6 Tips for Better Branding Using Avatars

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We're living in a social media world, and, like it or not, our avatar is often the first impression others get about us as we interact virtually on social networks, blogs, microblogs and other online communities. Our avatars are a representation of our brands — our personal brand or our company's or organization's brand. But how many of us are thinking strategically about our avatars?

Here are six tip for better branding using avatars.

1. Define your brand. Anyone familiar with Branding 101 knows how to think through the attributes of a brand. Simply put, you need to ask yourself which words best describe who you are and what you'd like to project to others. When I was working with my business partner to think about the brand for our new company, we came up with "professional, creative, playful, approachable." For my own personal brand, I might pick "helpful, honest, sensible, snarky."

2. Identify your assets. Once you've established clear brand attributes, you need to go through the images you have or are considering using for your avatar and pick those that most clearly represent those attributes. Without question, using a photograph of yourself will always establish more trust than using any other image, particularly any non-human image.

Meez_ My Meez ~~ Dress up your 3D avatar with items from Lil Mama, Chris Brown and SouljaBoyA cartoon image of yourself can be a good second choice if the nature of the illustration is in keeping with your brand attributes. You could use a site such as Meez, DoppelMe or Yahoo Avatars to create a cartoon likeness. You might use your Second Life avatars to represent yourself on your profile, particularly if you're involved with the virtual world in your work.

Your company logo could stand in for your own image. However, that may create different expectations from others if they think they're hearing from the "company" instead of you.

Any other image that you pick could potentially cause confusion or give the wrong impression. Not everyone gets the inside joke between you and your friends when you put a photo of a hot dog on your profile. If you are thinking about the importance of the image you project, you need to make your avatar choice very carefully.

Yahoo! Avatars-23. Optimize your images. If you are using a photograph, you can use a free online editing tool such as Picnik, PiZap or FotoFlexer to touch it up or add interesting effects.

Beware of "overproduced" photographs that misrepresent what you actually look like. They may not affect trust now, but could once someone meets you in person.

4. Be ever-present. Don't get lazy and fail to add an image to your profile. In fact, make sure any time you set up a new social media account that you have an avatar ready to upload immediately, while you fill in the basic details of your profile. Wherever there is the opportunity to extend your brand with an image, upload that image.

A profile without a personalized avatar can send the wrong signals to others. When I'm contacted by someone who uses a generic avatar, I feel a mixture of:

  • Suspicion. If I don't know the person, I want to be able to see what they look like and so I wonder what they're trying to hide.
  • Skepticism. If they don't take the time to add their image, I wonder how seriously they're taking social media as a communications tool, particularly if they're contacting me for professional reasons.
  • Doubt. I think that if someone can't even figure out how to add a basic image to their profile, they might lack basic skills, which doesn't bode well if they're approaching me for a job.
  • Frustration. In this world of virtual contacts and less likelihood of a face-to-face meeting, I rely on profile images to provide a sense of connection that's lacking from purely textual encounters.

Don't forget that avatars aren't just for social media profiles. They're also available on many blog publishing tools so your image appears with your blog comments. You can also create a universal avatar via Gravatar (Globally Recognized Avatar) and attach a consistent image to many of your interactions on blogs and social media sites.

5. Mix it up. While on the one hand you want to be consistent with your personal brand and thus your avatar, that doesn't mean you have to use the same image across all sites. Nor does it mean you can't switch out your image periodically to keep things fresh. The consistency comes from staying "on message" with your avatar choices.

Pick an avatar that is appropriate for each site — in many cases you could use the same image, but think before you upload. And when you're ready for a change, pull from a pool of images you've already reviewed and optimized.

Picnik6. Politicize with care. Who knew that simply making your avatar green could be a powerful and controversial political statement? Many people will modify their avatars to show their support for or against the cause of the moment. Managing your brand also means taking care to decide which political or social movements you'll be backing with your personal branding images.

Changing your avatar to green can be the virtual equivalent of wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a political slogan, or even attending a rally or protest. But while it may be a physically "safe" way to broadcast your personal and political opinions, it could affect your personal brand in detrimental ways. What if a client or potential employer doesn't share your views and sees that you've been supporting a cause they are vehemently against?

I'm not saying that you shouldn't have the courage to speak out for what you believe in, but understand the deeper impact to other aspects of your virtual life and work when you choose to use your brand avatar as a soapbox.

How are you building and managing your personal brand through your avatar?