On Self-Promotion

Zeldman

You are a shameless self promoter!” he said.

I can’t speak to the “shame” part, but for the rest: guilty as charged.

Self-promotion may appear revolting, but it’s the only promotion that’s guaranteed in this business. Do it right, and only haters will hate you for it. To get, you must give.

Love your work

If you write or design, you must believe in what you do. If you don’t believe you have something to express, there are plenty of other jobs out there. If you believe in what you do, and if you’re doing it for real, you must find ways to let people know about it.

Sometimes this takes the direct form of a case study. The assumption in publishing such a study is that someone out there might be interested in the service your team provided, the thinking you brought to the problem, and so on.

There is a difference between being arrogant about yourself as a person and being confident that your work has some value. The first is unattractive, the second is healthy and natural. Some people respond to the one as if it were the other. Don’t confuse them. Marketing is not bragging, and touting one’s wares is not evil. The baker in the medieval town square must holler “fresh rolls” if he hopes to feed the townfolk.

The love you make

But direct self-promotion is ineffective and will go unnoticed unless it is backed by a more indirect (and more valuable) form of marketing: namely, sharing information and promoting others.

Is your Twitter feed mostly about your own work, or do you mainly link to interesting work by others? Link blogs with occasional opinions (or occasional techniques, or both) get read. The more you find and promote other people’s good work, the more in-the-know and “expert” you are perceived to be—and the more you (or your brand, if you must) are liked.

You can’t fake this. If you’re linking to other people’s work as a ploy to make others link back, it’s obvious, and you’ll fail. If you’re sharing half-baked information half-heartedly, nobody will stick around.

This may sound Jedi-mind-trick-ish, but never create a blog or a Twitter feed with the explicit idea of promoting yourself. Create for the joy of creating. Share for the joy of the sharing, and because the information you’re sharing genuinely excites you. Do that, and the rest will follow.

zeldman.com/?p=3061

128 thoughts on “On Self-Promotion”

  1. To true,

    I have set up a site for people to promote things they have found, useful tips on web design, blogs etc etc. So people can promote their own site and share info hopefully creating some traffic for everyone!! I have added this post as a useful find here http://bit.ly/6a40v0

  2. agree with you! self promotion ain’t that bad but should be in limits well define limits ? don’t know but don’t overdo it good piece

  3. I am very relieved to see you write this post. Self promotion is part of the business, you are doing it for clients so why don’t you do it for yourself? In college designers take courses that only focus on self promotion, but on the web and in the web industry many people sneer at the words “self promotion”.. calling it “shameless”, but its undeniably part of many people’s success. Perhaps there are some who have caused it to have a negative connotation ( with their self promoting twitter accounts as you mentioned), but there are many who do it well. I think your points on ” you have to give to get” are fantastic… there is a fine line.

    I commend folks like you and others… Lea http://www.slideshare.net/lealea/the-art-of-selfbranding and Whitney Hess for trying to break down the stigma.

  4. Amen, man. I created a project on Kickstarter about 2.5mo ago, and I have found myself in the position of (shamelessly) promoting myself and my work like never before. I tweet frequently about it. I pester my friends on Facebook. I email people I admire, and am influenced by, totally cold, apropos of nothing. I do things I would never have considered doing just three months ago, and I like doing them.

    But even if my project isn’t funded (it lapses in 10 days), I think the whole exercise has taught me to be much more gregarious, to reach out to other people, to just talk. And I’m starting to realize that that’s probably the most important thing I’ve learned, being a part of Kickstarter. Thanks for helping to confirm that.

  5. I couldn’t agree more!

    However, I’m not sure how to convince others (clients) to “create for the joy of creating. Share for the joy of the sharing, and because the information you’re sharing genuinely excites you. Do that, and the rest will follow.”

    Clients have trouble seeing value in that and I have trouble showing them.

  6. You said it in a sentence: ‘The baker in the medieval town square must holler “fresh rolls” if he hopes to feed the townsfolk.’

