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Building an “accessibility brand”

Meaningful accessibility discussions happen when you are not in the room. Having a personal accessibility brand can help deliver your message in your absence.

Branding isn’t just for companies anymore. Post-pandemic, in our almost-completely digital world, a personal brand is no longer an extra; it’s necessary for success. Nowhere is this more true than accessibility, an area of tech that cuts across every part of the software development lifecycle.

Like a corporate brand, a personal brand expresses:

  • who you are
  • what you stand for
  • the values you embrace, and;
  • how you express those values.

If your personal accessibility brand is strong enough, people will repeat your accessibility values and stand up on your behalf when you are not part of the conversation but should be. We jokingly refer to this at places I have worked as “channeling your inner Sheri.” It’s impossible to be at every conversation where accessibility should be discussed. Having a strong accessibility brand where others are spreading your message for you is a way around that impossibility. This article shares ten areas to explore in developing a robust personal accessibility brand.

1. You need to develop both an internal and external personal accessibility brand.

You would be surprised how often people I am meeting for the first time at VMware tell me that they’ve previously read my articles or follow me on LinkedIn. That has paved the way for more relaxed internal accessibility conversations. I’ve concluded as a result that a really strong personal brand requires utilizing a combination of internal and external branding techniques, with the understanding that your external branding efforts may leak through to your internal audience.

  • Internal branding includes activities such as newsletters, internal slack channels, brown bag lunches, ERG meetings, and other places where you can spread your accessibility message.
  • External branding includes activities such as talks at accessibility / UI / UX / Design conferences, meetups, college lectures, bootcamps, blogging, or answering questions on the IAAP Accessibility chat room. If you are thinking about having public speaking events be a significant part of your brand, keeping a calendar of when the notable events are and then backing up four months and checking for “call for speaker” pages is advisable.

2. Slow and steady wins the personal accessibility brand race.

You aren’t going to get 12,000 high-quality LinkedIn connections overnight. Or get a keynote address offer just because you think you are ready to do a keynote on accessibility. You also won’t have an entire book’s worth of material in a week. Decide what your goals are, and break them down into bite-sized chunks.

  • If you write a blog a week, that’s 52 published articles at the end of the year.
  • If you add 10 LinkedIn connections a day, that’s over 3500 by the end of the year.
  • If you reach out to Meetups, HCI classes, or design bootcamps and offer to do accessibility talks, that will help build your accessibility speaking portfolio.

Pick a channel (or multiple channels if you want to be aggressive) where you want people to learn your accessibility message. Start slow, but add content every single workday, even if it is just a paragraph or a couple of thoughts. I find that scheduling posts and articles works best. You may be doing some of this work at night or on weekends, but that isn’t the magical posting hour, which is 7 am PST on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

  • Posts on Monday and Friday get less noticed (people are more likely to be off those days)
  • Posts on consecutive days (Tuesday/Wednesday or Wednesday/Thursday) are less noticed
  • 7 am PST is the perfect time to catch everyone in North America — if your target audience is EU or APJ, you will need to adjust what is the golden hour for your part of the world.

3. Google yourself to see where you are starting from.

Your accessibility brand is going to be built from your identity plus your thoughts on accessibility. This means you need to understand what the public perception of your identity is. Having a unique name helps when you are googling yourself. But whatever your name is, you need to make sure that when someone googles “Mary Brown accessibility” that they are getting the information about the right Mary Brown and not just any random Mary Brown.

The other thing that is important about googling yourself is to find out what is out there that might hurt your reputation. When I did this a few years ago, I was surprised to find that a review that I had written over a decade earlier about a bad doctor’s appointment when I was white-hot angry. This review was showing up way higher in my result set than I would have liked. Every word of the review was accurate, but I didn’t want that to be the first thing that people saw when they were forming an opinion of me.

4. Determine what you want to be known for in the accessibility arena.

Pick the “one thing” that if all else were stripped away from you, that one thing would still be significant enough to get you out of bed in the morning. Deciding early on what will make your brand unique is essential for stickiness — what will people remember you for, and will they come back for more nuggets of knowledge. The bigger your following, the stronger your accessibility brand.

