Not a Social Media Guy – Bigger Stories

Watching @jcqly and @ccsoulkirtan perform together yesterday was magical. I woke up thinking about labels this morning. I thought about how strange they are, how limiting. And I realized yet again that despite some people’s disdain for the concept of personal branding, we need to be mindful of what others label us.

The early days and what sparked me

When I got into the online world way back in the 80s, it was for a simple reason: the people around me were into talking about the Red Sox and cars, and I was into Batman and Star Wars. Folks on those first bulletin board services and later on platforms like AOL and Prodigy could align by interest instead of geography, and that was cool to me. Before that point, we were mostly forced into geography-centric, work-centric, or family-centric social groups.

Years later, when I got into blogging in 1998, it was because the tools let me express my interests and gave me an audience (pitifully small for a long while) for my writing. I didn’t need permission to publish. I just put my work out there for people to see. Eventually, I got the hang of it, and connected with others who wrote work that I found personally interesting. Instead of having to stay slave to whatever the tastes of mainstream publishers were at the time, I could find someone writing something of interest via the web.

Listening to podcasts brought about a huge realization that knowledge was power. I often tell the story about hearing information from then-CTO of Sun Microsystems Jonathan Schwartz that led to a significant savings on a purchase my company was making. Getting immersed in that world the first time led me to cofound PodCamp, and it’s what led me back to podcasting most recently with my new show.

Six years ago, when I joined Twitter, it felt like a super fast personal news service. I remember the moment that I knew it was valuable. I was at the CES event in Las Vegas, and Apple was having a big event (Macworld, I think) in California. I was roaming the floor with Jeff Pulver and he asked if maybe we should hop a plane to see what Apple was doing. I said, “We don’t have to: I’ve got all the news right here in real time.”

I wasn’t all that fussy on Instagram when it game out. I used to tease people who used it, saying that it’s a tool to turn people’s lame life experiences into a bunch of fake album covers (for those of you under a certain age, albums are these weird square cardboard covers and vinyl discs that transferred music to our homes in the age before Spotify). I now think that if Facebook hadn’t bought it, Instagram would have proven a huge threat to Zuckerberg and company. Why? Because it allows people to share personal experiences in a very simple way. There’s not a lot to the product, and that’s why it’s exciting. Oh, and I use it all the time now.

I’m not a social media guy

Having a lot of domain knowledge about these social media tools has labeled me a social media guy. I understand that. I’ve been a cheerleader for this or that tool for quite a long time. But the truth is, the tools are just that. They’re interesting insofar as how they can deliver value or not. In and of themselves, I’m not all that interested in them.

When I am thinking about business, I’m rarely thinking, “How can I help a company better use Pinterest?” Instead, my thoughts are more tuned to, “This business wants more buyers. How do I facilitate that?” Quite often, I use the social tools to bring some kind of benefit to a company (or an individual), but they’re not a default.

My favorite social media right now? Email. I am in love with my newsletter experience, and how the interactions with people can be so personal and intimate and customized. Email’s been around for decades. See?

I’m a business designer

In reworking what Human Business Works does for the world, we decided to focus on publishing and educating around a set of core concepts that we feel will help professionals do the work they want, only better. Business design is holistic. I don’t help people with marketing. I help them with improving their business. Should marketing be the missing piece, I’ll work on that. Should people need more exposure, we talk about how to get it. Should they need sales (usually a “yes”), we walk through ways to improve that process. Customer service? My favorite.

But labels are used whether or not you want them

But the labels are for other people any how. One realization I had early in business is that if you don’t have clear and obvious interface points, people don’t know how to interact with you. If I say I help with marketing, sales, and service, then people understand where to slot me. But there’s always a slotting. It’s why I get to keynote the annual PRSA conference for PR professionals *and* an annual Coldwell Banker conference for real estate professionals *and* events for the marketers of the world. Because what I have to share relates to humans in all aspects of business, and not just one.

A Recipe for Labeling Yourself

Realize this before I give you the ingredients: no matter what you call yourself, what others perceive will be different. Just the same, you should do what you can. If you don’t help people understand what you represent, others will fill in their own blanks.


  • Simple words (fewer syllables)
  • Customer-facing explanation
  • Ties back to “the real world”
  • Repetition
  • A body of work


In working out what HBW and I do for people, I settled on the term “business design.” The words are easy enough, and people can grasp what I mean when I put them together. Choose simple words to explain what you do, even if it’s tricky. My former CTO, Bill Wessman, used to introduce himself at client meetings like this: “I’m Bill. Tech” He’d say almost nothing else. Those who needed to know who he was knew what he did, and those who just needed him in a bucket knew he wasn’t the finance guy, the CEO, or the sales guy.

