Learning how to build an online brand is a crucial part of any content marketing strategy. But how do you be the signal in the noise?
I've been blogging and podcasting in the visual arts industry over thirteen years. Whether you're blogging, podcasting, tweeting, or TikTokking, the most important lesson I've learned about building an online brand is the need to STAND OUT!
Your blog, website, or feed is going to be one of literally millions of choices a potential consumer of that content can make. Whether your content marketing strategy involves video, audio, or the written word, you need to stand out.
In order to do that, you need to make conscious choices about what that content is and is not.
The right motivation in building an online brand
Standing out has been my motivation as a content marketer my entire career in this business.
- My photography podcast, F-Stop Beyond, was one of the first based on getting to know the photographer as opposed to tech talk.
- I did something similar with Crossing the 180, a sort of "Fresh Air" 'for filmmakers.
- My filmmaking blog, Dare Dreamer Mag, used satire, provocative discourse, and business as the topics to set it apart.
- When I re-entered podcasting in 2015, I again ventured into new territory with Radio Film School. To my knowledge, it was the first audio documentary style podcast about filmmaking.
In each case, the decision to do something different paid off.
- F-Stop Beyond was ranked as the third highest creative arts podcast on Podbean;
- Dare Dreamer Mag at one point reached an Alexa ranking of 78,000 (pretty darn good for a personal blog).
- The popular filmmaking site NoFilmSchool named Radio Film School "the filmmakers podcast we've all been waiting for" and within three weeks of launch, it reached #1 in the visual arts category of iTunes.
There are five important lessons I've learned over the years in building an online brand. The first four are a V.I.C.E.
The V.I.C.E. quad helps build your online brand
For nearly three years I was the editor and then managing editor of the Frame.io Insider. It is a highly respected and followed blog for post-production professionals in film and video. I gleaned some of the most important lessons when it comes to managing the direction of a blog and an online brand.
I'm going to give you the secret sauce, as it were, when it comes to building a online brand. (Well, it's not really a "secret" in the strictest sense of the word. It's pretty apparent when you look at what a blog does. But as is often the case in life, there's a difference between knowing a thing, and doing a thing).
Just remember the acronym V.I.C.E.
"V" is for Voice
Your online presence has to have a "voice"—which is all the elements that go into the writing that help distinguish it. When you're managing a filmmaking blog, for instance, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of other filmmaking blogs from which to stand apart.
The two most important elements of voice are how you write and the content you choose. Both of these were actually a challenge for me when I started. I spent years building a body of work based on snarky yet clever writing that was often satirical and cynical (e.g. "The Top 5 Things to Know if You Want to Be a Black Filmmaker.") I'd often look for ways to throw in a clever pop-culture pun to make a point.
The Frame.io blog voice was more sophisticated and refined. We were speaking to working professionals who looked to the Frame.io platform for security and sustainability. The blog needed to support that brand promise. The quirky, fun, and often irreverent style of my personal blog was not synchronous with the brand.
The second challenge I faced when first working there was also in the kind of content the blog produced. The promise of the blog was practical and tactical advice for working professionals. My passion as a blogger and podcaster was learning about the personal stories of the artists I interviewed. What was the first movie that got them interested in filmmaking? (about 8 times out of 10, it was Star Wars.) Who were their influences and why? What are some of the funniest stories they remember from the sets they worked on?
Our CEO would sometimes refer to these kinds of topics as "armchair interviews." If you came to the Frame.io blog, that's not what you were looking for. You came there because you needed an in-depth treatise on a technical topic. And he was right.
One of my personal favorite pieces I wrote was this long interview about the career of a veteran producer who is now head of television production at a major studio. I loved it. It was funny, inspirational, and rich with insight. But it wasn't very technical, and as such, wasn't one of the higher performing blog posts.
But the blog post I wrote about copyrights in film and video, which is practically a legal course, is one of the top 10 or 15 most read posts on the blog.
Another one of the blog's most read posts is about timecode (not written by me). That's right. If I recall, it was like the 5th or 6th most read blog post. Never in a million years would I guess that a blog post about timecode would do gangbusters.
But guess what. Timecode is extremely technical and very important if you're a working professional in the film business. Ergo. Gangbusters.
The other thing you'll notice about all three of the posts I referenced is that they're all LONG. Very long. The estimated reading time for each is over 20 minutes, which translates into 4,000 words and more. One of the top 5 most read posts, this complete guide to Adobe Premiere color correction, is over 10,000 words! That's a 54 minute estimated reading time.
