Mark Schaefer on How to Become Known

Do you have a desire to become known?

Perhaps, you want to be recognized as a leader in your field or courted as an expert by the major news networks. Or, maybe you want to raise the profile of your company, attract donors to a charity you support, or get invited to speak on a prestigious panel.

The Internet affords us opportunities to become known, spread awareness, and wield influence like never before. But can anyone become known? Does it take a special inborn talent to become known or is there a path that people can follow?

Mark Schaefer, a globally recognized keynote speaker, author, university educator, founder of the Business Grow blog, and a business consultant with over 30 years of experience became obsessed with this question. In fact, he dedicated years of research, compiling case studies of ordinary people who achieved a substantial online presence in order to figure out if he could isolate a common denominator and discover a universal process for becoming known. The result was his new book, KNOWN: The handbook for building and unleashing your personal brand in the digital age. Packed with inspiring stories of people who had no prior marketing experience, money, or connections, Schaefer also created a supplemental workbook with practical exercises to help readers approach becoming known in a strategic, step-by-step manner.

I sat down with Mark to talk about his new books and what lessons they contain for people trying to build a personal brand.

What made you write a book about personal branding, a term that I know you don’t even particularly like?

It’s funny. Recently, I received an email from someone who said: “I’m a big fan of yours. I’ve read all your books, but when I saw that you came out with a book about personal branding, I thought: ‘What is he doing? Isn’t there enough out there already about this subject?’ I wanted to break it. I wanted to find a way that I could hate this book, but I ended up loving it and I found myself taking notes. You’re really onto something.”

I think the term, personal brand has been abused. There’s so much advice out there about personal branding, but most of it is really fluffy and counter to good business wisdom. That’s one reason I wrote the book. I thought this would be the right book at the right time to help a lot of people.

How did you go about doing the research for this book?

I’ve been around and I’ve seen how personal brands have evolved over the years. Through my consulting and executive coaching, I see exactly where people get tripped up and make mistakes. So, I started the process by doing a lot of academic research to survey what’s out there already, and then I just went down the rabbit hole. I reached out to a lot of people in a variety of fields -- banking, education, finance, art, music etc. -- and asked them who is the go-to person in their space. Who is known in their field? And, I specifically avoided people in marketing, because I felt it was important for me to get out of the echo chamber.

I wanted to discover how these people became known in an attempt to answer the question that had been on my mind: Can anybody become known? Through my research, I found that everybody I studied did the same four things, and I haven’t found a single exception. After I identified this 4-step process, I showed it to others who have had success becoming known and they all told me that I nailed it. So, I’m very confident that this is the right process and I think that’s why this approach is helping so many people.

What are the four steps and do you think that if anybody follows these four steps, they can become known?

The four steps in brief:

1) You have to be really clear about what you want to become known for. Often, this is very different from following your passion. What I’ve found with many different people who are known in their industry is that they didn’t follow their passion. Rather, their passion followed them. First, they found something that they loved, but it didn’t have to be the thing they love most. I call it finding your sustainable interest. It may not have been their favorite thing to do, but it was something they enjoyed and was sustainable in the sense that it had an audience big enough to matter.

I think I fall into that category. When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was my passion. I still love science and space even today. But I am a digital marketing consultant now. And I love it! I have fun every single day. I think I’m one of the most fortunate people in the whole world. I think that’s an example of where my passion followed me instead of the other way around.

2) Now that you know the story you want to tell, the next step on the path is figuring out where you want to tell it. Is there a place that you can own in this very crowded world? Can you find a space that’s uncontested or at least underserved? I have exercises in the book that help people sort that out.

3) The third step is now that you know your story and where u want to tell it, you have to think of what kind of content to create to fill that space and tell that story. And this is where a lot of people get overwhelmed because there seems to be so many options and so many choices. I point out to people that it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, because there are really only three major options -- written content, audio content, and video content. So pick one of those. You don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to be everywhere. Just pick one. Master that. Create content consistently for a year or two to give yourself a chance to grow the audience.

4) The fourth step is creating an actionable audience. The important word here is actionable. I spend a lot of time in the book defining what that means, because a great myth in business today is that a large social media following can translate into success and influence. That is simply not true. A large social media audience is generally comprised of weak, relationale links. Just because someone follows you on Twitter or gives you a like on Facebook, doesn’t mean they are going to support you or buy something from you. So, you really have to leverage these weak relationale links and grow them into strong connections. Actionable connections.

Do you think that in the future, everyone will aspire to become known? Is personal branding something that is going to become mainstream?

I’ve been working with a big Fortune 100 company. They hired me to help their executives become known and they have a very interesting philosophy. They said that today, having an effective social media presence and personal brand is a life skill. And if more of our employees have that life skill, we’re going to be a better company.I think that’s really smart and a very enlightened point of view.

