Differentiation Requires Show, Not Tell


Image by Eric Lim

The Internet and in particular social media have empowered thousands, perhaps millions, to start their own businesses. One outcome of the social media movement is how easily people become “thought leaders” or topical influencers.

As a result, we have many paper tigers running about, almost indistinguishable from the ones with real teeth with one singular exception: Results.

Last week for PRSA-NCC and this morning during a keynote at Brand Camp NYC I discussed this exception, and its critical role in creating true market leadership.

When content and personal branding techniques online quack and act like ducks, many readers are quick to believe. Yet results are not necessarily associated to the voices, creating a problem. Because we have hit a saturation point, more businesses are becoming discerning in their choices of vendors, digging deeper than what’s published on a blog post or LinkedIn group.

As time continues and social becomes a place overburdened with branded marketing content and voices, differentiation requires more. Pundits are a dime a dozen these days, real businesspeople are not.

Marketers and PR pros who want to build businesses and reputations need to do great things that produce real outcomes. We literally must show people rather then tell them.

Differentiation from Pundits


Image by Miami Theatre Center

Last year, I discussed thought leadership and the importance of actually having something to say, either through subject matter expertise or futurism. Combined with social media and self promotion skills, that will get you some attention.

But from a business standpoint, it’s not enough. True leadership requires public successes.

Have you marketed anything well online? Do people see you promoting yourself and/or your company and not much else?

It’s not enough to critique everyone else’s work and discuss best practices. Credibility comes from having done the work, succeeding and failing, and sharing lessons learned.

Actual acts are not the only form of credibility. Many people tactically struggle, but strategically or theoretically understand aspects of their business.

So let’s say you are a mentor or teach marketing to others, and your efforts have helped them succeed… Perhaps a few are wild successes and they attribute some of it to your assistance. That makes your story credible.

Point being, either deliver the results or help others achieve results. Real actions make leaders, while words alone create pundits.

There is some value in punditry. It will attract opportunities to your business. You have to start somewhere.

To sustain reputation, fulfill your commitments. Otherwise, the primary source of leads will continue to be inbound ones. While I’m a big fan of online inbound marketing, great businesses develop word of mouth through their customers, and delivering fantastic work.

How to Show


Image by UW Digital Collectors

One issue I have with pundits is telling other people how to do things, rather than practicing the walk themselves. There seems to be a general unwillingness to eat their own dog food.

Again, talk about personal experiences rather than just using public examples. How many bloggers offer personal context as they explain techniques and tactics? It’s a shame, because experience validates their opinions, grounding it in real business talk, authenticity and wisdom. Experience allows us to connect with them as a human being who has been through the proverbial trial.

While many colleagues focus on online reputation and thought leadership through blog posts and books — something I have done as well — it’s been important for me to support clients in visible ways. These efforts focused on building client brands rather then my own reputation, and hopefully made them better for it. At the same time, public examples have been critical in providing proof points to my own

I’ve done so since the beginning from Network Solutions to the American Red Cross and now with Vocus. I’ve had some public failures, too, and embraced public post mortems to show what went wrong.

This is a delicate thing. Many clients want to hire pundits to leverage their online profiles, perceived influence and reach.

A professional puts the client first, and supports them, instead of building their personal brands at the client’s expense. In essence, the visible marketer must serve as a role player on the team, and be seen supporting the larger collective above their own aggrandizement.

Some clients prefer or insist on confidentiality. In those cases, find a nonprofit to work with as a corporate social responsibility project. Nonprofits serve all sectors, so it’s easy to find one that aligns with your business interest. They in turn are grateful for the help.

Actionable Suggestions


Here are some tips on building the tools/knowledge necessary to implement this particular approach:

Read. A Lot: Whether you are a subject matter expert or a futurist, understanding the business and its history is absolutely necessary. Many people think their view is unique until they see what their industry peers discuss online. The community conversation gives you a great benchmark for what you can (or cannot) add to the conversation. Use Feedly or another reader to maintain a pulse on your sector.

Say Something: Instead of adding another vanilla voice to the mix, say something substantial. Have a position. Say it well, back it with insights, and if you don’t have experience, then back it with experiments. “Me, too” will get you included in an online school of thought or professional clique, but it rarely separates you from the pack.

Avoid the Traps: This is where I tell you to build a presence in social media using social networks. There are so many blog posts and books on how to do this (including my own), that it’s relatively pointless to delve into the topic here. I’ll let my links do the talking.

What I would say to you is to be careful. Many people fall into the time/community trap espoused by social media experts to be present all the time. Social media is a great way to lose your perspective.

Find the two or three places/networks that really matter to your customers and goals, and rock them. Everything else is nice to have, but not necessary to maintain a professional position of stature online with your customers. That’s my experience having done both, and I enjoy my time with my daughter and family very much now.

Lead by Example: Be seen working publicly. Share your projects with people, let your community provide advice, participate and help if it makes sense. Point being, when you are seen doing the work, you graduate from talking head to an actual practitioner that innovates in real time.

Lead through Service: Steve Case is considered a thought leader in the Greater Washington area because he went out and built a business that eclipsed most start-ups, AOL. He continues to innovate and invest, and makes his projects through the Case Foundation freely accessible. He openly mentors people. His efforts are investments back into the community. Seth Godin is doing the same thing in the marketing community.

These two leaders show us a principle that may be the luxury of great success, but giving back to the community is great way to lead. Before blogs, social media sharing and content, networkers built (and continue to build) community thought leadership via service in professional associations and local charities.

When you serve your sector through whatever means that are accessible to you — digital or traditional — that effort is usually rewarded with respect. Giving is usually reciprocated through intangibles like leads, speaking opportunities, and more.

Don’t Let Up: It might seem obvious, but success brings challenges in its own right. Many people lose their edge, either through fear of success, or simply becoming satisfied. Others let it get to their head. We all say it won’t happen, but invariably success intoxicates, and people change, sometimes for the worse.

Don’t lose your edge. This is a marathon, not a race, and long-term staying power revolves around consistency over time rather than sudden bursts.

What suggestions would you add?