Starting a business can be hard, especially when that business is built around you and your expertise.
For entrepreneurs and professional subject matter experts, building a sustainable enterprise, while at the same time focusing on developing your personal brand, it can be particularly tricky.
- How do you stand out from the crowd in a sea of online noise?
- How do you differentiate your brand from that of your competitors?
- How do you attract the right type of clients, those who share your values?
Recently, I sat down to chat with author (Content DNA) and technical writer, John Espirian, to talk about how he built a well-known and trusted personal brand, and what you can do to emulate his success.
Defining your niche
John, who lives in Wales, is a business to business (B2B) technical writer who describes himself as a “tech guy who likes words”. Having studied computer science at University, John was a software and hardware tester for 10 years.
He was also the guy that was always being asked “how does this thing work” or “why does it work like this?” Through these questions, John learned the power of explaining things simply. So when he was made redundant from his job, he decided that he’d write words for businesses that easily explain how products, services, and processes work.
In a sense, John had found his niche.
But just because your niche is defined doesn’t guarantee instant success. As John learned, he was working in a space that was saturated. So how do you be seen as an authority in your space when there are already others doing what you’re doing?
You start with personal branding.
John focused on two things to build his personal brand. Content marketing and the idea of being “relentlessly helpful.”
What being relentlessly helpful looks like
Find a place and a space
John discovered, after being interviewed by author and top marketing blogger, Mark Schaefer, at a conference in Scotland, that it starts with finding a ‘place’ and a ‘space’ to be relevant, both for himself and for his audience.
It’s also where he came up with the term “relentlessly helpful” content.
John says he “stumbled upon LinkedIn” and everything clicked into place from there. LinkedIn is B2B focused, so John’s customers were more likely to hang out there than anywhere else.
So as you’re thinking about this for yourself … what is your sustainable interest (your ‘place’), and the one key platform from which you can share your content and your ideas (your ‘space’). Start there.
(I highly recommend taking a deeper dive into Mark’s book Known: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Age of Digital)
Create content that’s relentlessly helpful
Once John had decided on LinkedIn, he started focusing on content marketing.
Content marketing is where you focus on education first. It’s not about selling to your audience, it’s about educating them. John took this concept further and created ‘relentlessly helpful’ content that showed his expertise and superpower in being able to explain technical content simply. Over time, it became part of his brand identity.
Doing this helped him stand out, to “lift off”, to develop his own personal brand in the marketplace.
“The key thing that I tell everyone is that it takes a long, long time for that to come to fruition. You can’t just write six blog posts and assume that you’re going to be number one on Google and everyone’s going to know your name. It doesn’t work like that.”John Espirian
So it’s not just about being relentlessly helpful with your content, you’ve also got to show up in your chosen space too. You’ve got to engage, be present. And that takes time to build.
Sure, you can fast track yourself by getting thrown into someone else’s audience, but as John says, “I’m not into that. I’m all about doing things the ethical, slow, organic way.”
And while that may not be a sexy message to hear, it’s what allowed John to build an audience that remembers who he is. That’s sustainable.
“If your business is going to be around for 10-15 years or longer, and it takes two or three years to become known in your industry… that seems like a fair trade-off to me. That’s not a massive expanse of time. If you’re going to build a business that works for a decade or more afterward…”John Espirian
Content DNA – get noticed, remembered, and preferred
In John’s book, Content DNA, he talks about creating a personal brand that helps you get noticed, remembered, and preferred.
The book came about after many consultations with clients. People would come to John for a 1000-word blog post for their business. Before John wrote any words for someone, he would always ask these questions:
- What is the business about?
- What are you trying to achieve?
- What do you stand for?
- What is your DNA?
John says that most businesses hadn’t thought about these questions before, or if they had, they’d produce some glossy, two-page brochure that’s often lost in a drawer somewhere and never actually referred to.
So the book was a way for John to create a manual for his clients, but also for people wanting to build a personal brand.