  7. Nice article, you practice as you preach.

    I’ve been thinking it too that on the web blowing your own trumpet (in your own way, not in peoples’ faces) is not only acceptable, but required; we don’t have many recognised formal qualifications in this industry, and anyone can (and do) lie on their CV. So online presence is one of the best credentials you have.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I personally have struggled with figuring it when / how much self-promotion is appropriate, when is it annoying etc. and you provide excellent guidance, as always.

    One thing I’ve come to realize more and more since leaving a salaried position – as an independent, you have to self-promote as part of your job. Period.

    It doesn’t matter if you used to be a programmer, designer, artist etc. that worked for a company (a company that likely had advertising, sales, marketing, perhaps even that you made fun of yourself).

    Once you’re on your own, you have no choice if you wish to succeed, you must pick up those roles as well.

    I do wonder if sometimes the self-promotion-haters are merely full-time salaried folk who simply lack the perspective of ever having had to sell themselves in order to get paid, except perhaps those brief awkward periods that are all too easily forgotten: job interviews.

  9. I agree with you that you need to do some self promotion. The last few months I have been getting ready for and having a few accessibility events and a BarCamp in the greater Washington, DC.

    At times it has felt like I might be spamming my twitter followers a couple times a week for the different events as they got closer. Especially for those not in the DC area, but we ended up having a handful of people come from out of town. Twitter was the easiest way to get information out about events quickly, when I had not a lot of time to blog about them.

    Now that they are over it’s time to get back to blogging about them and future events we (myself and a few others) are playing on an ongoing basis. Am also thinking of posting information about a web application I’m going to be starting, so people might learn from what I’m doing and I can learn from what they can teach me.

  10. Well said. In fact, self-promotion should be the guiding factor when you choose to go solo. If you’re not prepared to do it, then you won’t succeed. It’s one step away from saying ‘bidding on a project is vulgar.’

    I learned the value of self-promotion when I moved countries and had to find work… even if my eventual solution was to go back to employment after 6 months solo, I now know exactly what will be required of me should I decided to break out again.

  11. You wrote this from the heart and it’s truly one of my favorite pieces from you. It rings so true! Love this: ‘The baker in the medieval town square must holler “fresh rolls” if he hopes to feed the townsfolk.’

  12. @Tantek said:

    [A]s an independent, you have to self-promote as part of your job. Period. … I do wonder if sometimes the self-promotion-haters are merely full-time salaried folk who simply lack the perspective of ever having had to sell themselves in order to get paid, except perhaps those brief awkward periods that are all too easily forgotten: job interviews.

    God, you’re good. Beautifully said.

  13. AFAIC, the challenge is managing expectations and maintaining balanced perspective. Which is crazy-hard and very much like shooting a bullet with another bullet.

    We all know that our most popular web properties got popular specifically because they became a known and dependable source of “good stuff.” Restraint, context, editing, curation, and generally good decision-making is what gives a thing longevity, right? You keep crap out and that becomes a thing people love.

    But, we all also know that — for this very reason — those respected outlets are unquestionably the best source of promotion for things that are happening elsewhere. And, no, I can’t think of anyone I respect who doesn’t *ever* use The Famous Thing to promote or remind people of The New Thing. We all do it. Period.

    My beef — and this is not specifically with you, J — is that if we’re not circumspect about keeping a given channel consistent from day to day, we run into trouble over what it’s for, who it’s for, and how we know whether it’s working as intended for as many parties as matter to us. I mean, yeah, things change, interest moves around, time makes demands, and life does its thing. But.

    It’s been BRUTAL to watch a handful of my favorite bloggers and Twitterati circle the drain as they become a pimped-out platform for ads, self-links, “What’s Happening Elsewhere,” paid placements, Amazon affiliate-centric posts (yuck), and on and on and on. Just sad, really. And a cautionary tale, given how hard it is to know when someone you respect has stopped respecting you. Gut-wrenching fear of mine.

    Personally, I struggle with this balance A LOT, and I unquestionably fail more often than I’d like. But I do think about it a lot. And I also think it’s always worthwhile to consider, or at least remember, the ones who brung us. Because they definitely deserve the consideration.