I believe that in this fast-changing, busy, noisy world you can’t count on a lot. You can’t count on working for a company for 30 years or on anyone taking your hand and leading you up the corporate ladder or to your next success. You can’t wait for someone to pick you or lead you. You have to pick yourself. You have to lead yourself. And I think the only permanent, sustainable, competitive advantage we can have as individuals is to be known. Either you’re known or you’re not. And if you’re known and your competitors aren’t, you’re going to have an advantage over those who aren’t.

And, it’s not just about making money. Being known can prove beneficial for a wide range of personal and professional goals. Maybe you want to raise money for a charity. Maybe you want to write a book someday or explore opportunities for having a speaking career. Perhaps, you want to teach at a university or be invited to be on a board of some kind in the future. You’ll have an advantage if you’re known. I think being known can benefit anyone.

The tools and the process are out there. Anyone has the opportunity to do it. Will they actually be able to do it? That’s another question, because it takes a lot of work. It takes patience, it takes tenacity, and it may take years of effort before you see a payoff. Not everyone in this world is willing to put in that kind of effort.

What do you say to people who claim they don’t have enough time?

I address that issue very honestly and forthrightly in the book. If something is time consuming or hard to do, I say so. I don’t sugarcoat anything. There’s no shortcut. It’s a matter of priority. Everybody in the world has the same amount of time to create content and build a personal brand so everybody has an equal opportunity. You just have to figure out if this is important enough to you. Is this something I want to pursue?

And the other thing I think we need to be mindful of is that creating content is not as hard as it used to be! (laughs) We have a lot of free options and tools out there. I was coaching an executive the other day and she had the same complaint. She said: “Look, I have a job, I have a family. How do I find the time?”

She loved to write, but simply didn’t have the time to devote to it. She had so many ideas and so many things she could share with the world so I said to her: “Why don’t you write down a list of different ideas you have and topics you want to talk about and then create a series of 3-4 minute videos on your smartphone? If you thought about what you wanted to say ahead of time and had your husband hold the phone, you could create one or two months of content in just an hour!” She said she had never thought of that before. I told her: “You can post these 3-minute videos to YouTube. Then, you can easily embed those YouTube videos into a blog. It costs almost nothing today to transcribe a video. Now, you’ve got a lot of written content from the same amount of work. So think about that. Let’s say you wanted to create one piece of content every week. You could create two months of content in one hour.”

There really aren’t too many excuses anymore. It’s incredible that there is now almost no barrier to entry.

Yeah, it really is incredible. I gave a speech yesterday to a national legal association and I pointed out the following. I said when I was a young person, let’s say only 25 years ago, how would I have become known? I’d have to be in the newspaper frequently. I’d have to be on television. And there would be a gatekeeper who would make those decisions. But today we don’t have to check those boxes. We don’t have to jump through those hoops.

Everybody has the opportunity to get their voice heard. To create their own influence. It doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, where you live, how much money you have, what the color of your skin is, or all the bad things that have ever happened to you in your life. None of that matters. As long as you have a laptop or a smartphone and an Internet connection, you can create your own power in this world. It’s an amazing opportunity.

And, I certainly understand that it might not be the right time for some people and I respect that. You can certainly be a worthy person and not create content and not be known. It may not be the right time in your life. But if it is the right time for you, go for it! Give it a try! We’ve never had an opportunity like this in the history of our planet.

How does one keep thinking of new ideas for content on a consistent basis?

I think that anybody can help their creative process by having certain disciplines. A lot of people complain that they’ve run out of ideas or they don’t have time, but one discipline is to be aware of the ideas that are around you every day. You’re being bombarded by ideas all the time. You just need to be aware of that. You need to collect them and write them down. Have the discipline to schedule time for yourself. Reserve quiet, uninterrupted periods of time to create content.

The other thing you need to be able to do is relax. If you are on a deadline and you feel like you have to rush to create content, that’s probably a sign that you’re running into trouble and you’re not going to create your best stuff. If you have a list of ideas in front of you, you set aside the time to work on it, and you’re able to relax and have fun with it, I think it’s going to enable the creative process.

A lot of people might think the Internet is too crowded. Or they may worry: “I’ve arrived too late.” Is there too much competition or is now a good time to enter?

Well, the world has always been saturated. It’s always been competitive. If you wanted to become a writer 50 years ago, it was hard. If you wanted to become a TV personality 25 years ago, it was hard. It is crowded. It is more difficult to break out on the Internet than it was even five or seven years ago. But, I also think that there has never been a better time to start than right now! Because, if you look at the long-term view, the Internet is still just beginning. There’s still amazing opportunities out there.

