I really loved this recent post on self-promotion by Aubrey at Barcode Alternative. In it, she explains her problems with self-promotion, starting with advice she was given about using Twitter to manufacture relationships and ending with a recent situation where she bought an advertising package on another blog. When she discusses it, her unease drips off the page:
“I felt like a fraud because I was paying for someone else to interview me. It would have been different if they wanted to interview me, share my posts, etc. It made me constantly wonder, if my stuff was shared because I paid for it and nothing could stop that questioning because money was involved.”
I get her unease. Paying for promotion that crosses the line from a clearly marked ad that we all know is paid for to something else that, well, isn’t as clear can feel really fake. Am I just paying someone to pretend to be my friend? Is it clear that this is just advertising? Are we acting as business people or pretending at friendship (or actually becoming friends?)
But at the end of the day, Aubrey is also a potential small business person and, at some point, she will probably need to promote herself (and, well, eat).
So my question is: is there an authentic way to sell yourself?
I think there is. Aubrey mentions that making a good product and promoting good products is a way to create a new dynamic. I like the concept but, unfortunately, we don’t get to live in that world. Even if you and I can or do live at that level, there’s a lot of people and corporations who are just pretending. We live in the world where the saddest and best piece of advice is to brand yourself and to constantly promote brand you. I have some ideas that start with and come back to:
Own your shit. Don’t claim that professional decisions are personal ones. If someone calls you on something you did, own it. You don’t have to be embarrassed if you’re not, but don’t pretend you didn’t do it. For that matter, don’t pretend to have emotions that you don’t have. Don’t say you’re something you’re not, especially if you’re not even going to try to be whatever that is. If you have ulterior motives behind what you do, at least don’t lie to yourself about it. Try not to lie to other people about it either; people generally get upset when they’re mislead, especially if it feels personal. As someone (approximately) said in my thesis research – if I find out X was pretending to be female and we talked about comics I don’t care, but if we talked about childbirth I’d be pissed. Don’t fake friendships for profit or because you think it’ll make you look better. Give credit where credit is due, and don’t take other people’s toys.
Make good stuff. Something where, at the end of the day, you’re proud of yourself. That doesn’t mean that thing has to be perfect; works-in-progress or beta are always acceptable. In some ways, they’re even better. Engage experts, peers, and/or your consumers in a meaningful and actual way to improve who you are and what you do. If you want to be fancy, you can call it market research, crowd-sourcing, or UX. It can also be a way to promote yourself – if people like how you take their advice, like what you created with them, like you, they’ll probably share/brag to their friends – but don’t ask them to do it. Don’t work with people just because you think it’ll be free publicity, do it because you actually want to work with them, which leads to….
Only work with people you respect and that respect you. Ideally, you should also like them, but that’s not a requirement. Work is a lot easier and better when you’re not constantly inner-eye rolling and counting the minutes until you can grab a beer and complain to your best friend.
Ask and emphasize over and over that you want people to be honest about you. Negativity is ridculously hard to stomach but it makes the positive even sweeter. It’s also a good way to learn about people: what do they value? Do they use the opportunity to be helpful or vicious? It’s your right to feel however you feel about their honesty, but keep in mind if a lot of people say it, it’s probably true and important.
Give your stuff away, sometimes. Let people try it for themselves and make their own opinions. Value those opinions. Don’t tell people how they should feel; even if it’s good work, maybe it’s just not for them. Be flattered if someone did like it.
Make your own line in the sand, be honest and open about it, and let people know if it changes. Maybe that’s paying for an ad on someone’s blog and a giveaway, but not an interview. Or a giveaway but you’re very clear it was paid for. (It took me the longest time to realize that bloggers were paid for hosting giveaways). It could be only taking advertisers whose products you already use, or ones that your friends and family like, or even just ones that you don’t necessarily like but don’t hate either. Just make a decision and own it. You don’t have to come out and say I hate product X but they’re paying me and I need to eat, but don’t pretend you’re doing it because you wuv them so very very much. If you have the opportunity to be even more honest about your sponsors or clients while continuing to pay your bills, do so. That ends up helping everyone.
I know these aren’t easy things to do. I’ve done a lot of crappy embarrassing work with other people, usually with people I didn’t respect. I’ve certainly had epic happy hour bitch sessions, and we all know that I’m bad at being confrontational. Sometimes you need that job, that client, that contact. Most of us don’t have the luxury of completely getting out of the self-branding and promoting, performative-friending, fake it ‘til you make it environment. Just start by owning your shit, at least to yourself if no one else. You’re definitely never going to get anywhere near authenticity by lying to yourself.