    While I’d never counsel anyone to overly sweat the opinions of strangers, I do think it is advisable to frequently ask ourselves:

    > If I were starting [this famous thing I do] all over today, and it consisted mostly of [this post/toot/promo/etc. I’m about to put up], would it still be a thing I’m really proud of? And, would the new thing likely be as successful and respected as a result? Am I still scrapping for the audience that’s already here, or am I riding my laurels to potentially ill and annoying effect?

    And, yeah. I do ask *myself* that a lot, a lot, a lot. And the answer is seldom simple, easy, or definitive. Just like the web itself, I suppose.

  14. You’re absolutely right, Jeff. This is one of those things that should go without saying, but we live in a world where even the most self-evident truths have to be declared. Hence the need for marketing, sales, promotion, and advertising in the first place.

  15. Thank you for a well timed, introspective, and thought provoking post — as Blue Beanie Day approaches. (…being confident that your work has some value…) Self promotion is something that designers and entrepreneurs must perfect, or their best ideas and innovations will never be recognized (on a global scale). Another great truth is the Law of Indirection, somewhat related to the Golden Rule… Love thy neighbor as thyself.

  16. +1

    There is a time and place for everything, but most times it’s the wrong place and the wrong time and that’s when it annoying. When it’s selfish-promotion it focuses on what *I* can do, rather than on what *you* can do.

    I think good self promotion is invisible as it satisfies a need. The only question one needs to asked him or herself is “Is it helpful?”

  17. Well-put. And @Tantek nailed it. I sometimes hate self-promotion, but that probably has more to do with the haters than with my own perceptions. I love what I do and count myself lucky to be able to continue to do what I love full time for almost 11 years now. Promoting myself is just part of the job.

  18. An excellent post about the spirit of self-development and social interaction. I do feel that self-promotion is indeed an intricate form of communication; letting others know your value to a particular community is important.

    I would definitely love to see more blogs in the design community tackling more socially oriented issues on design, such as what you have so poignantly presented above.

    Great insightful read,

    Josh

  19. We have a concept that we call “personal brand”. We promote people, not the company. We encourage all our people to build their own brand through content-rich engagement, either with clients, their professional community, their personal interests, or otherwise. The more one of our people is regarded as an expert, the more valuable they become to the company and the more valuable the company becomes to our clients. Additionally, the people are then happy to be part of an organisation that sees the value of their own growth and success and appreciates being around other like-minded and successful individuals.

  20. “The baker in the medieval town square must holler “fresh rolls” if he hopes to feed the townfolk.”

    Actually, he hollers “fresh rolls” to *sell* his rolls to the townfolk. He is not self-promoting out of altruism.

    There’s a difference in perspective. Self-promotion is solely about generating business for yourself. Yes, one may argue that its about awareness, [self] brand awareness (stab me in the eye), and community profile, but boiled down its about making a living.

    Great piece and insightful!

    -j

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  22. Great piece, Jeffrey.

    It calls out some of my own misgivings about self-promotion, which are summed up by my friend @skeptomai’s tweet that ‘self-promotion is positive action made visible’.

    I find it hard to talk about what I do through my personal channels, even those I use professionally, preferring instead to let the evidence in those channels of the company I keep, the things I find interesting and thoughts about what’s going on in my field to do the talking. Like Merlin posted above, it’s hard to watch the Twitter feeds of people I know and like being relentlessly and overtly self-referential.

    A ‘brand of one’ doesn’t have to be an ‘echo-chamber of one’, and I think your post, Jeffrey, touches on this very well: the case study is interesting because it shows something interesting and not otherwise evident. In other words, the best way to be seen as interesting and worthwhile is to be interesting and worthwhile and true to yourself, not just saying it’s so. Show; don’t tell, as they say.

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  24. Agreed. If you’re in the business of design, you also need to confident in your ability to share, defend, and express that work with others, especially the community at large.

    Good, honest expression will always drown out the chatter of those who feign excitement and drum up PR for PR’s sake.

  25. “Create for the joy of creating. Share for the joy of the sharing, and because the information you’re sharing genuinely excites you.”

    I am definitely going to have to quote you on that. Well said.

  26. I find it hard to self-promote my work because my company has a policy specifically banning posting company-related work online.