Sometimes, people have incredibly flowery labels for what they do, but not such that people understand how they can interact with you. I’ve talked to “chief dreamers” and many “divas” and it’s hard to understand what they intended to do for me. “Professional declutterer” is understandable. “Interpreter” would be a swell name for a pastor, right? (Though they do a bit more than that.) Make the way you talk about yourself define the value others would get from working with you.

If you go too far afield, people won’t know how to engage your services. Tie your description back to a real world interface. Business design focuses on sales, marketing, and service elements of a business. I won’t be as helpful for the CIO (though I’ve worked with a few). Make sure this is clear in how you talk about yourself and how your website talks about you.

They say repetition is reputation. True that. And the phrase means “what you do is what people will know you for.” I agree. But I also mean to say that the more times I say “business designer,” the less people will call me social media guy.

At the end of it all, if you’re not doing what you say you do, no one cares. I called myself an author for decades before I had published a proper book, and years before I even wrote regularly. I loved the label more than I loved the work. Thankfully, that has changed. But what you do is what you are. I meet lots of people who are the “Dream Lifestyle” guy, and who live in a one-bedroom in Scranton. No matter what you say you are, you are what you do most.

Identity Matters More to Us Than to Them

At the end of it all, it doesn’t matter who you are to the person you serve. What matters is that they derive a benefit from their experience with you. That’s what they want. What attracts them to you in the beginning isn’t what will land the deal to keep you coming back. Results are what bring people back.

But don’t shrug off the work of being clear about who you are and what you stand for, because it matters. Those labels can limit others’ perspective of you, and that limits your opportunities. Be vigilant, and you’ll find your place. runs on the Genesis Framework

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  • influential

    Really thoughtful stuff, thanks Chris! Like the Genesis theme, too. Very clean.

    • Chris Brogan

      Well thanks! It’s so purdy. : )

  • Paul L’Acosta

    Do you think “labels” are also what we marketers sell in a fancy way as “Unique Selling Propositions”? Great morning ideas Chris.

    • Chris Brogan

      Well, yes and no. Other people usually give you labels, so if you create the USP, it’s got to line up with what someone’s labeled you, to some extent. But you know, in the same hood. : )

  • Kelly Hungerford

    You just made me feel a whole lot better about my Linkedin profile, Chris. I often feel the pressure to modify my “labels” but can rarely find the right words. Basic and simply stated has worked for me so far. Thanks for making me feel okay with that!

    • Chris Brogan

      I have written on that twice, about LinkedIn specifically. I think you can modify at will. : )

  • Adam Hathaway

    I am having a hard time labeling myself in transition. Currently I am employed full time for a large company but I am also working something on the side. When I interact with people that know me from both worlds they have a hard time understanding what I am doing on the side so they just label me as the tech guy, which is what I am trying to transition away from.

    • Chris Brogan

      So is there a bridge term that encompasses both?

      • Adam Hathaway

        Perhaps there is. I just have not figured that one out yet.

  • Scurrior

    Labels are tattoos. You’re gonna get one, whether you like it or not. Better to proactively have some say in the matter than not.

    • Chris Brogan

      I like your thinking, sir. : )

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  • Katybeth

    El Morno. I feel like this post was written to me. since I just described you as a social media star (yesterday) I’ll try not to take it personally and I did not use the word guy. :-D. I went back and changed it to business designer star not as catchy but it in the interest of brevity it worked.

    • Chris Brogan

      Oh, you can call me what you want. : )

  • Andrew Booth

    Great piece. I love that you called yourself an author before you became one. Must have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Chris Brogan

      Or a fun lie. : )

  • Emily Foshee

    Hi Chris, you’re totally right about the fact that in the end, it doesn’t matter what slot people put you in, it’s the experience they have that will keep them coming back for more. (or not.) As a former corporate PR exec, I tell all my clients that perception is reality, whether it’s fair or not.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Chris Brogan

      True that, Emily. Such a bummer, but true. : )

  • Seth

    I really found these 3 quotes to be impacting:

    “I don’t help people with marketing. I help them with improving their business.”

    “Make the way you talk about yourself define the value others would get from working with you.”

    “What you do is what you are.”

    Seth Godin just wrote a post today about who you associate with determines who you are. Great food for thought on all fronts.

    • Chris Brogan

      That’s definitely something to consider. I’ve been working on that very specific detail lately.

  • Casey Gollan

    Hi Chris, I couldn’t agree more that labels are often restrictive and rarely truly identify what someone does. In the online world of personal branding and consulting, a label is important so that people can identify with your work appropriately.

    However, it’s also really important within HR. I work with a lot of small business owners and one thing that comes up often is job titles. My personal thinking is that titles don’t really matter – what matters is if a person is capable of doing what is needed to be done. However, job titles do matter to the employee. A job title helps an employee identify with the work he/she does and with where he/she falls in the hierarchy of the business.

