I was just featured by BBC in an article “Standing out when your name is John Smith” addressing the challenge of building a personal brand online if you have a common name. A starting point in this regard is claiming a proper domain name where you can build a platform for your personal brand.
While I personally don't have many namesakes and didn't have any problems registering niklasmyhr.com, I am often asked this question and in this post, I will share my perspectives on this issue. I usually suggest that if you cannot become the John Doe, at least you should try to become a John Doe amongst the others.
If your name is very common, a Google searcher will likely recognize that they have to ascertain which John Doe is the one they are looking for. However, if you are not even one of the top ten John Does out there, there is a risk that a recruiter mistakenly could believe that you are one of the other ones.
Alternatively, a company noting that you are not even competitive in your own name brand space could start wondering how you would be capable of helping them build their brand? In the following, I will outline a few domain name strategies that you may want to consider if your name is something like Mary Miller or James Johnson.
Build your personal brand platform on a different top level domain
While the .com top-level domain remains the preferable gold standard, you should consider alternative top-level domains if the .com version with your name is already taken. You could even consider registering your name with the alternative top-level domains even if you already own the .com version as this could further protect your personal brand. It depends on how collegial you want to be toward your namesakes… At least companies customarily claim variations of their brand names, including common misspellings, for defensive purposes as it makes it more difficult for others to hijack traffic intended for the brand in question.
The main alternatives to the .com version remains the .net and the .org options. For a personal brand, the .net top level domain is a perfectly acceptable alternative while the .org extension is somewhat of a misfit given that it is primarily meant for non-profit organizations. Some other top-level domains that could be considered are: .info, .me, .pro., .co, or even country-specific top-level domains such as .se for Sweden if your activities are primarily focused on that country market.
Modify your name to find an available domain
If the ideal domain name as in FirstnameLastname.com is not available, you can choose to register a variation of your name. To find and purchase a suitable domain name under this circumstance, you may want to consider one of the following name modification approaches, some of which were also addressed by personal branding expert Dan Schawbel in the BBC article:
- Insert a middle initial such as in FirstnameMiddleinitialLastname.com.
- Spell out your middle name to make it FirstnameMiddlenameLastname.com.
- Add a prefix like the word “the” in front of your name to make you stand out like TheJohnDoe.com.
- Use a suffix such as Jr., III, Ph.D. after your name JohnDoeJr.com.
- Insert a number after your name like in JohnDoe7.com but just as an email address like email@example.com is looking unprofessional to many (especially if you are still using AOL as your email service provider), it is advisable to avoid numbers in your personal domain name. Perhaps the exception to this “rule” would be if you are John Doe III where the addition of the number three at the end actually does make sense to make it JohnDoe3.com.
- Go with your nickname, especially if that name is what you are known by anyway so you would use NicknameLastname.com. This option would be more effective if it is also likely that any references to you made by others would also be using that nickname instead of your legal name.
Change your name for personal branding purposes
A more radical approach to personal branding would be to legally change your name. Admittedly, this could be taking it a bit too far if it is done solely for the purpose of finding an appropriate domain name but it is a strategy that could help you stand out in real life as well. For example, if your “name competitor” is a celebrity filling up Google searches with numerous stories, you may face difficulties or even ridicule going by that same name depending on who it is.
Granted that some namesakes may be able to put a positive spin on it by referring to themselves as “Not THAT John Doe but another great guy” or the like. Still, if your name is Brad Pitt and you are not THAT Brad Pitt, you have probably already considered changing your name.
Other reasons for changing your name for personal branding reasons could be if you have a name that is simply too common, too bland, or too difficult to spell. For better or worse, immigrants have Americanized their names for generations. The potential downside of this strategy is that you then would give up the potential benefit of having a unique foreign name that could help you stand out.
Strengthen your personal brand with your institutional affiliation
Another way of approaching the dilemma of having a common name is to associate yourself more clearly with your institutional affiliation or belonging so that you, with your organization's approval, would establish your online home at say ibm.com/JohnDoe. If you work for a strong brand, this could elevate the status of your online brand as well and could be a wise strategy, especially if you expect your employment to be for the long haul.
That being said, I caution my students about the risks of only being associated with their current employer given that people in their twenties change jobs every 18 months or so. That is, if their current employment were to be terminated, they would need to rebuild their online presence basically from scratch. I would rather see them maintain some personal online platforms that are not directly associated with their current employer.
Conversely, I advise executives that they need to embrace the need of their employees to maintain some degree of personal online presence even during their employment. Ideally, the personal networks of the employees would feed into the companies' networks to some extent so this arrangement could actually be beneficial to both parties.
A good example in this regard is the one of Scott Monty who has successfully led Ford Motor Company's social media initiatives since 2008. In parallel with being personally associated with numerous high-profile social media campaigns by Ford, he has also maintained a personal blog at ScottMonty.com, his personal Twitter account at @ScottMonty, and even a hobby blog about his obsession with Sherlock Holmes. Now, after six years with Ford, when he has announced that he is taking on a new position as Executive VP of Strategy at SHIFT Communications, these personal platforms are easily portable for his continued use.
Brand yourself with a slogan, tagline or a catchphrase
If you find that you have difficulties breaking through the clutter using your name alone, you could consider attaching yourself to a branded term you develop or a tagline that you consistently use whenever you can. The downside is that you may not want to be married to that slogan for the long haul. Regardless, if you become known as John Doe The Indomitable or whatever catchphrase you choose, it could help differentiate yourself from your namesakes.
The tagline, slogan or catchphrase you choose could be industry-specific or highlight certain attributes of your personality. One example I like in this regard is by content marketing ninja Marcus Sheridan, aka “The Sales Lion” whom I frequently cite in my teaching and he has built a strong brand using TheSalesLion.com as his platform.
Blame your parents or help your kids?
Perhaps you were born before the Internet but in these times, registering a domain name even before you name your children certainly makes sense to me as I wrote about in “Good Domain Parenting” and discussed in another BBC article. Yes, it is possible that the Internet will have changed by the time today's children grow up. The way we find brands and people today on websites could become an obsolete practice.
Still, the relative affordability (e.g., at Namecheap.com) of owning domain names for about $10 a year makes it an attractive alternative when compared to the potential value of building a strong personal brand for career success. Note that you do not necessarily have to do anything with the domain name until your child is ready to take advantage of it. Instead, you can simply own and protect their right to use it when the time is right.
If your parents missed the train by not claiming your name online, you can at least ensure that the mistake is not repeated for the next generation. Registering domain names for the children of yours or of your relatives is both easy and affordable and the domain name registrar that I currently recommend for its straightforward interface and low cost is Namecheap.com.
So, these were some strategies that you can consider if you have to deal with the challenge of building a personal brand with a common name. Please let me know if you have any reactions to these strategies or if you suggest any other alternatives.