    It is frustrating! Much of my life is spent working late or on weekends. That digs into freelance or personal projects.

    I appreciate great work and want to share, but sometimes I post links because I have no recourse.

  27. Je ne saurais mieux dire… even in French ;-): “Create for the joy of creating. Share for the joy of the sharing, and because the information you’re sharing genuinely excites you.” Well said!

  28. Marketing is not bragging, and touting one’s wares is not evil. The baker in the medieval town square must holler “fresh rolls” if he hopes to feed the townfolk.

    The baker doesn’t self-promote in the disingenuous guise of “promoting bread standards”

  29. @Fred Blasdel:

    Zing!

    Actually my colleagues and I promoted web standards for years without making a dime off it and with no thought that it might make our “brands” more visible. It was just the right thing to do.

    And my publisher twisted my arm into writing Designing With Web Standards.

    And though you may not believe what I’ve said, and may not believe me, for me none of this is about book sales, or promoting my design firm. It’s about a better web for all. Period.

    But to quote General Powell when the non-issue of Obama’s Islamic family background was raised, “So what if he were?”

    If my colleagues and I had started The Web Standards Project with a view toward becoming better known as web designers and developers, so what? Where would the harm have been? We would still have improved conditions for web designers, developers, and users.

    But I digress.

    Zing! Zow! You got me.

    P.S. Blue Beanie Day was Douglas Vos’s idea, not mine. I just liked the idea. And it’s not about me, it’s about everyone who uses web standards to create better websites. But carry on.

  30. I completely agree with you.

    I think it is interesting how your idea started with a blog post, then others broke it down to one of your sentences, “The baker in the medieval town square must holler “fresh rolls” if he hopes to feed the townfolk.”

    I think you can break it down in a different way.

    “Don’t just yell, listen.”

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  32. In regards to the zingery, it’s usually better that you do the self-deprecation up-front, rather than while defending yourself from grief in your comments from asshats like myself.

    If phrased better, it’d be more like dressing up vacuum cleaners and less like “passive-aggressively promote me to your coworkers”.

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  34. Nicely put and firmly hitting the bull’s eye. As I reflect on your sentiments, and philosophy, about self promotion it strikes me as similar to dressing for business. When I enter a client’s office dressed in decent slacks, nice shoes and a snappy blazer do those in the torn, weathered jeans scoff? Perhaps, but my choice of clothing reflects the feeling I have for my work AND the client – I respect them both. When you promote the work of others, you are showing respect. When you promote your own work, you project self-respect and respect for your client. Those that criticize might be lacking a healthy amount of respect… and a nice pair of jeans.

  35. Thanks, Jeffrey, for bringing this out in the open. It is often a thin balance in some ways; one person’s perception of “arrogance” is another person’s “confident.” And like Merlin points out, we all sometimes slip over the line at times. Sometimes unintentionally. But I think it’s much worse if we fail to promote ourselves under the mistaken guise of humility.

    I’d like to think that it’s common sense where the line is but unfortunately, it really depends on the audience.

  36. @Tantek & @Zeld-MAN!

    I do wonder if sometimes the self-promotion-haters are merely full-time salaried folk who simply lack the perspective of ever having had to sell themselves in order to get paid, except perhaps those brief awkward periods that are all too easily forgotten: job interviews.

    That’s a bit easy, isn’t it Tantek? Selling yourself in a public forum is one thing, but as a working white-collar peeps we constantly have to sell ourselves and our ideas to just get along in the system. If we are making generalities, then we must also assume that unemployed self-promotion haters, and part-time employed self-promotion haters will also hate self-promotion. Why is it qualified as “full-time salaried”. This is the internet, you should assume that all types of people can dislike your self-promotion.

    I think the issue is, once people have a megaphone, such as yourself and Jeffrey, people become skeptical. This skepticism then can turn into jealousy, envy, and sometimes it can be well-founded in that what you’re slangin’ ain’t always our kind of dope. Microformats? Not my favorite jelly for my delicious banana and peanut butter internet sandwich.

