Each of them serves their audience in a unique way, building connections, amassing a tribe around a shared central theme. They are making a living yes, but they are relentlessly focused on their big idea. One that is—by definition—for GOOD.
So it always jolts me when I trip across someone who has clearly crossed an ethical boundary in promoting their personal brand.
After a recent discovery (more on that in a moment), I started searching for personal branding ethics, particularly for those with something to sell—services, speeches, books. Turns out, there’s not a lot out there. Brand futurist Martin Lindstrom did the best job in this two-year old piece for Fast Company. His mostly consumer brand oriented advice rings true for those of us with personal brands.
My favorite? “Don’t do anything to kids and consumers that you would not do to your own children, friends, and family.” Indeed.
Building trust in your personal brand is all about transparency and consistent alignment with your values. Here are five ways you can ensure you’re not only building trust, but growing a connected audience.
1. Do not accept ANY compensation—referral fees, affiliate fees, commissions of any kind— without clear and direct disclosure. If you get a dime from your recommendation or promotion, you need to be crystal clear about it. Your audience deserves to know whether your recommendation—even for a $5 e-book—is attached to a monetary benefit. Your ethical life will be vastly simplified if you just say no to extracurricular fees.
2. Avoid making outrageous, entirely self-serving claims. Sounds like the first day in professional selling 101, right? But I recently tripped over a “financial advisor” who touts commission-laden whole life insurance as a 401 (k) replacement, sold thru “my free authorized advisors”. Marketing-speak translation: life insurance salespeople paid me to include their names on my website—and I’m maybe even getting a kick-back once you buy from them. Seriously? To add even more insult, she regularly parlays this hype into controversial appearances on high-visibility platforms. Which she then uses to further legitimize her claims. Legal? Apparently. Ethical? No way.
3. Never disguise advertising as content. Helpful content is highly desirable. And a straight-up advertising-style appeal is perfectly appropriate—this is business after all. But have you ever signed up for a “free” webinar where the host spends the first 10 minutes on a sales pitch? How likely are you to stay on? How likely are you to sign up for their mailing list or buy anything they might have to offer? Exactly.
4. Match your words with your deliverables. This may seem like no big deal, but it’s at the crux of trusted personal brands. The more alignment the audience feels in EVERYTHING you do, the stronger they sense you’re being authentic and transparent. You’re building trust. So if you truly are the top web designer for national law firms, tout away. But if you’re a small town solo with two local lawyers to your credit, you want to dial down the rhetoric. Pull in your best audience by telling real stories about how you’ve helped people exactly like them.
5. Stay away from anything vindictive, mean or callous. Ain’t nothing wrong with being provocative. But building an audience on being perpetually mean (think the fashion police who revel in public shaming) will eventually come back to bite you. Not to mention that unchecked snark attracts bullies like bees to honey. Do you really want an audience of trolls and wannabes?
Your ultimate goal here is to be clear on whom you’re serving and then use their best interest as your lens. Will your advice, your content, your essence serve them? Will it get them closer to where they want to be?
Whenever that answer is no, you know what to do.
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