    It’s silly but if you give someone with 15 years of marketing experience the title of “marketing specialist” versus “marketing director” or “vp of marketing” there is a psychological effect that happens where the person may become unsatisfied with his/her job or place within the company simply because the title doesn’t reflect where the person feels he/she is at career wise despite the fact that even with a title “upgrade” the tasks would be the same.

    Anyway, I feel like I just went a bit off topic from the point you were trying to make with your post – but this is the line of thinking it sent me down. Labels are restrictive but important and must be given great thought.

    • Chris Brogan

      It’s definitely important with HR. My goodness, what paper says about us is never as full fledged as what we need to know about someone. I love how it got you thinking. : )

    • Chris Robinson

      I’m sure that’s not just true of the employees themselves, but also their future employers. Someone who was “VP of marketing” at their last company will probably be more attractive than someone who was simply a “marketing specialist.”

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  • OBVAVirtualAssistant

    Repition is what I did not understand. I am fimiliar to all the other ingredients. With the following paragragh came the clarity that repition of the label used for yourself will avoid beign labeled with some unwanted name. Yes true they will not be saying social media guy if the person is a blogger.

    • Chris Brogan

      Right. I’m neither. I use both.

  • Clair Trebes

    Hi Chris, stumbled across this post via my google alerts, and this has really resonated with me on so many levels.

    I liked your favourite social media right now ‘Email Newsletter’ I think so many people get to entwined with Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn that they forget they are just tools to drive your audience else where.

    Your blog, newsletter and products are the key – and its SO important that people see your name / product / brand and instantly know what it stands for but a ‘label’ is not always the right thing. I like the way you’ve listed the ingredients – for people who want to build a brand but aren’t sure where to start.

    Subscribing now to your updates!


    • Chris Brogan

      Thanks, Clair. I’m so happy to hear that. : )

  • Rich Brooks

    Reading your post today a few things stuck out, but none more than “a body of work.” So many people think getting on Twitter or Facebook is a replacement for having done the work and having something to show for it.

    They wonder why they don’t make a bigger splash. It’s because they don’t have a bigger rock.

    • Chris Brogan

      True that, sir. Just chatting doesn’t make the bread.

  • West Street

    Hello Chris and thank you for this very interesting piece. You’ve made me think about how I inwardly label others. Perhaps I should ask them what they ‘really’ do rather than accept their description…and walk away.

    • Chris Brogan

      A better question overall is, “What makes you passionate? ” :)

  • Jen Brown ~ Sparta PT

    It’s great to read your comments about the terms we used to describe ourselves as it is something I’ve really struggled with. Technically, I’m a personal trainer but I despise that term for more reasons than I have time to name. I’ve played with titles such as “Chief Movement Officer” but it doesn’t quite hit the mark either. Time to keep the thinking cap on. Thanks!

    • Chris Brogan

      Happy to get you thinking. : )

  • Daniel Decker

    Good word. I’ve never really focused on my personal brand, although I know I need to do a much better job of it. I’ve always just done the work, tried to do it really well, and let that become the brand (because of the reputation that is built). But, being a marketing guy at my core, I realize the tangible benefits (or need) in being intentional about the personal brand so that it takes on the direction I WANT it to versus having it just drift along.

    • Chris Brogan

      Remember that there are tons of marketing guys. What you do goes beyond that.

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Good stuff here. What you do IS what you are. Simple- yet so true! Also love your Sunday e-mails. Keep it coming Chris!

  • Jacqui Chew

    Been a while since I visited. Glad I did. Something you said here touched a nerve. Would like to discuss a TEDx talk w you in 2013. Can we discuss offline?

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  • Jennifer Cheatham

    Business Designer! Brilliant. In Marketing, we have many “hats”. So I always stumble when people ask me what I do. Sure, I have a title – - marketing coordinator, in my case – - but that doesn’t really give a great description!

    • Elizabeth Sebastian

      What was that about hats again? I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what
      we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One:
      People aren’t wearing enough hats. Hat sales have increased but not pari passu, as our research shows.

      Points to anyone who knows what I’m referring to there. ;-)

  • Chris Robinson

    Very thoughtful piece.

    Since I’m just getting started, I’ve had my own difficulties with labels. It wasn’t until I actually started doing some work that I found myself falling into more of a niche, and being able to tell people, “I’m a content writer specializing in marketing materials.” Or simply “writer” for short.

    Chris Robinson
    The Blarketing Mog

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  • Steve Garfield

    I really, really, really like this. I’ve got some work to do.

  • Cathy Tibbles

    I love the “business designer” concept. I noticed it right away on HBW.

    I’ve been thinking / brain storming mine for years… still nothing brilliant! But it IS important, that much I know.

    A client called me, “… a fairygodmother always throwing pixie dust info nuggets my way & making my day brighter!” yesterday. I love that but its a bit long. lol

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