here’s a summary of the second presentation I gave at media140 last month.

I was asked to chat about building community around your personal brand.

There’s an awful lot of people out there building audiences, not communities, and mixing up where each can be valuable in their own ways. The people I find that have stitched an authentic community together as an individual are also the least likely to talk about their success building that community. Because it’s not about them. Self-promoters can build audience volume, but may struggle to build lasting relationships that extend beyond their own gain.

This is something you see a lot of in the social media echo chamber, so it was a nice to have the opportunity to unpack what it means to dive a little deeper, and offer some community management advice that can be practically applied to an individual.

I have my own ideas about this topic, from playing about in online communities for many years, but I started by asking my own extraordinary community of community managers for their 2c on the topic. Thanks to them for their input!

This is a sum of us.

Why build community – and the social capital that comes with it?

  • Amplify and scale the best of you (and improve the lesser of you)
  • Build credibility around the way you define and express yourself and work
  • Preserve and sustain your efforts over the long haul
  • Conversations build perception. If you’re not perceived by others, you’re defined by your absence.
  • Bottom line, it’s what it’s all about. Our selves – professional and personal – are forged and defined through our connections. Without social reflection of our qualities and contributions, their value can be challenged, undone, or entirely invisible.

The risk of ‘branding’ language discourse is that it can lead us to start asking how our networks and communities can serve us, rather than how we can serve them.

This happens when businesses and organisations set out to create communities all the time as well – when member needs don’t align to host needs – but it’s even more acute when you’re thinking about an individual.

Get on top of this thinking.

You don’t own your personal brand. It’s created by and with people in your networks and communities.

You are a compound element.

Some of the identities with the most sizable follower base around their personal brands wouldn’t pass some key community litmus tests, such as:

  • Does their community engage as much with each other as with them?
  • Does their community have a sense of ownership and investment?

They have built audiences, not communities. That’s fine, but they do different stuff well.

Audiences have purpose and value, but the emotional connections in a community are stronger, more lasting and will deliver greater returns for your personal and professional objectives in the long term.

One advantage of building or enabling a community around who you and what you do is that that community will travel with you through job changes, career changes, your own journey of discovery.

Another – as it grows organically, ideas, opportunities and awesome will come to you. You’ll have to seek them out less and less.

The emotional rewards also tend to be greater. While it’s a nice ego boost to broadcast to a large audience  that have opted in to hear you, it’s unusual to derive psychic and personal growth from that experience. That’s not the goal. Audiences are great at amplifying information, and as an abstract entity they make us feel good sometimes. They may even be very engaged, offering ideas to use, and telling us what they think of what we’re saying and doing. But they’re still socially one dimensional – that is, they talk to you, but not necessarily each other. And it’s unlikely they talk about anything other than what you’ve set the scene for.

Communities are a little different. Critically:

  • Their members self-define as members of those communities (note: that may not be a positive identification – someone might begrudgingly be a member of a community)
  • They engage as much or, ideally, more with each other than you
  • They colour outside the prescribed lines of conversation
  • They have shared social conventions and mores, values and other connective tissue
  • They have a sense of stakehold and ownership over those things (including the spaces and places that make up the community, whether a page on a website, or a meeting room)

So the better question is: how can we enrich our community through our identity and actions? How we can help create those conventions and spaces? How can we allow a sense of ownership?

How can we advance the community brand – and thereby – deepen our own brand and currency in a social world.

You’re an iceberg

In order to support a community with your personal brand, you need to have a clear understanding of what that brand is. You need to distil what you stand for and how you make stuff better.

You need a personal by-line that can be readily understood in a 140 character world.

That’s your starting point… but if that’s all you are you’ll get lost at sea.

Constructive social energy spurs people to dive deeper, and you need to think about the entire universe of you that people can be rewarded with.

That’s where they discover your expertise, your experiences, the full extent of your personality, all the intricacies that make you a dynamic, interesting human being, with stories galore.

This is basic content marketing – attract for a first nibble, then entice further bites. But getting to know you is way more interesting.

What parts will you float to the surface, and in what contexts? Invite the deeper dive, and be ready for it.

Show up

It’s a truism because it’s true.

