Audiences Dictate Reputations: Between the Lines with Katie Wallwork

In our weekly interview series, we dig deep into the heart of the industry to bring you exclusive, authoritative insights from our rule-breakers. This week, we caught up with Katie Wallwork, a personal brand manager, who has spent the past several years nurturing the online persona of Social Chain CEO and founder Steve Bartlett. In that time she has made Steve a household name among entrepreneurs, business hopefuls and the world’s biggest brands. But despite the ubiquitous nature of personal branding, Katie still regards her role as niche and often misunderstood. Will that change as the importance of having a personal brand for all social media users extends far beyond the corporate world?

You studied geography at university, are you surprised by the path your career has taken?

My career has definitely taken a different direction since university. Personal branding is a pioneering space and I’m constantly drawing expertise from numerous areas, such as social, PR, branding, design and personal development. To have the freedom to work in such a new area of social media is really exciting. We have a very small window between realisation and adoption, which means the pace is very quick. It’s definitely a niche career option – I love it.

How has your role as a personal brand manager changed over the years?

Initially we were very saturation focused and posted on all platforms as frequently as we could. A tremendous effort went into the production of content, but as we’ve developed, positioning has become more and more paramount. For instance, we post far less frequently now. It’s essential to have a value exchange at the forefront of your production efforts. What are others experiencing out of your online presence? Everything is done with value in mind.

The real challenge is not to fall into the trap of replicating what you see online, as we are conditioned to copy. With Steve’s brand, for example, we’ve been lucky to be able to retain his originality and authenticity with ease. Nowadays everyone wants to be their own micro-celeb, with growth being the main motivator. Creativity is such a freely achieved asset online, and the social media space is now so crowded as a result. On the other hand, the aim of personal branding is to cut through the noise with authenticity. It’s no longer about what you say, but how you say it. A real learning for me has been how to tap into current trends, whilst retaining brand positioning. It might be about providing social commentary on Bitcoin, for example, but we would always do it with Steve’s brand tracks in mind.

Do you think there are many misconceptions around personal branding? Those outside of your field seldom see the analysis, data and hard work that goes into cultivating a personal brand…

There are many misconceptions. I always say to people I hate the term personal branding. The connotations are that there is some form of an adopted identity, packaged into something people want to see. The reality is the term extends much further than business coaching, leadership and image development. The role is still niche and misunderstood, and there are few personal branding experts that combine the social knowledge with an understanding of the people they work with. If you go into this with the desire to increase your market value alone, you will fail. It’s also not a short-term game and the moment you start you cannot stop.

It’s no easy feat. There’s an immense amount of work that goes into a personal brand behind the scenes. You have to be hot on analytics, and everything you post needs constant surveillance on the innate details of how it has performed. There’s an extensive focus on analytics and you also have to know where to look. For example, on YouTube, not only are you looking at when and how people are watching, but the average watch time is also so essential to how your content performs. How many people are watching to the end? You might have 10,000 views on a piece of content but was that within the first ten seconds? There are so many indicators of success for every individual piece of content.

Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, is quoted as saying people are not brands or corporations. What do you make of her comments? They’re clearly the opposite of your experience…

A brand is made up of all the different elements of experience a company has, including its customers. I disagree with the comment that people aren’t brands. Companies now understand the importance of leveraging their employees’ personas. I can see this in the increase of enquiries from large brands wanting internal workshops on how their staff talk online. Even in the media this has become a fiery topic.

This is not something to be resisted; personal branding is refreshing. There is an element of originality and admiration attached to someone who is honest and authentic online. People fundamentally connect with people and their stories. It should never be about success shouting online, but weaknesses, truths and individual hardships. If you were to look at Steve and his journey, he has been incredibly fortunate to use his experience to educate others, whilst inadvertently adding value to his brand  – it makes him more human.

He’s been very honest with his Diary of a CEO podcast… how important is authenticity?

Being authentic online is so important. If you are attempting to replicate someone else’s success, no one will listen. We were incredibly taken aback by the response from Steve’s podcast. It was initially a big risk but opening up about some of the challenges he has experienced has made his audience feel deeply connected, as a result. What many people don’t know is that your audience is often your biggest critic – your reputation derives from your audience. People think you establish your reputation, but your reputation is what your audience thinks of you and that’s how it’s created.

2017 was known as the year of personal branding, what changes do you envisage this year?

It’s a difficult one. I definitely think its full potential is yet to be realised. We’re seeing more personal brands online, but the industry is yet to completely harmonise the profiling and personal development element with social media. I think people will vie for more substance and value behind their online presence, as everyone on Instagram strives to become an influencer. The impact this has on people’s careers and their progression will make it more sought after than ever before. The career market is becoming increasingly adaptable and flexible which will only make personal branding more popular.

I want to turn this on me quickly. I’m a copywriter and journalist, but I don’t have much of an online profile. Am I at a disadvantage to other people with a personal brand?

Personal branding is not for everyone. I personally shy away from attention online – this probably stems from my brand being undeveloped, which is ironic. However, there is a tremendous opportunity for someone like you to situate yourself into so many conversations online. People think Twitter is dying, but it’s an incredibly conversational platform. To provide social commentary and to be known as the person who has the ability and the knowledge to comment on industry happenings is such a valuable thing, and it’s not as broad as putting out a YouTube video; it’s about the little efforts taken online to build your brand. Opinions are so important. If you’re impartial, the likelihood is you’ll be forgotten; and if you’re on the fence, you won’t be known.

Donald Trump is in the news all the time. What can we take away from the way he portrays himself on Twitter? He’s authentic, it all comes from the horse’s mouth…

He’s one of the most talked about people in the world, and in a way that’s fantastic! It’s a shame that the implications are so polarising. However, there’s a lot to learn from someone like him – especially for those wanting to engage with a younger generation. We are the future of voting – unfortunately, the mass majority are apathetic. Trump is hitting the right space to be able to engage a massive amount of people. Obviously what he’s saying is questionable, but his presence on social media is refreshing for a president in the 21st century.

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