What makes you stand out from other freelance writers?
Storytelling Communications

Four Elements Freelance Writers Need to Build a Personal Brand

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Way back in 1997, Tom Peters published a landmark feature article to Fast Company that brought the concept of personal branding into the mainstream. In the article, Peters offered advice to freelance writers that still rings true today:

“We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You,” he wrote.

Peters hit the nail on the head. Just like Nike, Coke, or Starbucks, people are brands, too. We must differentiate ourselves in order to stand out. For freelance writers, this means having a clear understanding of the unique benefits you bring to the table. To put it more bluntly, why would someone want to hire you? What value do you promise to deliver?

Peters was right in 1997, and he’s even more right in 2014, an age when social media has become completely pervasive. Today, freelance writers have more opportunities than ever to build strong personal brands and connect with the right audiences or employers.

However, that’s easier said than done. What does it actually mean to have a personal brand? How do you go about building one? The following are four qualities every well-branded freelance writer has:

Expertise

The first element of your personal brand is your areas of expertise, or your niche. Social media expert (and my former colleague) John Gordon brilliantly described the value of defining your niche, saying, “Experts are not called upon because they are the smartest person in every room; they are called upon because they are the smartest person in a specific room.”

In what room are you the expert? What panel would you be asked to join? Defining your niche—the topics and issues you know best—is a huge part of articulating your brand and the value you add.

Let’s look at three examples:

  • Baratunde Thurston is a comedian, author of the New York Times bestseller How to Be Black, and former director of digital for The Onion. His expertise is the black identity and the future of media, two topics he writes and speaks about frequently.
  • Joanna Goddard is former magazine writer and founder of the wildly popular lifestyle blog A Cup of Jo. Her expertise is personal style and how to run a blog as a business.
  • Susan McPherson is an author and the founder of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy firm focused on the intersection between brands and social good. Her expertise is corporate social responsibility and building meaningful relationships.

While it may be tempting to list off everything that interests you (I love puppies!), think about your niche as the two or three topics over which you truly have authority. The narrower, the better.

Promise

Once you define your areas of expertise, start thinking about your brand promise—the value that you promise to deliver to those who interact with you. Your brand promise should go beyond the basic service you offer. For freelance writers, brand promises should speak to the high-level experience that you can give to readers and the way that you make people feel. It’s how you do what you do. If you can deliver on your promise, you create incredible brand value (high five!).

Let’s turn to our three examples. How might these writers articulate their brand promises?

  • Thurston: To give readers a thought-provoking laugh from a fresh perspective.
  • Goddard: To provide lifestyle tips, photos, and stories that inspire women to celebrate everyday life.
  • McPherson: To tell success stories from the corporate social responsibility field that pave the way for connection and action.

Belief

Your core belief is closely tied to your brand promise—it’s the reason why you do what you do. Uncovering that reason will help guide the way you communicate, the clients you work with, and the way that you interact on social media.

A couple of guiding questions: What keeps you up at night? What would the world look like if you had a magic wand? What belief do you want to share with the world? You may land on several answers, so don’t be afraid to spend some time playing around to see what resonates.

Based on their speeches and mission statements, I took a guess at how our three sample writers might define their core beliefs:

  • Thurston: We have a responsibility to bring the world humanity through storytelling and humor.
  • Goddard: Every day should feel a little more like Paris.
  • McPherson: People are inherently good. Together, we have the power to change the world for the better.

Voice

Your voice—the tone and style you use to communicate—should flow naturally from your expertise, brand promise, and core belief. Thurston, who is all about changing the world through humor, blends fearless satire with ambitious energy to get his points across. Goddard’s tone is bright and accessible, which makes her blog appealing to a wide range of women who are on the hunt for inspiration. Finally, McPherson’s positive vision for the future comes across in her voice, which is enthusiastic, warm, and always optimistic.

One way to hone in on your voice is to think about random opposites and see where you fall on the spectrum. Think retro versus modern, wholesome versus cynical, direct versus colorful, etc. Whatever your voice is, it should be authentic, recognizable, and unique. This is especially important for freelance writers who want to stand out from the crowd.

Now What?

These four elements—expertise, promise, belief, and voice—serve as a framework that can help you discover what the “Brand of You” is all about. The next step is to translate that brand into action, making sure it is consistent and comes across through social media engagement, your personal website, and the way you visually represent yourself.

More on that to come, but in the meantime, you can follow @skywriting on Twitter for more tips and thoughts on personal branding. For freelance writers looking to showcase their brand, creating a Skyword profile is a perfect first step.

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