“I said to them, if you want people to take you seriously, you’ve got to keep turning up and have the same shape to your brand. So that it’s easier to remember you.”John Espirian
Content DNA provides building blocks that you can apply consistently in all areas of your content so that the way you run your business can actually be one that stands out and gets remembered.
Create a recognisable shape for your business
The book asks you to focus on two key elements – consistency and congruence – to help you define a recognisable ‘shape’ to your business.
For a personal brand, it means that you understand what you’re all about, what your friends and family say about you, and from what your best customers say about you.
And from there, you turn up in a way that’s entirely predictable, that people know what they’re going to get from you. In other words, there are no surprises.
For example; if someone was to meet you in person, would they experience exactly the same you as you are online, as you are in your business? Following John’s Content DNA framework, you should exhibit exactly the same values that you do online and in person.
“It’s easier than ever to lose trust with people. So if you make a bold claim, you have to really be true to it.”
John’s bold claim is that he’s relentlessly helpful, which is a massive claim to make, and if he wasn’t, then John invited people to call him out on it. To date, that hasn’t happened yet!
“I strive every day to live up to that ideal.”
Bottom line: If you’re making public promises and staying true to them every day, people are more likely to buy from you, trust you, and recommend you to others.
“Foundationally, you need to know what you’re all about so that you can support the right thing, say the right things, and do the right things. That’s what it’s all about.”
The anchor value
Aside from the building blocks that John talks about in Content DNA, he also discusses the concept of having an ‘anchor value’.
“When they’re talking about you to someone else, you really want them to be able to capture you in a nutshell. You want one thing that ideally ties everything together, that’s really the strongest, most memorable one.”
This is the anchor value. I love this concept! For John, his anchor value is being relentlessly helpful.
The biggest mistake that John sees businesses make when he asks them to define their brand identity is to rattle off a bunch of values that are minimum values that most businesses have anyway. Things like “we’re professional, friendly, approachable.”
Those aren’t differentiators. They’re not brand building blocks. Ultimately, they are quite forgettable.
They might be good starting points, but what do they mean in practice? How can you make them interesting and relevant and memorable enough for your audience?
Think about it this way… if someone were to describe you to a potential client or colleague, what terminology would you like them to use?
And while you can’t put words into their mouth, John says you can try and steer the conversation a little bit. You do that by defining your anchor value: something that people remember and echo back to you.
Stop doing what everyone else is doing and find your voice. John calls it “suit and tie content” when you’re doing what others are doing — be ‘you’ in your content. Be authentic.
DNA building blocks
As you’re building out your personal brand as a thought leader, John says you’ll need four or five values: “You need enough to be able to differentiate you.”
The point of defining your building blocks is to allow you to pull ideas together that should form a business identity that no one else has. You can’t do that with one or two values.
Then once you’ve identified those values, whenever you’re creating content – whether it’s for your blog, YouTube channel, podcast, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, whatever that content is – you review your brand values.
Does the content represent these things that you’ve said? If it doesn’t, then you’ve got some work to do either on your content or your values.
It’s about being intentional with your content, says John, so that it provides a recognisable shape for your business. Eventually, it’ll become second nature.
Creating content with your brand identity voice
So once you’ve got your brand identity clear, you know what your DNA building blocks are, you can really start to hone your voice. It should become a lot easier to develop content because you’re essentially being you.
Don’t be afraid to stand out!
As John says, before he figured out his building blocks and anchor value, he was “a bit too middle of the road, a bit too afraid of offending anyone by expressing an opinion.”
The longer you produce content that follows your brand identity, the more confidence you’ll have in your personal branding and the more authoritative you’ll come across.
The other thing to remember, and this comes back to finding a place and space, is that your content isn’t going to go anywhere unless you’ve got a platform for sharing it.
John advocates for building a mailing list and building up your social media presence as soon as you’ve got your brand identity defined: that’s when you’ll start to see results.
To help ensure that John’s content was on brand, he would read it out loud to make sure it sounded conversational, that it sounded the way that he would explain it to someone if he was with them in person or over a phone call or on a Zoom chat.
John says he didn’t start out that way though. It takes a bit of time to find the right tone of voice, “it’s just a case of relaxing into it.”
