Businesses come and go. But your personal name, that’s another matter altogether. In the social business world, your name can be leveraged as your personal identifier across myriad social media sites as well as your monetized business brand. In creating a new business or online presence, one of the toughest decisions you may make is whether to establish your social business brand by your personal name or a fictitious “DBA” identity, such as a catchy word, phrase or slogan. It’s hardly a trivial decision, especially considering your online identity eventually will sprout hundreds if not thousands of backlinks which will need to be well-tended if you decide to do a digital makeover at a later date.
It was intriguing when, roughly 18 months ago, Chris Brogan, author of the early social media classic Trust Agents and the current Google+ for Business, complained in a webinar that one of his biggest regrets was establishing his flagship presence at chrisbrogan.com. To be sure, Chris has created other online portals, but his main blogging site still remains a prime destination for his business interests and hundreds of thousands of followers. Not fully satisfied with his original response, I recently asked Chris if he had any less grief today concerning his original online branding decisions.
“The biggest mistake I made in branding was not calling my site something like ‘Incredible Monkey’ or whatever,” he complained. “I’ve turned down three serious offers to sell it, because really, who would own my name?” OK, that makes sense. Chris has established what corporate accountants call “goodwill,” reflecting a significant financial value that can extend well beyond the tangible assets of a business. And there’s the rub: he can’t profit from the enormous value he’s created. On the other hand, Chris allows a sliver of grace for his original business choice: “The advantage of using my name is that I’m not saddled with a stupid name that no longer represents my intentions. For better or worse, people know I’m me.”
Confused on what to do? Join the club. Do you drop whatever you are doing right now, rush over to GoDaddy, and immediately reserve your-personal-name-dot-whatever, or stake your branding claim on a hot potential digital DBA such as IncredibleMonkey.com? (I just checked, it’s available.) Luckily others have already been down this path. They can offer a variety of business perspectives and advice on the question of building a social business brand based on a personal name vs. a domain that can grow and expand into a free-standing business that extends beyond the individual, and might someday deliver a lucrative buyout offer that tracks with a business plan exit strategy.
From startup to digital enterprise, DBA scales
Jason Falls, author of No B.S. Social Media, who runs Social Media Explorer, wouldn’t change a thing. “The biggest advantage to going DBA or brand versus your name is that the blog/brand/company can evolve into something much bigger and more valuable than one person’s perspective,” he suggested. “It can grow into a company, media outlet, etc., that can be monetized, bought, sold and so on. Mashable is a valuable media outlet. It wouldn’t be if it were just PeteCashmore.com. Social Media Explorer is now not just a blog but a company that is growing. I could feasibly sell it within 5-10 years for far more digits than if I’d made JasonFalls.com my primary brand. In that case, the only person I could probably sell it to is a county commissioner in North Carolina who probably wouldn’t give me more than $100 for it.”
Mitch Joel, author of Six Pixels of Separation and the upcoming book titled CTRL ALT DEL, concurs. Originally he started his main corporate presence as The Twist Image Blog, then repackaged the site (but kept the TwistImage.com domain) to the more marketable, trendy and globally recognized Six Pixels of Separation. Twist Image is Mitch’s digital marketing agency. “As a former publisher of print magazines, I always liked the idea of creating a brand that is supported by personable people,” he said. “People relate to individuals, but they don’t relate to them differently when their platform is represented with a branded name.”
The business persona and the person
Erika Napoletano established her colorful online presence as RedheadWriting and has leveraged her tendency to deliver the occasional four-letter expletive as a potent reflection of her persona and a business marketing tool. Her brand is permeated by her no-BS style, artfully reinforced by the blunt admonition of her Twitter tagline: (I keep companies from looking like assholes online.) Erika, who just published The Power of Unpopular, recently established erikanapoletano.com so that she’d have a place for people to get to know the person behind Readhead as well as promote her books and speaking engagements. “Building my brand under RedheadWriting has cut me a lot of slack,” she noted. “I can screw up, shift, build and grow under the safe haven of a nom de plume. It also allowed me to amplify certain aspects of my personality (like my column, The Bitch Slap). It certainly didn’t hinder me from picking up a couple of book deals and a national magazine column in Entrepreneur Magazine. In fact, it helped. The biggest hindrance, however, has been that people automatically assume that Erika Napoletano (as a human being) is synonymous with RedheadWriting. RedheadWriting is a persona, pure and simple. Erika is the gal who powers the persona. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle with people who have never met me in person, and it’s also a battle with those who know me and feel they have certain liberties they can take since I’m an outspoken, bawdy femme via RedheadWriting. It’s manageable, however. Just disappointing sometimes that people don’t see the difference between the person and the persona.”
