Content Therapy is Managing Editor’s twice-monthly advice column, where Paul Chaney responds to your questions about the messy dilemmas content marketers face in their work. We are (obviously) not licensed therapists. Send us your questions!

Help! I Don’t Know How to Build My Online Personal Brand!

Dear Content Therapist: I’m a few years into my career and trying to get better at creating my personal brand, especially since almost all of my content marketing work is for brands or ghostwritten. One challenge I’m finding is where I should be building my brand. I have a website, sure, and I post sometimes on LinkedIn. But I don’t really use Instagram or TikTok. I had a Twitter (X) account, but that site isn’t what it used to be, and I’m skeptical of Twitter alternatives. What else am I missing? How should I build my brand when social media seems less social?  — LOST IN BRANDING

Paul Chaney: Building a personal brand isn’t easy, especially for ghostwriters. You never get the byline, so how do people even recognize you? 

Your question brings the term “overnight success” to mind. However, only in rare instances does that term apply — most successful people labeled as overnight successes spent years striving to reach their goals. 

Michael Jordan is one such individual. His dazzling on-court performances resulted from countless hours behind the scenes perfecting his game. The same is true for personal brand-building — it doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all — and few are willing to do the work to achieve it. 

If you’re willing to shoulder the responsibility, here’s what it takes to build a personal brand. 

Understand Your Motive

First, you must understand the “why” of personal brand-building. (I hear Simon Sinek’s voice echoing in my ears — “Start with why.”

Is it to get more writing opportunities? Do you want to hit the speaking circuit? Is peer pressure a motivator? (i.e., you see colleagues focused on personal branding, so you want to as well). Is it vanity? 

I’m not here to pass judgment. Whatever your motive, start with your why — and then be willing to do the following. 

Be Resilient, Patient and Willing to Make Failure Your Friend

Jordan famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

Building a personal brand is a slog. It’s arduous and pitted with failure. It requires resilience, a great deal of patience (you might even say “forbearance”), and a willingness to fail, start over, fail again, rinse and repeat. 

I’ve been down that road many times. Having written four well-received marketing books, published by well-known brands, you’d think I would have a strong personal brand. That was true for a time, but I was never willing to do everything required for my star to continue rising. At one time, I gave up on the whole notion. 

You can’t do that if you want to build a personal brand. You must press in, make failure your friend, accept what didn’t work, and try again. As Jordan said, all those failures led to his success. 

So, what else does it take? 

Own Your Brand

My friend Joe Pulizzi, known as the “godfather” of content marketing, said, “Don’t build your content house on rented land.” That’s what social media is: rented land. Don’t make it your hub; let it be an extension, an outpost, where you take the content you create and share it in the marketplace. 

There are other ways to leverage social media, but to Joe’s point, build your brand on land you own — blogging, email newsletters (they are coming back like gangbusters), podcasts (a hugely popular medium; maybe too popular), and video (Instagram, TikTok, YouTube) — the list goes on. 

Joe also argues that you should focus on one or two channels. For instance, I started an email newsletter called “Freelancing After 50,” hoping to become a topic I could build some cachet around. It never took off. Now, I am writing a newsletter about AI marketing ethics, which is gaining traction. 

Pick a channel and keep pounding away. Which brings me to my next point. 

Find a Niche and Stick With It

Not only must you pick a channel, but you must also find a niche that’s unfilled. If not, you put yourself in a difficult spot due to the amount of content created and the noise accompanying it.  

Regarding my newsletter: As news about generative AI increased, I saw many people talking about AI ethics and how to use AI tools for marketing. However, I didn’t see ethicists, AI platform developers or marketers discussing the intersection. That is, they weren’t discussing how marketers can use AI ethically and how AI can impact marketing from an ethical perspective. So, I focused on that. 

You may have heard the term ikigai. It’s a Japanese word that means “reason for being.” Ikigai is made up of four parts: 

  • What you love (passion)
  • What you are good at (vocation)
  • What the world (market) needs (mission)
  • What you can get paid for (profession)

People will tell you to “follow your passion.” That’s bad advice that can leave you penniless. Combine these four elements and see if you can find a penetrable niche — and then get after it. Create content using whatever channel you prefer and do so consistently (even incessantly). 

Two other points and I’m done. 

Adopt a Growth Mindset

Your mindset has much to do with how you position yourself in the market. So, think of yourself as a thought leader, expert and influencer, and you will become one. Commit yourself to continuous growth. 

Rebecca Blood, author of an early book about blogging, said that if you write about something for six months, you will become an expert at it. She may not have been thinking about rocket science or brain surgery, but her point is valid. No matter how much you know about a topic, eventually, you will have to research, learn more and grow. But if you know just 1-2% more than others, they will consider you an expert. 

