July 2019 Issue
Creating Your Personal Brand — Tips From RDs in the Trenches
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Vol. 21, No. 7, P. 20
So, you think you’re ready to hang your RD shingle and start counseling, educating, and consulting? Do you have dreams of hiring another RD or two and even opening a branch office? Sounds amazing. But not so fast, say experts who’ve been there and back. There’s a long runway of creating your professional name and reputation—developing your personal brand—before you can safely take off.
Personal branding is the process of establishing and promoting what you stand for. It’s your unique combination of skills and experiences that differentiate you from other professionals in your field and make you and the services you offer stand out from the crowd.
In this article, Today’s Dietitian speaks with RDs at different stages of their careers and in different states. They’re operating their own practices and consulting businesses, and, based on their varied experiences, they’re offering advice on the dos and don’ts of developing your personal brand. Their recommendations are as varied as their experiences, but one piece of advice was consistent across the board: You have to believe in yourself and be passionate about what you do.
Here are steps suggested by Stacey Ross Cohen, a personal branding authority and CEO of Co-Communications Public Relations and Marketing Firm in New York City, for creating a roadmap for your personal brand, whatever your business model. If done right, she believes personal branding can be your biggest asset; done wrong, it can be your biggest liability.
Step 1: Discover
Ross Cohen identifies discovery as the first step in the personal branding roadmap. “You have to ask yourself some tough questions,” she says; “‘What do I want to be known for?’ ‘How do I add value for the client?’ ‘What am I most proud of?’” And, she says, “It’s important to understand your audience.” She recommends a good three months to really answer these questions before getting your business off the ground. It’s like building a house, she says; “You need a plan before you can lay the foundation, and you need an architect.”
Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, president of Nutrition for the Future, Inc, and creator of School Meals that Rock, says, “You have to get to know your target audience or client base.” And, she says, don’t make the mistake of thinking you already know what your audience needs. “The best businesses are those that solve problems people have, not the problems you think they have, and the only way to do that is to learn everything you can about them. The more time you spend establishing that foundation, the more successful you’re likely to be.”
For example, if you want to provide sports nutrition counseling services and want to learn about your target client base, find out what services are already being offered in your area. Interview athletes in your area about their needs, and ask how much they’d be willing to pay for counseling. Visit doctors who specialize in sports medicine and ask what their needs are. If you can’t interview the doctor, talk to the office manager and find out what services patients are asking for and where they’re currently referring patients.
If you want to hire a professional to help you in the discovery process and create your personal brand, make sure you have that figured into the budget. Hiring an expert for a personal branding package can cost $10,000 or more. Ross Cohen says her company can handle it all, provide the roadmap to clients so they can implement everything, or take a hybrid approach. She says that while branding is sometimes perceived as a luxury, these days, it’s more important than ever.
Step 2: Develop
The next step entails promoting your business to let the world know you exist and boast about what services you have to offer. However, Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, a food, nutrition, and leadership communications consultant in metro New York, says, “Don’t just throw things out like the spaghetti test and see what sticks.” In other words, have a promotion plan. If you don’t have a clue where or how to start, set aside money in your start-up budget for input from a public relations expert.
Ross Cohen says it’s important to develop a “ready to go” personal branding toolkit with a profile/bio/résumé, business cards, a thank-you note, a cover letter, video (if you go that route), testimonials, references, and any bonus materials, such as white papers, before opening the doors for business. She says it’s vital that your unique value comes through in whatever you do.
Another critical component for the success of any business is networking. Hayes started her business in the early ’90s before e-mail and the internet. Her business provides presentations, training, and technical assistance across the country for federal agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, departments of education, and commodity boards that want to offer training to school districts on how to best use their food products.
“Too often, young people think they can just set up a website or send out an e-mail,” Hayes says. “[But] you have to network, get out there, and meet those people you want to be sending referrals your way. A handshake and a two-minute conversation are not enough.”
Or, as Ross Cohen puts it, “When drumming up business in person, you have to be a master of first impressions.”
Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LED, co-owner of Lemond Nutrition in Plano, Texas, established herself at a pediatric hospital before leaving to open her own practice. “That was my jumping-off point,” she says. “My passion for what I do preceded me. You have to go above and beyond in everything you do and then opportunities will present themselves.” She highlights the idea that you leave reputation trails wherever you go and it will come back to you, whether it’s good or bad. “Getting experience and making those connections before taking the plunge is critical.”
Each of these business owners emphasizes the importance of creating alliances. If the goal is to offer education services, as Hayes does, reach out to prospective clients and the professional organizations that cater to them. “Go to those meetings,” she says. “I’m a big fan of the annual Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo™, hosted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [the Academy].” She says you should go with the goal of meeting people and making a personal connection about what you have to offer. Just sitting in sessions at the meeting won’t do it; go to the exhibit hall, talk to people, and attend breakfasts and dietetic practice group meetings.
Maye Musk, MS, RDN, a model and dietitian, says when she was gathering referrals for her practice, “I would meet 100 doctors to introduce my nutrition practice to them, and only four would send their patients to me. Rejection is normal. But it was worth it. Don’t dream of success without putting in the hard work.”
Hayes adds, “You should never discount the value of a follow-up phone call.” She acknowledges that phone calls are rare these days, but “That rarity makes it valuable.” Hayes’ bottom-line advice? “The more time you spend establishing your foundation, the more likely you are to be successful.”