If I can’t find you, I can’t connect with you, let alone feel a part of your community.

I can’t uncover your value and what it means to me.

Nothing will spark or fuse.

Discoverability, particularly in a digital age, is about showing up, and more than once.

A static website won’t cut it.

A pervasive digital self shows up, again and again, where they can contribute.

That contribution might be adding your voice to a discussion, passing something on, or simply being there to listen. More on that in a minute.

This conversational imprint is essential for your discoverability. Online reputations are forged now by a track record of getting out there.

The heroes and icons of personal branding create content and conversations every day. But that’s their job. That may not be practical for you. And noise alone is not value.

It’s about a mindset.

Consider everything you’re doing, on and offline, and where the social or conversational opportunities exist.

If you attend, or hold an offline event, how can you make it easy for people to propagate the experience of that event in their online channels?

Everything you do should inspire conversation, if not actively enable it.

Conversations build perception, cumulatively.


‘Adding value’ is almost meaningless as a piece of advice. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t instruct or clarify. Value is too nebulous a concept and there are countless ways we can add value for others.

I prefer help. Everyone needs it with something, and sometimes we need help admitting we need it.

That help can take different shapes.

You can add wisdom, utility or levity.

Write a great blog post sharing the lessons you’ve learned.

Point them to a product that will solve their problem.

Answer a question they’ve been struggling with.

Make someone laugh when they’ve had a terrible day.

Help them escape their daily grind for a moment with a funny or inspiring image, video or story. A LOLcat can work miracles.

Share and be shareable 

Where ever possible, the help you’ve giiven should be sharable.

Awesomeness that can’t be shared loses its power of awesome.

If I find a blog post of yours, a paper, an idea, an image – anything you’ve given that helps or inspires me – make sure I can share it with my network, my own community, or others that might be interested.

If you’ve locked your wisdom and value down, it’s difficult to build social momentum around it.

Let people take it, share it, reblog it, curate it, make it their own and add their own context. Let me feel good about giving others in my network or community something helpful or entertaining.

Once you already have a strong community you might decide to create premium spaces or channels where access to certain content, or your time, is granted to select members of your community. This might be a private forum, an offline meet up for your inner circle. These layers can be built respectfully to reward those that have stuck with you and make newcomers curious and inspired.

But while you’re working to build that community, the more sharable and remixable you are, the more your value will be spread throughout the network, the more people will discover you, the more opportunities you’ll have to have a conversation or deepen a relationship.

You need to reciprocate that sharing. Share generously when you find things that would interest or help your people.


Curation is at risk of becoming as overused as the word community. But it’s not a bad thing.

Social discovery has pushed our digital platforms, products and services to keep fueling our hunter-gatherer instincts.

Successful community builders have been doing it for years, and it comes pretty naturally to most of us.

What do you absolutely love? How do you amass affiliated content or objects around that thing? When, where and how do you choose to show off your collection? Think of what you ‘collect’ and why? (If your answer is fans and followers, go back to the beginning and start again).

Curating to advance your personal brand means answering the question, how can you hunt and gather in a way that will serve your community – and keep it well fed?

You might blog a collection of tools or resources; create a list of subject matter experts in your industry on Twitter. Gather information that helps your people feel good and achieve. Expose a failure or mistake so others can avoid it.

Community building is, in one sense, curating people. You curate by gathering close a network of friends, experts, allies, mentors – whoever fires you up and makes you better at what you do.

You can curate people by playing matchmaker. Introduce a shy expert from your growing network to someone seeking that expertise. Connect kindred spirits, closet fans of the same cult TV show, or someone who feels alone and out of sorts with someone who’s been there.

You’ll be branded as a connector and facilitator, and that’s read powerfully. People remember that you were the instrument. They are grateful, and they will return for more.

Curating takes time and effort, but that effort has tangible benefits beyond page views and ‘likes’.

  • You consume a lot of information and meet new people. This is an opportunity to introduce yourself and grow your own community, while curating to support that community.
  • You reveal more about your personality when you highlight certain people and content. Showing off more of yourself is emotionally appealing, and increases the chances of connecting with like minded people.
  • You give back by singling out people and content, and explaining why you think it’s valuable. Reciprocity is non-negotiable if you wish to build lasting social capital. It’s not just about you, and curation is an ideal way to show this.