If you work for another business, you’ll have to consider the delicate balance of marketing your personal brand alongside your employer. The PhoneDog lawsuit is a perfect example of how not to mix business with personal branding. That’s one of the reasons Dave Fleet, vice president of digital at Edelman’s Toronto office, blogs at davefleet.com. “If I could rewind the clock a few years, I would do the same thing,” he said. “I actually started out with a blog name that combined the industry and my own name (Fleet Street PR) but made the decision to switch over to just davefleet.com primarily for search reasons. I’ve certainly thought about the potential for a more topic-focused name over the last few years, but ultimately this started out as something for me, to explore my interests and help me learn, and I’ve been thoroughly happy with the way that it has worked out.”
What if your business fails? The hard facts are that, depending on the study, 50-60 percent of new businesses close in the first year; upwards of 80-90 percent go under within five years. You can dispense with a DBA given a few forms and some signatures. Not so easily done if your brand is your personal name and now a business liability.
Business and personal brand in harmony
“I have two brands,” said Shelly Kramer, founder of V3 Integrated Marketing. “The brand that is my agency and the brand that is me personally. And I think that both are important. No matter where I go, no matter what I do, the brand of Shelly Kramer is important and extremely relevant to me. And while today I might own a digital agency, who knows what I might do tomorrow. So, for me, a brand that is my business and a brand that is me is important. But I don’t think that’s always the case for everyone.”
For example, Gini Dietrich, head of public relations and marketing agency Arment Dietrich, blogs at Spin Sucks and runs the SpinSucksPro professional development site. She also has a co-authored book in the wings, Marketing in the Round. “Spin Sucks speaks to our vision for changing the perception of the PR and marketing industry,” she said. “The business URL armentdietrich.com is the name of the company. They’re very different visions and business models, but they also work in tandem.”
Deirdre Breakenridge, co-author of Putting the Public Back in Public Relations and an upcoming book on the convergence of public relations and social media marketing, blogs at her personal name and also blogs at her business site, Pure Performance Communications. “As an entrepreneur, I’ve always had different business initiatives going on at the same time,” Deirdre said. “So, it was always important for my communications strategy blog to be tied directly to my personal brand. I’ve launched several startups over the last 20 years and my work through the blog has really helped to build my personal brand through thought leadership and has resulted in continued trust with my community. As a result, every business I’ve developed has become a trusted resource, based on my personal brand and reputation.”
People buy from people
Mark Schaefer is the author of Return On Influence and head of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. His consultancy is housed at businessesgrow.com and he says it’s important to remember, regardless of personal name or DBA, the individual reigns supreme. “The social web offers a unique opportunity to humanize your brand and create a personal connection to customers,” he noted. “How do you create engagement and attachment to a logo? Be human.”
Perhaps a morphed version of your personal name and a DBA is the digital sweet spot. Steve Farnsworth, who runs Jolt Social Media, blogs at a WordPress hosted domain and has established his main marketing identity at @Steveology, a twitter handle that resonated with his audience. “Trying to build my name up was futile and divided my name recognition efforts. So, I decided to focus on just one brand,” he said.
If you’re still not sure which way to go, personal vs. DBA for your social business objectives, pay heed to this action list:
1) Lock your personal name now. Even if you never plan to use your personal name, it’s still prudent to reserve your domain just in case. Dino Dogan, who runs DIYBlogger.NET and is a developer of the Tribber blog comment system, reserved his name but uses it for testing (at least for now). He noted when he has children he’ll reserve their names as domains the minute they are born. Sames goes for Twitter handles. Peter Shankman, the public relations and social media gadfly, tweeted for the longest time by a handle associated with his passion/hobby (@skydiver), then changed to @petershankman as his highly successful HARO brainchild evolved into a hot property (he sold it and quickly added angel investor as a prominent label to his public profile). Good thing he reserved his name from the flock of circling domain squatters.
2) Consider the SEO implications. Dave Fleet noted that search rankings are enhanced if your real name matches your domain name. On a personal branding level, you have a greater ability to influence what people see when they search for your name.
3) Books or enterprise? Gini Dietrich notes a personal name domain is great for authors in pursuit of book deals and speaking gigs, even though it may not scale to an enterprise-level application.
4) Who are we hiring? If you brand your business venture on your personal name, clients may expect to always work with you, not members of your team. Part of your job will be to continually sell trust in your associates. Bait-and-switch doesn’t work; you will have to show up at the table, warns Deirdre Breakenridge.
5) The revolving brand. Over the course of a career, you may transition from a consultancy based on your personal brand to a full-time corporate job and then back to a solo business. You never know when opportunity may completely change your career course, as public relations and marketing consultant Shonali Burke reflected recently. Now Shonali has two brands to feed. It’s important to create a plan for your personal marketing and make sure you’re in sync with your employer.
The consensus on personal name vs. DBA probably errs on the side of you can never have enough domains in your basket of brands. Chris Brogan may never be able to sell his flagship site, but he has managed to leverage his personal identity to project the all-important “human” side to every new social business venture he has launched under the chrisbrogan.com umbrella. So if you think IncredibleMonkey.com may be the start of your Next Big Thing, it’s still not taken.