  37. I accidentally hit submit, so to continue…

    It’s our job to filter out what we don’t like, and it’s your job to fulfill and fill your bloggy dreams to your hearts content to whatever makes you happy. You guys are big targets in result of your success at self-promotion.

    But overall, lovely post. Read my blog and send me money.

    That is all,
    Kenny

  38. @kenny You’ve got it!

    @jeffery You’ll always draw ire for having stumbled into being the Chief of the cargo-cult side of Web Standards, with so-called ‘XHTML’ as the false idol. You did a lot of good, but not without ambiguating the nomenclature with a lot of feel-good bullshit.

    You often find yourself as a mediator between designery folks (who you have a strong grasp over) and technical implementors (who will always hold a grudge against you for muddying the discourse). Asking people to wear blue toques does not particularly affect this balance.

  39. losing battle, zeldman.

    the corporations ruined advertising,
    primarily via overexposure and an
    absence of reluctance to go shrill, so
    the baker is now fresh out of luck…
    but there’s great hope for the future.
    collaborative filtering will win the day,
    especially when we build an open system.

    all of a sudden our own ratings of stuff,
    combined with ratings by other people,
    will direct us automatically to more stuff
    we will love, separating our own needles
    out of the huge haystack of stuff out there.
    (because everybody’s needles are different.)

    books, music, webpages, ideas, philosophy,
    poems, short-stories, games, comics, apps,
    movies, video, pictures, sculpture, and more,
    with all of it sorted out, and the _best_ stuff
    — the stuff _you_ personally define as “best” —
    will be stacked up right in front of your door,
    ready and waiting for your attention and love.
    and self-promotion will be “the kiss of death”,
    because people will know that if they would
    _really_ like your stuff, the system would just
    deliver it to them; you wouldn’t have to “sell” it.

    it’ll be like trying to push size-6 shoes on a size-8
    person; they’ll just look at you like you are crazy.

    in the meantime, each of you also knows that
    this is a losing battle, because you are spending
    more and more of your own personal time now
    screening out the self-promotion of other people.

    and the more they try to “disguise” it or “mute” it
    or “mix it” with “info sharing” or “other promotion”,
    the more you will screen out _those_ things as well.

    it’s the internet. everyone can now talk to everyone.
    let’s not pollute the communication with promotion,
    because that would just ruin everything for all of us…

    -bowerbird

  40. Actually, he hollers “fresh rolls” to *sell* his rolls to the townfolk. He is not self-promoting out of altruism.

    There’s a difference in perspective. Self-promotion is solely about generating business for yourself. Yes, one may argue that its about awareness, [self] brand awareness (stab me in the eye), and community profile, but boiled down its about making a living.

    Yes, but the insight here is that his making-a-living *is* feeding-the-town. What do you do? Is it a service? Is it a good thing? Does it nourish your clients in some way? Talking about what your product/service does for other people doesn’t require that it do nothing for you, and it doesn’t necessarily diminish the good it does them. So it’s just as valid to talk/think about your work in terms of the good it’s doing others as to talk/think about it being you who’s doing it or about what it’s getting you–it’s probably even healthier for you, and it’s certainly more interesting for others.

    So I don’t think the simplified formula (‘solely about generating business’ / ‘boiled down it’s about making a living’) encompasses what Jeffrey seems to be arguing is good self-promotion, as opposed to the boring, merely self-serving, and charmless version. It’s the ‘merely’ or ‘solely’ self-promoting extreme that needs to be avoided (even in order to be effective; it’s self-defeating self-promotion). Just by way of clarification, and it does seem worth mulling over that line.

    All that being said, I’m one of those that generally reacts to anything like a whiff of self-promotion with suspicion and annoyance. And I hate doing it myself. Even realizing it’s necessary only helps a little. (I love @Lazy KB’s remark “I hate charging people money for my work” just because it’s one of those extremes I personally run to. Whether that’s a snark or a confession, it hits home with a number of designers and developers. Hard to build a ‘brand’ on top of that.)

    But I do generally find that what’s said in this article is the case; it produces what I’m comfortable reading, and is even responsible for most of those rare cases of self-promotion I’m actually grateful for as a reader/customer. Though the last portion gives more weight to linking as opposed to information/techniques than is confirmed by my own reading habits.