Every day, I help people find their voice, find their space, and get them energized about creating content in a niche, and they’re seeing amazing results. So there is a place for everybody. We’ll look back at this time ten years from now and we’ll think: “Oh my gosh, I wish I had started sooner. There were so many opportunities. The internet was just beginning. Why didn’t I start back then?” So, now is a great time to start. The ideas and the people and the content that will impact us the most ten years from now haven’t even been invented yet. Maybe someone reading this today will begin and they will be the ones who end up making the impact.

How do you know when you’re reaching your goals and how do you know when it’s time to quit?

That’s a great question. There’s an entire chapter in the book devoted to answering that question and it was probably the most difficult chapter to write. It involved a lot of reflection, because I don’t want to be a ‘ra-ra’ kind of person. I didn’t want a book full of hype. I wanted to be very realistic about the challenges involved in becoming known. And I think this is a vital question. How do you know it’s working? How do you know it’s time to pivot? And, how do you know if it’s time to pack it in and quit? This question is so vital, because the biggest stumbling block is that many people quit too soon.

The way becoming known works is that you may be bumping along from year to year to year with few results to show for it and then all of a sudden it takes off quickly. In my book, I suggest looking for signs that your efforts are working and keeping track of those. The results to look for are not not necessarily sales or leads. It might be getting invited to be on a podcast. It might be getting asked to answer a questions for someone’s blog post. It could be an increase in mentions on Twitter. Those are all sign posts that you’re becoming known. They are all symbols that awareness is increasing. And as long as the awareness is increasing, then you’ve got to keep going, because things are happening.

It’s important to use these unconventional metrics of success. Just because the money isn’t flowing in, doesn’t mean it’s not working. It doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is not going to pay off down the road. On average, it took about two and a half years for the extremely successful people I interviewed for my book to achieve success. That’s thirty months.

Now, one of the things that took me by surprise is that many people who read my book have given me feedback saying they’re achieving immediate results. And I thought that doesn’t make sense. All those other people took such a long time. And then I realized that the people I interviewed didn’t have my book. (laughs) They didn’t have the 4-step path that I outlined. They might have been stumbling along for a number of years before they figured things out, but now the people who have my book see that this is how it’s done today. Once they have the path, they are seeing immediate results. So, in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised I guess, but I was totally blown away when I started hearing people telling me they’re having fast results.

People get intimidated by those who seemed to have had overnight success, but they didn’t see what was probably a long road. How do you help them get over that hurdle?

When I coach people, I prepare them for the amount of work involved. I tell them they need to adopt a 30-month mindset. If you’re average, it may take 30 months for this to really move along. Now, feedback from the universe is telling me that maybe I was wrong about that. (laughs) People who are using my four-step approach are seeing faster results, but I do think you need to be in it for the long term.

If someone has been putting things out for a long time with very little response how do you know when to tell them to keep going or when it’s time to reevaluate?

I’ll give you an example. I gave a talk a few months ago about the four steps on the path and a guy came up to me after my talk and said: “I’ve been creating content for years and I haven’t been getting anywhere and in the first 10 minutes of your talk, I realized what I was doing wrong.” He had simply been trying to do what everybody else was doing. He was in a completely saturated niche with people who had been creating content for far longer than he had and he was not really differentiated. But once he thought it through and reevaluated, he realized that by making one tweak to what he was doing, he could achieve success.

If you’re making absolutely no progress, the first step is to go back and revisit your assumptions. It could be that one of your assumptions was wrong and maybe you need to go back and second guess yourself. That would be the first thing I would do before quitting. And if after 6 months that doesn’t work, then maybe it’s time to pivot and try something different.

There’s nothing wrong with pivoting. Many people have done so with positive results. One of my favorite stories in the book is about financial planner, Pete Matthew. He started a vlog, creating videos about financial planning and he was kind of stumbling along. He was creating great content, but he wasn’t making much progress. Then he started a podcast and he got a way bigger response to the podcast than he did from the vlog. So, it turns out he had certainly found his sustainable interest. He was creating great content. But, he was just doing it in the wrong space. All he had to do was make this one adjustment and switch from video to podcasting. Now, he’s all in on the podcast and he’s one of the most well-known wealth managers on the planet.

I should mention there’s also a workbook that goes along with KNOWN that has dozens of exercises to help you figure things out. Because I’m a teacher, I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to create a great plan. If you fill out the workbook, you will have a clear path to follow.

What are some common mistakes people make who are trying to become known?

