A gravatar is a globally recognized avatar, an image that follows
you from site to site and appears beside your name when you
participate. It’s a powerful tool because your smiling face might
be the first thing that catches a reader’s attention.

Create your own gravatar in a few minutes.

gravatarNOTE: Interestingly enough, This entry was originally posted on Thursday, February 19th, 2009. I still believe these tips are as powerful today as they were 9 years ago!

If you include social media marketing as part of your online marketing strategy, give a little thought to your avatar. Actually, give a lot of thought. Overlooked as they are, they can be crucial to your branding strategy.

Avatars are those little images that go beside each post you author at websites like Digg, Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace and even beside comments in this blog. In some places, they are called profile pictures or something like that.

Why avatars are so crucial is because they are like your online logo on every social media website you participate in. If you Tweet or connect for fun and recreation, who cares? But if marketing and business are important to you, below are 10 guidelines on how to optimize your avatars for maximum effect.

Note that these are “guidelines”, not rules. It might not make sense for you, in your particular situation, to follow all of them, but if you follow none of them, you are probably blowing it big time. Not all the avatars above follow all the guidelines, but they all follow most of them. As you read the list below, let your cursor slide over the images; I have added some notes in the alt and title attributes.

  1. Let’s start with the basics. Don’t leave your avatar blank or go with a default avatar. The image it will leave people with is that you don’t know what you are doing, that you might just be a spammer, that you have something to hide or, perhaps worst of all, no impression – you’ve wasted a chance to brand yourself.
  2. Your face is the ideal logo. In social media, people don’t want to interact with a company; they want to interact with a real person. Remember that social media is like a fusion of all the occasions when you might be speaking informally with people – around the water cooler, at trade show receptions, at the pub down the street, at networking meetings. In the real world, nobody wants to speak with a faceless company; they want to speak with a human being. Online people are still people; they want to speak with real people.
  3. The previous guideline is one that you might want to break in one very specific situation. If your social media strategy is strictly to broadcast information, you might want your avatar to be your company logo. Very few organizations can get away with this strategy, but some information-rich companies, such as newspapers or radio stations, do this very effectively.
  4. Make your face pleasant and easy to view. Some people try to get attention with avatars where their face is half showing, on some kind of angle, or contorted. Others pick a cute photo where some object is partially obscuring their faces. Nice pictures for friendship; not ideal for networking.
  5. Remember that your avatar will show very, very small. That means your face really needs to fill the avatar. If it looks like you are far away, people won’t be able to recognize you when the avatar appears in tiny format (like on a Digg submission or even on a tweet). I can think of one Twitter avatar that I always assumed included a baby’s head…until I saw the photo at a larger size in another program and I realized it was just the way her hair falls. (Bet she doesn’t know she has a baby!)
  6. Also, because avatars show up small, it is ill-advised to have too much cluttering up your avatar. Is that a photo of your arms behind your head, or are you picking your nose? Is that a pet, or an oxygen mask or a mutant mushroom in front of your face? Is that a person way back there in the middle of that 20-pixel-wide landscape
  7. All these guidelines make for a possibly very dull photo. If everyone follows all these rules, then everyone will look the same and nobody gets branded, right? It does make it more challenging. You can create a distinct background, perhaps a bright color. You can change the color of your face…or post in black-and-white (rare on the Internet) as two of the examples above do. You can become a caricature of yourself or of your expertise (think Statue-of-Liberty for a freedom blogger, thinkBob-the-Builder for a home renovator) – I did say people like to deal with real people, not faceless corporations, but I also said these are guidelines, not rules. You can add a letter to the avatar to represent your username, but be careful that when shrunk it does not look like something strange.
  8. Smile. Yes, a smile is inviting. People are more likely to add you as a fan or follow you or befriend you if you appear pleasant and inviting. Yes, I know you are above that; basic psychology applies to the other 99.99999% of humanity.
  9. Now that you have chosen an avatar, use the same one across all social media platforms where you hold an account. Many people flit from one social media platform to another, and you want to be instantly recognized. I have recognized Twitter friends on Digg, and Digg friends on Sphinn, and Sphinn friends on…exactly. And thanks to Gravatar, I have seen many of my online friends and acquaintances in numerous blog comments. Each time I see a familiar face, that face – and by extension, that person – becomes more familiar. You can see my same avatar on Digg, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Mixx, Sphinn, Zoomit, etc. Interestingly, Lee Oden did a quick Twitter survey just when I was first contemplating this post, so I thought I would share it with you.
  10. Once you pick your avatar, stick with it. I know several folks I really respect who break this rule, so hopefully, they won’t hate me (and if they hate me, hopefully, they don’t have any voodoo dolls of me kicking around). But every time you change your avatar, you break your branding momentum. From a psychological perspective, your avatar is your logo, and people relate it to you. Imagine if Amazon.com or Toyota or Apple Computers or Target Stores changed their logos several times a year. Exactly. Many people who follow you in social media don’t necessarily remember your name (Yes, I know, your friends do, but many of the people you are trying to reach for marketing purposes don’t) or even your username, but they will know your image because that is your most powerful representation. They will relate your image to your style/topic of posts; your target market pays attention when it sees your avatar because it’s on their radar. From a more practical perspective, as people flit quickly through recent posts, they will tend to gloss over an unfamiliar avatar. Each time you change your avatar, you lose also their attention.

Let me stress once more that these are just guidelines. If you have good reason to do otherwise, be my guest. When it comes to social media or any other social situation, there are no hard and fast rules…and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Written by David Leonhardt – an Op-Ed columnist and associate editorial page editor at The New York Times.

10 Ways to Make Your Avatar Sell
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