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Building an online persona: “Be yourself” is incomplete advice at best

Marilyn Monroe was a persona played by Norma Jean Mortenson

Last week, I chatted with my buddy and marketing genius Rob Hardy. We riffed on an age-old dilemma:

How do you build an audience online without making an ass of yourself?

The Internet is filled with successful scammers who manufacture an entirely fictional image of who they are. It’s also filled with people who put their full, unfiltered selves out there but never seem to gain much traction (think: somebody who tweets every asinine thought).

It begs the question:

Is there a way to build a presence online without morphing into something disingenuous?

Indeed. Rob shared a concept he’s been workshopping: the “branded persona.”

It’s pretty simple: instead of trying to be fully “authentic” online (which itself can be fraught as it’s extremely hard to know who you really are), you instead play up certain aspects of your personality. Don’t be something you’re not, per se, but deliberately lean into certain traits that are already there.

This has a few benefits:

  • It charts a path for personal growth. If you enjoy reading and want to do more of it, creating an online persona centered around reading can help push you towards actually becoming a bigger reader.
  • It attracts the people you want to attract. By deciding what sides of yourself to lean into, it broadcasts a clearer signal of what you’re all about. Your people will have an easier time finding you.

Also, if I’m kind of being a dick for a second, a lot of the “personal monopoly” advice being doled out on Twitter is self-indulgent.

The best way to take advantage of your passions in space travel, medieval military history, and pottery might not be combining them in equal measure — or at all! Instead, you might want to pick one where there’s already a market and become great at writing about it.

As Jay Acunzo put it, “make stuff people want instead of making people want stuff.”

Rob put it simply, “don’t conflate finding a niche with positioning.”

A niche is a market where there’s already demand. Positioning is the act of defining what makes you different amongst the other players serving that niche.

Your unique set of interests may help you position yourself, but they won’t save you if you’re not clear on what your niche is and how you serve it (ex. “I teach aspiring engineers about rockets”).

I’ve seen this firsthand building both Techloaf and Compound, both of which have grown far faster than this newsletter (which more accurately represents my various interests).

So if you want to build a presence around your work without becoming disingenuous, try building a persona that:

  1. Is a little aspirational and plays up who you want to become.
  2. Serves a clear niche where there is demand.

What do ya think, dear readers?

P.s. go follow Rob and subscribe to his newsletter. He’s currently doing some of the most compelling thinking and writing on this topic today.

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