The COVID-19 crisis and the economic shift it has created has put a sharper focus on personal branding as a path for career opportunity. Associations should find ways to leverage this growing trend.
The shaky nature of our economy at the moment has helped to change some of the calculus around what people will do to stand out.
Facing furloughs, layoffs, or just general concerns that their job may no longer be on stable ground, many professionals are turning to new tactics to help maintain a presence or voice in the world, perhaps relying on social media to do so.
This makes sense, and it appears to be part of the driving factor behind a recent trend toward platform customization. Last week, Medium announced a plan to allow its users to use new publishing tools that aim to make it easy to customize a visual design—a road that few social networks have gone down in recent years. As the company’s vice president of product design, Alexis Lloyd, put it:
Our new beta includes tools that enable you to have more control over visual expression. We’re launching with a foundational set of controls around color, headers, type, and branding so that you can make a space on Medium that is uniquely yours. And this is just the beginning: we intend to evolve and build on these features over time, giving you even more flexibility to make Medium your own.
To put this all another way, Medium is creating stronger design controls as a reflection that a good Medium platform can be a key element of a personal brand.
Building More Than a Profile
This is a shift that has been a long time coming, to be honest. With the exception of the short-form blogging network Tumblr, few modern social networks have put such an emphasis on personal branding. It was something of a missing piece, actually. Sure, you could update your Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter profile page to have its own header, but social media has often favored the organization over the individual in its rigid structure. (You could blame the social network MySpace for this, as it associated customization with a Lisa Frank-style explosion of colors and animated GIFs.)
Talented professionals increasingly look to build not just a single sheet of paper that highlights their talents, but an entire brand.
But we may start seeing a shift in the other direction, as concepts like the résumé, built for a physical world, become increasingly outdated, and talented professionals increasingly look to build not just a single sheet of paper that highlights their talents, but an entire brand.
This trend has probably emerged earliest in the media world, where Substack and similar email platforms (along with the pioneers of this model, Patreon) have become more than just vanity exercises but ways to build a professional brand through personal work. In fact, Substack’s popularity has even created problems in newsrooms, as Digiday reports, as employed writers build out newsletters that compete with their own existing beats.
Now, building a web portfolio has always been possible, but tools like Medium and Substack lower the barrier in ways that allow even those without technical knowledge to do so. And while much of this strategy relates to building a level of influence, which matters more in creative and management fields, it can also be a reflection of skill: In recent years, job sites have even adapted their approach to be less about making introductions and more about testing, to objectively show a person’s talent at a technical skill.
And it makes sense that it’s happening now, really. A lot of work these days is done through the internet, and even if we see a vaccine tomorrow, odds are that a lot of people discovered a comfort level with remote work that will make digital connections like these more important—not just in the form of tweets but also by maintaining active platforms outside of work.
Beyond giving them a creative outlet and a megaphone, it also is a passive way of applying for work without having to mail job applications out there first—if your name gets out there enough, the employers may come to you.
A Foundation for Association Offerings
This trend, which is still relatively early, is an opportunity for associations, in part because they facilitated many of these actions in a physical world. I remember early in my career as a journalist and graphic designer that I gained connections in my field not just by meeting people at annual meetings, but by bringing my portfolio along and showing examples of my work.
Associations have always been at the center of the universe for many industries, and unlike prior generations where opportunities like that can come up only once in a while, the internet allows these interactions to happen daily. And it’s a role that is growing more in importance as we’re stuck in our homes but looking to maintain our careers.
There are a few ways that I could see this working out for industry groups—maybe they decide to partner with a newsletter or a podcast, something the International Parking and Mobility Institute has done to great effect. Maybe they build their private communities in ways that are more directly promotional of members, allowing them to create something front-facing—think like Squarespace, but simpler—so as to help professionals stand out more.
Associations have been good at building strong content offerings. Imagine what they could do if they put some of that energy toward building platforms that directly allowed members to raise their personal profiles.
If an association can help build a member’s personal brand that gets them a job or helps build a business, odds are good they’ll become a member for life.