Ross Cohen agrees. She takes it one step further when she says, “Your network is really your net worth.”
Jessica Crandall Snyder, RDN, CDE, AFAA, owner of Vital RD in Denver, says, “I’ve started my own business twice now for private practice, and I developed my website first, because it helped to organize my thoughts around the services I wanted to offer.” She also suggests taking advantage of Facebook groups such as Dietitians in Private Practice and entrepreneurial dietetic practice groups within the Academy, such as Dietitians in Business and Communications and Nutrition Entrepreneurs. They’re great places to connect with other dietitians who are established or just beginning to ask questions and share information.
Crandall Snyder offers some suggestions for the best use of social media: Facebook is good for connecting with fellow dietitians, clients, and potential clients; Pinterest is best for recipes and workout ideas. RDs setting up a counseling service can refer clients to the latter, once they’ve come in for a consultation. Twitter, she says, is more for professional-to-professional communication. E-newsletters are great for current clients and patients. Have templates ready to go with specific topics, such as diabetes, weight loss, and pregnancy, if you’re counseling or offering education services.
Instagram works well for food bloggers, but may not be helpful if you’re trying to attract clients for counseling services. You have to zero in on how to make the best use of various social media outlets, including foursquare, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google+, based on your client base. Have social media accounts set up and ready to go.
Crandall Snyder suggests a bare-bones budget of at least $5,000 capital to get started for a professional-looking website, brochures, a logo, and business cards—more if you want to develop a promotional video, e-books, or online courses as part of your promotion. The $5,000 figure is for RDs who are doing promotion and branding themselves. The budget depends on the approach, business model, and the focus of the business. She says she was fortunate to find a recent college graduate to create her website for an affordable price and with a platform that enabled her to make changes without having to pay someone each time she wanted a change—an important financial consideration.
While more expensive, video is an option Ross Cohen recommends to promote your business. “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video is worth 8.1 million words,” she says. “People remember about 10% of written content three days later; with video, they’ll remember 65%.”
If you’re starting a private practice to counsel patients, you may want to decide on a specialty such as weight management, diabetes, lactation, or cardiovascular health. No one is an expert on every nutrition topic, and you may find yourself spread too thin. The same holds true for corporate consulting or education services. However, Lemond has a large practice with seven dietitians on staff, an office manager, and a chief financial officer, who also happens to be her husband. Her office provides counseling on just about every nutrition issue, with the exception of sports nutrition for elite athletes. Work with what you’ve got, she says—not with what you want.
Step 3: Deliver
Once you’ve set your goals, identified the needs of potential clients, and developed promotional and educational materials, it’s time to deliver. Whether it’s testimonials, case studies, white papers, webinars, podcasts, e-mail marketing, blog posts, or counseling services, make sure they’re tailored to your audience and offer a service clients view as valuable—something they won’t get anywhere else. According to Ross Cohen, the average attention span is about eight seconds, so your message must grab your audience immediately.
If social media is your chief means of getting the message to your audience, it’s important to be professional. The Academy offers a position paper, “Social Media and the Dietetics Practitioner: Opportunities, Challenges, and Best Practices,” which provides guidance on the benefits and risks of social media.1 The paper offers specifics on the standards of professionalism in social media, what your professional liability could be, and how to establish professional boundaries and provide transparency. And don’t forget to track your social media outreach, using programs such as Google Analytics, Twitter Analytics, Facebook Insights, and Google Quotient, then make adjustments accordingly. Asking clients for feedback to determine what you did right, did wrong, or could improve on is just as important for future business.
“Even though I’ve been doing this for several decades,” Hayes says, “I always ask for feedback and evaluations. If that person or organization is satisfied, you’ve done your job.” But, she says, dietitians always should go the extra mile with clients. Make sure what you’ve done for them is what they expected and more.
Ross Cohen says you can’t just set up shop and expect everything to run smoothly on its own. She alludes to “the drumbeat of communications” and stresses its importance. “You can’t just beat the drum and walk away,” she says. “Personal branding is for life.”
But even if you do everything right, it simply won’t work if you don’t believe in yourself and what you’re doing. “Believing in yourself is number one,” Crandall Snyder says.
Starting your own business can seem like a fantasy, where you’re the boss and your workday problems disappear. “It may sound sexy that you have your own business,” Lemond says. “But there’s nothing sexy about it. It’s hard. It’s finding that thing that’s deeper in you. That’s what’s going to make you successful.”
— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.
1. Helm J, Jones RM. Practice paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: social media and the dietetics practitioner: opportunities, challenges, and best practices. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(11):1825-1835.
PERSONAL BRANDING MISTAKES TO AVOID
1. Being inactive for too long or sharing too much on social media.
2. Unclear messaging. Is it a personal account or a professional account?
3. Inconsistency. Set a schedule for social media messaging, and stick with it.
4. Being fake. Always be yourself.
5. Seeking fame. Don’t make it all about “me, me, me.”
6. Boring content. Spice it up. Don’t provide vanilla information that can be found anywhere else.
7. Failing to build your network both online and off. Social media is great, but in-person networking is essential.
8. Selling features rather than benefits and value to the client.
9. Not measuring success with analytical tools.
— Source: Co-Communications Public Relations and Marketing