When your Content DNA really kicks in
John is now four years down the track of having defined the building blocks of his personal brand. What does that now look like for his business? How is he getting clients?
Well, as we mentioned at the beginning of this post, John has two main platforms – LinkedIn, and his email list. And while he has a website, John says that 80 per cent of his new writing clients come from LinkedIn.
But John has gone on to further monetise his skills by teaching others how to use LinkedIn to find clients. He also offers one-to-one consultations on helping people optimise their LinkedIn profiles.
John said he wants to lean into this a bit more as he really enjoys using LinkedIn and showing people how to use it. Which is an interesting sidebar, because the whole reason John was on LinkedIn in the first place was to find more B2B clients. He also wanted to use the platform to demonstrate his skills of explaining.
That can get a little harder to do once you start working with big clients who require you to sign non-disclosure agreements. You can’t say who you’re working for, much less talk about the work you’re doing for them.
John’s way around that was to show people how LinkedIn works. To explain and showcase his “superpower” through this content.
“The subliminal messages… if I can explain to you what this (LinkedIn) B2B platform is, maybe I can explain how your widget works, or how your boiler works…”
John’s bread and butter is still technical copywriting though. What John has discovered is that people who find him through LinkedIn typically pay up to 30 per cent more than people who find him through a Google search.
This is why John focuses more of his marketing efforts on LinkedIn, as that’s his number one platform for getting higher value clients.
This can happen for you too, once you’ve identified your own platform and you start implementing your own building blocks and content DNA into your communications efforts.
Building referrals is important too
One of the most important things to understand once you’ve found your platform and you’re showing up in a recognisable way is that you’ll also start to build up a network of followers and allies.
These are the people who like, comment, and share your content all the time. Among them, potentially, will be some referrers of business. Remember, everyone’s an influencer these days. And even though they might not be your ideal customer, there’s a very good chance that someone in their network is.
“If you’ve got that ability to reach beyond your direct network, through having a network of referrals, people who comment, people who like, people who share… they’re massively valuable because they might be the stepping stone to you finding your ideal client.”
Build your email list now
John started building his email list in 2016, but it has been very slow going. He wasn’t focused on trying to get people to opt-in via some kind of juicy download or incentive.
“I think that’s a really crappy way, this kind of tit for tat way of list building. I’d rather people who genuinely want to hear from me have the best chance of hearing from me if they join that email list.”
And while John does offer free things once you join his list, he doesn’t make that the focus. He has a small, nurtured list of 1700 people. As a result of this, his open and click-through rates are at least double what the industry standards are because people who join his email list are more engaged (John’s average email open rate is 42.9%, while his average email click rate is 8.9%).
It’s about owning your territory. So if you change online platforms for whatever reason, you still have the privilege of being able to contact those people through email.
Consistency is key
Once you’ve got your brand voice, your building blocks have been developed and your anchor value defined, momentum will continue to build as long as you remain consistent.
Consistent with how often you write your blog posts.
Consistent with how often you’re showing up on your platforms.
Consistent in your messaging.
As you develop consistency, as John has, you will be able to grow and evolve across more channels should you wish to do so.
John’s trifecta is his blog, email list, and LinkedIn. This provides him with a nice, manageable portfolio of channels across the web.
John’s preference is to put 90 per cent of effort into one social media channel and leave 10 per cent for a bit of experimentation on another platform. For John, that’s Twitter.
“If I’m going to run a meaningful, social media presence, it’s got to be focused. I’d rather go narrow and deep than broad and shallow.”
You can learn more about John on his website. You can grab his book, Content DNA on Amazon. It’s definitely worth a read to hear more about John’s story, his lessons learned, and the building blocks that have allowed him to create a well-known and trusted personal brand.
“And if you do want to connect with me on LinkedIn, that’s fantastic. But please read my ‘about’ statement first, because there’s a secret word lurking in there. And if you include that word with your invitation, I’ll be much more likely to say yes, especially if you say that you discovered me on Trevor’s blog, that’d be really great, too.”John Espirian