i, Incorporated

An increasing clamour for on-demand services means that creating an effective online brand is essential for both businesses and people, finds Charlotte Kan 

Marci Zitner was looking for a job. The 23-year-old had been trying to break into the New York publishing sector for two years, but had only achieved one interview, with a Canadian science magazine. So she decided to post herself on eBay. Advertising herself as “A New Editorial Assistant named Marci”, Zitner set an opening bid of US$24,000 and waited.

Zitner’s ultimate aim was not to have someone actually purchase her, but to drum up interest in herself and illustrate to magazine editors that she understood what made a good story. The publicity stunt worked, and after a couple of years at various publications, Zitner is now a senior editor at a women’s website.

branding online
A strong online presence is vital for professionals offering on-demand services

There is a fine line between ego and enterprise – that particular recruiting drive may not have been looked at favourably by a conservative law firm, for example – but the advent of the internet and the ubiquitous use of mobile technologies have revolutionised the working world. Gone are the days when professionals would work nine-to-five at their desks – a burgeoning tranche of remote and part-time workers and entrepreneurs are now creating a new paradigm for employment.

A 2013 study by American software company Intuit predicted that traditional employment will no longer be the norm in the US by 2020: 40 per cent of the country’s workforce will be freelancers, contractors, temps and part-time workers.

The reason for this shift in employment thinking is largely down to the rise in on-demand services – the immediate provision of specific services or goods to customers. Increased access to the internet means that every sector imaginable, from manufacturing to retail to food, has ramped up its offerings online.

This new on-demand economy has its drawbacks, because increased flexibility and freedom comes at a price. As companies offload risk, contingent workers and entrepreneurs lose corporate perks such as paid holidays, warns Dorie Clark, marketing strategy consultant and author of Reinventing You: Design Your Brand, Imagine Your Future.

“Freelance opportunities are easier to find and access than ever, and thanks to the web it’s simple for people to communicate and do business across regional and international boundaries. But it’s also far easier to terminate a freelance contract than fire an employee, and you aren’t responsible for their health insurance.”

Furthermore, in a global marketplace, competition is rife, and there is value in seeking out your own business, rather than waiting for it to come to you. To do that, it’s essential to cultivate a strong personal brand, says Clark.

“[Building a brand] is what will distinguish you from the competition and ensure people want to work with you specifically, not just the person who can do the job the cheapest.” Hence the growing art of marketing yourself, your business or your career as a brand: a process the ‘millennial’ generation of entrepreneurs – for whom social media and self-promotion is second nature – are expert at.

According to a 2014 HubSpot survey, 92 per cent of marketers agreed that social media is important for their business, and more than half of marketers who’ve been using social media for at least three years report it has helped them improve sales.

The Abu Dhabi-based entrepreneur Nuha Al Dhaheri has successfully developed her abaya shop, Exotic Designs, using online platforms rather than traditional marketing methods. She’d started her business via a blog before opening her boutique, and found the phone app WhatsApp to be a great way to reach out to international customers. When she started to showcase her designs on Instagram, she experienced a 60 per cent hike in business.

Dorie Clark argues that no one needs to be on every social media channel, but that a strong online presence is a prerequisite for professionals offering on-demand services. “It is essential for every business and individual to have a strong online presence, so that when people Google you, they get a clear sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, and that usually involves creating content on at least one type of social channel.

“You may not need to post every day on Facebook, but it is important, whether through blogging on LinkedIn or creating podcasts, to show others the issues you care about and show your expertise.”

“What many fail to recognise is that they already have a personal brand – your reputation. The real question is: “What kind of a reputation do you want to cultivate?” Dorie asks. It’s a stark reminder that in the on-demand economy, successes need to be expertly crafted, but can also be easily destroyed.