My “one thing” is employment opportunities for people with disabilities. All of my accessibility actions are either directly or indirectly related to that. Anything that isn’t related to your “one thing” is automatically a lower priority and should be treated that way when doing personal branding work. It is harder (but not impossible) to brand as a generalist. So if you are just getting started, begin with the “one thing” then broaden your approach later.

5. Do a personal brand SWOT analysis.

Understanding your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats will help you build a roadmap for your personal accessibility brand development.

  • Continue the Strengths.
  • Take advantage of the opportunities. Keep in mind that some “opportunities” start as a negative, but eliminating the negative creates the positive (just like math!).
  • Work on Weaknesses/Threats. If a threat is outside of your control, then figuring out how to monitor for that threat is essential. WCAG updates are a threat for people in accessibility, so staying on top of drafts since that will be largely outside your control is how you monitor and control for that threat.

If writing or public speaking is a weakness, for example, look at programs that will help you gain knowledge to advance you where you want to be. Your brand SWOT analysis will help you understand your current personal accessibility brand, and build a roadmap to evolving to your future personal accessibility brand.

6. Make sure your brand reflects the answer to the question, “what keeps your boss awake at night?”

This one is courtesy of Jayzen Patria — his “lead with your brand” workshop is one of the most valuable things VMware has provided me as an employee. The beautiful simplicity of the answer to this question is that it works whether you are trying to influence your CEO or someone else’s CEO.

  • If your brand presents accessibility as only a regulatory requirement, you are leaving out the decades of discrimination that people with disabilities have faced, and are also implying that meeting the regulations will be “good enough.”
  • If your brand presents accessibility as “the right thing to do,” you are making it sound like a charitable initiative, and it is likely to hit the floor with a single swing of the budget machete.
  • If you understand what your CEO worries about and make your accessibility brand reflect itself as a solution for that concern, people are much more likely to be vested in accessibility as something that makes business sense and is relevant to something that the CEO cares about.

7. Prepare an accessibility elevator pitch.

I dedicated an entire article to crafting accessibility elevator pitches. An accessibility elevator pitch is a quick summary of who you are and what you want the person you are speaking with to engage in with respect to accessibility. Like a regular elevator pitch, it should be shorter than the amount of time it takes to ride an elevator, which makes it roughly 30 -45 seconds or 75–90 words.

Elevator pitches are essential to personal accessibility branding because when heard enough times, others can easily repeat the pitch for you.

8. Network, network, network

No personal brand is complete without a lot of networking. That has gotten both easier and harder with COVID — easier because events are online, making them easier to get to and mostly free, and harder because there are no longer “schmoozing” opportunities both before or after the events to chat with people that you know have similar interests. Here are a few thoughts on networking, pandemic-style:

A. If you go to a call where the attendee list is public, take screenshots of the names of the attendees, then connect with those individuals after the call.

B. Always have a “raving fan” who is willing to endorse you in your back pocket. While you can ask for endorsements on Linkedin, the feature is limited because they can only be displayed in chronological order. Also, people might be predisposed to thinking you might be looking for your next gig if you are building your LinkedIn references while you are happily employed somewhere.

C. When you communicate with people about accessibility, the last two questions should always be “who else should I be talking to besides you” and “are you willing to introduce me?”

9. Build a personal website (and keep it up to date)

One of the most important aspects of general personal branding is to make information about you known at times other than when you are looking for a job.

Do NOT under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES build an inaccessible website touting your accessibility brand.

That approach will leave an indelible impression, and it’s not a good one. Accessible WordPress is a good (and simple and inexpensive) choice. Your website will allow you to:

A. Collect email addresses for people interested in occasional emails from you about accessibility

B. Provide a one-stop-shop to all the articles you have published

C. Provide a history of all the talks you have given, panels you have moderated, etc. as well as decks and links to recordings.

Once you have links to several recordings, I suggest building a media kit. I will be publishing one you can steal the format on at sheribyrnehaber.com shortly.

10. Re-evaluate your personal accessibility brand as you evolve

Your accessibility brand is not “one and done” it’s an investment that, like a beautiful fruit tree, needs to be pruned and fertilized to maximize your fruit yield. Set twice-yearly reminders on your calendar to

  • update your list of talk links;
  • send out a newsletter;
  • update your accessibility certifications, or;
  • take classes to update your accessibility skills related to ACT Rules, or the most recent draft update to WCAG.
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