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One of a Kind

How to Build a Powerful Personal Brand in the Attention Economy

By Jay Harrington

How do you break through the noisy attention economy and get the right people to take notice? Seize the initiative.

In today’s world, in which worldwide distribution of content across the internet is largely free, the biggest personal brands are being built by going directly to the people. That’s as true for artists breaking through on TikTok as it is for lawyers growing a following on LinkedIn.

In yesterday’s world, publishers held the power. If you wanted to write a book, publish an article, get on the radio, have your face appear on video or get a record deal, you needed to scrape, grind and pray that you got discovered. Otherwise, you’d be a starving artist toiling in obscurity. Today, you can share your talent and ideas with the world with no gatekeeper there to stop you, edit you or tell you that it’s not good enough.

And therein lies the rub: When there are no barriers to entry, the market gets flooded with content. While it’s easier than ever to publish one’s work, it’s harder than ever to capture people’s attention because of the availability of content alternatives. What’s even more challenging is the fact that all the “noise” isn’t just bad content — there is a plethora of outstanding content to compete with as well for people’s scarce attention.

Accordingly, the democratization of content distribution poses challenges and opportunities to lawyers hoping to make an impact online. If you want to write a book, start a podcast, create a YouTube channel or publish an article, all you need to do is put in the sweat equity to produce the content. You can make your work available for the world to consume at the click of a button.

But getting people to take notice? That’s a more difficult proposition.

Why It’s So Important to Build a Powerful Personal Brand Online

I’m going to share a few ideas about how lawyers can break through online in a moment, but first, let’s take a step back and consider why it’s important in the first place.

There’s no great dictionary definition of what a personal brand is. One of the most oft-cited colloquial definitions of “brand” is attributed to Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

As a busy lawyer, branding is important because you can’t be everywhere, all at once. You can’t be taking a deposition and also taking a prospective client to lunch.

Indeed, before you ever have the opportunity to take a prospect to lunch, the client will have done a deep dive online, peering into the nooks and crannies of the internet to learn more about you as a person and as a professional. In this sense, your personal brand is what sells you when you’re not there to sell yourself. Digital domains are where first impressions are made.

Indeed, you must meet prospective clients where they are, which is online, in control, with access to more information than ever, and searching for a story that resonates. A qualified alternative to your services is only a click away. Are you going to leave business development to chance, or are you going to seize the initiative and build a powerful personal brand online?

Five Rules to Break Through in the Attention Economy

Here are five rules that lawyers hoping to build personal brands should follow.

1. Focus on a Niche

Your ideas and services are not for everyone — at least they shouldn’t be. Whether you’re trying to build a practice or build a following online (in today’s world, these are one and the same), a narrow focus helps you gain a laser-targeted audience that delivers more loyalty, interaction and business.

Having a niche allows you to position yourself as an expert on a narrow topic rather than as a generalist on a broad number of topics. In an environment in which consumers have access to more information than ever, they are searching for particular solutions to particular problems. To position yourself for success online, you must develop a deep body of work in a specific domain, so that prospective clients (not to mention Google) perceive you as a trusted authority in your area of focus.

2. Build a Platform

If you’re active online, the purpose should be to direct people who are interested in what you have to say to your digital “home.” Your home is your platform — be it a blog, podcast, YouTube channel or simply your LinkedIn page. A platform is a place where people can consume more of your content and, ideally, subscribe or connect with you so that you can communicate with them in the future.

The purpose of building a personal brand is to gain loyal followers who ultimately can become clients or refer clients to you. By having a platform, you can stay in touch with your followers and be top of mind because you’re appearing at the top of their inboxes or social media feeds.

Even if you have no plans to leave your current position (and if you do, you need to build a platform ASAP), you need a way to nurture and communicate with your prospects. Having a platform that allows you to communicate your thought leadership and unique value proposition with a niche audience is the best way to compete in the marketplace of ideas. And in a world in which information has become commoditized, ideas are all that matter.

3. Create Compelling Content

Remember the days when lawyers and law firms used to ask questions such as, “Do we need a website?” and “Should we be on social media?”

OK, some still ask these questions. But, by and large, we’ve turned the page on whether it’s important to have a strong digital presence. Today, it’s conventional wisdom, and a much better question is being asked, namely: “Now that we have these digital tools and platforms, what the heck should we be doing with them?”

Since there’s no barrier to distribution, generating attention and compelling action online comes down to creative execution. You’ll be in the game if you can create insightful, inspiring, educational and entertaining content. If not, you’ll be sidelined.

As a lawyer trying to build a personal brand online, it’s not enough to “be on” social networks. You need to take advantage of your available distribution channels to build a network full of members of your target market, and produce and distribute content that builds trust and keeps you top of mind with your audience.

4. Connect With Influencers

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a lawyer trying to build a personal brand online is getting people to take notice of your content. People are bombarded by information, and they jealously guard their attention. They pay attention to those they trust and ignore the rest. Accordingly, if you’re not already part of someone’s trusted inner circle of content producers, they will hold you, and your content, at arm’s length.

The solution to this dilemma is to make an end-run around their attention-defense measures by associating yourself with those who already hold sway with your target market.

These “influencers” consist of people who are considered authoritative in your industry and publications and platforms that are read and respected by members of your niche market. (Attorney at Work is a good example of an influencer platform if you’re hoping to reach decision-makers in the legal industry attention economy).

Seek opportunities to publish your content on platforms that your audiences already trust. This will help you to penetrate your target market with your insights.

Putting It All Together

Building a powerful personal brand is all about consistency of effort and high-quality creative execution directed to a targeted audience. The primary way powerful personal brands are built is through content marketing.

Producing and sharing great content is effective because it permits a respectful conversation to take place with your clients and prospects online. Instead of interrupting people, your ideas earn you attention. Over time, as you continue to produce and publish valuable content, you can build a passionate audience, dynamic platform and compelling personal brand that generates work and referrals for years to come.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @harringj75.

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