Whereas the average filmmaking blog post may be in the 1,000-word range, the posts we published at Frame.io averaged 2.5 to 3 times that. That was one of the key differentiators. (If anyone ever tries to tell you long-form writing is dead, just point them to this post.)
So, know your online voice, commit to it, and be brutal about what you will and won't write about, tweet about, or do an Instagram story about.
"I" is for Imagery
Imagery drives just about every major form of online social media or marketing presence. Whether it's photos on Instagram or videos on TikTok. And most blog posts use some form of imagery too. Commercial blogs must ensure that the imagery they use is legal for commercial purposes. There are only three ways to get legal imagery for a blog:
- License stock photography from a site like Shutterstock or Getty Images
- Find Creative Commons photos from sites like Unsplash, or Google searches with the "rights usage" filter applied
- Have original photography created
Going back to my Frame.io example, most filmmaking blogs use the first two methods. In fact, it's safe to say most blogs use the first two methods. (This blog relies heavily on the first two, although we take painstaking care to find just the right imagery.)
Rarely does a blog have the budget to get original photography made. Luckily, being the blog of a VC-backed company committed to excellence afforded us the luxury to have professional images created.
If we ran an article about a well-known filmmaking professional, almost immediately you'd notice our blog post stood out because you'd see a photo of that filmmaker you wouldn't have already seen a hundred times on other blogs about him or her.
The photo shoot we did with South Korean editor Jinmo Yang is an excellent example (ironically, that Jinmo Yang article was one of the few times we broke our own rule about posts being strictly technical. I am happy that one of the last blog posts under my purview as managing editor was closer to the style I personally love.)
But imagery goes beyond the photography you choose. It's also the design of the blog itself. There's no getting around the fact that most blogs out there, since hosted on a WordPress platform, use a WordPress theme When it comes to having a balance between relative ease and flexibility, WordPress themes are a great way to go.
If you have the budget to design a unique theme, do so. But if you have to use a WordPress theme, it will become that much more important for you to pay attention to the other points made in this post. (The UNUM blog is custom-built on webflow).
"C" is for Cadence
You could probably just as easily substitute "cadence" with "consistency." At a base level, this is establishing a set time when readers can expect your content. For the Frame.io blog it was Monday morning. (I've adopted that time schedule for this blog as well).
Any content marketer worth their weight in gold will confirm that a consistent release of your content is vital for the success of any campaign. Only in the rarest circumstances can you get away with an inconsistent cadence and still be successful. Blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, IG stories, TikTok videos, and tweets all should have a set routine to as to set proper expectations from your audience. And if they are really dialed into your content, they'll let you know if you're even an hour late.
But I would submit that cadence goes a bit further than just a consistent release. The Hydra blog defines cadence this way:
At its most basic level, a cadence is defined as a rhythmic sequence...the frequency, format, and sequence with which a manager meets with the individuals on their team.
Using this definition and metaphor of rhythm, I believe cadence also speaks to being very strategic and intentional as to when you publish content. One of the key jobs of any managing editor is to set the editorial calendar, and a key part of that role is figuring out not only what you will publish, but when.
For a site like the Frame.io Insider, we had to consider key events and milestones in the industry—e.g. equipment releases, non-linear editing (NLE) software updates, movie premieres, and TV show finales. The idea of rhythm conjures up imagery of movement, flow, and gracefulness. The release of the topics you publish should feel like there is a rhyme and reason to them. This all contributes to the cadence.
Be consistent, and program your content with purpose and intention.
"E" is for excellence
I must admit, I'm personally torn on this topic. On one hand, I believe some companies and artists become paralyzed by perfection. They are so hyperfocused on excellence, that you only see their work once in a blue moon. Or a tech company can get so obsessed with excellence, they miss key target dates.
At the end of the day, many of you are also running a business. And the viability of that business is dependent on your delivering content at scale on a consistent basis.
That being said, strive for excellence in the content you create. Your gut will tell you when you're making a decision about something because it's the easy thing to do, even when you know you could make it better with just a little more effort, without sacrificing budget or consistency.
I faced that position many times during my time at Frame.io. Particularly in the early months of my time there. I had to get into the habit of asking myself "What would the CEO do?" As is the case with most successful CEOs of fast-growing tech companies, his requirements often were challenging, if not sometimes unrealistic.
But that's normal in any tech company. You're doing something wrong if there isn't some tension between you and your superiors. The secret is achieving that balance. And when it came to Frame.io's blog, there were numerous times when I did the extra work to choose a slightly better photo; or tweak an image; or re-write a particular article (or have it re-written) because I knew it was going to have the scrutiny of someone who demanded excellence.