A common mistake people make is that they try to do too much. They look at the competition and they say: “Oh my gosh, look at this person. He’s doing videos and a blog and a podcast. And I need to do all of that!” If you’re a big company with unlimited resources, maybe that makes sense. But if you’re a small business, then you really need to make a careful decision, because creating content is a huge investment -- not just creating it, but posting it and maintaining it and responding to people’s comments on it and promoting it.

It’s like buying a piece of equipment for your business. You need to look at creating content the same way. It’s intoxicating because you think blogging is free or using Facebook is free, but it’s not. It all takes time and there’s a cost to that. One idea I try to emphasize is to just do one thing well. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Pick one thing that you can master. Grow your audience in that space before thinking about diversifying.

What if someone has more than one thing they’d like to be known for?

Here’s something that I’ve found in helping people through that question: There’s always a common thread.

I’ll give you an example. I was coaching one young woman and she said: “I like so many things I can’t choose just one. I’m an HR professional, so I help people with their personal lives at work, I’m a grief counselor, I’m into extreme sports, and I teach martial arts.”

At first, it seemed like she was all over the board. And then I asked her to tell me about a time when she was involved in something she enjoyed so much that it made her think: “This is what I live for!” Her reply was very telling: “I help people get to their moment of courage.” I said, “That’s it! That’s the common thread in everything you do.” She was really energized by that.

I was in a meeting yesterday where I thought the person’s interests were so different that maybe I’m wrong in my thesis. Maybe there isn’t a common thread. She is an operations manager for a business. Her other interest is helping people who are battling Cancer. I thought: “Whoa those are two very different things. I don’t know how to bring them together.” And yet, through our conversation I learned that the reason she loves being a business manager is because she’s kind of like the mother of the business. Everybody comes to her with their problems and she keeps things going. She is the counselor. She is the nurturer. And so there it is! There’s the thread. She has this amazing heart and amazing empathy.

And so I went from there. How can you bring that amazing skill to your content? To the world? The world needs that! The world needs so much love and nurturing right now. That is your special skill. Now, how can you occupy that space?

Is there a difference between becoming known and becoming famous?

I think there’s a big difference. I was very, very careful to make that distinction in the book. This book is not about becoming a YouTube star or an Instagram influencer. It’s about having the right reputation, presence, and authority to get your job done. Today, almost everybody has a social media presence. The book is not about creating something from scratch. It’s about being more strategic about it and more mindful about how you do it, where you do it, how much you do it, and how you engage with people. This will direct your actions toward creating a presence and becoming known in a way that will help you achieve your goals.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to differentiate themselves in a crowded, competitive space like fashion or food?

It’s a great challenge. For example, if you want to be a food blogger today, there’s a tremendous amount of competition. If you wanted to get into the fashion space or the fitness space five or ten years ago, it might have been enough to simply create content, because it was a novelty. Well, content isn’t a novelty anymore. Content is a commodity so you have to stand out.

I think there are two things to think about. First, you have to be original. To be original, you really don’t have a choice but to tell your own story. You have no competition. There is no one like you. No one has your background, your history, your heritage, your perspective, your education, or the experiences that you’ve had. Even if you’re a young person, you have something to bring to the table. You have a story to tell. So even just having the courage to stand out is a big differentiator.

Second, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to nail it on the first shot, because as you start to build your presence and create content, you’re going to get feedback from your audience and other people on the Internet. Someone is going to say: “When you said this or did that, I really loved that. I’ve never seen anything like that before!” And you’ll think, wow that’s interesting. Maybe that’s what I need to be known for. It happens all the time! I could probably rattle off at least a dozen people that I know who were struggling to find their place and their entire lives were changed by one video or one blog post or one podcast, because they hit on something that resonated with the audience.

I think the most important thing is to start. Give it your best shot. Think it through. Have a plan. But don’t worry about being perfect. It’s more important to start, experiment, try, iterate, and improve along the journey.

How do you motivate someone who seems to have a fear of getting started or putting themselves out there?

Well (sighs) I think sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. That’s part of the glory of our human diversity. Some people may be more comfortable having a public presence and creating content and some people may be terrified of it.

However, I think there is a place for many different types of personalities. This may surprise a lot of people, but I’m an introvert. I don’t like being around a lot of people. I’m kind of cerebral. I like to be by myself and think about things so that’s why I enjoy blogging. Because it’s sort of lonely. (laughs). And you can let ideas sit and stew and you can think about things and change them later. That fits my personality a lot better than Snapchat or Facebook Live. I really have to push myself to do a live video! And when I do, people love it and they reward me for it, but it’s just not my preferred content, and you know what? That’s ok. There’s room for everyone. There’s room for every personality type. There’s places and spaces on the web even for people who are shy and don’t like public attention. There are ways to become known and feel comfortable at the same time.

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