 I just met a girl named Maria…

Maria Popova has created a highly engaged global community around her personal brand.

The creator and editor of Brain Pickings has carved out a corner of the digital universe to share content that echoes her credo: keep life rich and rewarding by exposing your brain to new, challenging and stimulating things, people and ideas.

She has taken a personal journey of discovery, synthesised that into a personal brand statement, and has sunk the work into empowering and improving others as she empowers and improves herself.

Her audience is vast, but so is her community, with people identifying as members of Maria’s tribe and internalising her philosophies.

Emotional spark

Whether it’s finding your brand voice, or what you’re creating or curating, seek ideas, issues and topics that are naturally charged with emotional energy.

Stuff that fires the blood.

We drown in banality and sameness. Political correctness and corporate doublespeak.

Tether your brand to things that are real, have resonance and compel a reaction.

Tell your story in your content and your actions – focusing on the emotional truths – and let people find themselves in your story.

How can you help others tell their stories? Do you make it safe and possible by example? Do you give them a space to riff on your stories?

How can we resist her?

MamaMia is a great example of a community built around the personal brand of Mia Freeman.

Mia has created a space (and a culture within it), full of emotionally rich content, where people can find themselves in others.

Members of her community are allowed to get passionate and worked up about things that matter to them. The community welcomes emotional spark. Debates are fiery, but so are the ties that bind.

Icebergs abound. You can skim the surface, or dive deep. Mia and her team have extended her values into a sense of place where people relax into sociability.

Enable belonging

Being honest about wanting to belong is in part what has fuelled the popularity of social media.

People participate when they feel they matter. You want to foster community to help you make an impact on the world, in your own way.

One of the key elements that define a community is a sense of belonging.

Think about how you can help people belong – then show off that belonging to others easily.

Belonging doesn’t mean being the life of the party, or being everywhere.

You could be a prolific, respected contributor to a single online community, who support and enable your personal brand and career or life objectives.
You could be actively listening and making a difference; belonging in an entirely different way.

Communities are spectrums, they’re not binary. So is belonging.


You will build social momentum around your identity if you’re someone that empowers generously.

Create safe spaces, where people can be full selves.

Let them exercise a part of their personality or identity that they don’t usually get to.

Lead by example and make it clear that when they’re engaging with you, they can entertain any aspect of themselves they wish, or discuss a topic they’re otherwise restricted from discussing.

This not only promotes authenticity but creates an experience people want to repeat. Empowerment is addictive. How can you push it?

Help people meet a need. Answer a question. Solve a problem. Connect them with opportunities. Make them feel valued. Help them WIN.

Don’t forget what defines a community:

  • belonging – you feel a part of something
  • interconnection and influence – you support one another, influence one other and together you can influence others more successfully
  • fulfilment – you feel satisfied and rewarded by your participation
  • shared emotional connection – the relationships aren’t casual. There’s a deeper reason that you invest time together, such as cause, a shared belief system, or a shared experience.

How can you deliver some or all of these?

The best way to build community around your personal brand is facilitate and enable one or more communities to cohese and thrive.

One final point. This takes work and commitment. Lots of it.

Building an audience is much easier. That’s why more people do it (and there’s nothing wrong with it). I’ve seen the rewards of building and participating in community first hand, so I’ll always recommend you try it. But don’t think it’s easy or seamless.

Think not what your community can do for you. That’ll become obvious.

What tips or lessons do you have for building community around your personal brand? 


7 thoughts on “media140: building community around your personal brand

  1. @Eric Great to meet you 🙂

    I’m aware of the CLS. You guys do great work. I’m talking about our Australian Community Managers group and e-mint, the global network of online community managers, which has been connecting CM folk since 2000 (I’m sure you know it!).

    I founded CM Roundtables for our industry here back in 2008, to help kick start a community of practice, and last year fellow CM Alison Michalk and I launched swarm, the first Australian national conference for online community management. We’ll be launching details for swarm 2012 later this month. There’s a lot of very active social media groups out this way too.

    We’d love to deepen our relationships with our North American CM peers. Let’s chat about it!

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