Personal branding and marketing
Content, content, content—that's what will ultimately determine your success online
By John Edward Love, CPCU
The 2011 baseball season is starting. Baseball is an interesting sport because much of a player's value is based on what the player does individually, rather than on his impact on teammates. It's still a team game, but the players get paid based on their individual performance at bat and when pitching—similar to how producers are paid for prospecting and proposing.
I grew up when the school of thought for baseball and basketball was that weight lifting could/would hurt an athlete's skills. Take a look at today's players and their performance. Weight training has only made them better. Developing your personal brand and online presence in the social media world is the new weight-training era of the producer community. You will survive for another XX years without it, but eventually it will catch up with you.
You know about social media already and, in fact, some of you are already tiring of hearing about it. So let me cut through the hype to make one very important point that underlies all the buzz about social media and your personal brand: It's all about the content. Content, content, content—that's what will ultimately determine your success online.
For the next week, take a quick look at 10 to 15 companies that promote their social media sites. You know, all those Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube links on their home page. Notice whether they actually put anything of value on those sites.
Very shortly, only those with a commitment to providing real value or functionality will be considered winners. Right now, yes, a lot of companies think just slapping an icon on their home page is enough. However, you know better. The content itself will begin to separate the losers from the winners online.
So you need a plan for your own personal branding, and it needs to begin with how you will develop content and build through your execution of the implementation of that content. The quality, type, and ease of use of your content will put you ahead of the competition in a battle that will play out over the next 24 to 36 months. Once you have established yourself at the top, that's only the beginning. You will have to continue or lose your primacy.
What is content and where can you get it?
Start with the approach that content is anything of value related to your products or services that eases the buying process for your prospects or otherwise educates them in a brief, truthful manner. You can appropriately sprinkle in some self-promotional pieces such as a press release stating that a carrier named you their agent of the year; that's okay, too. But please avoid one blog post after another that simply promotes you or something you've done. It's tacky, wasteful, not helpful, and will only diminish your role and the role of your industry.
I ask business people every week what they think of social media sites and various styles of personal branding. Everyone seems very turned off by the all-hype, no-substance approach that some online purveyors use.
Let me be more direct: CFOs and VPs of HR are simply too smart and too experienced to be suckered by purely self-aggrandizing marketing approaches. If you agree with that sentence, then go ahead and act on your own beliefs and craft an approach that is, yes, a little harder to create but more successful in the long run.
Divide your content into five categories:
• Text and document-based materials
• Audio content
• Interactive functionality
• Third-party sources of the above
Identify those possible third-party sources up front. They include carriers, clients, referral sources (lawyers, accountants, etc.), and publicly available, credible independent sources. For example, one of my companies has a blog that includes links to another company that publishes white papers that we think are very valuable for the consumers of our services. We give full credit to them and are promoting them but are also helping our consumers build their own knowledge.
Text and document-based content are the easiest; your carriers publish useful stuff every month (or week) and struggle to get it into the hands of your prospects. If you can write—great!
Now you just need a schedule of subject matter you will address each week or month. Three pieces from carriers and one from you (the minimum I would recommend) and you have weekly blog posts.
Another great idea is to take advantage of the e-marketing materials that are included in the Producer Online sales and marketing program, published by The Rough Notes Company. Veteran technical writers produce content for Producer Online users that can supplement your own posts.
Let every referral source know that you want to link to their blog and articles, confirm their permission, and ask them to send you any existing white papers. They'll really appreciate your help and they'll also frequently reciprocate. You'll need to follow them online, however, in order to make sure you are receiving everything—from which you'll choose what you link to.
Perhaps the hottest thing online right now is video. But we are beginning to see that a cheap-looking video representing a company or professional is not going to cut it. The sacrifices in audio and lighting quality combine to create an underwhelming experience for the viewer.
It will always be worth the extra effort to develop your own skills in production or editing, or use professional help to create better video content. If you want to learn more about doing it yourself, follow the blogs at Greenworksvideo.com and HubSpot.com.
Hosting your videos on YouTube or Vimeo and linking to them from your blog is the right approach for the majority of producers, for technical reasons as well as for search engine optimization. For examples of smart, effective videos, go to www.travelers.com/technology and click the "emerging risks" section.
Audio content, such as podcasting, is definitely easier to create with at least a minimally acceptable technical quality. There are lots of "how-to" articles online and plenty of good microphones that cost under $100, as well as capabilities such as Skype for remote guests. Interviewing three of your most entrepreneurial clients can be a great source of compelling content.
What is interactive functionality? It's any widget, Flash presentation, calculator, etc., that enables your online visitor to learn something. Typically, to develop it you need to spend a few hours on your own or hire a programmer to help you. There are so many cool tools and services on the Web that you can find a solution to your needs with a little homework. For example, check out the "coverage calculator" at www.techassure.com, which I wrote in about 14 hours of total time.
For what its worth, I've used all of the techniques I suggested above, and one of the sites I designed and run ranks #8 out of more than 62,000,000-page hits for key search phrases. It was all by design and it worked—and your approach can work too if you plan and execute!
Avoid these two mistakes: 1) trying to do it all yourself, and 2) assuming that just having a presence is good enough.
Schedule time slots in your calendar each week to perform your online activities. It will become a very effective form of prospecting and can be rewarding in several ways. It establishes your credibility as an expert and builds your natural search rankings—in fact, my top-10 site was achieved without an outsized effort, and yet the content is there and valuable.
One foot on the dock and one in the rowboat is no place for you. You need to commit and act while the returns on your effort are still pretty good; putting it off will just make the job harder.
John Edward Love, CPCU, is president and executive director of TechAssure, an association of insurance agents and underwriters who specialize in managing risks for technology and life sciences companies. TechAssure members serve more than 4,000 technology companies worldwide. For 18 years Love was a leading producer at Armfield, Harrison & Thomas (AH&T) in Leesburg, Virginia, and a founder of AH&T Technology Brokers.