I believe that desire to create excellence in everything from the writing to the photography led to the overall look, brand, and reputation of the blog. There were many times when I felt like the Scotty to his Kirk, having to achieve a higher warp factor, regardless of whether the physics supported it. In the end, I believe the blog went where none had gone before.
Always strive for excellence. But temper it with reason and research.
A brand is more than...
The fifth key lesson I learned about building an online brand is that a brand is more than [insert whatever one thing most people think is a "brand."]
- You may already know this, but a brand is more than your logo.
- You may already know this, but a brand is more than your cool slogan.
- You may already know this, but a brand is more than the guidelines you publish on your site.
- You may also already know this, but a brand is more than the cool audio mark you had designed and developed by that ex-Lucasfilm audio designer who created the signature sound for the double-bladed lavender lightsaber featured in the latest Disney+ original (note: I’m being coy. I know there is no double-bladed lavender lightsaber featured in a Disney+ show. Stand down Star Wars nerds. That’s no shade. I’m one too!)
Of quadrants, graphs, and Venn diagrams
I think you already know all of this. Yet, time and again, I hear or read something from someone who kinda makes me wonder. Do you know that a brand is more than logos, colors, shapes, jingles, and jangles?
When I see discussions of branding and fancy Harvard Business School caliber quadrants, graphs, and Venn diagrams are introduced, I get worried. I’m worried not because those Harvard Business School caliber quadrants, graphs, and Venn diagrams are wrong, but because the execution of that brand often stops there.
As the old saying goes, the devil’s in the details.
If you’re ever in a discussion about building or recognizing your organization’s brand, and the topic of customer support doesn’t come up. Something’s missing.
If you don’t look at and evaluate the details of your packaging. Something’s missing.
Where applicable, if you’re not routinely looking at your NPS score, and addressing any recurring situations that lower it, something’s missing.
Speaking of NPS score, you need to dig even deeper into research behind what your audience thinks of your brand. Because whether you like it or not, there’s an aspect of your brand that you can’t control.
Audience perception matters
I can’t tell you how many times in my life where I told a joke that was taken the wrong way. Or wrote a satirical blog post where the satire was totally lost on the readers. Or I did something I thought was really cool and romantic for my significant other, and it landed like a dud.
We frequently have intentions to communicate one thing, but find out the recipient “heard” something entirely different.
When it comes to brand perception, it’s no different.
Your intent may be one thing, but reality may be another. Your brand is very much tied to what customers think of you and how they feel when they interact with your organization.
- Have you invested in the research to determine exactly what it is they think?
- Have you polled them in an email newsletter or on social media?
- Do you have opportunities for users to submit feedback? If you do, is someone reading that feedback? If so, are you doing anything to address it?
Any discussion and investment in an organization’s brand should include understanding audience perception.
It starts from within
Your brand goes all the way to the proverbial “DNA” of your organization. That means at its heart, it starts from within the organization. The “protein molecules” that combine the DNA are the mission and values you create.
Your brand starts with the training you provide to your employees. It’s the power you give them to make reasonable “executive” decisions, whether they are an individual contributor or a C-level manager.
Let me tell you this: if your employees are not committed to living out your brand and making the experience real for your customers and clients, you have a huge problem.
An investment in your people is an investment in your brand.
You’re not Nike
You’re not Nike.
And that’s a good thing. If you try to be Nike, you’re going to miss an opportunity to be uniquely you. If you try too hard to come up with just the right pithy 3-word slogan like Nike’s “Just do it!” or Apple’s “Think Different”, you might miss out on the totally bad-ass 5-word slogan that’s perfect for your organization.
You’re also not Nike because chances are you’re not a 56-year-old consumer brand that has invested literally billions and billions of dollars in product development, customer experience, and affinity marketing.
You’re not Nike because chances are you don’t have world-renown celebrities wear your logo everywhere they go.
Be inspired by what Nike has done over the years. But don’t aspire to be Nike.
A brand is more than…
A brand is more than all the amazing graphical, visual, and audio elements that represent your company.
It’s everything from the UX of your website, to the CX of your customer support platform.
It’s the smiles and small talk that your baristas give to the regulars and first-timers who come into your cafe(s) every day.
It’s the extra hour your delivery guy puts in to make sure a customer gets a crucial package.
A brand is the forest and the trees. You need to pay attention to both.
You are most likely way smarter than I. And I know I’m not the first guy to write about this. I’m sure you already know all of this. The question is: are you acting like it?