People Follow People, Not Brands

Brett McGrath

March 30, 2022

People Follow People, Not Brands

Drew Beechler

Director of Marketing, High Alpha

What do we really mean when we say we “follow” someone? 

The definition of the word “follow” is:

“go or come after (a person or thing proceeding ahead); move or travel behind.”

When we’re referring to a social media follower or a brand’s “following”, though, we mean something a bit deeper. Our “followers” are those that care enough about us and what we have to say to “subscribe” to our thoughts. They may not “subscribe” to our way of thinking, but they subscribe to the importance of what we say enough that they want to be alerted to or know what we have to say.

Ever since the dawn of marketing and audience-building, we have been building “followers” and audiences. While at ExactTarget, I worked on an award-winning content series literally titled “Subscribers, Fans, and Followers”, which was all about how brands were amassing online followings. At the time, we were educating brands on why owned audiences were so important. Owned audiences were compounding assets. You owned the user experience. You didn’t need to pay “rent” to Facebook or Twitter. And you had the ability to build more loyal relationships. 

The deeper I get into my marketing career and watch digital marketing evolve, though, I realize I may have overlooked an important part of audience-building in those early days of Subscribers, Fans, and Followers. As influencer marketing explodes and one of the top dream jobs for kids today is a YouTube vlogger, it’s apparent that something we’ve always known in human behavior is now applying itself to online relationships: people want to follow people, not brands. 

This has been true in consumer marketing for quite some time as influencers have quickly amassed some of the largest audiences in the world. The Super Bowl — consistently the most-watched television broadcast in the United States — had 112M viewers this year. PewDiePie, for comparison, has over 111M subscribers on YouTube alone. 

We are seeing the same phenomenon happening in B2B marketing. LinkedIn influencers, Substack newsletters, or personal-branded communities like Dave Gerhardt’s Marketing Group (DGMG) are proving the same is true in B2B. People want to follow people.

In many ways, your company’s brand is really just the sum of all the individuals’ brands inside your company. 

And if that’s the case, you need to be developing individuals’ brands and giving them a runway to build out their own audiences. Below are three ways you can empower your employees do just that and structure your organization to facilitate that growth. 

Define your swim lanes and strategic points of view.

Audiences want opinionated points of view. They want you to take a stance. As a marketer and brand leader, it’s your responsibility to work with your internal creators to develop strong points of view. What is this individual passionate about? What do they want to share with the world? What are they uniquely qualified to share? These questions can help you define swim lanes for your creators up-front.

At High Alpha, we often build out thought leadership plans and content strategies based around a specific individual. Aligning up-front about the topic areas and points of view that an individual wants to take will help you operationalize the creation of content and personal brands at scale.

Build out an editorial process.

Not all of your creators and employees are writers and creatives. In order to scale personal brands, you need to have an editorial process and framework in place that can scale with your employees’ personal content and brands. Put in place a strong editorial team who can help refine concepts, edit content, and coach your people on how to build out engaging content. 

Get comfortable with the things you can’t measure.

When you’re focused on building out personal brands within your organization, you are naturally giving up control — both of the content itself and in the data. Your employees are the ones amassing followings, Substack subscribers, podcast listeners, etc. and not your brand. As a brand and organization, there are ways you can aggregate those audiences and enable individuals to point CTAs and lead captures back to your company, but that’s not the goal at the end of the day. You need to get comfortable knowing that you won’t be able to implicitly measure and track this like your standard demand gen programs and campaigns. You will need to look at referral traffic, direct traffic, and correlation data to have a sense of the impact it’s having on your business. 

Outside  brand awareness and lead generation, though, embracing a personal brand-led content strategy also has an incredible boost on employee engagement and retention, recruiting, fundraising, PR, and many other aspects of the business that you are not going to be able to easily quantify. My recommendation would be to trust the process and give it 6-12 months to play itself out and then measure the impact on your share of mind and overall brand perception. 

When done the right way, building personal brands will grow deeper, more valuable relationships and audiences that you ever were able to develop as a brand. Audiences are begging to follow people they relate to and people they can cheer for, and not just the next corporate newsletter and Twitter account. The brands that embrace that reality over the next few years are going to be leading the pack as thought leadership continues to evolve and mature.

If you’re interested in reading and listening to more of my thoughts and content, be sure to follow me on The Juice

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