Use Social Media and Give to Get

Some people can build a successful personal brand without social media; most of us can’t. Understand that it’s not just about publishing your content, or as one marketer put it, “pitching your junk.” 

Social media is a conversation, so become part of it. That includes regular posting on topics of interest to your target audience and liking, sharing, commenting and networking. Sometimes, the algorithm will reward you, and sometimes it won’t, but don’t let that keep you from participating. As with creating content, you must do it regularly, and you must provide value to your audience. 

Even with all that, I can’t promise you will become the next Ann Handley, Jay Baer or Seth Godin, but you will gain a following over time. 

I’ve Lost My Faith In Journalism. Is Content Marketing the Way?

Dear Content Therapist: We’ve all seen the massive layoffs at traditional media outlets like Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times. It’s shaken what remaining faith I had in building a long-term career as a traditional journalist. It’s hard enough to make a living, much less feel confident about holding down a job. As I think about what else I can do, friends keep mentioning content marketing or PR as alternative career paths. These make sense as industries where I can transfer my skills as a reporter and writer. But I wonder, is the job market any better in these fields? I’m sure thousands of other journalists also have the same idea. How do I position myself as a good fit for content marketing positions as a soon-to-be former journalist? — DISILLUSIONED JOURNALIST

Paul Chaney:

Sadly, so many in your field share your story. The bad news is that layoffs are accelerating — totaling over 20,000 in 2023 even before the most recent cutbacks. 

The good news? Several former journalists told me that most content marketing leaders look for journalists as their first choice. I also read about one journalist-turned-freelancer, Anna Codrea-Rado, who wrote that “editors have greenlit all the stories I pitched to them,” albeit only a small number of pieces.

Why did these pitches work? Journalists’ professional writing acumen, ability to turn around stories quickly and skill at creating compelling stories from complicated topics are just some of the reasons. Plus, more brands see themselves as publishers with branded content blogs, magazines, podcasts, videos and newsletters. 

Notable examples include:

Here’s what journalist-turned-freelance-writer Charlotte Latvala told me via email about moving from journalism to content marketing writing:

“The pivot to content marketing came with the decline of print about a dozen years ago. Many of the magazines I wrote for no longer exist. Truthfully, I needed work, and writing was what I did.

“I discovered I loved content writing. The turnaround is much quicker than magazine work, where you might wait weeks to hear about revisions, a few more weeks before a piece was accepted, and another long wait to get a check in the mail. The content writing process is so much more streamlined. I’ve been a freelancer for many years, so part of it (working on my own) hasn’t changed.”

So, how do you make a similar transition? 

You must make some adjustments if you enter content marketing. Reporters are taught to be objective and focused on the facts. Content marketing requires facts, too, but it also has an agenda. 

This advice from journalist-turned-content marketer Tom Anderson can help

Newsroom Culture Can Help and Hurt

“Journalists who bring that newsroom energy to their marketing teams will be rewarded,” Tom writes. “A deadline sense of urgency can boost marketing initiatives.” 

But all that energy can lead to “scuffles,” which may result in a visit to HR. In content marketing, Anderson says to take a “gentler” approach. 

Learn Skills That Set You Apart

“Reporting, writing and editing well will aid you on most marketing teams, but that’s not enough,” Tom writes. “You need to develop skills beyond shoe-leather reporting and general grit to be a valuable marketer.”

You need to learn about content marketing strategy, how to tell whether a story fits the brand voice and whether it sells something beyond editorial merit. 

The editor of Managing Editor, James daSilva, worked in newspapers and then for a B2B email newsletter service. He notes that it’s easy to think only in terms of your current role. 

“What are your core competencies, separate from your current job or company?” he asks. “Most journalists work well under deadlines, dig for information and get people to open up to them. Marketing teams need that combination of communication skills, curiosity and reliability.”

Some popular content marketing job opportunities include social media manager, public relations specialist, content writer and content strategist. Focus on an area of interest and grow your skill set. 

Know Your Worth

Journalists are used to low salaries, but the professionalism you bring should merit higher pay — so don’t sell yourself short. Know your worth. Tom recommends using salary benchmarks to advocate for better compensation.

Have a Growth Mindset

Like journalism, content marketing is a volatile industry, so have a growth mindset. There are always new tools, tactics and ways of doing things, so keep learning. 

As Tom writes, moving to content marketing is “only the first step into an exciting world of possibility where you can continue to develop skills honed in journalism while being better compensated for your labors.” 

I heartily concur. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for advice from a licensed mental health provider, health care provider or legal professional.