Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Aww, a cute baby business-person!

What should you use for your forum "avatar" picture? Should you use your photo, a caricature, even a picture of you as a baby?

The more I think about them, the more I realise that the answers are completely different depending on whether they apply to business-to-business (B2B) sites like LinkedIn, or to informal social media sites (Facebook, etc.). I'll answer for B2B.

Linda Lee-Potter used a masthead photo from the 1960s. I always thought that a bit tragic.
It's not uncommon for photos to be a few years old, but it's daft to present one that's not clearly and recognisably you, now. For decades, the late Linda Lee-Potter, columnist for the Daily Mail, used a masthead photo from the 1960s, judging by the hair and the style. I always thought that was a bit tragic. B2B social media like LinkedIn can lead to personal meetings. Particularly for a businessperson, a really out-of-date photo can lead to an instantly negative reaction when the reader then meets them in person - which may carry over to their attitude to doing business with them

You want the in-person relationship with your counterpart to carry over naturally from your online discussions, you don't want to be jarred by meeting what appears to be your correspondent's Dad1! So, if you're planning to use a headshot, keep it recent and honest.

I don't see a problem with caricatures, provided they're recognisable - a good caricature is quite a neat way of presenting the "personal brand" with a bit of self-deprecating humour, particularly if the subject's a bit camera-shy. Whether it's appropriate depends largely on the writer's business sector. I guess the risk is that the cartoon eventually takes over as the "brand". When it becomes clearly out-of-date, replacing it with a new one means the "brand"'s starting again from scratch, as it'll be some while before the new picture's known, recognised and accepted by those who knew the old one. Photos don't have quite the same problem. Update them every few years, and the "brand" carries over to the new one seamlessly.

There's humour too in a photo of one's self as a child - I've a good friend who does this. It's perhaps not a great idea for a "brand", but fine for non-business networking or media-related sites. On the other hand, I don't think it's appropriate to use a family photo with kids as there are some inherent risks no parent should feel comfortable about. Even a picture with one's spouse is probably not a great idea on a B2B site, unless the spouse is a business partner too. Leaving aside personal risks, publishing a new picture of just the blogger alone could imply marriage (and therefore business) problems to canny readers.

I'm not convinced by the idea of using a non-personal picture/avatar of some sort on specifically B2B sites - it suggests that the person's hiding behind it, which raises the question - why? If they're going to be posting to forums on a B2B site, presumably they want to do business at some point. Being unwilling to admit to their appearance carries a host of negative connotations, and no positive ones, and makes first meetings awkward. There's a big exception to this: look for elephants later on in this post!

Photos are insidious. They create expectations in our minds.
I don't think there's a huge investment of readers' interest initially, but photos are insidious. They create subconscious relationships, associations and expectations in our minds. Not surprising when you realise how much of the human brain is devoted to sensing, recording and analysing images - nor that the first image the newborn brain learns to process accurately is their mother's face. We see faces everywhere, even where they're not. Readers will combine the picture with the person's online persona to form an expectation; it's how we're wired. And that means that the choice of picture is crucial.

However - there is an elephant in this room.

Unfortunately, if a businesswoman is attractive-looking, and publishes her photo, she will be likely to get unwanted attention from the knuckle-dragging2 contingent on the one hand, and short shrift from the Old Skool types on the other. Things are improving year on year, but however much the more enlightened males (and females) might abhor it, it still happens. Deflecting those issues by using an image that's not strictly a portrait - perhaps a company logo - or not using one at all, might suit her purposes better. It's all down to what works best for the individual. Martha Lane-Fox, Carly Fiorina and so on have used their images as her calling cards, and done terrifically well out of it, so there's no general rule.

Blimey, I'm sounding like an image consultant. Next stop, square red-framed glasses (*shudder*).

1 Particularly if they're female.
2 The Urban Dictionary defines "knuckle-dragger" as a racial epithet - which is not what I'd meant at all. I was referring to about the second image in the famous Ascent of Man image - an unreconstructed male of primordial mindset.

No comments:

Post a Comment