Last week, I was invited to host a seminar for a group of graduate students. The topic? How to establish your professional brand and website. I loved hosting the seminar (I had students from chemistry all the way to agricultural economics) and, as it turns out, my only regret was that we didn’t have more time.
While I was talking to them, though, I found myself hung up on saying the word “branding” – even though it was a part of the seminar title! I think that I, and others, often shy away from applying the word “brand” to our identities because it sounds superficial and implies we are commodities, not human beings. I toyed with the idea of calling it “identity development,” but that sounds equally disingenuous, as though we aren’t already fully developed in ourselves and need to coax ourselves along a bit further (as if creating a website will do that).
After much reflection, the closest I can come to capturing the process is by describing the process of “creating your professional brand and website” as the process of figuring out how to concisely and clearly represent who you are to the bigger world. You are not attempting to invent a person from scratch, or mold yourself into an identity that isn’t your own. You are just figuring out how best to communicate you.
I love this challenge because there is such a multiplicity of ways in which we can represent ourselves online. What’s more, the process of deciding to create a website – or not – and deciding how to create that website, requires an incredible amount of introspection. There is no way you can create your online brand and website without diving deep into who you are. What are your interests? What makes you unique? What do you have to offer?
It’s this area that I’ll focus on below – the part where you figure out how to portray yourself. There are a ton of resources online to cover the technical bit of making a website and, quite honestly, that’s the easy part. WordPress, Wix, Weebly and other platforms make it pretty simple to get that process started, and there are plenty of online tutorials to guide you along. The hard part is deciding if you’re going to do it, why and then nailing down how you plan to portray you.
These are some loose questions to get you started and guide you through the process:
Does it even make sense to have a website?
Basically, there are only two reasons to start a website – if you’re a public figure of some kind, or if you have content you want to share. I define “public figure” pretty broadly, basically as anyone who leads or publicly expresses anything (teachers, professors, business leaders, community organizers, writers, poets, artists, etc etc etc). All of these people have a reason to create a website. If you’re not a public figure, but you have a topic on which you want to share information (“content”), then that’s also a good reason. Let’s say you are passionate about cycling or cooking or collecting antique toilets, and you want a platform to share your information on the subject.
What is your purpose for having the website?
Make it easy on yourself and figure this out before you get started. There are a lot of different reasons for having a website. I have a website for three reasons, which are because (1) I’m a writer and I want to make it easy for people to find more of my work if they’re interested, (2) I like to blog on my subject area (communication, media, technology, creativity, food and ag, etc) because I like to share what I know and (3) I want a platform that hosts my academic and professional credentials for career development purposes.
Your reasons may not be nearly as complex as mine. They don’t have to be. They can also evolve over time, as mine have (five years ago, my website was just a bunch of travel essays, for example). But before you get started, clearly define your purpose. Here are some examples:
What is your name and tagline?
Your name and tagline should summarize everything on your site at a glance. For instance, if it’s a site to showcase your personal, professional achievements, it should be your full name and the tagline should be your profession (for example, it would read Jane Doe: Pet Food Taster or John Doe: Cardiovascular Surgeon).
My tagline is a bit longer because I do different things. It’s Fiction and Nonfiction Writer / Communications Researcher. It doesn’t really roll of the tongue, but it’s accurate, succinct and people know who I am right away. That’s the important part. Anyone who jumps on my website can figure out who I am at a glance. Don’t make it hard for people to figure out what they’re doing on your site.
To blog, or not to blog?
You don’t actually have to have a blog on your website. That’s a feature you select, it’s not mandatory. If you choose to blog, it needs some kind of theme. The theme can be loose and flexible, but it needs to be there. Your theme can be anything related to your field (meteorology? cooking? writing?) or your theme can be more personal (figuring out who I am, my study abroad experience, overcoming a severe illness).
My blog theme is pretty flexible, but it all centers around some element of communication, creativity and technology (my areas of expertise).
What are you going to actually put up there on the site itself?
Gather some of your materials before you get started. This will help you figure out if you even have enough to put on a website. If your content is pictures, select a number of your favorites and write out little descriptions. If you want to showcase your CV, then make sure it’s updated, and then probably go scout out a few samples of your work to highlight as well. If you offer services? Get those service descriptions written. You’ll sort out the formatting and technical stuff later. What really matters is the content.
You may discover you have way more content than you even imagined. This might even broaden how you think of defining yourself online. Or, you may discover you have way less content than you thought. This might cinch your decision to not start a blog, but rather just feature your CV or services.
This is a pretty broad guide, and doesn’t get too deep into any details. But I do think it’s helpful to ponder these questions, even if you ultimately decide that a website isn’t right for you. Make a conscious decision about whether or not to have a presence online – don’t just keep kicking the can down the line. While a website isn’t right for everyone, I will say that, in most cases, I tend to encourage people to create a site for themselves. The ways in which we share about ourselves is evolving, and it’s more and more common that we Google people and topics online. I do it all the time. A personal website demonstrates a solid sense of self and awareness and it’s an extremely unique opportunity to share and communicate who you are in a thoughtful way.