  41. It’s our job to filter out what we don’t like, and it’s your job to fulfill and fill your bloggy dreams to your hearts content to whatever makes you happy. -kenny Kenny, you should have read the post first.

    [repeat] Do it right, and only haters will hate you for it. … Share for the joy of the sharing, and because the information you’re sharing genuinely excites you. – Zeldman

    I really dig this post. – To be successful, it’s not about the job – it’s about the joy.
    (maybe a little too simplistic but… Happy Thanksgiving?)

  42. Fabulous piece, one of your best! It speaks volumes. I am going to share it with many friends and colleagues who are out of work. Thank you!

  43. Sir, this post is a remarkable apology for your ability to step into a historical phenomenon and manipulate it in your image. I’m not speaking critically here. The impulse toward making “a better web for all” is a moral impulse in line with Progress and the democratic ideal. Whether there’s any reality or truth to either is irrelevant, because you made something of them that others who regard Progress and democracy as real and truthful could recognize, emulate, and propagate. In that, you gave that something a positive value and moved to codify it. (A religion in the making!)

    How you, your work, and your love of both might yield profit depends entirely on historical accident. You were savvy to jump to the web when you found it, and it’s gone well for you. Had the web not happened, we wouldn’t know you. The lesson is that this business is a game of mastering available techniques to one’s benefit within a context primed to confer benefits.

    So the one explicit criticism I’ll offer is that there’s no believing in what you do. If you write or design, you do it because you have no choice — it’s what you do. The love can’t be a prescription and it can’t precede any imperative to sell (or, God help us, “market”) one’s work because the work is identical with the love is identical with you. Turning that identity for profit is, as I suggest, another ball game.

  44. Advertising is not marketing. Marketing would be when the baker yells “Nothing says loving like something from the oven.” with a sock puppet. It is manipulating people not informing them.

    If you really think opening a “twitter” account is “creating” something then go right ahead and tweet your way to success.

  45. I’m guilty as charged. I am not only a self-promoter, but I am shameless as well. How would I be able to survive and feed my children without doing so? Google & their ad’s do not make me enough revenue. Neither does the 2 other outside jobs that I have and the incredibly massive amount of bills/past debts I have.

    It’s funny how that shameful self-promotion got me a new job recently back into the web development field. I have shameful self-promotion to thank for my now comfortable living situation, the payment of 95% of my past debts and my bills being paid-in-full & caught up with.

    Ironic how shameful self promotion works for me & is a blight on the land to others. Have I “over-done” it? Sure. I was without work for quite a long time. I pitched myself and my services/abilities out there to every Tom, Dick & Harry out there for almost a year plus.

    Finally, someone saw that and listened. Would I ever stoop to the levels I went to get work and shamefully self-promote myself? If the situations and circumstances are as dire as they were, you bet your arse I would.

  46. To me self promotion is everything because I am always try to sell my skills and myself to the general public. To me there is nothing wrong with self promotion as long as it is legal!

    Kind Regards
    Micah Burkette

  47. Wow. Can’t help thinking of the tons of marketing textbooks that should be scrapped and replaced by this single little post.

    We should all memorize it and repeat it every morning. Print it out, paste it on our bathroom mirrors.Whatever it takes!

    Simple and awesome. Thank you!

  48. Great article — came just at the right time, too. I’ve been trying to figure out how to build more momentum for my design business, and this had some valuable suggestions. I particularly liked your line about separating pride in yourself from pride in your work.

    Jordan Koschei

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  50. Very well put. People sometimes forget the “Social” part of Social Media. Interaction is the key to success. Love what you do, represent yourself in the best possible light, and be genuinely willing to interact with people.

  51. Self-promotion can definitely be a problem for some people. Well for me I feel that only you can promote yourself the best way as only you as a person know yourself. No one else can know you better.

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  53. I think much of the hating derives from the fact that not all of us can become entrepreneurs and self-promoters cause maybe we don’t have the time and the means to study, research, cultivate and promote our innovative and ground-breaking ideas.

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