The Brand Called URL

At the heart of the Web are two important lessons about your career: You are your most important product, and everything about you gets more valuable when you use technology to leverage it.

Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Tom Peters said that in the new world of work, everyone will be responsible for "The Brand Called You." Nathan Shedroff says that in the new economy, everyone will be famous for 15 pages. The combination of Warhol and Peters, in other words, yields a new maxim for an economy in which business is migrating to the Web and people are migrating to Free Agent Nation.

"Almost everyone will have a personal Web site, just as almost everyone has a phone number — at least in the developed world," predicts Shedroff, 34, cofounder and chief creative officer of Vivid Studios. There are already plenty of ways to promote yourself, from informal networking to paid advertising. But a personal Web site — a 24x7 storefront devoted exclusively to the Brand Called You — may become the mother of all self-promotion tools. "It's going to eclipse everything that came before it," says Shedroff.

Shedroff knows a bit about eclipsing the past. He and a partner founded Vivid Studios during the Internet's Pleistocene Era — back in 1990, before the World Wide Web took off — and built Vivid into one of the online world's premier branding firms. Today, about 85 "Vividians" work out of the company's warehouse headquarters, in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch. There, they design Web sites and craft digital strategies for such clients as Nike, Charles Schwab, AltaVista, and Arthur Andersen.

It wasn't all that long ago that techno-elitists turned up their noses at personal Web sites. Then, earlier this year, Yahoo! bought GeoCities for a cool $3.5 billion — and the sniffing abruptly stopped. "Personal publishing represents the next big paradigm shift on the Web," Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang has said. And, according to Shedroff, personal publishing represents the next big thing in branding: Witness former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's recent Web-site IPO, which instantly transformed the 82-year-old public-policy figure from a wise doctor with worthwhile advice into a hip Webpreneur worth millions.

Shedroff has given this emerging techno-zone — a zone where the Web meets personal branding — a great deal of thought. (He's the kind of guy who takes along his laptop on a Hawaiian vacation, so that he can write essays on the beach.) On his Web site (www.nathan.com), you'll find a friendly greeting — "Welcome to my world . . ." — followed by a series of choices that allow you to experience what's going on in "My Current Headspace." Among the offerings in "Newest Things" are articles and presentations on seduction, the online industry, online branding, and personal Web sites. Go to his essay on personal Web sites, and you'll discover Shedroff's Web-site taxonomy — personal, professional, and communal — and his answer to the question, "Why would someone want a personal Web site, anyway?" "As is usual with new media and technology," writes Shedroff, "we tend to wrongly view the new as different than what has come before merely because it is unusual. However, personal Web sites are close cousins to journals, photo albums, diaries, and holiday letters. In all the important ways, they are not new at all, but merely the latest evolution of personal expression."

For people who have misgivings about personal Web sites, Shedroff is quick to offer reassurance. "I know several people who are extremely successful, who are well known in their industries, and who don't have their own Web sites," he says. "They don't even have their resumes online. It's not a necessity."

But there's a reason why so many people are creating personal Web sites. "It's a good tool," Shedroff says. "What better way to describe yourself repeatedly, concisely, and maybe even completely? For a professional who's worried about the Brand Called You, a personal Web site is probably the best tool ever created."

In an interview with Net Company, Shedroff offered principles for creating a Web site that will electrify your personal brand.

 

1. Know thyself.

 

Designing your personal Web site is only the second step. Before you do anything else, you've got to figure out who you are, and then you've got to embrace that. Everything else flows from there. People outside the mainstream — gays and lesbians, women, ethnic minorities — have always had to confront this issue. There's a point in their lives when they have to say, "This is who I am. If you can't handle it, move on." Before you begin designing a Web site, think about what kind of life you want to lead and what kind of career you want to design. The secret to having a compelling Brand Called You is to know thyself. Otherwise, you're promoting someone else's brand with your name on it.

 

2. The personal is the professional.

 

There used to be a clear boundary between the professional and the personal. But the line between the two is blurring, especially for free agents and entrepreneurs. When you go to design your personal Web site, don't let your site sink into this false divide. You are what you do. That's not all that you are, but it's a very important component — and a very powerful expression — of who you are.

If you want to see how some people have put this principle into practice, just look at such sites as Matt Drudge's Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) or Harry Knowles's Ain't It Cool News (www.aint-it-cool-news.com). The site, the brand, and the person are all bound up together. And that's precisely the point. Matt Owens's Volumeone (www.volumeone.com) is another great example. It's a beautiful Web site — but it's more than that. As well as being a portfolio, it's also a kind of online magazine about design. His views, his experiences, and his tastes come through as much as his work does.

This principle has slowly begun to take hold. That's why having a personal domain to associate with your email address or URL has become the most prestigious domain that you can have — so much so that people are having to register their domains in other countries, since the ones that they want are already taken in the United States. If work is personal, why shouldn't domains be personal too? Few of us want to hide behind the banner of a big company. More of us want to hang out a shingle. And if you hang out that shingle, you probably want to put your name on it.

Now, that doesn't mean that you have to run out right now and register TrudyLopez.com or DigitalDan.com. But you should think about the way you present yourself online. So, for example, if you're not going to get your own domain, pick a service that's compatible with who you are. If your brand is identified with raging against the machine, you don't want "att.net" or "msn.com" as part of your URL. And if you want to keep some aspects of your online life private, as many of us do, you may want to establish double domains: private.nathan.com and public.nathan.com.

