I don’t know what it is about hashtags, but just one can send the most apathetic of Instagram scrollers into a tailspin of eye rolls. Subtext: She’s so clearly trying to get followers. I’ve cringed at their abundance underneath an outfit shot and wondered why it was at all necessary for a friend to put a hash before the word “latte.” (Are we actually unsure of what’s in that cup?) (What if it were a cappuccino?) But it’s not the hashtag itself that makes us scoff, is it? We scoff because the whole thing is a little bit embarrassing — and it’s embarrassing, I guess, because it seems self-promotional.
Except…isn’t building up your personal brand a smart thing?
Take Dria Murphy, for example. She has 24.2k Instagram followers and an endless stream of eye-pleasing photos. Think: bodies of water, flowers, sand, succulents, glasses of wine, dinners, the occasional fitness shot — and lattes. It appears to be the makings of a blogger on the rise, yet in no way is that the case. Not even as a hobby on the side. Instead, she’s the founder of Alise Collective, a branding and public relations company that she began in 2015.
Murphy began using Instagram for the same reasons most of us did: for fun. She was doing PR for Topshop at the time and saw how it was being used for campaigns and initiatives, how it could be used as a discovery platform and to connect new people, and how it could get the word out about something to a larger audience. So she started treating her own account as a guinea pig. “I wanted to see what was working,” she told me of her non-strategy strategy. “I came at it from a career standpoint. But also, I enjoyed it.”
Her goal was never — and still isn’t — to “become Instagram famous,” but was she mad at new followers? Of course not. For Murphy, the hashtags, accruing followers and getting likes were just part the Insta-package — might as well embrace it all. I compared it to attending a football game: Fair-weather or diehard fan, why not wear the team colors, drink beer from a plastic cup and embrace the silly paraphernalia?
“Exactly,” she said.
Now she uses her personal account to refine the strategy she suggests to her own clients — and potential new clients.
“It helps that they can see what you’ve done on a personal level because they relate it to what you can do for them. It expresses my aesthetic and personality, and it has created a layer of trust. I have people who email me and say, ‘What’s the best restaurant in X neighborhood to host something? Who should I talk to for Y?'”
Before Alise Collective, Murphy worked at a start up that disbanded her department and with it, her role. What I wanted to know was whether or not having this pre-existing personal brand — before she formally founded Alise Collective — helped her get her own company off the ground.
“I wouldn’t give my Instagram account all the credit,” she said, “but it definitely helped a lot. I’ve had clients find me through it. They liked what I was doing and wanted to know how I could apply it to their company.”
I also wondered whether or not anyone gave her shit for the hashtags and the sunsets. Not her followers, but friends or family.
“Definitely. There’s a lot of sarcastic ‘Are you gonna Instagram that?’-type questions from my brother,” Murphy said.
Natalie Zfat is a writer and social media entrepreneur. She has 19.3k Instagram followers. On her website it also says that she is a “hashtag creator extraordinaire.” She echoed Murphy’s sentiments about the benefits of building your own personal brand: that potential clients and/or employers have the opportunity to see what you’re all about.
When I brought up that it can be kind of “embarrassing” to build your brand — to hashtag and post about articles you’ve written, to self-promote in any way, she acknowledged my discomfort but believes personal branding to be just the opposite.
“We’re taught from an early age that it’s not natural to toot our own horns,” she explained. We’re taught that it’s not polite to focus too heavily on ourselves or speak to our strengths in a way that might be viewed as self-centered. But personal branding is not a bad thing. There’s a lot of value in it, especially if you’re an author or a blogger or an artist. You want to reach a wide audience to get your name out there. It’s very much about finding a delicate balance between sharing accomplishments and passions without seeming…”
“Annoying?” I interrupted her.
“There are always going to be people who aren’t in your fan club,” she said. (File that under things I know but never can seem to keep in my head.)
“The reality is that personal brands have the ability to be authentic and transparent and grow trust with followers in a way that corporations have a harder time doing,” Zfat continued. “There are companies who do a great job of building trust and producing authentic content, but it’s easier for consumers to relate to a personal brand because we care deeply about people. Their experiences are relevant to ours. It’s about that human-to-human connection.”
Max Stein, founder and managing director of Brigade (his Instagram account is private and his management company does not have its own Instagram despite representing creatives with sizable followings) reminded me that this idea of building a personal brand isn’t exactly new.
“Before social media, it was just called your reputation,” he said. “It was about making and managing good relationships.” Which is still true. Instagram definitely gives us a more public platform, but we’ve always needed connections, portfolios, resumes and good references to get our feet in various doors. He doesn’t discredit the value of a social media following, but even when advising his clients to post more frequently, he thinks of their numbers as an added bonus: “Followers shouldn’t have to justify years of experience,” said Stein, “but in this day and age, name recognition is an advantage.”
He also brought up an interesting point: “With social media, you can build a brand, or you can build fame. There’s a difference.”
Which is exactly the thing, I think, that causes people to roll their eyes at friends who hashtag keywords under selfies or second-guess posting their own noteworthy accomplishments: perception and assumptions. And as every therapist will tell you, you cannot control anyone’s but your own.
Danielle Prescod, BET’s lifestyle editor, has 21.6k followers on Instagram. She was a fashion assistant at a magazine when the app first became popular and downloaded it because, industry-wise, she thought it was important to have one. She saw it as a way to express her taste and style during a level in her career when she was expected to follow her boss’s protocol, not interject. It allowed her say, “This is who I am.”
As for me, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m wary to post anything that could even remotely come off as, well, anything. Whatever that means. I said as much and asked if she felt the same.
“Nope. Be proud of the work that you do, proud of who you are, and the work that you do as a person. It’s not bragging,” Prescod said.
Now that her following has grown (totally organically, she says — she has no strategy beyond posting selfies, tagging brands that she either buys or receives as a gifts without any sort of compensation, eliminating captions to avoid any misinterpretations, and using hashtags when events call for them), she keeps up her posts as a way to stay involved and relevant.
“If the past four years in this industry have taught us anything, it’s that these jobs are fragile,” said Prescod. “When I was in between jobs, my Instagram showed what I was up to — that I was freelancing. You could disappear if no one’s checking for you.”
And in that one statement — which, if you know her, you know that she’s at least half joking — Prescod confirmed the one unavoidable truth about building your personal brand: that the point of all of this is to be seen and heard. As for whether that’s good or bad, well, who cares? Personal branding is all in the eye of the beholder.
Feature collage by Emily Zirimis.