The underlying design principle: Be direct. Tell people who you are, and don't try to separate the "work you" from the "you you."

 

3. You're not just building a Web site. You're starting a conversation.

 

You're not building a site just so that Web crawlers can log your presence on the Net. The whole point is to generate conversations with other people. So ask yourself, Is this site going to make people think? Is it going to make them want to talk to me? Is it going to make them want to refer the site to someone else?

Other people have to be able to reach you: to rebut you, to challenge you, to inspire you, to entertain you — and yes, to hire you. You've got to design your site with those goals in mind. That's why most so-called community sites don't work: They don't truly foster conversation.

But the ones that do work take this principle and run with it. Some of them are touching, such as Abbe Don's Bubbe's Back Porch (www.bubbe.com) and Derek Powazek's Fray (www. fray.com). Others are frivolous but somehow satisfying, such as Derek's Kvetch (www.kvetch.com). Whatever the specifics of each site may be, they all offer their audience a voice. They all invite conversation, although you don't need to participate in these sites to appreciate them. This lesson is one that publishers are already starting to learn: If you don't give people an opportunity to participate, when they do come to your site, they'll just move on.

Another rule: The more personal the conversation, the better. But making a conversation personal requires involvement and accessibility — two attributes that scare most people. And opening yourself up to feedback can sometimes be unpleasant. The kind of feedback that most people get from their site is usually encouraging, interesting, and thoughtful — but sometimes it can be vitriolic and nasty. Some people will interpret your having a site as an open invitation to be mean. But that's not enough of a danger that you should avoid creating a site altogether. After all, none of us enjoy all of the conversations that we have in our offline life, but we don't use that fact as an excuse to refrain from all conversations. And in business, conversations are essential to getting anything done.

 

4. Authenticity matters.

 

The sites that work best are the ones that are authentic. Here's where a lot of corporate Web sites run into trouble. When you look at the average corporate site, you get the sense that somebody in the marketing department put it up — and that no one who actually runs the company has seen it. I often hear people at companies joke about what's on the corporate Web site. "Yeah, right," they'll say. "Like that's true."

This may sound weird, but you can learn a lot by comparing the sites of porn stars with the sites of mainstream film and music stars. Porn-star sites are often more personal, more intimate, more authentic, and more interesting than the sites of traditional stars — which usually read as if a pr department had created them.

Compare, for example, the site for the porn actress Aunt Peg (www.auntpeg.com) with the site for the singer Michael Bolton (www.michaelbolton.com). Aunt Peg's site may or may not have been created by a publicist, but when you experience it, you think that you're interacting with an actual person. Porn stars are, literally, not afraid to expose themselves — they have nothing left to hide! Of course, they're characters: They're trying to create and maintain a persona. But the lesson here is real: If you're reserved, if you worry about revealing the real you, then you'll create a site that isn't authentic, complete, or representative.

Why be authentic? Because if you're not, that fact will become apparent very quickly. The literacy rate in this medium (and in media generally) is soaring. As more and more people create their own Web sites, they start to understand this medium better — and they lose their patience with disingenuous stuff.

So, as you design your site, ask yourself: Are you talking about what really matters to you? Or are you talking about what you think should matter to you? If something matters to you, it doesn't matter how you say it. The personal and the professional are so inextricably linked that the core of your professional brand will always be the most personal expression of "you."

 

5. You change. So should your Web site.

 

Your site is a representation of you — and "you" is not static. The person you were last month is not the person you'll be next month. And your Web site should operate on the same principle. Read some of the many diary sites out there, and you'll see that some things in people's lives change, while other things remain constant. Apply that lesson to your Web site: Make it easy for people to see what's changing. And make sure that the things that don't change speak loudly about your brand.

Some changes are cosmetic. That's fine. Your site doesn't have to reinvent itself totally. It can record the small, even superficial changes that you're experiencing. But don't leave it at that. Suppose that somebody visits your site and comes back a year later to find that nothing significant has changed. That's no different from running into an acquaintance after a year apart — and realizing that she has no new ideas, no new perspectives, no new experiences. She's exactly the same: She hasn't learned anything, or taken any risks, or grown one bit. How boring!

Unfortunately, Web tools today are so bad, they don't allow you to change your Web presentation very easily. So you may have to satisfy yourself with adding a few more links or with getting rid of some links — depending on what's in your head space at that moment. For instance, if a personal page has a dead link, think about what message that broadcasts to the world: "Hi, everyone. I'm not paying attention!" That's not the kind of free agent that a client would want to hire. And that's not the kind of person that anyone would want to have a conversation with.

Personal Web sites, and the brands that they represent, are new. They come from a tradition, but they're new. That doesn't mean that something else might not supplant them in the next 10 years or the next 50 years. But whatever form such communications take, they all speak from the same human need — the desire to identify yourself, to tell the world, "I'm here. This is who I am. And here's what I have to say."

Contributing Editor Daniel H. Pink manages the Brand Called Pink on his Web site (www. freeagentnation.com). You can find the URL Called Nathan Shedroff on the Web (www.nathan.com). Or visit Vivid Studios on the Web (www.vivid.com).

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